illustrated portrait of American author J. D. Salinger

J. D. Salinger

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J.D. Salinger


1919: Jerome David Salinger is born on 1 January in New York City to Sol Salinger and Miriam (née Grace) Jillich Salinger. His only sibling is a sister, Doris, eight years his senior.
1930: During the summer Salinger attends Camp Wigwam in Harrison, Maine, where his acting skills are acknowledged.
1932: The Salinger family moves to 1113 Park Avenue. Having attended public schools on the Upper West Side, Salinger is now enrolled in the McBurney School, a private high school on West Sixty-fourth Street. He writes for the school newspaper, manages the fencing team, and continues to act, playing female roles for which his performances are praised. Salinger’s academic record is mediocre.
1934: After attending summer classes at the Manhasset School on Long Island in order to be eligible to return to McBurney, Salinger enrolls in Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania, where he has greater academic success. He is a member of the school’s dramatic club, Mask and Spurs, and shows a growing interest in writing fiction, reportedly writing stories at night in bed with the aid of a flashlight.
1936: Salinger graduates from Valley Forge. In his senior year he is the literary editor of the yearbook, Crossed Sabres, in which appear a song for the graduating class to which he wrote the lyrics and his tribute to the founder of the school, Col. Milton S. Baker.
1937: Salinger matriculates at Washington Square College of New York University, but his academic experience there is unsatis-factory, and he attends no more than a year. At his father’s suggestion, Salinger travels in the fall to Europe in order to improve his French and German and to learn more about his father’s trade, the ham- and cheese-importing business. Salinger continues to write stories during his European trip and submits them to magazines in the United States, but none of them are accepted for publication.
1938: In the spring Salinger returns to America. He attends Ursinus College, a liberal-arts school in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, where he writes movie and theater reviews in a column titled “The Skipped Diploma” for The Ursinus Weekly, the college newspaper. Salinger stays no longer than one semester at Ursinus and returns to New York to live with his parents.
1939: Determined to focus his attention on writing, Salinger enrolls during the spring semester in a creative-writing class at Columbia University taught by Whit Burnett, the editor and cofounder of Story magazine.
1940: Salinger’s first published story, “The Young Folks,” appears in the March-April issue of Story. “Go See Eddie” is published in the University of Kansas City Review in December, after having been rejected by Esquire.
1941: Salinger is now being represented by a literary agent, Dorothy Olding, of the Harold Ober Agency. His stories appear for the first time in the “slicks,” well-paying commercial magazines with wide circulation. “The Hang of It” is published in Collier’s in July, and “The Heart of a Broken Story” appears in Esquire in September. The New Yorker accepts “Slight Rebellion Off Madison.” It is Salinger’s first story to be accepted by the magazine and the first to feature the character Holden Caulfield—later the protagonist of his novel, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)—but publication is delayed until 1946. Salinger volunteers for military service but receives a medical deferment because of a minor heart condition. He meets Oona O’Neill, the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, and carries on a romantic relationship with her until 1942. (Oona subsequently becomes involved with the actor Charlie Chaplin and marries him in June 1943.)
1942: Salinger is reclassified by...

(This entire section contains 2562 words.)

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the military and drafted into the army. He sells “Paula” to Stag, but the story is never published. “The Hang of It” is reprinted inThe Kit Book for Soldiers, Sailors and Marines: Favorite Stories, Verses, and Cartoons for the Entertainment of Servicemen Everywhere, the first book publication of a Salinger story. On 27 April he reports to Fort Dix, New Jersey, and is assigned to duty with the Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. He applies for admission to Army Officer Candidate School but is rejected and sent to the Army Air Force Basic Flying School in Bainbridge, Georgia, where he serves as an instructor of aviation cadets. “The Long Debut of Lois Taggett” is published in the September-October issue of Story, and “Personal Notes on an Infantryman” appears in the 12 December Collier’s.
1943: In June, Salinger is transferred to Nashville, Tennessee, and promoted to the rank of staff sergeant. “The Varioni Brothers” is published in The Saturday Evening Post in July. Salinger is transferred to Patterson Field in Fairfield, Ohio, and performs public-relations work. He applies once more to Officer Candidate School but is again rejected. At the close of the year he is transferred to Fort Holabird, in Baltimore, Maryland, where he is trained as an agent in the Counter-intelligence Corps (CIC). Salinger’s orders come through by October.
1944: The Saturday Evening Post publishes Salinger’s “Both Parties Concerned” in February, “Soft-Boiled Sergeant” in April, and “The Last Day of the Last Furlough” in July. “Once a Week Won’t Kill You” appears in the November-December issue of Story. In March, Salinger is in Tiverton, Devon, England, to receive counterintelligence training. In the invasion of Normandy on 6 June he lands with the Twelfth Infantry Regiment of the Fourth Infantry Division on Utah Beach and goes on to participate in five of the bloodiest campaigns of World War II. After the liberation of Paris in August, Salinger meets Ernest Hemingway.
1945: Salinger’s “Elaine” is published in the March-April issue of Story. “A Boy in France” appears in The Saturday Evening Post in March and “This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise” in the October Esquire. In December Collier’s publishes “The Stranger” and “I’m Crazy,” which is Salinger’s first published story to feature Holden Caulfield. Salinger is discharged from the army in November. He marries a Frenchwoman named Sylvia and remains in Europe after signing a six-month contract with the U.S. Department of Defense. His duties are unknown but are probably related to denazification.
1946: Salinger returns to the United States with his wife, but she remains only briefly. After returning to France, Sylvia files for a divorce. Salinger completes a ninety-page novelette about Holden Caulfield that is accepted for publication, but he with-draws it from consideration. He agrees to Burnett’s request to publish a collection of his short stories, to be called The Young Folks. The book is supposed to be published by a Lippincott imprint, Story Press, but Lippincott rejects it. In December The New Yorker finally publishes “Slight Rebellion Off Madison.”
1947: In January, Salinger moves from Manhattan to Tarry town in Westchester County, New York. “A Young Girl in 1941 with No Waist at All” is published in the May issue of Mademoiselle and “The Inverted Forest” in the December Cosmopolitan. Salinger moves to Stamford, Connecticut.
1948: Salinger’s first story featuring the character Seymour Glass, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” is published in The New Yorker in January. It earns him a first-reading contract, the terms of which require him to submit his new work there first, and marks the beginning of a long association with the magazine. The New Yorker also publishes “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” in March and “Just Before the War with the Eskimos” in June. “A Girl I Knew” appears in the February issue of Good Housekeeping, and “Blue Melody” is published in the September Cosmopolitan.
1949: Salinger is living in Westport, Connecticut. The New Yorker publishes “The Laughing Man” in March, and “Down at the Dinghy” appears in the April issue of Harper’s. “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” “The Long Debut of Lois Taggett,” “A Girl I Knew,” and “Just Before the War with the Eskimos” are reprinted in various fiction anthologies. Salinger has his first meeting with an editor concerning the publication of The Catcher in the Rye. He gives a guest lecture at Sarah Lawrence College.
1950: On 21 January, Samuel Goldwyn Studios releases My Foolish Heart, a motion-picture adaptation of “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.” Salinger is appalled by the screenplay and the sentimentality of the movie. “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” is published in The New Yorker in April and is reprinted in Prize Stories of 1950: The O. Henry Awards. Salinger studies Advaita Vedanta (a school of Hindu philosophy) in New York.
1951: In May, Salinger sails for England to meet with Hamish Hamilton, who is to publish the British edition of The Catcher in theRye in August. Salinger tours literary sites, including the Lake District, where William Wordsworth lived. In July The New Yorker publishes “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes.” The Catcher in the Rye is published in America by Little, Brown and Company on 16 July. It is a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and Salinger gives an interview to author and New Yorker fiction editor William Maxwell for the Book-of-the-Month Club News. The novel reaches fourth place on the best-seller list of The New York Times. In December, Salinger attends the funeral of Harold Ross, the founding editor of The New Yorker.
1952: Salinger travels to Florida and Mexico. “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” is published in the May issue of the World Review in London, after having been rejected by The New Yorker. Salinger is named one of three distinguished alumni by Valley Forge Military Academy but does not attend the award ceremony.
1953: On New Year’s Day, Salinger moves to Cornish, New Hamp-shire, where he has bought a ninety-acre plot of land and a small house on the property. “Teddy” is published in The New Yorker in January. Salinger meets Claire Douglas, a student at Radcliffe College and daughter of the British art critic Robert Langton Douglas. A collection of some of Salinger’s short fiction, Nine Stories, is published by Little, Brown. It is published in England by Hamilton as For Esmé—with Love and Squalor, and Other Stories.
1955: In January the novella “Franny” is published in The New Yorker. Salinger and Claire are married on 17 February. Another novella, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” is published in The New Yorker in November. The Salingers’ daughter, Margaret Ann (Peggy), is born on 10 December.
1957: The novella “Zooey” is published in The New Yorker in May.
1959: Salinger objects to the paperback edition of his story collection published in England by Harborough as For Esmé—with Love and Squalor because of the provocative cover illustration on the book. He severs his relationship with Hamilton. In the spring, while writing the novella “Seymour: An Introduction,” Salinger leaves Cornish and family distractions for New York. “Seymour: An Introduction” is published in The New Yorker in June. In December, Salinger writes to the New York Post protesting a law barring prisoners with life sentences from seeking parole. He denies Burnett’s request for permission to publish “The Young Man in the Stuffed Shirt” and “The Daughters of the Late Great Man” in Story, although he had earlier submitted them to Burnett for publication.
1960: The Salingers’ son, Matthew Robert, is born on 13 February. In Cornish, Salinger resists reporters’ repeated attempts to invade his private life.
1961: “Franny” and “Zooey” are published as Franny and Zooey by Little, Brown on 14 September. The book climbs onto the New York Times best-seller list, where it remains for six months and reaches number one.
1962: Salinger rejects Hamilton’s advance and offer to publish Franny and Zooey in England and accepts a smaller advance from another British publisher, William Heinemann, who brings out the book in June.
1963: “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour: An Introduction” are published by Little, Brown as Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. Heine-mann publishes the book in England.
1965: Salinger rejects Burnett’s request to include one of his stories in Story Jubilee, an anthology of early works by well-known writers that had originally been published in Story. Salinger writes an introduction for the anthology, but Burnett does not use it because it focuses on Burnett rather than the Story authors. “Hapworth 16, 1924” is published in The New Yorker in June.
1967: Salinger and Claire divorce.
1968: Salinger takes his children on a vacation to England and Scotland during the spring.
1969: Salinger rejects a request from Burnett to include one of his stories in another anthology, This Is My Best in the Third Quarter of the Century (1970).
1972: After reading a cover story in The New York Times Magazine and seeing a photograph of the author, an eighteen-year-old Yale University student named Joyce Maynard, Salinger writes her several letters. Maynard moves into his house, but the relationship lasts for less than one year.
1974: Salinger breaks his long-held public silence after learning that an unauthorized, two-volume edition of his uncollected stories is being sold in San Francisco. He calls Lacey Fosburgh, a San Francisco-based writer for The New York Times, and an FBI investigation into the matter of the pirated edition ensues, but the persons responsible for the books are never found.
1975: Salinger contributes an epilogue, “A Salute to Whit Burnett, 1899-1972,” to Fiction Writer’s Handbook, in which he praises his former teacher’s ability to present writers’ works to students without diminishing the value of the works.
1976: Salinger attends a school play at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, in which his son, Matthew, performs.
1977: In July, Salinger travels by train to New York and makes a surprise appearance at a retirement dinner for an army colleague, John L. Keenan, who went on to serve as a chief of detectives in the New York Police Department.
1980: In June, Salinger meets with Betty Eppes, a reporter for the Baton Rouge Advocate, and responds briefly to her questions. Eppes’s interview is published in The Advocate, The Boston Globe, and, during the following summer, The Paris Review.
1982: Salinger attends his daughter’s graduation at Brandeis University.
1986: A suit filed on Salinger’s behalf against booksellers who sold the unauthorized edition of his uncollected stories is settled in his favor. As biographer Ian Hamilton’s “J. D. Salinger: A Writing Life” is about to go to press, Salinger seeks a preliminary injunction to block publication, arguing that he has not authorized Hamilton’s use of quotations from his unpublished letters. In November, Judge Pierre N. Leval of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York rules against the injunction. In December, Salinger petitions the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
1987: Salinger’s appeal of Leval’s ruling is successful, and a preliminary injunction is granted. In September, Random House, Hamilton’s publisher, petitions the U.S. Supreme Court seeking a review of the lower-court decision. In October the Supreme Court denies the petition.
1988: Hamilton’s revised version of his biography, In Search of J. D. Salinger, is published.
1992: In October a fire destroys a major portion of Salinger’s house in Cornish. By this time he is married to a nurse named Colleen O’Neill.
1999: At a Sotheby’s auction in June, Maynard sells fourteen letters written to her by Salinger between 25 April 1972 and 17 August 1973. Computer software entrepreneur and art collector Peter Norton buys the letters for $156,500. Respecting Salinger’s privacy, Norton says that he will do with the letters whatever Salinger wishes—return them or destroy them. Salinger makes no public comment.
2000: Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, publishes Dream Catcher: A Memoir, providing an account of her family life and her relationship with her father.

Anne Marple (review date 18 September 1961)

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SOURCE: “Salinger's Oasis of Innocence,” in The New Republic, September 18, 1961, pp. 22-3.

[In the following review, Marple offers a generally positive assessment of Franny and Zooey, but finds fault in Salinger's portrayal of women and “the inability of his adult characters to reconcile physical and spiritual love.”]

Salinger's first full length novel, The Catcher in the Rye, emerged after scattered fragments concerning his characters appeared during a seven year span. For some time now, it has been evident that Salinger's second novel may be developing in the same way. Salinger writes of Franny and Zooey: “Both stories are early, critical entries in a narrative series I am doing about a family of settlers in 20th Century New York, the Glasses.”

“Franny” is a beautifully balanced short story. Franny, at twenty, is on the edge of “a tenth-rate nervous breakdown.” There is a certain resemblance to the emotional crisis faced by Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. But Franny is not to be saved by a contact with innocence. Instead, she begins a weekend with her pseudo-intellectual lover, Lane Coutell.

In a brilliant scene between the two at lunch, Franny speaks of the writings of a holy man. She tries to explain the Jesus Prayer:

“… if you keep saying that prayer over and over and over again—you only have to do it with your lips at first—then eventually what happens, the prayer becomes self-active … you do it to purify your whole outlook and get an absolutely new conception of what everything's about.”

Lane's preoccupation with the mechanics of eating afford a subtle contrast of spirit versus flesh. Failing to communicate her feelings to Lane, Franny flees his belated declaration of love and collapses. Her lips “began to move, forming soundless words” repeating the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

“Zooey” continues the story of Franny's emotional crisis three days later. This “prose home movie” is unwieldy as a short story. Its possible future incorporation into a novel may justify its present form, but at present we must judge it as a short story.

The first person introduction by Buddy Glass seems unnecessary. Buddy is surely the least lovable and most self-conscious of the Glass children to date. Salinger seems not entirely unaware of this. (Seymour has said of his brother, that cleverness is his “permanent affliction.”) Great demands are made on the reader's credulity by Buddy's insistence that he was able to reconstruct the action of “Zooey” second hand.

The puzzling intrusion of the Buddy Glass introduction also serves as an apologia for Salinger. Buddy warns, “The plot line itself, to finish up, is largely the result of a rather unholy collaborative effort.” The frequent inclusion of diaries and letters in the Glass Saga indicate that Salinger is having additional mechanical difficulties with his embarrassing wealth of Glassiana. He has become so enmeshed in his material that his artistic judgment is clouded. Sections of “Zooey” are bearable only if one has a prior affection for the Glass family.

The first half of “Zooey” (sans introduction), is a momentarily interrupted scene between Zooey and his mother. In this Salingeresque masterpiece of characterization and dialogue, Zooey comes off second best to Salinger's loving treatment of Mrs. Glass. The conversation between the two reflects Salinger's early interest in playwriting.

The rest of “Zooey” records his several attempts to pry Franny loose from her frantic grasp on the Jesus Prayer. He is well qualified for the task, for as he tells her, “… you've been funnel fed on just about the same amount of religious philosophy that I have. …” Zooey's success is not immediate. Franny is suffering the hell “of being unable to love.” Only when Zooey convinces Franny that “anyone anywhere” is “Seymour's Fat Lady” is “Christ Himself” does Franny find release.

Buddy Glass has described “Zooey” as “a compound, or multiple, love story, pure and complicated.” The use of the word pure is echoed in Franny's explanation of the goal of the Jesus Prayer, “you do it to purify your whole outlook.” Franny's quest for purity ties Franny and Zooey to a subterranean theme that underlies most of the work Salinger has published during the last twenty-one years.

There is evident, throughout Salinger's writing, a consistent preoccupation with innocence, a preference for the chaste, complemented by the inability of his adult characters to reconcile physical and spiritual love. It is obvious on a re-examination of Salinger's work that his characters are extremely limited in their choice of sexual expression.

Salinger's first novel, The Catcher in the Rye, is his most eloquent defense of innocence in conflict with an amoral world. There is a certain logic in Salinger's choice of an adolescent protagonist. The chastity of adolescence needs little explanation—idealism will suffice. It is to children and to nuns that Holden turns briefly as outposts of the innocence he desires. Holden places women on a comfortably distant pedestal, divorced from sex. Although he loved Jane, he never puts the purity of his love to any test of physical expression. He avoids contacting her. What is suggested or hinted at in Salinger's earlier work is full grown in his novel the idealization of the celibate, the chaste, and the innocent.

Salinger's adult characters cannot integrate physical and spiritual love. Even the reconciliation of both in marriage is denied them. Married couples are invariably mismated and miserable—marriage itself a badly bungled affair. The insensitive girl friend runs a close second to the shallow wife. In the Salinger world, woman plays her ancient role of Eve, Pandora, or Lorelei. She can exist beloved or uncriticized only as an asexual saint or mother. When she expresses herself as a sexual creature, Salinger sees her as witch or vampire. As William Wiegand has said, “Where object of delight is found in women, these women are often little girls or nuns, and what is admired is sexless in essence.”

If the Glass family are to form the basis for Salinger's second novel, it is clear that his unremitting emphasis on sexual innocence or abstinence will be reinforced. Boo Boo alone seems to be happily married, but we have seen her only in the role of a mother. As a wife, she may well share the inability of Salinger's other characters to find love and sex anything but antagonistic to her happiness.

Walt Glass is killed before his romance can consummate in marriage; his twin Waker is a Jesuit priest. Seymour's repeated concern for his bride's chastity precedes his temporary flight from the wedding ceremony. He later kills himself while on a second honeymoon. Buddy is maladjusted and unmarried at 38. Zooey, a bachelor in his late twenties, suffers from ulcers and has an abnormal fear of his own beauty. Franny evades the physical demands of her lover by a “tenth-rate nervous breakdown” and temporarily embraces the esoteric philosophy of a holy man.

It is not likely that a pattern so firmly rooted in Salinger's earliest work and so consistently developed, is likely to change—nor is this particularly desirable. Lesser talents have wallowed in the sexual without a fraction of the illumination of character Salinger is able to give us. But admittedly, it is difficult to see how the avoidance of so obvious a part of human life cannot impede the free flow of Salinger's creative life.


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J. D. Salinger 1919-

(Full name Jerome David Salinger) American novelist and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Salinger's career through 1992. See also Franny and Zooey Criticism, J. D. Salinger Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 1, 3.

Among the most celebrated and enigmatic twentieth-century American writers, Salinger is best known for his first and only published novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951), a defining portrait of adolescent angst and disillusionment in postwar American society. The novel's disaffected hero, Holden Caulfield, continues to speak to generations of young readers as an endearing icon of youthful cynicism and defiance against adult “phoniness” and conformity. Salinger is also acclaimed as a master of the short story form. His Glass family saga, an interrelated series of stories contained in Nine Stories (1953), Franny and Zooey (1961), and Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction (1963), further established his popularity and spawned a proliferation of critical interest in his work—an “industry” of exegesis that Salinger sought to quell through his self-imposed exile.

Biographical Information

Born in New York City, Salinger is the second child of Sol Salinger, a prosperous Jewish importer, and Miriam Jillich Salinger, a gentile of Scotch-Irish descent. Raised in upscale Manhattan apartment buildings, Salinger attended New York public schools before enrolling at the exclusive McBurney School on the upper West Side in 1932. Recalled as an aloof, introspective, and academically unexceptional student, Salinger was subsequently sent to Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania, from which he graduated in 1936. While at Valley Forge, he contributed to the school's literary magazine, served as literary editor of his senior yearbook, and began to compose his first stories. In 1937 Salinger briefly attended New York University, then traveled to Europe where he studied the importing business in Vienna while continuing to write. Returning to the United States after the German invasion of Austria in 1938, Salinger briefly attended Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, leaving after only a single, unhappy semester. In 1939 he enrolled in an evening writing class taught by Whit Burnett, editor of Story magazine and an influential literary mentor, at Columbia University. Burnett recognized Salinger's talent and arranged for the publication of his first short story, “The Young Folks,” in the March-April 1940 issue of Story. With his professional writing career newly established, Salinger began to place his pieces in magazines such as Esquire,Collier's,Saturday Evening Post,Mademoiselle,Good Housekeeping, and Cosmopolitan; Salinger later disavowed and refused to republish any of these stories. In 1941 The New Yorker accepted “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” a short story introducing Holden Caulfield. Salinger revised and delayed publication of this story until 1946. The short story, along with “I'm Crazy,” published by Collier's in 1945, would be incorporated into The Catcher in the Rye.

Salinger was drafted into the army in 1942 and served until the end of World War II, during which he served as an interrogator in the Counter-Intelligence Corps and a participant in the D-Day offensive and the campaign to liberate France. He also continued to produce commercially viable short fiction for popular magazines. While hospitalized for battle stress, Salinger met a French doctor named Sylvia whom he married in September 1945. Little is known of this relationship which apparently ended in divorce shortly after his return to the United States the following year. Between 1946 and 1951 Salinger lived with his parents and devoted himself to writing, publishing a string of stories in The New Yorker that established him as a foremost “New York writer.” After the 1951 publication of The Catcher in the Rye, a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection and bestseller, Salinger began to study Eastern religious philosophy, an abiding interest that significantly colored the tone and outlook of his subsequent short fiction. In 1953 Salinger moved to rural Cornish, New Hampshire, where he became romantically involved with Claire Douglas, a nineteen-year-old Radcliffe student whom he married in 1955 and with whom he has two children; they divorced in 1967. Repulsed by his literary celebrity and clamoring admirers, Salinger began to withdrawal into guarded seclusion during the mid-1950s. “Hapworth 16, 1924,” his final published work, appeared in The New Yorker in June 1965. He has published nothing since, though it is reported that he continues to write for his own enjoyment. Salinger has vigorously litigated against attempts to republish his work and against investigations into his personal life. He halted distribution of The Complete Uncollected Short Stories of J. D. Salinger (1974), a pirated two volume edition of his early magazine stories, and Ian Hamilton's 1988 biography In Search of J. D. Salinger, the latter on grounds of copyright infringement. Salinger's life and literary activity since the mid-1960s is shrouded in obscurity and speculation.

Major Works

Salinger's small body of mature fiction is unified by a preoccupation with several core themes: the despoliation of childhood innocence and integrity by insensitive, superficial adults; the longing for kinship and unconditional love amid the alienation and absurdity of modern life; and the quest for spiritual enlightenment in a vapid, materialistic world. The Catcher in the Rye portrays the emotional and physical deterioration of protagonist Holden Caulfield, a self-conscious sixteen-year-old whose idealistic resistance to the hypocrisy and immorality of his peers and the adult world results in his mounting estrangement. The first-person narrative, recounted from an unspecified psychiatric facility where Holden is convalescing after a nervous breakdown, describes his flight from Pencey preparatory school and his subsequent experiences in New York City shortly before Christmas. While at Pencey, Holden is repelled by the shallow, self-serving attitudes of his classmates, particularly Stradlater, whose sexual conquest of Jane Gallagher, a girl whom Holden regards with chaste affection, enrages and humiliates him. To avoid confronting his disapproving parents after leaving Pencey, Holden wanders about New York in search of meaning and companionship. His episodic rite of passage involves unsatisfying encounters with various acquaintances and strangers, including: a prostitute whom he solicits though refuses to employ, resulting in a beating by her pimp; a date with childhood friend Sally Hayes, who abandons Holden after angrily rejecting his wild suggestion that they run off together; and a brief respite with an admired teacher, Mr. Antolini, whose ambiguous late-night affection Holden reviles as a homosexual advance. The deceptively simple plot and Holden's colloquial banter belies the novel's thematic complexity and symbolism. Holden's conflict of conscience centers largely upon his desire to protect the young and vulnerable from the perils of what he understands as adult corruption, particularly in the form of inauthenticity. Holden's struggle to reconcile this with his inevitable maturation is intimately linked to his despair over the hostility and apathy of modern society. His naïve concern for the winter well-being of the ducks in Central Park and his exasperation at the ubiquitous presence of obscene graffiti signify his preoccupation with the preservation of innocence and integrity at both a personal and social level. The title of the novel refers to a Robert Burns lyric that Holden significantly misquotes and adopts as his personal motto. Holden's self-proclaimed “catcher” role, symbolized by the hunting cap that he wears backwards like a baseball catcher, is especially apparent in his relationship with his precocious younger sister Phoebe, whom he reveres and confides in. Likewise, Holden's resentment and feelings of guilt are linked to his inability to save his recently deceased younger brother, Allie, whose mortality exemplifies the inherent limitations and uncertainty of life against which Holden rebels.

Salinger's three subsequent collections consist of reprints of short stories originally published in The New Yorker.Nine Stories includes two of his most acclaimed—“For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”—along with “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” “The Laughing Man,” “Down at the Dinghy,” “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes,” and “Teddy.” “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” involves a brief friendship between an American soldier and a charming English girl named Esmé whom he encounters during World War II. While later recovering from combat stress in a military hospital, the soldier, identified as Sergeant X, receives a package from Esmé containing a letter and her dead father's watch. Comforted by Esmé's affection, the soldier, also an aspiring writer, begins to recover and eventually repays her kindness by writing a story on her preferred subject—squalor. The influence of Zen Buddhism and Eastern spirituality permeates Nine Stories: “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” includes a Zen koan as its epigram; “De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period” features a painter whose sudden epiphany resembles a Zen Buddhist moment of enlightenment; and “Teddy” involves discussion of Vedantic reincarnation. “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” the first installment of the Glass family cycle, introduces Seymour Glass, the visionary elder sibling of the introspective clan that became the focus of Salinger's subsequent writings. This pivotal story relates Seymour's unhappy marriage to Muriel Fedder, his disavowal of material prosperity, and spiritual longing—ending abruptly with his tragic suicide. Franny and Zooey, Salinger's next publication, contains two companion stories that describe the psychic and spiritual dilemmas of Seymour's siblings after his mysterious death. In “Franny,” Seymour's youngest sister suffers a nervous breakdown while struggling to reconcile her carnal yearnings with her desire for spiritual purity, dramatized by her obsessive repetition of the “Jesus prayer.” In “Zooey,” a continuation of the previous story, Franny's older brother attempts to ameliorate Franny's crisis by identifying the egotism of her incantations and conveying Seymour's wisdom, a mixture of Zen principles and Christian mysticism. “Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters,” and “Seymour: An Introduction,” published together, are narrated by Salinger's fictional alter ego, Buddy Glass. “Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters” provides a meticulous record of events on June 4, 1942—the day of Seymour and Muriel's ill-fated wedding. When the bride and groom fail to arrive, opting to elope instead, the guests grow irritable and Buddy retreats to the bathroom where he reads Seymour's journal. Buddy's recollections establish the Glass family hierarchy—parents Les and Betty and children Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, twins Walt and Waker, Zooey, and Franny—and explain their veneration of Seymour. In “Seymour: An Introduction,” Buddy attempts to articulate the rarified character of his brooding, “artist-seer” brother Seymour and his motives for suicide. Experimental in form, the digressive story reveals the existence of an extraordinary collection of poems left by Seymour and Buddy's meditations on the literary enterprise itself, prompted by Seymour's advice that he write only what he wants to read—typically viewed as a telling insight into Salinger's own literary motivations. Salinger's final published story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” is presented as a lengthy and astonishingly precocious letter by seven-year-old Seymour to his parents, in which he relates his experiences at summer camp and prescient observations concerning the nature of existence.

Critical Reception

Salinger's lasting distinction rests largely upon the enormous popularity of The Catcher in the Rye, a perennial favorite that continues to exert an indelible influence on adolescent readers a half-century after its first publication. Though widely recognized as having attained the status of a literary “classic,” Salinger's novel has endured a history of censorship and is still banned by some public libraries, schools, and parents organizations for its profanity, sexual themes, and alleged antisocial message. Frequently compared to Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby,The Catcher in the Rye is distinguished among critics for having captured the mood and sensibility of its era. Many reviewers, reflecting upon their own first reading of the novel, continue to admire the striking candor, humor, and appeal of Salinger's protagonist, whose skepticism and alienation still strike a chord for many readers. Commentators consistently praise Salinger's command of colloquial diction, his effective use of symbolism, and his unusually perceptive evocation of adolescent experience. While some fault Holden's dogmatism and inability to develop an alternate vision to the social reality he denounces, others praise Salinger's compassionate portrayal of the hypocritical standards and behaviors that Holden himself unwittingly displays as a feckless, upper-middle class cynic. The promise of Salinger's first novel and the author's beguiling disappearance from the literary world continues to fuel critical conjecture and controversy. His short stories, particularly those of the Glass family cycle, remain at the center of critical debate and recent reconsideration of Salinger's literary prestige. While most commentators attest to Salinger's superior ability to fashion clever, well-crafted narratives, especially as contained in Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey, his subsequent stories are viewed by some as evidence of his declining powers. “Hapworth 16, 1924,” though praised by some as a daring, experimental work, has been dismissed by many critics as an implausible, self-indulgent story that reflects Salinger's contempt for his critics and a lack of desire, or inability, to communicate to his reader. Despite negative reaction to his later work, Salinger's oft-anthologized “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” are still acclaimed as consummate examples of postwar American short fiction.

About J. D. Salinger

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Jerome David Salinger was born in New York City on 1 January 1919, the second child of Sol and Miriam Salinger. A daughter, Doris, had been born to the couple in 1911. Sol Salinger was born in Cleveland, Ohio.1 He married the Scotch-Irish Marie Jillich, who later changed her name to Miriam in order to accommodate her Jewish husband and his parents.2 Before moving to New York, the Salingers lived in Chicago, where Sol managed a movie theater until he took a job with J. S. Hoffman and Company, a cheese and ham importer.3 Successful in the importing business, he was relocated to New York.

J. D. Salinger, called “Sonny” in his youth, attended public schools in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he performed satisfactorily except in mathematics and was thought to be of only average intelligence. His “deportment” was considered poor. Early on he showed interest in acting, being voted “the most popular actor of 1930” during the summer at Camp Wigwam in Harrison, Maine. The Salinger family moved to increasingly more-desirable neighborhoods, and by 1932 they had moved to Park Avenue at Ninety-first Street. That same year Salinger’s parents enrolled him in the private McBurney School in Manhattan. During an enrollment interview at the school he said that he was interested in dramatics and tropical fish.4 He acted in several school productions, taking principally female roles, for which he received praise.5

Salinger was less successful in his academic performance at McBurney, receiving poor grades and, to the disappointment of his parents, eventually flunking out. Sensing that their son needed more discipline and structure, his parents enrolled him in Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania, in 1934, where his academic performance improved and his interest in writing blossomed. During his senior year Salinger edited the school yearbook, Crossed Sabres, and wrote a tribute to Valley Forge that was set to music and sung prior to graduation ceremonies for nearly a quarter century. Determined to write, he was

reported to have written stories under his blanket by flashlight after lights were out in his dormitory.6 The class prophecy stated that he would write “four-act melodramas for the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra.”7 Salinger’s fellow students recognized his writing talent, recalling “that he was more gifted with the pen than the rest of us,” but they also noticed that his “uniform was always rumpled in the wrong places” and that he “never fit in.”8 Nevertheless, he graduated in 1936.

After graduation from Valley Forge, Salinger enrolled in Washington Square College of New York University, but his brief stay there, no more than a year, was unsatisfactory. This turn of events must have caused Sol Salinger to become anxious about his son’s future and to assume that he would not continue his university studies. Consequently, Sol arranged for his son to travel abroad in order to learn the details of the Polish ham trade, to improve his German, and to write advertisements for an exporting firm. For a while Salinger lived in Vienna with an Austrian family.9 He felt the tension in Austria in 1937 as the nation sought to maintain its independence from Adolf Hitler’s Germany, which succeeded in annexing Austria on 12 March 1938. In Poland, Salinger was required to focus more directly on his apprenticeship duties as he went out before daylight to buy and sell pigs: “They . . . dragged me off to Bydgoszcz for a couple of months,” he reported, “where I slaughtered pigs, wagoned through the snow with the big slaughter-master. . . .”10 But he was more interested in becoming a writer, and he submitted the stories he wrote in Europe to magazines back in the United States. What Salinger saw in his travels he absorbed not with the eye of a prospective businessman but with that of a rapidly evolving writer.

Salinger returned home in 1938 and enrolled for the fall term at Ursinus College, a coeducational liberal-arts school in Collegetown, Pennsylvania, sponsored by the Evangelical and Reformed Church. He tried again to be the college student that his inclinations seemed to reject, sensing also perhaps the extent to which he had failed to live up to his father’s expectations. Again Salinger found an outlet for his true interest by writing a column, “The Skipped Diploma,” for the college paper, The Ursinus Weekly. He reviewed plays, movies, and books and took opportunities to function as a wit at large, often mocking Hollywood stars and lampooning theater productions and radio shows. Salinger’s column of 10 October 1938 includes an especially telling statement concerning his frustrations and deeply felt conflict with his father: “Once there was a young man who was trying to grow a mustache. This same young man did not want to work for his Daddykins—or any other unreasonable man. So the young man went back to college.”11 Salinger left Ursinus by the end of the semester.

Although Salinger appeared to be less critical of Ursinus than he was of more-prestigious schools, he was always distrustful of the professors in academia, whom he often regarded as exploiters of fiction for their own advancement and as people who failed to appreciate the writer’s art for its own intrinsic value.12 When he enrolled in Whit Burnett’s creative-writing course at Columbia University in the spring of 1939, he found his new teacher to be different from the pretentious and parasitic professors he had come to know during his brief, abortive university experience. As editor of the prestigious Story magazine, Burnett was highly regarded for his ability to recognize writing talent, and his classes were, Salinger concluded, more about the writing than about Burnett himself. Salinger once said, “Mr. Burnett very deliberately forbore to perform. He abstained from reading beautifully,” and he praised Burnett for not doing so in what he called “this nutty exploitative era.”13


Initially, Salinger did not seem special as a writing student, outwardly showing little interest or enthusiasm while Burnett spoke. Yet, he returned the next fall to take the course a second time. When Salinger turned in his stories, Burnett was impressed and published one of them, “The Young Folks,” in the March-April 1940 issue of Story. It was Salinger’s first published story. Soon he attracted the attention of literary agents, and he signed with the Harold Ober Agency, to be represented by Dorothy Olding.

Concerns that dominate Salinger’s fiction were rapidly solidifying at this time: the loss of spontaneity and essence to pretense and performance, the sacrifice of purity to the ulterior motives of exploiters, and the loss of innocence and sincerity to hypocrisy and sham. Reading a Faulkner story to the class, Burnett, in Salinger’s recollection, gave the class Faulkner “straight, without middlemen between” and never once came “between the author and his beloved silent reader.”14 In Salinger’s only novel, The Catcher in the Rye (1951), the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is disappointed that a gifted piano player at a nightclub has permitted himself to be directed by an unworthy audience and that a husband and wife famous as actors have lost their spontaneity on stage. In “Franny” (1955) Franny Glass says that pretentious and pedantic teachers have destroyed literature and ruined authors for their readers.

In September 1939, with the German invasion of Poland that marked the beginning of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared a limited national emergency, and America reinstated the military draft. Salinger volunteered for service in 1941, but the doctors conducting his physical discovered that he had a minor heart problem, and he received a medical deferment. That summer, Elizabeth Murray, the sister of one of his Valley Forge friends, introduced Salinger to Oona O’Neill, the daughter of the playwright Eugene O’Neill. Oona was a beautiful young woman, and, according to Murray’s daughter, Gloria, Salinger “fell for her on the spot.”15 He and Oona dated through the summer. In September Esquire published Salinger’s “The Heart of a Broken Story.” Later that fall he had his first success with The New Yorker, selling the magazine his first story featuring Holden Caulfield as a character, “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” but its publication was delayed until 1946.

In 1942 Salinger was reclassified by the military and drafted into the army.16 After reporting on 27 April to Fort Dix, New Jersey, he was soon assigned to training with the Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Salinger was transferred three more times—to bases in Bainbridge, Georgia; Nashville, Tennessee; and Fairfield, Ohio—before being assigned to Fort Holabird in Baltimore, Maryland, for training in the Counter-intelligence Corps (CIC). He applied twice to Army Officer Candidate School, but both times he was denied admission. Salinger wrote Oona frequently, his love growing deeper, but their romance ended. Rumors that she was involved with the actor Charlie Chaplin proved to be true when the eighteen-year-old Oona married Chaplin, then fifty-four, in 1943. By March 1944 Salinger had been shipped to Tiverton in Devon, England, for further intelligence training in preparation for duties he was to perform with the Fourth Infantry Division after the invasion of Normandy. From the division camp Salinger would walk to Tiverton, where he is reported to have visited a church and listened to the choir; he may also have patronized a nearby tearoom.17 Devon is the setting for the first part of his story “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” (1950), in which the protagonist listens to a children’s church choir and visits a tearoom.

During those preinvasion days Salinger continued to write, having enjoyed considerable success publishing stories in Collier’s, Esquire, and The Saturday Evening Post. Soon after he arrived in England, he wrote Burnett about the recent publication of his story “Both Parties Concerned” in the 26 February issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Growing in confidence, Salinger told Burnett that he was the “first to write good short stories for S.E.P. [The Saturday Evening Post] since Lardner and Fitzgerald.” He added that he had written “about six chapters on the book” (a projected book about Holden Caulfield).18 Salinger complained in a subsequent letter that The Saturday Evening Post changed the title of his story “Death of a Dogface” to “Soft-Boiled Sergeant” (1944) and rejected the title “Wake Me When It Thunders” in favor of “Both Parties Concerned” (1944).19 A month before the invasion, he wrote Burnett that he had stopped working on the Holden Caulfield book.20 Salinger enclosed a $250 check to Burnett in support of a story contest held by Story.

On the morning of 6 June 1944 Salinger crossed the English Channel with the Twelfth Infantry Regiment of the Fourth Infantry Division and landed on Utah Beach within six hours after the first assault forces had landed. He remained with the division until the end of the war, participating in five campaigns as one of two special agents in charge of security for his regiment.21 CIC agents were also responsible for disrupting enemy communications, interrogating prisoners, and attempting to find deserters, collaborators, and Gestapo agents. Salinger’s division fought its way from Utah Beach to Cherbourg, participating in the capture of the city on 2 July and ensuring vital port and dock facilities for supplying the Allied forces. On 25 August, Salinger entered Paris with the Twelfth Division.

Shortly after his arrival in Paris, Salinger learned that Ernest Hemingway, who had linked up with the Fourth Infantry Division in July, was at the Ritz Hotel. Salinger went there hoping to meet the famous writer. Hemingway is reported to have welcomed the twenty-five-year-old soldier warmly, indicating that he had seen Salinger’s photograph in Esquire and asking to see some of his work. He read “Last Day of the Last Furlough” (1944) and liked it,22 saying that Salinger had “a helluva talent.”23 Salinger found Hemingway “both friendly and generous . . . and ’soft’—as opposed to the hardness and toughness which some of his writing suggested.”24 In a subsequent visit to Salinger’s unit, Hemingway is reported to have demonstrated the superior firepower of his German Luger over that of the U.S. Army .45 by shooting off the head of a chicken.25 Salinger is said to have been repulsed by the incident, but he might have incorporated a variant of it in “For EsméȔwith Love and Squalor,” in which Sergeant X’s driver shoots a cat that jumps onto the hood of their jeep. Nevertheless, savoring Hemingway’s kindness, Salinger spoke positively about him in a letter to Burnett on 9 September, after Salinger’s unit had already begun its difficult move toward Germany.

Soon the Fourth Division was engaged in one of the costliest and bloodiest battles of the war, in Hiirtgen Forest, as the troops approached the German border with Belgium. Even by the standards of the soldiers involved in the Normandy invasion, the fighting and casualties in the forest were appalling. Struggling to advance even a few hundred yards a day, American forces sustained heavy losses, and the division’s official reporter wrote, “The horrors of Hurtgen can never be forgotten by the men who were there. . . .”26 One of the American survivors of the combat wrote, “Behind them they left their dead, and the forest will stink with deadness long after the last body is removed. The forest will bear the scars of our advance . . . the infantry has scars that will never heal, perhaps.”27 With the battle finally won on 16 December, Salinger’s unit moved on to yet another of the fiercest battles in the war, the fight for Luxembourg during the Germans’ offensive in the Forest of Ardennes, known familiarly as the Battle of the Bulge. Caught in a surprise German offensive that aimed to reach the Belgian seaport of Antwerp, American forces suffered an initial defeat, losing the town of Echternach, Luxembourg, before regrouping and repulsing the Germans short of their goal.

Salinger’s division pushed on into Germany, and at the time of the German surrender on 5 May the Twelfth Infantry Regiment set up headquarters in Hermann Göring’s castle at Neuhaus. By 14 May the Fourth Infantry Division had moved to an area near Nuremberg, where Salinger probably joined other counterintelligence officers in screening German political prisoners who might have posed security threats. The exhaustion and depression brought on by the deadly battles he had experienced since the invasion were too much for Salinger, and in July he was admitted to a hospital in Nuremberg, where his condition was diagnosed as “battle fatigue.”28 During his hospital stay he wrote a letter to Hemingway in which he joked about his illness, stating that the reason for his hospitalization was that he hoped to find a nurse like Catherine Barkley (the love interest of the protagonist in Hemingway’s 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms). Salinger also mentioned having written part of a play about a boy named Holden Caulfield and his sister, adding that he himself intended to play the part of Holden.

Despite the dangers Salinger encountered in battle and his despair as a witness to so much death and destruction, he maintained his commitment to his writing. Three weeks after landing on Utah Beach, he wrote to Burnett recounting his fears during combat; yet, much of the letter focused on writing. Before publishing a book of stories, Salinger said, he wanted to write a novel, which he “should be able to finish . . . in six weeks, maybe less.”29 One CIC agent confirmed Salinger’s determination to write at all costs, recalling, “He lugged that little portable typewriter all over Europe. 1 can remember him down under a table pecking away while we were under attack near a front. He wanted to be a good writer, and he wrote all the time.”30

Salinger was released from the hospital in Nuremberg after a few weeks and returned to his duties. Later in 1945 he met a young woman, Sylvia, to whom he was attracted. Within a few weeks, probably in September—prior to his being given an honorable discharge from the army in November—he and Sylvia were married. Little information has surfaced concerning Salinger’s first wife. Ian Hamilton and Paul Alexander have reported in their biographies of the author that Sylvia was French and a doctor, possibly a psychologist.31 Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, has said that her father’s sister, Doris, described Sylvia as “some sort of a doctor” and “very German.”32 After his discharge, Salinger stayed on in Germany, living with his wife in Gunzenhausen, a small town southwest of Nuremberg, and working for the U.S. Department of Defense, with whom he had signed a six-month contract, possibly to perform tasks related to denazification.33 Whatever the requirements of his job or his marital obligations, Salinger always found a way to write, and five of his stories were published in 1945: “Elaine,” in Story; “A Boy in France,” in The Saturday Evening Post; “This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise,” in Esquire; “The Stranger,” in Collier’s; and his first published story featuring Holden Caulfield as the protagonist, “I’m Crazy,” also in Collier’s.


Salinger returned to the United States with his wife in 1946, probably in May, but the marriage did not work out, and Sylvia soon returned to Europe. From the Sheraton Plaza Hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida, a setting like the one for his story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (1948), Salinger wrote his friend Elizabeth Murray on 13 July 1946, announcing the end of the marriage.34 Margaret Salinger reports that upon returning to America, the couple had moved in with Salinger’s parents and that, according to his sister, their mother did not like Sylvia.35 It is generally assumed that after Sylvia returned to Europe, she obtained a divorce, bringing an end to the marriage after only eight months. Salinger told Murray that for the first time since his marriage he was able to complete a short story. Never published, it was called “The Male Goodbye.”36

Although 1946 was a bleak publishing year by Salinger’s standards, a second Holden Caulfield story was published by The New Yorker in December. The magazine had accepted “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” in 1941 but had delayed publication because the story of the troubled, disaffected preppy was thought to be inappropriate early in the war effort, when the country was rallying young men to join the military. At the beginning of 1947 Salinger moved from his parents’ apartment in the city to Tarrytown, New York, where he took a small apartment; later that year he moved to a barn studio in Stamford, Connecticut.37

The year 1947 was a more productive one for Salinger. Mademoiselle published “A Young Girl in 1941 with No Waist at All,” a story inspired by his experience working as a recreation staff member on the Swedish cruise ship Kungsholm, and Cosmopolitan published his enigmatic portrait of a poet, “The Inverted Forest.” The following year, with the publication of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (the first story to feature the character Seymour Glass), “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” and “Just before the War with the Eskimos” in The New Yorker, Salinger began a long relationship with the magazine that proved vital to his career. Also published in 1948 were “A Girl I Knew,” which appeared in Good Housekeeping and was later included in The Best American Short Stories, 1949 (1949), and “Blue Melody,” published in Cosmopolitan.

The years 1948 and 1949 turned out to be pivotal for Salinger. Other stories of his began to appear in anthologies. In particular, his New Yorker stories were meeting with great acclaim. Samuel Goldwyn bought the screen rights to “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” and had the story adapted in 1949 as the motion picture My Foolish Heart, starring Susan Hayward and Dana Andrews. Salinger had long hoped to sell his stories to Hollywood, but nothing could have been less satisfying than the movie that Goldwyn produced. Overly sentimental, maudlin, and bearing little relationship to the original story, My Foolish Heart was, as Salinger said, a bad experience—so bad that he never accepted another offer from Holly-wood to adapt any of his works.


Shortly after Salinger’s return from the war, Burnett tried to get a Salinger short-story collection published but met with no success. Nevertheless, by 1949, there was growing interest in such a collection, especially one including the New Yorker stories. Robert Giroux, an editor at Harcourt, Brace, told Salinger that he would like to publish a book of his stories. Months later, after Giroux must have assumed that Salinger was not interested in the proposal, the young author showed up, unannounced, in Giroux’s office. As the editor later recalled, Salinger came not to discuss a short-story collection but to suggest that a novel he was writing “about this kid in New York during the Christmas holidays should come out first.”38 Giroux agreed, and Salinger continued to work on the novel in Westport, Connecticut, where he had moved from Stamford in the fall of 1949. He had been writing about Holden Caulfield since 1941. New Yorker fiction editor William Maxwell reported that a ninety-page version of the novel had been completed in 1946 and that, although a publisher had expressed interest in it, Salinger did not think it was ready for publication at that time.39 When Salinger finished The Catcher in the Rye, he met again with Giroux and gave him the manuscript.

Eager to publish the novel, Giroux gave it to his superior at Harcourt, Brace, Eugene Reynal, who was expected to approve the book for publication. Reynal, however, did not like it, and the report from another reader—a textbook editor at the press—was negative. The deal was off. At a lunch some time later, Giroux and another representative from Harcourt, Brace informed Salinger that the readers recommended that the novel be rewritten. Salinger telephoned the press and asked that his manuscript be returned.40 Reynal had rejected what went on to become one of the most successful novels in American publishing history. Salinger’s bitterness over Burnett’s failure to arrange for publication of a collection of his stories had not abated, and his experience with Harcourt, Brace further strengthened his conviction that publishers exploited writers and were not to be trusted.

Another publisher, Little, Brown, accepted The Catcher in the Rye and published it on 16 July 1951. Early reviews of the novel were positive, and it became a Book-of-the-Month-Club midsummer main selection. By the end of July it had been reprinted five times and reached fourteenth on the New York Times best-seller list. The book was reprinted three times in August and twice in September. Five weeks after its publication, The Catcher in the Rye rose to number four on the best-seller list. It remained on the list for nearly thirty weeks.41 Even before the publication of his novel, Salinger had already begun to show a strong aversion to conventional prepublication and promotional practices. He asked Little, Brown not to provide advance galleys of the novel and not to send him reviews. He gave only one brief interview (to his friend Maxwell, for the Book-of-the-Month Club News) and asked that his picture, which appeared on the dust jacket for the first printing of the book, be removed. Little, Brown pulled the picture for the third printing of the book but refused to accept Salinger’s demands to limit prepublication promotion.42

By 1950, the year before publication of The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger is reported to have become interested in Eastern thought and begun studying Advaita Vedanta, a branch of Hindu philosophy that emphasizes nonduality a term both Hindu and Buddhist monks prefer to “one” or “oneness.”43 It is likely that Salinger’s study of both Hinduism and Zen Buddhism, with their de-emphasis of the ego, contributed to his self-effacing attitude regarding promotion of his novel and the attention it focused on him. About his picture on the dust jacket of his novel, he commented, “Too big.”44

In May 1951 Salinger traveled to England for a meeting with the publisher Hamish Hamilton in order to discuss the publication of the first British edition of The Catcher in the Rye, scheduled to come out in August. Whether by coincidence or design, the trip enabled him to avoid the attention and publicity surrounding the 16 July publication of the novel in the United States. Salinger did not return to the United States until late July and enjoyed his time in England. He liked visiting the Lake District (home to the poet William Wordsworth), the Cotswolds, and Oxford, where he visited the university, and he particularly enjoyed a trip to Scotland. Salinger did not like Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare, probably finding it too touristy, and in London he avoided

the Globe Theatre, which he regarded as too much like a shrine to Shakespeare.45

Upon his return to America, Salinger moved again, from Westport back to New York, to an apartment at 300 East Fifty-seventh Street.46 While he was in England another of his stories, “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes,” was published in The New Yorker (two days before The Catcher in the Rye came out). In November 1951, Olding, Salinger’s agent, submitted his story “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” to The New Yorker. Assuming that it would be published, Salinger was surprised when he learned that the editors at the magazine had rejected it. The story was published in May of the following year in the World Review of London, the only time one of his stories was published first outside the United States.47 Whatever anger Salinger felt toward The New Yorker, it did not lessen his respect for the legendary founder and editor in chief of the magazine, Harold Ross. When Ross died on 6 December, Salinger attended the funeral service.

As The Catcher in the Rye began to fall from the best-seller list, Salinger was quoted as saying that he felt “tremendously relieved that the season for success for The Catcher in the Rye is nearly over.”48 Nevertheless, his publisher was well aware that another book, a collection comprised largely of his New Yorker stories, would have commercial value. Salinger was amenable and spoke with a representative of his British publisher early in 1952 before leaving for a trip to Florida and Mexico.

Although The Catcher in the Rye was no longer on the best-seller list, its “season of success” was far from over, and Salinger became increasingly uncomfortable with his celebrity status. He decided to leave New York and began looking for a place where he could escape public attention and work without distractions. In the fall of 1952 he and his sister, Doris, drove up to New England, and Salinger found a parcel of land in Cornish, New Hampshire, near the Connecticut River and Windsor, Vermont. A small red house in disrepair, without a furnace or adequate plumbing, sat on the property. Salinger bought the ninety-acre plot of land and the house, and on New Year’s Day of 1953 he moved in. It was his thirty-fourth birthday.49 At the end of the month his story “Teddy” was published in The New Yorker, and he had the final story for his collection.

Nine Stories was published by Little, Brown in April 1953. All but two of the stories—“Down at the Dinghy” (1949) and “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”—had first appeared in The New Yorker. The British edition of the collection was published that same year by Hamish Hamilton as For Esmé—with Love and Squalor, and Other Stories. Nine Stories was a commercial success, rising to number nine on the New YorkTimes best-seller list and remaining on the list for three months. The paperback edition of The Catcher in the Rye, released by Signet in March, just before the publication of Nine Stories, greatly extended Salinger’s readership and helped sales of the story collection.

Despite Salinger’s desire to isolate himself in Cornish, he became friends with local high-school teenagers whom he met at their favorite lunch spots, and he frequently entertained them in his home. During lunch at Harrington’s Spa, he granted one of these students, Shirley Blaney, an interview for the high-school paper, the Claremont Daily Eagle. The interview appeared on the front page of the paper as a scoop, and Salinger is reported to have suddenly stopped seeing the students or admitting them to his home.50 Not everyone has concurred with this version of his reaction to Blaney’s article. Warren French contends that some of the high-school students have portrayed the break not as sudden but as “a gradual drifting apart,” possibly because of the end of the school foot-ball season, the hard winter, or Salinger’s Hindu studies.51

In 1953, at a party in Manchester, Vermont, Salinger met a nineteen-year-old Radcliffe College student named Claire Douglas. Born in England, she was the daughter of the distinguished British art critic Robert Langton Douglas. Claire visited Salinger in his home and discussed Zen Buddhism with him, and soon a serious relationship developed between the two. Nevertheless, they suddenly stopped seeing each other, and Claire married a Harvard Business School graduate with whom she had been involved before meeting Salinger. Her marriage lasted only a few months, after which she returned to Cornish, where Salinger was working on a long story titled “Franny.” The novella, which has been described as a wedding present for Claire,52 was published in the 29 January 1955 issue of The New Yorker, and the couple married soon afterward, on 17 February. Another Salinger novella, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” appeared in the 19 November issue of the magazine. Margaret Ann, the Salingers’ first child, was born on 10 December of that year. A second and final child, Matthew Robert, was born on 13 February 1960.


From 1955 to 1965 Salinger’s published fiction, all of which first came out in The New Yorker, dealt exclusively with Franny and other members of the Glass family. “Zooey” appeared on 4 May 1957 and “Seymour: An Introduction” on 6 June 1959. Salinger decided to publish “Franny” and “Zooey” as a single work, Franny and Zooey, which came out in 1961. The book remained on the New York Times best-seller list for six months, reaching number one. Two years later “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour: An Introduction” were combined to form Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. In 1965 another long Glass story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” appeared in The New Yorker.

Salinger and Claire divorced in 1967. The author maintained the self-imposed isolation he had kept almost since moving to Cornish, becoming more reclusive, guarding his privacy, and refusing to talk with reporters and curiosity seekers who traveled to New Hampshire hoping for an interview or even a Salinger sighting. Occasionally, he would venture out. In the fall of 1976 he went to Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, to see his son, Matthew, perform in a play.53 In July 1978 he made a surprise appearance in Queens, New York, at a testimonial dinner for an old war buddy, John L. Keenan, who was retiring from serving as a chief of detectives for the New York Police Department.54 In the mid 1980s Salinger was reported to have been seen at a Broadway play in which Matthew, now a professional actor, was performing.55 Salinger also attended the graduation of his daughter, Margaret, from Brandeis University in 1982.

Salinger has not published anything since 1965, and he has strongly resisted the publication of any of his letters or the reprinting of previously published works. In 1974 an unauthorized two-volume set of his previously uncollected stories appeared as The Complete Uncollected Stories of J. D. Salinger. Although the compiler of the collection remains unknown, Salinger convinced a federal district court to issue an injunction requiring bookstore owners to remove the pirated edition from their shelves. Extremely disturbed about the collection, he called a reporter from The New York Times to complain about what he regarded as “a terrible invasion of my privacy.”56 In 1980 Salinger spoke once again to a reporter, a young woman who had traveled from Louisiana to Cornish in hopes of obtaining an interview. Salinger spoke to her briefly as she sat in her car, and he reiterated his desire for privacy, insisting that he had no plans to publish again. Yet, he told her that he was continuing to write.57

In 1987 Ian Hamilton attempted to publish a biography of Salinger that included quotations from the author’s unpublished letters. Shortly before the book was to appear, Salinger sued, charging that Hamilton was not authorized to quote from these letters. After a series of court battles, Salinger successfully blocked publication of the biography

when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of a lower-court decision in Salinger’s favor. Hamilton published a revised version of the biography, In Search of J. D. Salinger, in 1988. Salinger continues to protect his privacy, shunning the public, living reclusively and occasionally slipping in and out of Cornish to shop or meet friends for lunch. Reports persist that he is still writing, that he has completed at least two books, and that he has made plans for some of his manuscripts to be published when he dies.58


Although Salinger’s fictional protagonists should not be regarded as thinly veiled representations of the author himself, they have evolved from his life, and they are translations of much of his life into art. Many of his early works show the estrangement and alienation that he felt upon failing to meet the expectations of his parents during his school years, even while he confronted what he saw as hypocrisy in schools, seemingly in conflict with the sincerity, spontaneity, and truth that he preferred. In particular, the six stories contributing to the development of The Catcher in the Rye seem to reflect Salinger’s experiences as well as their psychological consequences. These stories unite the conflicts of his youth with the stresses of wartime America, providing suitable situations for Salinger’s “sensitive outsiders,” as one critic has called them, to seek communication, love, and peace in a world of “vulgarians.”59 The protagonists in “Last Day of the Last Furlough,” “A Boy in France,” “This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise,” “The Stranger,” “I’m Crazy,” and “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” show their pain as outsiders and their desperate need for relief, which they usually find in the innocence and love of children.

Salinger saw himself as an outsider. Those who knew him as a student at Valley Forge Military Academy and at Ursinus College point out that he was not a part of their groups; he was a loner. During the days of battle following the Normandy invasion, it was reported that Salinger “didn’t join in the drinking and card playing” with other soldiers.60 He was said to be busy writing and sending his stories back to the United States. In “The Inverted Forest” Salinger attempted to express this isolation and the sometimes tragic consequences of the demands of art and the artist’s total commitment. His best stories and his novel similarly explore the theme of estrangement. In “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” the protagonist, Eloise, becomes a victim of middle-class conformity and success, suffers a kind of estrangement from her own conscience, and experiences a painful vision of her present self, in contrast to the time when she was “a nice girl.”61 In “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” Seymour Glass, the most sensitive and brilliant of Salinger’s outsiders, chooses suicide when he can find no solace in an unacceptable world, most recently exemplified by his wife. Sergeant X in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” faces estrangement from all those around him, a victim of the psy-chic wounds of battle, but, unlike Seymour, he survives, redeemed by a gift of love. Holden Caulfield, in conflict with a world turned phony that has lost its spontaneity, innocence, and sincerity, takes on the burden of savior to the world’s remaining innocence, discovering first the futility of his task and subsequently finding his own salvation and redemption through love.

There were practical and professional reasons for Salinger’s move to a life of isolation in Cornish: he needed a place to work undisturbed and to escape the potentially corrupting effects of celebrity. Like many of his fictional characters, he was in need of healing and peace, and he looked to Hinduism and Buddhism to satisfy these needs. Salinger’s involvement in World War II led to his mental breakdown and left scars. Just as his childhood and wartime experiences informed his earlier work, so did the Buddhist “way of liberation”62 figure in his later work (often seen as constituting his religious phase). “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period,” in which the protagonist says, “Everybody is a nun” (251), and “Teddy,” in which the title character has a “Vedantic theory of reincarnation” (286) and seems to have foreknowledge of his own death, reflect Salinger’s state of mind and anticipate the Glass family stories. Advaita Vedanta, the form of Hinduism that Salinger studied from the early 1950s, heavily informs Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, and “Hapworth 16, 1924.” After The Catcher in the Rye Salinger’s writing, with its spiritual emphasis, has prompted criticism that it is too much filled with lecturing and, as the novelist John Updike has observed, with “events that are purely internal and deeds that are purely talk.”63 Despite such criticism of his late works, Salinger’s readers have not been dissuaded; while The Catcher in the Rye continues to be his best-seller, all his books have remained in print, entertaining and stimulating successive generations of readers.


Since the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger has deliberately avoided awards and public recognition. In 1952 Valley Forge Military Academy selected him as one of three distinguished alumni and asked that he attend their award ceremony. His sister, Doris, sent regrets, informing the school officials that her brother was in Mexico. Salinger wrote a personal letter on 25 June thanking Valley Forge for the award, which, he said, made him “somewhat uneasy.”64 In 1956 he was chosen by a newly appointed search committee at the University of Virginia to serve as writer in residence, but he asked that his name be withdrawn from consideration, and the position went to William Faulkner in 1957.


1. Donald M. Fiene, “A Bibliographical Study of J. D. Salinger: Life, Work, and Reputation,” M.A. Thesis, University of Louisville, 1962. Fiene’s thesis includes a photostat of a document called “Return of a Birth—to the Board of Health of the City of Cleveland” showing the birth of a son to Simon Salinger and his wife (her name is not readable) on 11 March 1887.

2. [Jack Skow], “Sonny: An Introduction,” Time, 78 (15 September 1961): 88.

3. Margaret Salinger, Dream Catcher: A Memoir (New York: Washington Square Press, 2000), p. 17.

4. Skow, “Sonny: An Introduction,” p. 88.

5. Bruce Bawer, “Salinger’s Arrested Development,” New Criterion, 5 (September 1986): 35.

6. Skow, “Sonny: An Introduction,” p. 88.

7. Quoted in Warren French, J. D. Salinger, Revisited (Boston: Twayne, 1988), p. 4.

8. Quoted in Ian Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger (New York: Random House, 1988), p. 23.

9. See William Maxwell, “J. D. Salinger,” in The Book of the Month: Sixty Years of Books in American Life, edited by Al Silverman (Boston: Little, Brown, 1986), pp. 128-130.

10. J. D. Salinger, contributor’s note, Story, 25 (November-December 1944): 1.

11. See Fiene, “A Bibliographical Study of J. D. Salinger,” Letters and Documents section, which includes copies of Salinger’s “The Skipped Diploma.”

12. Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 54.

13. J. D. Salinger, “A Salute to Whit Burnett, 1899-1972,” in Hallie and Whit Burnett, Fiction Writer’s Handbook (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), pp. 187-188.

14. Ibid., p. 188.

15. Elizabeth Murray, quoted in Paul Alexander, Salinger: A Biography (Los Angeles: Renaissance, 1999), p. 71.

16. French.J. D. Salinger, Revisited, p. 5.

17. Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 82.

18. J. D. Salinger to Whit Burnett, 19 March 1944, quoted in Jack R. Sublette, J. D. Salinger: An Annotated Bibliography, 1938-1981 (New York: Garland, 1984), p. 31.

19. Sublette, J. D. Salinger: An Annotated Bibliography, p. 31.

20. Ibid. The date of the letter Sublette cites is 2 May 1944.

21. Maxwell, “J. D. Salinger,” p. 129.

22. Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 86.

23. Skow, “Sonny: An Introduction,” p. 88.

24. J. D. Salinger, quoted in Carlos Baker, Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (New York: Scribners, 1969), p. 420.

25. French, J. D. Salinger (New York: Twayne, 1963), p. 25. This incident is also mentioned in Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 86; and Alexander, Salinger, p. 99.

26. Quoted in Alexander,Salinger, p. 101.

27. Mack Morriss, quoted in Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 88.

28. Margaret Salinger, Dream Catcher, p. 67; Alexander, Salinger, p. 107. The actual diagnosis of J. D. Salinger’s condition has not been made available.

29. J. D. Salinger to Whit Burnett, 28 June 1944, quoted in Sublette, J. D. Salinger: An Annotated Bibliography, p. 32.

30. Quoted in Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 86.

31. Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 97; Alexander, Salinger, p. 109.

32. Margaret Salinger, Dream Catcher, p. 71.

33. Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, pp. 97-98; Alexander, Salinger, p. 110.

34. Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, pp. 97-98. Hamilton reports the date of this letter (at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin) as 13 July 1944, obviously in error, as the marriage did not take place until the fall of the following year.

35. Margaret Salinger, Dream Catcher, p. 71. Apparently, Doris Salinger was not fond of Sylvia, either, whom she described as having given her “a dark look,” with “chin tucked in, eyebrows raised as if she were peering over the top of bifocals and directly into my eyes for emphasis.”

36. Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 98.

37. Ibid., p. 106.

38. Robert Giroux, quoted in Alexander, Salinger, p. 136.

39. Maxwell, “J. D. Salinger,” p. 129.

40. Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 114; Alexander, Salinger, p. 146.

41. Adam Moss, “Catcher Comes of Age,” Esquire, 96 (December 1981): 57; Jack Salzman, New Essays on The Catcher in the Rye (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 6.

42. Alexander, Salinger, pp. 150-151; Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 115.

43. Alan W. Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: Vintage, 1957), p. 40.

44. J. D. Salinger, quoted in Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 115.

45. Alexander, Salinger, p. 150.

46. Ibid., p. 156.

47. French, J. D. Salinger, Revisited, p. 80.

48. J. D. Salinger, quoted in Eloise Perry Hazard, “Eight Fictional Finds,” Saturday Review, 35 (16 February 1952): 17.

49. Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 132; Margaret Salinger, Dream Catcher, p. 83. Both sources say that J. D. Salinger moved in on New Year’s Day of 1953. Alexander is less specific, saying that “the deal was finished not too long after New Years Day in 1953, with the date on the deed reading February 16, 1953” (168).

50. Ernest Havemann, “The Search for the Mysterious J. D. Salinger, Life, 51 (3 November 1961): 137.

51. French, J. D. Salinger, Revisited, pp. 10-11.

52. Skow, “Sonny: An Introduction,” p. 89.

53. Alexander, Salinger, pp. 256-257.

54. Barbara Graustark, “Newsmakers,” Newsweek, 92 (17 July 1978): 57.

55. Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 190.

56. J. D. Salinger, quoted in Lacey Fosburgh, “J. D. Salinger Speaks About His Silence,” New York Times, 3 November 1974, p. 69.

57. Betty Eppes, “What I Did Last Summer,” Paris Review, 80 (24 July 1981): 232-236.

58. Joyce Maynard, At Home in the World: A Memoir (New York: Picador, 1998), p. 153; Margaret Salinger, Dream Catcher, p. 307.

59. Ihab Hassan, Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), p. 266.

60. Quoted in Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 87.

61. J. D. Salinger, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” in Nine Stories (Boston: Little, Brown/Back Bay, 2001), p. 56. Subsequent parenthetical page references for stories from the collection are to this edition.

62. Watts, The Way of Zen, p. 3. Watts says that Zen Buddhism is regarded in India and China not as a religion or philosophy but as a “way of liberation.”

63. John Updike, quoted in Henry Anatole Grunwald, Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait (New York: Harper, 1962), p. 53.

64. J. D. Salinger, quoted in French, J. D. Salinger, p. 29.

J. D. O'Hara (essay date Winter 1963-1964)

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SOURCE: “No Catcher in the Rye,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. IX, No. 4, Winter, 1963-1964, pp. 370-76.

[In the following essay, O'Hara examines the imagery of innocence and falling as expressed by the “catcher” theme in The Catcher in the Rye.]

The Catcher in the Rye has been read more widely and discussed more thoroughly than any other contemporary novel; teenagers, professors, and professional critics alike express their admiration for it. And yet in some ways it is an unsuccessful book, it would seem, since even now, some twelve years after its publication, scarcely anyone can be found to answer such simple questions as these: at the end of the book, is Holden a catcher? How does Salinger feel about the idea of a catcher in the rye? The answers, usually reluctant, to these questions often suggest embarrassment, as if a weakness had been found in the novel; they are summed up by Ihab Hassan's objections to “the avoidance of conversion” in the story and to “Salinger's failure to modify Holden's point of view by any other.”

Certainly the questions raised above are central to the meaning of the novel, at least from Salinger's point of view, since much of the story is devoted to answering them. When they are both answered, the work comes to a close—abruptly, on the narrative level, when Holden remarks during the carrousel scene, “I really did go home afterwards”; but satisfactorily, so far as the questions are concerned, because the carrousel scene answered them. The novel, then, is based on Salinger's examination of the attitude toward life represented by Holden's picture of a catcher on the edge of a cliff, protecting innocent children from a fall. When we follow this theme through the story we discover the answers to the two questions: Salinger opposes Holden's “catcher” attitude throughout the story; at the end of it, Holden himself abandons that attitude, converted by his experiences to a morally sounder acceptance of life.

The development of the “catcher” theme is most clearly revealed in five related pictures of life, through which Salinger describes the “catcher” attitude toward life, attacks it, and finally replaces it with a better one. The first picture is Holden's description of the predicament faced by the ducks in Central Park; this picture is supplanted by the cab driver Horwitz's comments on the fish in the Central Park lagoon. Phoebe provides the third picture when she tells Holden about “The Doctor,” a movie she has seen; and Holden's catcher in the rye idea is the fourth. The climatic scene, in which Phoebe rides the carrousel and Holden decides to return home, resolves the thematic conflicts by presenting the fifth and final picture of life.

All five pictures describe life in the same terms. In each, we are shown an innocent in danger, a threat, and a potential savior. It is an appropriate description of the world, from Holden's point of view, since he would like to be a savior and he certainly seems to need saving.

We first hear about this attitude toward life in chapter two, when Holden is being advised and bullied by his history teacher at Pencey. His thoughts turn to the lagoon in Central Park: “I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.” Here, of course, the ducks are the endangered innocents; ice, winter, and death are the threat; and the man in a truck is the potential savior. The situation is Holden's, as well as the ducks'; through most of the novel he looks for rescue from his wintry life or plans to fly from it. In fact, however, the ducks have another alternative. Holden never thinks of it, but Salinger surely expects the reader to. What do ducks do in the winter? Sometimes they are protected, certainly; sometimes they do fly away; but sometimes they stay where they are, keeping a small part of the pond clear of ice by swimming around in it.

That Salinger had in mind this unstated alternative to flight or protection is suggested by the next image of life. In chapter twelve, Holden asks Horwitz what the ducks do in the winter, and the cab driver switches the topic from ducks to fish. “The fish don't go no place,” he points out. “They live right in the goddam ice. It's their nature, for Chrissake.” Then he makes clear the connection between Holden and the fish: “If you was a fish, Mother Nature'd take care of you, wouldn't she? Right? You don't think them fish just die when it gets to be winter, do ya?” In fact, of course, fish sometimes do die in the winter, just as ducks sometimes freeze in the ice and innocents like Allie succumb to the dangers of life. Nevertheless, Horwitz's comments are significant. We see that the idea of a human savior is made to seem impractical, at least; the possibility of an inhuman savior, Mother Nature, is suggested; and Horwitz argues that the innocents need not escape, since they are capable of surviving by themselves. (We learn in chapter twenty that the Central Park lagoon is not completely frozen over.)

The next attack on Holden's understanding of life is made in chapter twenty-one through Phoebe, who provides Holden and the reader with an unspoiled, natural acceptance of life. Her version of the innocent-danger-savior theme, more complex than Horwitz's, is contained in her approving description of “The Doctor”:

It was all about this doctor in Kentucky and everything that sticks a blanket over this child's face that's a cripple and can't walk. Then they send him to jail and everything. It was excellent. …

He feels sorry for it, the doctor. That's why he sticks this blanket over her face and everything and makes her suffocate. Then they make him go to jail for life imprisonment, but this child that he stuck the blanket over its head comes to visit him all the time and thanks him for what he did. He was a mercy killer. Only, he knows he deserves to go to jail because a doctor isn't supposed to take things away from God.

Phoebe accepts the dangers of life that Horwitz had denied, as well as the attractiveness of escape and protection; the child is grateful for being saved. But the morality of life is sterner in this story, and the human savior recognizes, despite the child's thanks, that he was wrong in playing God. Where Holden might have put the stress on mercy, Phoebe accepts the punishment of the killer: “Then they send him to jail and everything. It was excellent.” There is a notable lack of piety in Phoebe's summary of the moral; the idea of God is expressed as conventionally and unconvincingly as Horwitz's reliance on Mother Nature. “The Doctor” pictures a painful world, but one that cannot be improved by human intervention.

It seems clear, then, that Salinger does not share Holden's attitude toward life, since he has taken pains to prepare the reader not to accept, Holden's idea of a catcher in the rye when he describes it to Phoebe. She rejects it even before it is stated, of course:

“You know that song ‘If a body catch a body comin' through the rye’? I'd like—”

“It's ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” old Phoebe said. …

She was right, though. It is “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” I didn't know it then, though.

Holden's comment suggests that he has now (while telling his story) accepted Phoebe's understanding of life, in which people meet as equals in the rye field of life and there are no human saviors.

When Holden concludes his description of the catcher in the rye by saying, “I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy,” Salinger has prepared the reader to agree. Life might be better if there were a catcher in the rye (“Isn't it pretty to think so,” as Jake said), but such a life is not humanly possible. The novel thoroughly explores the idea, both before and after its statement by Holden, and suggests that the dangers are real enough, but the innocents are not so badly off as Holden thinks (and not always so innocent, either). The possibility of a human savior is given special attention. Several people, including Holden himself, attempt to play God—attempt, that is, to assume a position of superiority from which they offer advice and assistance. Mr. Spencer and Mr. Antolini give sensible lectures, but lectures are not what Holden needs; and both men are all too fallible human beings. We hear about another kind of savior indirectly, since Carl Luce's father is a psychiatrist. Luce himself suggests the uselessness of that kind of saving; his father has not helped him, and we are not led to believe at the end of the story that the doctors are helping Holden. Holden's own attempts to save are for the most part pathetic or futile. His lie to Mrs. Morrow, the money he gives to the nuns, his erasure of obscenities—they are no more than token gestures of his desire to protect the innocent.

Sometimes, as in the case of the crippled girl in “The Doctor,” the innocent wants to be saved; Holden did when he was leaving his home: “I didn't give much of a damn any more if they caught me. I really didn't. I figured if they caught me, they caught me. I almost wished they did, in a way.” For the most part, however, the innocents prefer not to be protected. The little girl in Central Park accepts Holden's offer to tighten her skate, but refuses his offer of hot chocolate because “she had to meet her friend” (the word meet reminds us of Phoebe's insistence on meeting, not catching, in the rye). The little boy singing “Comin' Through the Rye” is equally happy in his dangerous world. And there is something rather unpleasant in Holden's gallant defense of Jane's honor after Stradlater has taken her out; it never occurs to Holden that she could or would resist Stradlater's charms.

Salinger also suggests that life in a protected world might be rather unpleasant. He shows us such an existence when Holden evokes the atmosphere of the Museum of Natural History, concluding that “the best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was.” The museum is a tempting refugee from life, but Holden resists the temptation: “when I got to the museum, all of a sudden I wouldn't have gone inside for a million bucks. It just didn't appeal to me.” Given a choice between a cosy, static unreality and the potential unpleasantness of “that damn date with Sally,” Holden chooses the world. The final image of a protected life, the sanatorium, is equally unappealing to him, but perhaps the best glimpse into such an existence is given us when Holden, delivering a note to Phoebe's school, sees “one little kid, a colored kid, on his way to the bathroom. He had one of those wooden passes sticking out of his hip pocket, the same way we used to have, to show he had permission and all to go to the bathroom.”

The structure of The Catcher in the Rye, then, is controlled by Salinger's examination of the attitude toward life summed up by Holden's comments about the ducks and his desire to be a catcher in the rye. The second image of life is the dominant one, of course, and the novel is filled with references to falling and catching. As an innocent, Holden is aware of falls around him, notably James Castle's fall from the window; and he falls frequently himself. As a catcher, he retains a vivid memory of Allie's baseball glove, and he wears his hunting hat backwards, as a catcher wears his cap. But Holden's acceptance of life, which provides the climax of the novel, is predicated on his abandonment of this “catcher” attitude—an abandonment for which Salinger has prepared the reader throughout the story.

It is not clear exactly when Holden changes his mind. After all, Salinger is describing a young boy; to make Holden analytical and conscious of his motives would be unrealistic. We can see that Holden gives up catching before he gives up his desire to be caught, but neither change is specifically located. He throws away his money even before he sees Phoebe; he leaves his hat with her and never wears it again until she puts it on his head in the carrousel scene. (Which way did she put it on him? Salinger leaves the question open. Holden comments that, although the hat gave him a lot of protection, he got soaked by the rain, “especially my neck and my pants.” Since Phoebe never saw Holden with his hat on backwards, we can probably assume that she dressed him as a hunter, not a catcher.)

Despite these preliminary indications that his attitude is changing, Holden intends to fly away from his cold world until his second meeting with Phoebe. Their tentative reconciliation and Salinger's exploration of the “catcher” attitude reach their climax as Holden watches his sister riding on the carrousel:

All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she'd fall off the goddam horse, but I didn't say anything or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it's bad if you say anything to them.

Here we have the familiar pattern—innocent, danger, and savior. But the catcher is refusing to catch; the possibility of falling is now accepted. Not on easy terms, of course; but “it's bad if you say anything to them.” Holden's acceptance of the situation clearly indicates his renunciation of his earlier attitude, and there can be no doubt that Salinger approves of his character's change. Furthermore, something new has been added to the description of life: a chance at the gold ring, a purpose in life, the possibility of a reward. The interpretation must be made cautiously, however. After all, the gold ring only entitles one to another ride, not a still point outside the turning world; and Holden himself is not yet willing to take a chance.

The final chapter of the novel, then, is thoroughly (but not bitterly) ironic. The man in the truck has come to protect the ducks; the doctor has saved Holden from the real world; the child is protected from the dangers of the rye field. But he no longer wants to be caught; he has reconciled himself to life in a world full of people like Stradlater and Maurice. Lots of problems remained unsolved, of course, and Phoebe's return of the cap suggests that Holden still has some hunting to do.

Salinger's emphasis on meeting, rather than catching, and his acceptance of the possibility of falling are not characteristic of The Catcher in the Rye alone, of course. In “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” to take an early example, Esmé meets Sergeant X as an equal, out of love, and her brother Charles emphasizes the theme with his riddle (what did one wall say to the other wall? Meet you at the corner) and his addition to Esmé's letter: twelve HELLO's, followed by LOVE AND KISSES. Seven years later, in “Zooey” (1957), Salinger still preached the doctrine of acceptance. Franny Glass, overcome like Holden by an increasingly unpleasant existence, had passed out just as Holden did, and then had retreated from life to the security of her home. Salinger also suggests a comparison between her and Phoebe: where Phoebe was reaching for the gold ring, at the risk of falling, Franny dreamed of diving into a swimming pool repeatedly, in spite of threatening people around her, in search of a can of Medaglia d'Oro coffee. “Zooey” is concerned with her brother Zooey's successful attempt to force Franny out of her retreat and into life again. In a letter to Zooey, Buddy Glass had urged him to “Act, Zachary Martin Glass, when and where you want to, but do it with all your might.” Zooey passes the advice on to Franny: “The only thing you can do now, the only religious thing you can do, is act.” In both cases the reference is specifically to acting in the theater, but the implications go beyond that. Salinger makes the connection between Franny's fainting, her retreat, and the necessity for remaining active most explicitly when Zooey tells his mother about The Way of a Pilgrim and the Jesus Prayer, which combine a religious attitude with an active life. It is significant that Zooey begins his description by telling his mother that “Christ himself, as a matter of fact, says, ‘Men ought always to pray and not to faint.’” The religious understanding of goodness, Salinger suggests, must not be accompanied by a retreat from the evil world. Franny's return to life is anticipated by Salinger's description of her treatment of the cat: “She was still stroking Bloomberg, still succoring him, forcibly, into the subtle and difficult world outside warm afghans.” The same combination of love and force might bring Holden safely out of the sanatorium and into the world again.

Principal Works

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The Catcher in the Rye (novel) 1951

Nine Stories [published in England as For Esmé—With Love and Squalor and Other Stories] (short stories) 1953

Franny and Zooey (short stories) 1961

Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction (short stories) 1963

The Complete Uncollected Short Stories of J. D. Salinger 2 vols. (short stories) 1974

Bernice and Sanford Goldstein (essay date Autumn 1966)

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SOURCE: “Zen and Salinger,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XII, No. 3, Autumn, 1966, pp. 313-24.

[In the following essay, the Goldsteins discuss the significance of Zen Buddhism as a means of liberation and enlightenment in Salinger's fiction.]

While it is true that Zen has become a glittering catchword as connotative as existentialism and at times as meaningless, the fact remains that Zen does exist and that Salinger has shown a definite partiality towards it. Since Zen recognizes that all boundaries are artificial, Salinger's Western experience is not outside the universe Zen encompasses. The importance of the present moment; the long search and struggle in which reason, logic, cleverness, and intellect prove ineffectual; the inadequacy of judgment and criticism which reinforce and stimulate the artificial boundary between self and other; and some degree of enlightenment which results from the non-rational and spontaneous blending of dualities, an enlightenment which permits experience that is complete and unadulterated and makes the moment and, in effect, life non-phoney—all these aspects of Zen can be found in Salinger's world.

First, what is Zen and what is the participant in Zen experience? An explanation of the latter may help clarify the former. The main actor in the typical Zen drama is besieged by doubt and desire. He is not at all certain what enlightenment is, but is convinced it exists, wants it, and is willing to struggle for it. Believing enlightenment is remote from him yet intensely desiring it, he pursues it only to find it continually eludes him. This peculiar dilemma results from the fact that he believes the search he is making with all his heart and mind, with all his being and self and ego, is for something that is outside himself. The Zen master, to whom he has gone for guidance towards the Way, grants him formal interviews with an abundance of ceremony which are probably intended to make him fully cognizant and thoroughly frightened, so the seeker fails in the exercise of the spontaneous answer to the irrational question, for example, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” When not being questioned by the Zen master, the disciple spends time in the traditional method of sitting, ponders over various koan or puzzles like the above, and does various tasks with a minimum of verbal distraction. He is not permitted any of the temporary satisfactions which give his ego an illusion of satisfaction or well-being. These pursuits are not done merely for the sake of subduing or chastising the ego in an attempt to make it deny itself, but rather to expose the ego itself as an artificial entity whose very searching for enlightenment is spurious.

A number of Zen poems comment on the state of the universe before the disciple began his search: “The mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers.” During the disciple's search the appearance of the natural world changes, but once enlightenment comes, the mountains are again mountains, the rivers rivers. In the same way in the undifferentiated world of early childhood, the separation between self and the outside world is at a minimum. As Philip Kapleau says in his book The Three Pillars of Zen:

But what the student responds to most keenly is the visible evidence of the roshi's [Venerable Teacher's] liberated mind: his childlike spontaneity and simplicity, his radiance and compassion, his complete identification with his (the student's) aspiration. A novice who watches his seventy-eight-year-old roshi demonstrate a koan with dazzling swiftness and total involvement, and who observes the flowing, effortless grace with which he relates himself to any situation and to all individuals, knows that he is seeing one of the finest products of a unique system of mind and character development, and he is bound to say to himself in his moments of despair: “If through the practice of Zen I can learn to experience life with the same immediacy and awareness, no price will be too high to pay.”1

Yet for the uninitiated, with the learning of abstractions (language itself being the foremost), self and other are progressively differentiated. Zen's peculiar problem is to bring the self back into a kind of controlled state of infantile non-separation through which it can recognize the arbitrary nature of all the artificial boundaries set up by abstraction and can see the unity in all experience and the existence of ego within that unity. The student seeking enlightenment, therefore, must proceed through his long search and struggle in which reason, logic, cleverness, and intellect prove useless; he must recognize that judgment and criticism reinforce and stimulate the artificial boundary lines of the ego. Finally in the non-rational blending of spurious dualities, he may acquire some degree of enlightenment which will enable him to fully participate in every moment of his day-to-day life. The Zen Master Yasutani-Roshi recites to one of his students the following lines from a famous master: “‘When I heard the temple bell ring, suddenly there was no bell and no I, just sound.’ In other words, he no longer was aware of a distinction between himself, the bell, the sound, and the universe.”2

We feel Salinger's main aim is to have his Glass children achieve the liberated moment, that is, experiences fully lived in which there is no separation between self and other. The major conflict in Franny, Zooey, and Buddy concerns the way to achieve this liberated state. Their Zen master is the dead Seymour. The concentrated area in which they will be permitted to act fully, freely, spontaneously, is their chosen métier.

In the same way that a camel will find it easier to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to find his way into heaven, the Glass children have immense barriers that make enlightenment difficult for them, the major being their richly endowed personalities. They are a remarkable breed. Exceptionally bright, they have been raised under the tutelage of Eastern philosophy, but they are equally attune to the external gaiety and tinsel glitter of vaudeville. Thus each member of the Glass family is extroverted yet contemplative, subjectively inclined. The knowledge of languages by certain members of the family (for example, Greek, Latin, Chinese, Japanese, German), the ease with which they sail through ordinary academic pursuits and concentrate on the extraordinary, their wide reading, their use of allusion, their remarkable performance on “It's a Wise Child,” all these make the Glass children unique.

Their uniqueness, however, is their Achilles' heel, their burden in the search for enlightenment. Their remarkable endowments hinder them from reaching the pure state of the simple Russian peasant in the pea-green book Franny is so tormented by. In one sense, the Russian peasant is to be envied for his lack of sophistication. Franny, Zooey, and Buddy are all very worldly, all very garrulous, all very academically inclined, all abundantly endowed intellectually and emotionally. Their very genius is their burden, their barrier toward the Way, but they know they must strive for it, for in their midst Seymour, despite his suicide, stands as the enviable sibling, the seer, guru, poet, master. We are given the impression in Franny and Zooey that the enlightenment of the Russian peasant is something out of another time and place when enlightenment was more easily come by than in the twentieth century. Zooey tells Franny that she is not the simple Russian peasant, and earlier Franny had told Lane she wished she had the courage to be a nobody, but she is driven to desire applause, praise, fame, which are, in effect, the results of doing, not the doing itself. In the same way, Buddy, the teacher-writer, wants his stories in print and the praise of his family rather than the doing itself or the teaching itself.

Since Franny, Zooey, and Buddy all desire to reach the state that Seymour had attained, their problem is how to achieve it. What is to be their process toward enlightenment? Salinger, we feel, has in mind a verbal, highly speeded-up version of Zen enlightenment as he conceives it. To take the final step first: the wisdom eventually attained by Franny, Zooey, and Buddy is the wisdom of merging opposites, that is, the cancelling out of supposed opposites, events, objects, ideas, states of feeling, persons, for all dualities are merely arbitrarily drawn lines. Philip Kapleau's comment on Zen koan is pertinent here:

The Chinese Zen masters, those spiritual geniuses who created these paradoxical dialogues, did not hesitate to thumb their noses at logic and common sense in their marvelous creations. By wheedling the intellect into attempting solutions impossible for it, koans reveal to us the inherent limitations of the logical mind as an instrument for realizing ultimate Truth. In the process they pry us loose from our tightly held dogmas and prejudices, strip us of our penchant for discriminating good from bad, and empty us of the false notion of self-and-other, to the end that we may one day perceive that the world of Perfection is in fact no different from that in which we eat and excrete, laugh and weep.3

And as the Zen Master Yasutani-Roshi comments to his student:

Your mind can be compared to a mirror, which reflects everything that appears before it. From the time you begin to think, to feel, and to exert your will, shadows are cast upon your mind which distort its reflections. This condition we call delusion, which is the fundamental sickness of human beings. The most serious effect of this sickness is that it creates a sense of duality, in consequence of which you postulate “I” and “not-I.” The truth is that everything is One, and this of course is not a numerical one. Falsely seeing oneself confronted by a world of separate existences, this is what creates antagonism, greed, and, inevitably, suffering. The purpose of Zazen is to wipe away from the mind these shadows or defilements so that we can intimately experience our solidarity with all life. Love and compassion then naturally and spontaneously flow forth.4

In “Zooey,” to cite one example of the blending of supposed dualities, Buddy's impetus for finally writing a crucial letter to his brother Zooey comes from meeting a small girl at a supermarket meatcounter. When Buddy asks her the names of her boy friends, she replies Dorothy and Bobby. For Buddy the moment becomes a remarkable one, almost an epiphany. At first sight the reader may not be aware of its significance, but when examined in the light of other events, it can clearly be seen that Salinger has intended the child's statement as profound, the blending of one of the most fundamental of dualities, that of sex.

The girl's statement then reminds Buddy of a haiku Seymour composed on a desk blotter of the hotel where he committed suicide. The haiku is about a girl on an airplane as she turns her doll's head around to look at someone, presumably the poet. Once again the dualities of the so-called real and unreal are resolved. The girl and doll are blended, and both the action of the turning and looking become one and the same in time.

Both of these events, the meatcounter episode and the haiku poem, Buddy recognizes as extremely startling and provoke him to his long-intended letter to Zooey. The result of the letter is to give Zooey the way, for the letter contains advice, originally derived from Seymour, concerning what Zooey and, by extension, Buddy and Franny, are to do in this world. Buddy's advice (really Seymour's) is that Zooey should act with all his might. That is his vocation, his mission, his lifehood. Zooey recognizes the wisdom of the Seymour-Buddy statement and selects acting rather than some other career he had been contemplating up to that time.

The advice given by Buddy to Zooey is again repeated in the advice given by Zooey to his younger sister Franny. Franny's search, according to Zooey, is the kind of search he himself had pursued with little success not too long ago. He suggests that he too had the inclination to follow the way of the Russian pilgrim, but that way was not for him. Zooey tells his sister he will not remove himself from Western experience—that is, he refuses to go Eastward to find what he is looking for. He is determined to stay right where he is. He has no desire to do a motion picture in France even though he thinks the picture may be good. He wants to stay in New York where he was born, where he was run over twice. The key point is that he has chosen acting over another career he has thought seriously about, namely a Ph.D. in Greek or math that would inevitably have led to Academia. The fact that Zooey does choose acting over more theoretical or academic work seems to indicate a need for action. That is, he chooses to act rather than to speculate or contemplate. Thus, Zooey has rejected Franny's method in two ways: he has rejected contemplation, theory, speculation, and academic pursuit in favor of acting in the world; on the other hand, he has rejected going Eastward into any other culture or any other point of experience removed from where he is at the present moment. Franny is still searching outside herself, a fruitless pursuit since enlightenment is always within the self. In more concrete terms: no peagreen book will bring enlightenment; no solving of a koan or intellectual exercise will guarantee the Way; no self-conscious utterance of prayer will advance one toward the higher truth of self.

The advice Zooey gives to Franny is the same Buddy gave to him: act with all your might, for God if you must, but act. The meaning here is not simply the point of Franny's being a good actress, but that Franny, like Zooey himself, must express action to live. Hers is not to be a contemplative existence either, not something removed Eastward in the recital of a prayer that has no special meaning for her or that she misinterprets, confusing, Zooey says, Christ with Heidi's grandfather and Saint Francis. The path toward her salvation is directly in front of her, where she is, within, here. Here is where Franny chose to have her nervous breakdown—right at home. And it is right at home that Franny is going to find salvation. Even the homemade chicken soup is consecrated. We feel Salinger's meaning of home is broader than simply the connotative associations of the family abode. It is home within the heart, within the self. It has merely been temporarily lost and needs only to be recaptured.

It is Franny, Buddy, and Zooey's struggle to recapture the state of enlightenment each has temporarily lost. A close examination of Franny's problem will serve to illustrate the same kind of struggle in Buddy and Zooey.

Franny finally becomes somewhat enlightened upon hearing Zooey's advice about acting. To act with all her might is her task in life. And it is her task to act for God, to act as if she were not acting, to act so fully that no point of separation exists between what she is doing and any other conception of herself. Franny's struggle throughout “Franny” is her burdensome ego. Her dilemma is unquestionably the condition of her ego, and unquestionably the burden of the living Glass children is the same. Their trouble is too much ego, which leads us back to the first point we made about their wonderful potential, their magnificent endowments.

Franny is besieged, bedeviled, by the urge to complain, to criticize, to reject, to disapprove. She judges everyone around her, and she judges herself as well (the Glass children are all highly self-critical). She knows she has too much ego. She knows she is overly critical, but she cannot do anything about it. That is, the more she recognizes how critical she is, the more critical she becomes. For a while she may suppress her critical tendencies, but before long these crop up again. She promises Lane that she will stop being destructive, but in the next breath she is again criticizing Lane or something else, someone else. She cannot help herself because she is trying to solve her dilemma through repression, which always implies an opposite. Repression lasts only so long; then the ego reasserts itself with its powerful tendency to judge. Franny is, consequently, separated from all other objects and people around her, including her siblings. She criticizes abundantly people in the educational system, roommates, poets, the main actor in The Playboy of the Western World, her coworkers in summer stock, the Wally Campbells of the universe, Lane. She has a personal criticism to make about modern poetry, modern education, modern critics, American tourists, “section men.” She has in fact a whole universe of complaint. She has set herself apart and from her high pedestal looks down like some stern lawgiver. She does see herself as one of the phonies, but her way is the way of repression so that the critical faculty is continually functioning.

Her enlightenment comes through Zooey's verbal barrage of identity, identity with self and with the part she is acting, the capacity, in short, to act as if she had no self. And her final point of identity derives ultimately from Seymour's advice that everybody is the Fat Lady. The Glass children, exceptional as they may be, are not exempted. Everybody is the Fat Lady. This image of the Fat Lady is not merely an effusion of love. Salinger is saying something a good deal more explicit than love-thy-neighbor. The major point, we believe, is that Salinger wishes to tell us there is no difference between Franny and the Fat Lady, impossible as that is to imagine. Franny and this cancerous Fat Lady with veiny legs rocking in a chair on some unidentified porch—the exceptional Franny and the unpleasant associations of this Fat Lady—are not separate. They are exactly part of the same thing.

Zooey, who gives this advice as Zooey, and who up to this time has been Buddy's spokesman or Buddy himself, has at last succeeded in identifying with Seymour, has in fact become Buddy-Seymour-Zooey. When he is finally recognized by Franny to be Zooey and not Buddy, he gives her the advice about the Fat Lady. We imagine that Salinger at this point intends to have us see Zooey as enlightened by his spontaneous advice, advice communicated to Franny without any separation between them.

The struggle portrayed in Franny and Zooey and even in “Seymour” is the same. The essential element in this trilogy is the breaking down of barriers between supposed opposites, artificial barriers created by abstracting and intellectualizing human beings. When the barriers are removed, enlightenment is produced in the form of some positive act. The stories move from conflict toward enlightenment, the conflict centered on the self-contained ego removed from others and other events. That self-contained separate ego leads to actions Salinger recognizes as phoney—that is, actions removed from the experience by judging the experience, criticizing it, dissecting it. Others are removed from the self, and the self is traditionally reenforced as a separate entity continually removed, separated, isolated. Conflict and turmoil, judgment and criticism, all these support a separated ego which Franny in particular and to a lesser extent Zooey and finally Buddy (in “Seymour”) must overcome before they reach some kind of awareness we have called “enlightenment.”

It is this removal of self from other that we feel is Salinger's main criticism of the phoney. The three Glass children, far from being part of a cult of self-love, are in a very real sense double-phonies. What places them in a special category of the “phoney class” is the fact that they themselves are aware that they are phonies. Yet in spite of their awareness, of their self-criticism, this awareness does not make them non-phonies. They do not become non-phonies until they reach the critical moment in which they resolve artificial dualities. They are phonies with a difference, though, because they are conscious of their spurious participation in events. Other characters in Salinger's stories are phonies without being aware that they are, such as the famous musician in “Seymour” who complains to the principal about his daughter's music teacher offering “pop” rather than “good, healthy” classical music. Having received a favorable reply from the principal, the father's ego immensely bolstered, he struts home whistling “K-K-K-Katie.” But Franny and Buddy and Zooey are double-snarled, for they are phonies aware of their phoniness. That is, they are consciously aware of what they are doing but cannot help doing what they do. Or else they make a remarkable attempt at repression, as in Franny's case, but as we have seen, repression will out. Their awareness of this weakness is another reason why Salinger endowed them so spectacularly so that they would become aware phonies who could search with all their conscious being for something other than what they are.

The phonies in Salinger's world are removed from immediate experience. The eventually partially enlightened Glass trio of Franny, Zooey, and Buddy become enlightened when they cease to isolate themselves as separate egos and so merge with experience that there is not a hair's breadth between will and action. Salinger focuses on the world of immediacy, the here and now, the immersion in the moment, to reintensify his theme of enlightenment which allows full participation in events. What has been called Salinger's verbal diarrhea is exactly this attempt to make concrete everything in sight so that the reader is immersed, say, in the middle of a bathtub or is staring into a medicine cabinet. The wealth of Salinger's descriptive detail helps make the moment concrete. The reader is immersed in the here and now of an event, the character acting in some concrete moment in time.

Salinger is often dating things for us, and Salinger-Buddy bemoans the fact that some writers never tell us what the time is. Buddy gives us the hour and the date and tries to break down the barrier between author and reader. Certainly Salinger's increasingly personal use of first-person narrative gains the added impact of immediacy. Concreteness, the feeling of immediacy, the emphatic immersion in the here and now, the breaking down of barriers between writer and reader by the intimate medium of a character (Buddy or Zooey)—who is of course the writer rather than merely the character—all these give us a technical version of a simulated, very immediate experience that we may call part of Salinger's Zen.

Not only do these techniques suggest Salinger's awareness of Zen. He also uses other more direct or allusive Zen references in his stories. The incident of the curbside marbles in “Seymour” is one of the most profound. Salinger undoubtedly derived the inspiration for this scene from Eugene Herrigel's illuminating book Zen in the Art of Archery since the comment Seymour makes about marbles is about the same Herrigel makes on archery. Buddy, who was shooting at the marbles, was, according to his brother Seymour, aiming at them, and because he was aiming with the purpose of hitting another marble or marbles, he was delighted when he succeeded and disappointed when he failed. By being disappointed or delighted with the result of the shot, Buddy, according to Seymour, is indicating the possibility of losing. Here again the desire to win or the fact of winning in itself always brings into play the possibility of losing. The final growth of Buddy in “Seymour” comes when he recognizes the wisdom of his Zen-Master brother. The duality involved in playing marbles is winning and losing, and the state of the self under such conditions, a self that is striving to win, is a troubled self. Buddy has continually told us in “Seymour” that he visualizes everything he writes in eleven-point type. In other words, lines published on a page and success as we imagine it have been to Buddy what he considered important—the result above and beyond the act. The separation of the self which strives after something, in this instance publication and success, the foolishness of such striving, and the non-separated self which does not strive but “writes with all his stars out” is the wisdom Buddy attains from Seymour's advice recalled almost thirty years after the event. What Buddy learns is that he moves from one bit of holy ground to the next, that the act of writing is what is essential, that immersion in one's creation is what is crucial. He can now enter Room 307 of his English composition class with the recognition that it too is holy and that even the terrible “Miss Zabel” is as much his sister as Franny.

That Salinger has had Zen on his mind for a considerable period of time can be illustrated by The Catcher in the Rye, the germ of the enlightened or to-be-partially enlightened Glass children present there. We find Holden wandering through a lost week-end in which he himself belongs with the phonies. He proceeds from experience to experience, searching for something but always ending up with phonies of one kind or another. At the end of the story, however, Holden, who has had a nervous breakdown (as Franny has) and is being treated in a psychiatric institution, comes to some kind of awareness, namely that he misses all of the “phonies.” Holden finally identifies in some way with the people he has spent so much time criticizing, but always criticizing with some degree of sympathy. He is not going to wander off to the West as a blind man or hobo, nor is he going to follow any of the other romantic visions he has toyed with during the course of the novel. Ultimately he is headed toward home. That, of course, is where he does go when he meets his sister Phoebe, and it is Phoebe and the very concrete image of her in her blue coat on a carrousel that ultimately brings Holden to the awareness that he has to go home. The final words in the novel seem to portend the major theme of the Glass stories. A psychiatrist mistakenly asks Holden what he is going to do in September. Holden says he does not know. How should he know what he is going to be doing at such a removed time as next September? Holden seems to imply that he knows what he is doing only at the exact moment he is doing it, not at some point in some arbitrarily designated future.

Holden foreshadows in a much less explicit way the highly critical Glasses, for he too is very clever, very judgmental, very witty, always striving for something. As Salinger proceeds and matures in his career as a writer, what he suggests Holden was searching for becomes more explicit in the Glass stories. Not only is Holden the Catcher in the Rye, as he explicitly tells us—the catcher who catches children before they fall from the field of rye—but Holden too is caught. He is caught in a way quite similar to Buddy's being caught, and that is by the image of love for a dead brother. Holden's brother Allie is intended to be the wise, sagacious Seymour-type. When Holden needs help, he turns to his dead brother Allie. Holden is caught by love and an awareness of something better in the universe, and he is similarly caught by his younger sister Phoebe when she tells him there is nothing in the world he likes. The stress once more is that Holden is far too critical, his critical tendencies similar to those of the Glass trio of Franny, Buddy, and Zooey. Holden's recognition that he has separated himself from all the people he has been defining as phonies comes in his awareness that he misses all of them.

It is this overly critical tendency in Salinger's characters that we want to stress as a key point in Salinger's Zen, and that tendency to be overly critical says something profound about our modern American life, this very critical time of our own very critical people.

In modern America, various institutions (educational, literary, social, scientific) which at one time or another were regarded as sacred are now no longer seen in that light, but as simply the conscious expression of people in the process of culture-building, society-building. The social sciences have been both a cause and an effect of this recognition. In our highly conscious age, we realize that even God is not beyond the pale of criticism. All of our institutions are now recognized as man-made systems that can be changed, bettered, even made worse. Once the sacred quality of all institutions has been removed, the only thing left is the individual or individuals who make up institutions. But of course even the self has not been untampered with, for psychoanalysis has been busily revising and remodeling it for almost a hundred years.

All institutions and all aspects of culture, therefore, are ultimately derived from human power, but at the same time the forces in the universe which man cannot control seem to grow larger. That is, we recognize that we build political institutions and we build God and we also build atom bombs. On the one hand, the self is endowed with enormous creative power; on the other, the same self is acted upon by even greater powers that make it seem, on the contrary, less powerful than ever before.

From the viewpoint of social critics in the twentieth century, the existing self is a split self, a disconnected self, a separated self, an atomized self—exceedingly powerful as it continues to create, yet acted upon and weakened by the very things it has created. What this cultural determinism means is that various aspects of the culture act upon the self, but ultimately of course these cultural forces that act upon the self are recognized as created by that very self. What results is that gradually, year by year, decade by decade, the area of greater consciousness of self is expanded. Our consciousness has moved from the realm of the divine and the sacred to various aspects of culture or social systems into a very minute consciousness of self. In our atomized world of self and selves, only this component of consciousness remains. That is, every year another system or aspect of the cultural world around us comes into our conscious recognition as having been created by us. We no longer worship, study, create, with the same abandon and spontaneity we once did. Instead, we analyze, dissect, find differences, multiply dichotomies. As a result, all of our increased consciousness becomes endowed to a self that ultimately, after all our critical perspective, stands alone as a unit and decides consciously or self-consciously what it is to do, worship, think, feel, speak. Left with this overabundance of conscious-self, we begin to wonder if we are not at the brink of helplessness.

It is with this overburdened, self-consciously conscious self that Salinger begins his quest. The highly endowed, overburdened, critically conscious Glass children are representative of our time in history. The spectacular Franny and Buddy and Zooey are fully endowed and fully aware and fully self-conscious and quite unhappy. Their self-consciousness is their burden, and they seek to rid themselves of it and to blend it into something else. Salinger's three Glasses manage to attain in their own fashion some freedom from this burdensome self, this critical self, this highly self-conscious self. The solution is the blending of self and other, the removal of abstraction and analysis, the avoidance of criticism, the absorption in the moment.

The most unusual aspect of Salinger's liberated Glasses is that change comes by way of a verbal flow of abstraction. This may be a contradiction-in-terms, for to experience the liberation of Zen by a second-hand conscious verbal overflow is not the usual way of deriving enlightenment. But in Salinger's highly self-conscious world, this is the means by which his characters attain a twentieth century American form of enlightenment. In this enlightened state the Glass children become freed of their critical tendencies, become freed of their highly separate selves, become one with the Fat Lady or the Christ in each that makes for universal empathy. Perhaps Salinger is the keenest social critic of our time. He has, we feel, focused on a major problem in the modern world, on the last stronghold of the sacred, for an atomized self is disastrous.


  1. Philip Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen (Tokyo, John Weatherhill, 1965), p. 99.

  2. Kapleau, p. 187.

  3. Kapleau, p. 64.

  4. Kapleau, p. 96. Zazen is a method of sitting designed to aid one towards enlightenment.

Salinger at Work

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In an author’s note for the publication of his story “Down at the Dinghy” in Harper’s in 1949, Salinger said, “I just started to write when I was eighteen or so and never stopped.”1 He took the most important step in his literary career when he was twenty and enrolled in Whit Burnett’s story-writing course at Columbia University in the spring of 1939. Salinger must have known that Burnett’s course was highly regarded and that his magazine, Story, had an excellent reputation. Burnett had an eye for writing talent, and Story had published the early work of several writers who later became highly successful, such as Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, William Saroyan, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Carson McCullers. Salinger respected Burnett’s approach to teaching: he was not intrusive and kept his focus on the words of the author under consideration. At this stage of Salinger’s career, Burnett was not only his teacher but also his mentor and friend. [Salinger’s writing revealed to Burnett a good ear for dialogue and a detached, deadpan tone that worked well in depictions of the insensitivity of young people, as in The Catcher in the Rye. It has been suggested that in drawing his characters, Salinger was emulating the “deadpan vignettes” of John O’Hara and Ring Lardner, which feature the kind of “heels” found in Salinger’s first published story, “The Young Folks.”2 He was probably also influenced by the portrayal of rich youth in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction, to which he was introduced by his friend Elizabeth Murray.3

Salinger could not make a living writing for low-paying magazines such as Story, which gave him $25 to publish “The Young Folks” in its March—April 1940 issue, and he had not been successful in his attempts to sell his fiction to the higher-paying “slicks,” such as Esquire. “The Young Folks,” however, brought him to the attention of several literary agents, who saw his commercial value as well as his talent. Jacques Chambrun, a New York agent, wanted to represent

him, and Salinger sent Chambrun a story, but he ended up signing with the Harold Ober Agency. Ober, Fitzgerald’s agent in the magazine market, assigned Salinger to Dorothy Olding, who produced for the young author promptly. She sold “The Hang of It” to Collier’s, which published the story in the summer of 1941, making it the first Salinger story to appear in a mass-market magazine. Before the end of the year Olding had sold “The Heart of a Broken Story” to Esquire and “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” to The New Yorker. She remained Salinger’s agent and protected his privacy for fifty years. In Burnett and Olding, Salinger had found two important people to advise him and promote his work, and both were vital to his career.

From the beginning of their professional relationship Burnett encouraged Salinger and recommended other magazines to which he might submit his work, while Salinger kept his former teacher informed of his attempts to have his stories published. Burnett rejected one of Salinger’s stories during the winter of 1940 but suggested that he send it to Arnold Gingrich at Esquire, along with a copy of a letter from Burnett supporting his work. Burnett wrote Salinger in May 1941, prior to the publication of “The Heart of a Broken Story” in the September issue of Esquire, expressing his delight that Salinger was “hitting Esquire.”4 Burnett wrote again in December saying he was pleased that Salinger “hit The New Yorker” (probably a reference to the acceptance of “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” the publication of which the magazine put off until 1946).5 Burnett also wrote a reference letter for Salinger’s unsuccessful application to Army Officer Candidate School in 1942. Throughout his active duty with the army in the United States and in Europe during World War II, Salinger continued to write Burnett, keeping him informed about the progress of his career, stories he had written, and his plans for a novel that he preferred to bring out before he published a story collection. He also shared his fears during the days immediately after he landed with the invasion forces in Normandy. Olding continued to serve Salinger effectively during the war years, selling his stories not only to Collier’s and Esquire but also to The Saturday Evening Post. Whatever confidence the sale of these stories gave Salinger at the time, some of them—especially “The Hang of It,” “Personal Notes on an Infantryman” (1942), and “Soft-Boiled Sergeant” (1944)—are filled with sentimentality or have contrived endings and must have been embarrassing as he looked back on them in later years.

Although Salinger had spent three years in the army and an additional six months working in Europe after his discharge, he had compiled an impressive record publishing in the “slicks” by the time he returned to the United States in 1946. Four stories had appeared in Collier’s, including “I’m Crazy,” Salinger’s first published story to feature Holden Caulfield as the protagonist. Two more of his stories were published in Esquire and five in The Saturday Evening Post. “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” the story The New Yorker had accepted in 1941, was finally published at the end of 1946. In 1947 “A Young Girl in 1941 with No Waist at All” was published in Mademoiselle, and “The Inverted Forest” appeared in Cosmopolitan. Salinger further extended his mass-market record in 1948 with the publication of a story in Good Housekeeping and another in Cosmopolitan.

Salinger was now a commercially successful writer, but three stories published in The New Yorker in 1948 marked the advancement of his career to a higher professional level: “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” and “Just Before the War with the Eskimos.” The publication of these highly acclaimed stories marked the beginning of a long, productive relationship between Salinger and The New Yorker. Harold Ross, founder and editor in chief of the magazine, is reported to have been “the only publisher or editor Salinger trusted completely.”6 After Ross’s death in 1951, William Shawn, his successor, proved also to be a valuable friend and literary adviser, working closely with Salinger, guiding his stories about the Glass family to publication, and remaining loyal to him. In 1949 The New Yorker published “The Laughing Man,” and “Down at the Dinghy” appeared in Harper’s. Both stories were included in a list of “Distinctive Short Stories in American Magazines, 1949” in The Best American Short Stories, 1950.7 In 1950 “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” perhaps Salinger’s most admired story, was published in The New Yorker. With the publication of his novel The Catcher in the Rye on 16 July 1951, Salinger became an established and critically acclaimed writer.


Although Salinger has rigorously denied access to his manuscripts, a close reading of his published writing yields evidence of his style and themes and shows in particular how his early stories anticipate his later work. His first two published stories, “The Young Folks” and “Go See Eddie” (1940), offer a starting point from which to trace the evolution of techniques that he used not only in later stories but also in The Catcher in the Rye.

In “The Young Folks” Salinger uses a detached authorial voice and a spare introduction to establish setting, identify central characters, introduce the conflict in the story, and initiate movement toward resolution. He uses seemingly shallow dialogue, rather than action, to delineate characters with a minimum of narrative intrusion. In the story Lucille Henderson hosts a party for young friends at her parents’ home, where one of the guests, Edna Phillips, fails to attract the attention of the young men there. The story centers on Edna’s attempts to mask and cope with her alienation. Despite her desperate longing to be one of the party crowd, she can do no more than adopt superficial and affected diction (eventually a trademark of many of Salinger’s characters) and assert her friendship with the most popular and socially successful of her peers by name-dropping. Seeking to impress William Jameson Junior, whom Lucille has introduced to her, Edna pretends to be close friends with young men known to be popular: Jack Delroy “is a grand person,” and Pete Ilesner “is a grand guy.” She pretentiously tells Jameson, “It’s so grand” on the terrace in “the shank of the evening.”8 Salinger often used grand to denote pseudosophistication and pretense in his characters. The “phony” Sally Hayes uses the word in The Catcher in the Rye, prompting Holden Caulfield to respond, “Grand, if there’s one word I hate, it’s grand.”9 At twenty, Salinger was already showing his ear for authentic speech and demonstrating its effectiveness in character revelation.

Superior and scornfully condescending, Edna also feigns worldly experience. She does whatever is necessary and possible to continue her charade in order to keep up appearances and engage in a self-deception that protects her from the painful reality of her unpopularity. Among some readers Edna finds sympathy. In creating her, Salinger used a fictional device that he continued to employ in subsequent fiction: the evocation of an alternative world. In order for Edna to cope, it is essential that she have an alternative world in which she can find (or can delude herself into thinking that she finds) acceptance and respect. Salinger provided a similar refuge to later characters, most memorably to Holden Caulfield, who likewise chooses an alternative world in which he escapes from a reality he cannot bear. Edna’s alternative world also includes another of Salinger’s fictional devices: the lost idol. Her lost idol is her former boyfriend Barry, whose memory she has clearly embellished and to whom she alludes in order to impress others as she plays at being a femme fatale. Salinger saw the potential of using a lost idol, or a lost ideal, to illustrate a character’s internal conflict and function as a reference point and refuge for characters who find their present reality unbearable or unacceptable. One can find many examples of the lost idol in Salinger’s writing: in “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” Eloise’s former boyfriend Walt; in The Catcher in the Rye, Holden’s younger brother, Allie, a victim of leukemia; and, in the Glass family stories, the suicide Seymour Glass, who is idolized by his younger brother Buddy.

In “Go See Eddie” Salinger employed narrative techniques much like those he used in “The Young Folks.” The opening para-graph is again spare; yet, in sixty-eight words it is revealed that Helen has an apartment in which she entertains men, that she can afford a maid, and that she wants her bedroom “straightened” and “her dressing table to be free of last night’s cream jars and soiled tissues,”10 reminders of the previous night’s activities that she does not want her visiting brother to see or, perhaps, would like to forget herself. That her bedspreads are once again “flat” and the cushions “patted” also underscores her desire to disguise or deny. The “pastels chosen from the decorator’s little book,”11 accented by the ample light in the room, indicate that someone paid for professional help with color schemes. Helen obviously lives well and can afford to do so.

Although the third-person narrative voice is slightly more involved in “Go See Eddie,” character development is once again essentially dependent on dialogue and diction, through which Salinger presents a theme found in much of his best work, particularly “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” and The Catcher in the Rye: the loss of innocence. At the time when Helen’s brother Bobby, a booking agent recently returned from Chicago, pays her a visit, her acting career is stalled and she is dating a married man, Phil Stone. She appears to be headed toward all-consuming corruption. Aware not only of her latest fling but also of the other men along the pathway to her present condition, Bobby disap-proves and attempts to get his sister’s career going again by recommending that she see Eddie Jackson, who is rehearsing a cast for a new show. Eddie would likely hire Helen for this production, but she is so deeply mired in the world of mendacity that Bobby has little hope of success in his attempts to return her to a better life.

As in “The Young Folks,” Salinger develops character in “Go See Eddie” through dialogue and repetition of key terms. Like Edna Phillips, Helen uses the adjective grand. The word has a sanitizing use for Helen, who refers to the married man with whom she is having an affair as “a grand person.” Bobby observes that she has had many “grand” persons: “the guy from Cleveland and . . . that blond kid used to sing at Cassidys . . . two of the god-damndest grandest persons you ever met.”12 Physical objects in the story also serve to define and develop the characters. Helen’s hairbrush and her emory board, fixtures associated with her preening and primping, reflect her values. When the maid enters the room to announce that Bobby has arrived, Helen is “brushing her thick red hair.” When he enters, she keeps on brushing, stopping only to take from her robe pocket an emory board that she proceeds “to apply . . . to her long flesh-pink nails,” which she continues to file with intensifying annoyance as he urges her to “go see Eddie.”13 Running out of patience, Bobby tells her to “put down that goddamn file a minute,” and when she ignores him, he knocks the emory board from her hand. Ignoring the file, she retrieves her brush and resumes “brushing her hair, her thick red hair,” stopping only to strike Bobby with it.14 The brush and the emory board, essential to Helen’s role as a kept woman, are important in Salinger’s process of characterization. In his later stories as well, physical objects take on symbolic significance. In “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” Eloise’s small daughter, Ramona, wears thick glasses that symbolize her retreat from reality into an imaginary world, and in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” Esme wears a watch that belonged to her father, who was killed in the war.

Although Salinger invokes contrasts between innocence and experience in “Go See Eddie,” Bobby is not innocent or pure, nor is Helen irreparably sullied or corrupt. Both represent innocence lost, or innocence in the process of being lost, as Salinger shows through arrangement of details in the story. Soon after Bobby enters Helen’s room, the two are deftly compared: “The sun was on them both, lushing her milky skin, and doing nothing for Bobby but showing up his dandruff and the pockets under his eyes.”15 The implication is clear: Bobby’s physical appearance shows the effects of his hard life as a booking agent, while Helen’s appearance suggests that her way of life has not yet taken a final toll on her beauty. Like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, Bobby has reached a point at which he feels an obligation to save his sister, to preserve whatever can be preserved of the “kid” that she once was.16 After Bobby has left, Helen’s actions not only reveal the extent of her lies but also suggest that at least something of her brother’s admonitions remain to affect her. She phones her married suitor and implies that she is breaking off the relationship. Then, in a gesture echoing the opening of the story, before phoning a previous lover named Hanson Carpenter, she yells for the maid to take away the tray on which coffee had been served to Bobby. She now associates the tray with her brother and thus wants it removed, much as she wished to conceal “last night’s cream jars and soiled tissues” before his visit.

Despite the absence of a purely innocent referent, “Go See Eddie” provides one of the earliest examples of Salinger’s technique of contrasting innocence (childhood) with corruption (adulthood), a contrast that he continued to develop in many subsequent stories and that is central to Holden’s dilemma in The Catcher in the Rye. Helen does not deny the unsavory prior romances with which Bobby confronts her; she merely excuses her past conduct by saying, “I was terribly young.” But she calls gossip Bobby has heard in Chicago about her and a “horsey-set guy, Hanson Carpenter,” a “god-damn lie.” Helen damns herself through her own lying, and Bobby points out the distinction between her past and present life: “You used to be such a swell kid.” She is so far removed from earlier innocence that she can revisit her past only in mocking and sardonic pretense, as her response to her brother’s observation shows: ‘“Oh! And I ain’t no more?’ Helen little-girled.”17 She knows the answer to the question.

Salinger’s fiction was more predictable when he wrote for the “slicks.” He probably wrote “The Hang of It” and “Personal Notes on an Infantryman,” both published in Collier’s, in anticipation of the kinds of stories preferred by the magazine. With war looming on the horizon and then becoming a reality, Salinger chose a popular subject—army life. He made both stories short enough to appear on a single page, gave them surprise endings, and provided them with a dose of sentimentality that he knew the readers of Collier’s would appreciate. So familiar had Salinger become with the Collier’s story form and technique that in “The Heart of a Broken Story,” published in Esquire, he was able to satirize it. The narrator, himself an author, recounts his failure to follow the important boy-meets-girl formula in writing a story because he can never bring the boy and girl together. There are so many diversions in the lives of Justin Horgenschlag and Shirley Lester that the narrator can never unite the boy with the girl.

In “The Long Debut of Lois Taggett” (1942) Salinger again shows the effects of social environment on character while also portraying the complexities of contrasting personalities in a marriage. Unlike the surprise endings of his Collier’s stories, which merely involve the revelation of an unsuspected identity, in this case the surprise ending conveys a moment of self-awareness on the part of the protagonist. Lois Taggett’s newly found perspective at the conclusion of the story denotes a passage from one stage of her life, greatly influenced by superficial social conventions, to another stage in which her vision is shaped by a more profound experience, the death of a child. The story foreshadows both “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” in which the protagonists experience similarly profound personal revelations.

Salinger further refined his fictional techniques in five stories published in The Saturday Evening Post. “The Varioni Brothers” (1943), like “The Heart of a Broken Story,” features a framed narrative. In response to a question posed by a newspaper columnist, Sarah Daley Smith tells the story of the Varioni brothers, a successful songwriting duo of the 1920s. Salinger extends a favorite theme in this story: the destructive effects of society’s values, or crass commercialism versus the purity of art. Again he invokes the fallen idol, or what John Wenke has called the fallen or “lost idyll.”18 The lyricist of the duo, Joe Varioni, was murdered in a case of mistaken identity by a man seeking to collect a gambling debt owed by Joe’s brother and songwriting partner, Sonny. Burdened by guilt, Sonny is now attempting to reconstruct his late brother’s unpublished novel in order to pre-serve the lost purity it represents and to redeem himself for having inadvertently brought about the loss of the manuscript. Sarah recalls that when the music publisher and agent Teddy Barto first attempted to con-vince Joe that he could accommodate his talents as an author to the commercial field of writing song lyrics, Teddy said tellingly, “We’re all adults.”19 Three years after Salinger’s first published story, he was already using child-hood and adulthood as metaphors for purity and corruption, respectively.

Salinger continued to focus on marital conflicts in his next Saturday Evening Post story, “Both Parties Concerned” (1944). Married too young and a new father, Billy Vullmer, the narrator, resists becoming an adult and accepting his parental responsibilities, and his reluctance to grow up poses a serious threat to his marriage. Again Salinger employs a first-person narrator whose voice and conduct prefigure Holden Caulfield. Billy not only resists becoming an adult but also struggles to keep his wife, Ruthie, a “kid.” From early on, one of Salinger’s most effective fictional devices was to choose a title from a vital sentence in a narrative that captured the essence of the story. Because the Saturday Evening Post editors changed his original title, “Wake Me When It Thunders,” to “Both Parties Concerned,” the usual continuity between title and story was lost. At the conclusion Billy reveals the complexity and ambiguity implicit in his character as he attempts to accept some responsibility for his wife while ensuring that she retains some semblance of the “kid” in her. When he finds Ruthie sitting in the kitchen in the middle of the night during a thunderstorm, he surmises that she is there because she is afraid of the storm, a conclusion supported by her behavior in the past. He notes that “she wasn’t in the hall closet,” where she has apparently gone before during such storms. For Billy, Ruthie’s fear of storms is a remnant of the childhood he has sought to preserve in her, and he finds a consolation that accommodates both sides of his dilemma: “Wake me when it thunders, Ruthie. Please. It’s okay. I mean, wake me when it thunders.”20

Although Salinger had written about soldiers in earlier stories, he began to portray war and its effects upon combatants from a more somber perspective in his stories published in the “slicks” in 1944 and 1945, and he continued to develop themes and concerns already present in his earlier work. In “Soft-Boiled Sergeant,” published in the 15 April 1944 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, Salinger focused again on the contrast between phoniness and authenticity, attacking Hollywood versions of fatalities in war. Employing a first-person narrator and presenting a story within a story, he further refined a narrative voice that anticipated that of Holden Caulfield. In two other Saturday Evening Post stories, “Last Day of the Last Furlough” (1944) and “A Boy in France” (1945), Salinger returned to use of a third-person narrative, sacrificing the authentic first-person narrative voice that he was perfecting but expanding his exploration of innocence and experience, showing childhood innocence as a source of love with a curative effect and regenerative power. He also used more italics and present-tense verbs in his characters’ interior monologues in order to involve readers more intimately.

In “Last Day of the Last Furlough” Salinger introduced two characters named Caulfield: Vincent and his younger brother, the nineteen-year-old Holden, who is missing in action. Two other characters in the story, Babe Gladwaller and his little sister, Mattie, are also important to the evolution of The Catcher in the Rye because their relationship prefigures that between Holden and his little sister, Phoebe. Mattie’s innocence is an elixir for Babe. Salinger further developed Mattie’s curative effect on her brother in “A Boy in France” and included a letter in the story, a technique he later used in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor.” Letters were also an effective fictional means of presenting the sincere speech of children, whose incoherent and innocent utterances show spontaneity and truth, without which love and healing are not possible in Salinger’s work. Mattie’s letter to Babe, exhausted and disillusioned in his foxhole in France, conveys enough love and peace for him to be able to sleep. Letters were increasingly important devices by which Salinger revealed Seymour Glass’s character in the novellas “Zooey” (1957), “Seymour: An Introduction” (1959), and “Hapworth 16, 1924.”

“Last Day of the Last Furlough,” “A Boy in France,” and two other stories—“This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise” (1945) and “The Stranger” (1945)—are interconnected works, a device that allowed Salinger to move characters from one story to another, creating the illusion, as Wenke has pointed out, that they “have a real life that extends beyond the story’s dramatic confines.”21 In “This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise,” another first-person narrative, Salinger used present-tense interior monologue to greater degree than he had in earlier stories. This technique enabled him both to dramatize Vincent Caulfield’s suffering as he refuses to accept the loss of his brother, Holden, and to involve readers more closely with Vincent’s thoughts. By juxtaposing past and present, Salinger created a contrapuntal effect in the narrative. Vincent’s memories of Holden stand in contrast to his present banter with the banal remarks of his fellow soldiers with whom he sits in an army truck, a contrast that accentuates Vincent’s grief for his dead brother.

In “The Stranger” Salinger incorporated many of the ideas and techniques that had evolved in his writing in the five years that followed the publication of his first story: a detached authorial voice, authentic-sounding speech, a predominance of dialogue in character development, contrasts between authentic and phony worlds, the fallen idyll, and the rehabilitating effect of children’s innocence and spontaneity on suffering adults. “The Stranger” shows the further development of the controlling idea of “Soft-Boiled Sergeant,” the contrast between actual death in war and the false, sentimentalized representations of it in movies. Having survived the war but bearing psychological wounds, Babe Gladwaller visits Helen Polk, Vincent Caulfield’s former fiancée, to inform her of Vincent’s death during the war. Babe did not want to “let Vincent’s girl think that Vincent asked for a cigarette before he died ... or said a few choice last words.” Babe’s friend died in the morning while standing with four other soldiers around a fire in Hürtgen Forest trying to keep warm. Salinger illustrates the lack of purpose and drama attending Vincent’s death by the tone of the narrative recreation of Babe’s matter-of-fact account: “Some mortar dropped in suddenly—it doesn’t whistle or anything—it hit Vincent and three of the other men. He died in the medics’ CP tent about thirty yards away, not more than three minutes after he was hit.”22 The scene, as well as Salinger’s technique, foreshadows the account of the death of Walt, Eloise’s former boyfriend, in “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.” Focusing on the contrasts between prewar and postwar America, Salinger introduced another of his major themes in “The Stranger”: adjustment, a difficulty many veterans encountered returning after the war. Adjustment and conformity remained major concerns in his fiction, not only for veterans but also for artists. Like Salinger himself, Raymond Ford, the protagonist of “The Inverted Forest,” finds adjusting to celebrity on even the most modest level impossible, and Holden Caulfield’s problems in The Catcher in the Rye are rooted in his difficulties with adjustments he is expected to make in order to accommodate an adult world.

By 1945 Salinger had found his own style and technique, as well as the major themes that characterize his fiction. The stories from this period of apprenticeship display the roots of his greatest work: The Catcher in the Rye and the highly respected New Yorker stories that were collected as Nine Stories (1953). Although Salinger permitted several of his early stories to be reprinted and in 1944 sent Burnett the titles of eight of them he thought appropriate for inclusion in a proposed story collection, he concluded later that none of his stories prior to “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” was worthy of appearing in a collection. He also found two stories published after “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” unacceptable: “A Girl I Knew” and “Blue Melody.” Calling these early stories “the gaucheries of my youth,” Salinger asked that they “die a perfectly natural death.”23

Those who have had access to Salinger since his seclusion and have seen the inside of his home have occasionally provided glimpses into his work habits and his writing process. An artist friend, Bertram Heaton, reported in 1960 that Salinger began writing at five or six in the morning in a small concrete studio and would sometimes work for fifteen or sixteen hours. Heaton described Salinger at work:

He’s a meticulous craftsman who constantly revises, polishes, and rewrites. On the wall of the studio, Jerry has a series of cup hooks to which he clips sheafs of notes. They must deal with various characters and situations, because when an idea occurs to him he takes down the clips, makes the appropriate notation, and places it back on the proper hook. He also has a ledger in which he has pasted sheets of typewritten manuscript on one page and on the opposite one has arrows, memos, and other notes for revisions.24

More recently, Joyce Maynard, who as a young woman had a two-year relationship with Salinger in the early 1970s, shared her recollections about the “archives of the Glass family” and Salinger’s method of writing about these characters: “He has compiled stacks of notes and notebooks concerning the habits and backgrounds of the Glasses—music they like, places they go, episodes in their history. Even the parts of their lives that he may not write about, he needs to know. He fills in the facts as diligently as a parent, keeping up to date with the scrapbooks.”25


As Ian Hamilton has observed, it might be possible to learn much about Salinger’s development as a writer if his edited manuscripts were open to review. Nevertheless, there is evidence that although his work was generally well received by publishers and magazines, editing his stories was an extremely thorny undertaking. Salinger appeared to grow steadily more confident about the rightness of his manuscripts and to resent changes to them, especially unauthorized changes of the kind made occasionally by the “slicks.” At the beginning of 1942 he complained in a letter to Burnett about having to shape his stories according to the expectations and editorial policies of these magazines: “It’s almost impossible to write with the Post or Collier’s or Cosmopolitan in mind. Those mags will let you scratch the surface, but they won’t let you make an incision.”26 By midyear he wrote to Burnett that he had begun to take greater control of his work, asserting that two recently completed stories had “no more tricks,” implying perhaps that he was less directed by the formulaic demands of particular magazines than he had been the year before, when he had stories published in Collier’s and Esquire.27

Even though Salinger was still waiting for his first publication in The New Yorker, his manner toward Wolcott Gibbs, a fiction editor at the magazine, was hardly deferential. Resisting any editing of his work, Salinger, convinced that he had improved as a writer, wrote Gibbs to say that he was submitting a new story, “Elaine,” through his agent, Olding. He informed Gibbs that he had one request: that not one word of the story be changed, that it be rejected rather than edited.28 (The story was rejected.) Salinger was far more accommodating when The New Yorker was ready at last to publish “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” in the fall of 1946 and asked that he make some revisions. He had waited since 1941 for the story to appear, and he wrote to William Maxwell, another fiction editor with the magazine, saying that he would make all the minor changes that Maxwell had requested.29

Although Salinger was pleased to have his stories appear in the well-paying Saturday Evening Post, where Lardner’s and Fitzgerald’s work had been published, he deeply resented the magazine’s illustrations for his stories and the changes made to his titles. In 1944 he complained about the “gay, ’charming’ Post illustrations” and was upset that his title “Death of a Dogface” was changed to “Soft-Boiled Sergeant” and that “Wake Me When It Thunders” was changed to “Both Parties Concerned.” He was so disturbed by what he considered editorial abuse that he threatened to stop publishing in the slicks.30 Four years later Good Housekeeping changed the title of “Wien, Wien” to “A Girl I Knew,” and Salinger reacted so strongly

that the editor, Herbert Mayes, was puzzled by the extent of his anger. “The blurb we used was a line taken directly from the story,” Mayes recalled. “I don’t know what upset Salinger, but he protested vehemently and ordered his agent, Dorothy Olding, never again to show me any of his manuscripts.”31 When Cosmopolitan changed the title “Scratchy Needle on a Phonograph Record” to “Blue Melody” when it published the story later in 1948, Salinger was near a decision to cease publishing in the slicks. A. E. Hotchner, who at that time worked in the editorial department at Cosmopolitan, affirmed that Salinger was sometimes adamantly opposed to accepting editorial alterations. When Salinger submitted “Scratchy Needle on a Phonograph Record,” according to Hotchner, “with his usual arrogance, [he] attached a note to the story that said, if published not a word could be change or deleted.”32

Although Salinger was pleased to have his work published in The New Yorker because of its prestige, he was also pleased because he thought the magazine treated its writers with greater respect than did “slicks” such as Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping. He could be sure that any changes to his work, including alterations of titles, would be made only with his approval. Consequently, he wished to publish exclusively in The New Yorker. In 1948, a year during which the magazine published four of his stories, Salinger seemed to be on track to achieving that goal. It appeared as if “Down at the Dinghy,” published the following year in Harper’s, would be his last story to appear in any magazine other than The New Yorker. Harper’s asked Salinger to shorten a key scene in the story, and he accepted reluctantly. He also resented a request for biographical information to be included in contributors’ notes. His response echoed his long-standing objection to anything that comes between an author’s work and readers, as well as to the kinds of illustrations that had accompanied his earlier published stories. Although Salinger complied with the request for biographical information, his response was flippant and suggested that he found such contributions phony. Concerning writers who willingly provide biographical notes, he observed, “The writer who tells you these things is also very likely to have his picture taken wearing an open-collared shirt—and he’s sure to be looking three-quarter-profile and tragic. He can also be counted on to refer to his wife as a swell gal or a grand person.”33

Salinger appears to have found the kind of respect and good editorial advice at The New Yorker that he had anticipated. Even though the magazine did not accept every story he submitted, he maintained a friendship and good working relationship with founding editor Ross. Salinger also worked with Shawn, Ross’s successor as editor in chief, and is reported to have benefited from Shawn’s good advice about his fiction. Mary Kierstead, Shawn’s secretary, characterized her boss’s and Salinger’s working relation-ship: “Salinger thought Mr. Shawn was a marvelous editor and, God knows, Mr. Shawn helped Salinger with his stories. Shawn could take a whole messy book and turn it into something brilliant. He had that kind of relationship with Salinger—very, very close. When Salinger came to New York, they worked in Mr. Shawn’s office at his desk, which was a big table. They were always very amicable with one another.”34 No one else on the fiction staff was shown Salinger’s work, as they were the stories of other writers publishing in The New Yorker.35 Only Shawn and Salinger were privy to the manuscript revisions, and these remain inaccessible. Nevertheless, Hamilton has speculated that the stories probably underwent extensive revision, basing this claim on what he sees as the inferior quality of Salinger’s earlier published fiction when compared to the New Yorker stories. Hamilton compares “The Inverted Forest” and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” pointing out that the two stories were published one month apart and noting that unlike Salinger’s “rambling, narcissistic” Cosmopolitan story (“The Inverted Forest”), “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is “spare, teasingly mysterious, withheld.”36

Salinger obviously benefited from the wise judgment of Ross and Shawn, but in the absence of more evidence it is not possible to determine the extent of the editors’ contributions. Salinger had in fact demonstrated an ability to write “spare, teasingly mysterious” fiction early in his career. Although “The Inverted Forest” and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” were indeed published a month apart, the date of composition of the two stories is difficult to confirm. Paul Alexander reports that Salinger was near completion of the seventy-five-page typescript of “The Inverted Forest” in November 1946, more than a year before it was published.37 Furthermore, that story should not be regarded as a reference point by which Salinger’s progress as a writer can be judged. As with many other authors, he had to be treated carefully by editors, even those whom he most respected, such as Ross and Shawn. That Shawn permitted no other editors at The New Yorker to work with Salinger probably confirms just how difficult his task was, as well as how important he considered Salinger’s work to be. Whatever disagreement or conflict might have occurred between them, the chemistry between Salinger and Shawn (and, earlier, Ross) was right. Salinger expressed his gratitude in 1961 when he dedicated Franny and Zooey to Shawn, calling him “my editor, mentor, and (heaven help him) closest friend, William Shawn, genius domus of The New Yorker....”38

As Salinger’s career progressed, his confidence in his fiction grew, but his demands on himself to produce good work increased as well. Although he had worked on his novel about Holden Caulfield for years, he was not willing to rush it into print until it satisfied his own standards. Maxwell reported that in 1946 Salinger had a “novelette ninety pages long” about Holden accepted for publication but that he withdrew it from consideration because he wanted to rewrite it.39 Hotchner recalled that when The New Yorker rejected Salinger’s story “Holden Caulfield on the Bus,” Salinger was convinced that he could revise it so that the editors would see “it was a new kind of writing” and publish it.40 There is no evidence, however, that Salinger ever resubmitted the story. Although by 1950 The New Yorker had published much of Salinger’s best fiction, the editors passed up an opportunity to publish excerpts from The Catcher in the Rye when Olding sent them to the magazine. Salinger was furious and rejected the opinions of the editors, who thought it was not credible that there would be four such “extraordinary” children in the Caulfield family or that the relationships between Phoebe and Holden or between Allie and D. B. were “tenable.”41 Nor was his confidence in his novel lessened when Eugene Reynal of Harcourt, Brace rejected The Catcher in the Rye and suggested that Salinger rewrite it.

Salinger was probably no different from many other writers whose characters are projections of themselves. He proved to be right to reject the suggestion of Harcourt, Brace that he rewrite his novel. As his writing took a different direction following the publication of The Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories, reflecting the influence of his study of Eastern religions, reviewers and critics became less receptive to his work. Although Salinger must have bristled at some of these critical responses, he did not change course. He continued to write his long stories about the Glass family, showing no evidence of accepting the opinions or advice of reviewers or critics, remaining, perhaps, true only to himself as his characters moved deeper within themselves, ever closer to essence and silence.


1. J. D. Salinger, quoted in Henry Anatole Grunwald, Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait (New York: Harper, 1962), p. 21.

2. Warren French, J. D. Salinger, Revisited (Boston: Twayne, 1988), p. 19.

3. Paul Alexander, Salinger: A Biography (Los Angeles: Renaissance, 1999), p. 61.

4. Whit Burnett to Salinger, 16 May 1941, quoted in Jack R. Sublette, ]. D. Salinger: An Annotated Bibliography, 1938-198 (New York: Garland, 1984), p. 60.

5. Burnett to Salinger, 17 December 1941, quoted in Sublette, J. D. Salinger: An Annotated Bibliography, p. 60.

6. Alexander, Salinger, p. 149.

7. Martha Foley, ed., The Best American Short Stories, 1950 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950), p. 449.

8. Salinger, “The Young Folks,” Story, 16 (March-April, 1940): 26, 28.

9. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (Boston: Little, Brown/Back Bay, 2001), p. 138. All subsequent parenthetical page references in the text are to this edition of the novel.

10. Salinger, “Go See Eddie,” University of Kansas City Review, 7 (December 1940): 121.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid., pp. 122-123.

13. Ibid., p. 121.

14. Ibid., p. 122.

15. Ibid., p. 121.

16. Ibid., p. 123.

17. Ibid.

18. John Wenke, J. D. Salinger: A Study of the Short Fiction (Boston: Twayne, 1991), p. 10.

19. Salinger, “The Varioni Brothers,” Saturday Evening Post, 226 (17 July 1944): 76.

20. Salinger, “Both Parties Concerned,” Saturday Evening Post, 216 (26 February 1944): 47-48.

21. Wenke, J. D. Salinger, p. 18.

22. Salinger, “The Stranger,” Collier’s, 116 (1 December 1945): 77.

23. Salinger, quoted in Lacey Fosburgh, “J. D. Salinger Speaks about His Silence,” New York Times, 3 November 1974, p. 69.

24. Bertram Heaton, quoted in Mel Elfin, “The Mysterious J. D. Salinger . . . His Woodsy, Secluded Life,” Newsweek, 55 (30 May 1960): 93.

25. Joyce Maynard, At Home in the World: A Memoir (New York: Picador, 1998), p. 159.

26. Salinger to Burnett, 22 January 1942, quoted in Sublette, J. D. Salinger: An Annotated Bibliography, pp. 27-28.

27. Salinger to Bumett, circa mid 1942, quoted in Sublette, J. D. Salinger: An Annotated Bibliography, p. 28.

28. Alexander, Salinger, pp. 89-90.

29. Ibid., p. 117.

30. Sublette, J. D. Salinger: An Annotated Bibliography, p. 31.

31. Herbert Mayes, quoted in Ian Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger (New York: Random House, 1988), p. 104.

32. A. E. Hotchner, quoted in Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 103.

33. Salinger, quoted in Grunwald, Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait, p. 21.

34. Mary Kierstead, quoted in Alexander, Salinger, p. 189.

35. Alexander, Salinger, pp. 189-190.

36. Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 105.

37. Alexander, Salinger, p. 117.

38. Salinger, dedication to Franny and Zooey (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961).

39. William Maxwell, “J. D. Salinger,” in The Book of the Month; Sixty Years of Books in American Life, edited by Al Silverman (Boston: Little, Brown, 1986), p. 129.

40. Hotchner, Choice People: The Greats, Near-Greats, and Ingrates I Have Known (New York: Morrow, 1984), pp. 100-101.

41. Quoted in Alexander, Salinger, p. 147.

Salinger’s Era

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During the first ten years of Salinger’s life as a child and schoolboy in New York, the American economy was enjoying a bull market that seemed to many as if it would have no end. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) Jay Gatsby’s houseguest Klipspringer expresses the sentiment of the time as he plays the song “Ain’t We Got Fun?” on the piano and sings the line about nothing being surer than the expectation that “the rich get richer.”1 The August 1929 issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal featured an article titled “Everybody Ought to Be Rich.” A General Motors executive and chairman of the Democratic Party, John J. Raskob, implied that Americans had an obligation to become rich, and he gave them a method for doing so. Anyone who invested $15 a week in good common stocks, he claimed, could expect at the end of twenty years to have $80,000 and a monthly income of $400.00. The investor, Raskob said, “will be rich. And because income can do that, I am firm in my belief that anyone not only can be rich, but ought to be rich.”2 Two months later, on 29 October 1929, the stock market crashed, the fun stopped, the boom of the 1920s was over, and the Great Depression was beginning. Salinger was ten years old.

Soon the Depression was in full force, and there were breadlines all over the United States. Despite President Herbert Hoover’s efforts to put the country back on track by stimulating trade, supporting failing banks, and initiating federal programs to create jobs, he was not successful, and the songs of fun and confidence gave way to songs with lyrics that reflected the poverty of the times and attempted to raise people’s failing spirits. By 1932 Americans were listening to “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and Bing Crosby’s rendition of “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” as more and more people found themselves out of work. Yet, because of Salinger’s father’s success as a businessman, the family did not suffer the economic hardship that millions of others were experiencing, and in 1932 Sol Salinger moved his family to a fashionable neighborhood on

Park Avenue and enrolled his son in a private school, McBurney. That same year, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected the thirty-second president of the United States.

Although J. D. Salinger appears to have had little interest in politics or in theories about the underlying causes of the Depression, during the second half of the 1930s he was aware of the effects of the crisis on American society and the ways in which many people were attempting to cope with or escape their painful reality. William Saroyan observed in his 1936 short story “International Harvester” that among the ten million unemployed, few persons were dreaming of owning anything: “Hardly anybody is interested in anything much. Hardly anybody is at all.”3 But Americans seeking to escape their troubles had recourse to an alternate reality. It was, of course, the movies. As the Depression continued to wear down the country, people could still see a movie for as little as 15¢. By the end of the 1930s movie-theater tickets were still inexpensive and gave patrons much for the price of admission: a newsreel, a cartoon, a short subject, and a double feature. Eighty million tickets were sold each week to moviegoers who viewed the performances of stars such as Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Shirley Temple, Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy. The most successful movie year of the decade was 1939, when The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind were released. The characters in Salinger’s fiction often seek diversion and escape from the drabness of their ordinary lives by going to the cinema; some of his stories, however, expose the false, sentimentalized view of the world that movies promote.

Unlike Salinger, whose father could afford to send him to Europe in 1937 to learn about the ham- and cheese-importing business, millions of other Americans were struggling to find work, while the Roosevelt administration launched massive federal programs to bring economic stability to the country. The administration established such “New Deal” programs as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Included under the WPA were federal arts projects for theater, writing, dance, and music that helped to employ many artists during the Depression years. One of several writers to benefit from this government support, the African American Richard Wright, won a 1938 contest held by Story magazine for writers associated with the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), thereby attracting the attention of the literary world and launching his career. Writers during the 1930s also prepared state and highway guidebooks or wrote state histories. Interviews with former slaves, historical records bound in typescript volumes and deposited in the Library of Congress, proved to be some of the more valuable undertakings.4 Painters such as Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and Jackson Pollock were commissioned along with other artists to create a series of murals, and by 1943 more than 2,500 such murals appeared on public spaces throughout the United States.5

During this period of increasing social consciousness, the government focused more intensely on civil rights as a national problem. Discrimination in housing and employment were commonplace throughout much of the country, and at the beginning of the 1930s the U.S. Supreme Court began gradually to address voting rights for minorities and inequities in the trial system, upholding the right of defendants to question prospective jurors’ racial views and striking down a law in Texas permitting race-based qualifications for voters.6 Nevertheless, progress toward racial justice was slow and strongly resisted. Salinger’s 1948 story “Blue Melody” underscores continuing discrimination by depicting the death of an African American singer, Lida Louise Jones, who dies after being denied admission to a white hospital following the rupture of her appendix. Warren French has pointed out that the circumstances of Lida Louise’s death resemble those associated with the death of blues singer Bessie Smith from peritonitis after allegedly being denied admission to a white hospital.7 In 1934 Congress directed its attention to the lynching of African Americans, especially in the South. The lynching and mutilation of Claude Neal in October 1934, in particular, prompted congressional attempts to pass antilynching laws. Neal, a black man charged with the death of a white woman in Florida, was taken from his jail cell by a mob, tortured, and hanged.

Yet, two attempts to pass laws against the practice failed after long filibusters that threatened other legislation.8 Segregationist laws prevailed throughout the South, and many who supported the myth of Negro inferiority saw a potential threat of black domination if laws ensuring segregation and “whites only” accommodations were not strictly enforced. In The Great Gatsby Tom Buchanan asks the narrator of the novel, Nick Carraway, whether he has read “The Rise of the Coloured Empires” and adds, “It’s up to us who are the dominant race to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”9

The poverty and suffering of the 1930s greatly affected the direction of literature in the United States. Displaying their proletarian bent, many novelists focused in their work on the ills of society by writing about strikes and labor unions and by protesting against injustice. Critics and reviewers praised novels that revealed social awareness and condemned those that reflected the literary aesthetics of earlier times. Several notable novels exemplified the new direction of the literature of the 1930s. James. T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy (1932-1935) depicted the destructive economic and social influences in the Irish immigrant community of Chicago. Nelson Algren’s Somebody in Boots (1935) portrayed the criminal life of a poor white boy in Texas during the Depression. John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy (1930-1936) presented social decay as a result of commercial exploitation. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), about the struggles of a family escaping the dust storms of Oklahoma only to become involved in the strife and brutality affecting migrant workers in California, was a great commercial and critical success. In this period of emotional and political fervor, even writers such as Ernest Hemingway, whose work, along with that of Fitzgerald, had helped to define the literature of the 1920s, were encouraged and even pressured to let their writing become a weapon against oppression.

Although not ideologues, many writers caught up in this difficult time in American history tended to follow a group mentality. Individuality and difference were not encouraged. One young author of the period later recalled that those drawn to “the mystique of the proletariat” often exerted “tremendous pressures—moral, psychological, even physical—to keep writers in line.”10 Consequently, many novels of the 1930s reflected the prevailing concern for the plight of the poor, the homeless, the dispossessed worker, and the victims of racial oppression. As is frequently the case when art is subordinated to politics, many novels with pronounced social messages failed to endure once the hard times and poverty abated with the end of the Depression. Nevertheless, the decade was a productive time for many American writers whose work has endured, such as Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Saroyan, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Wright, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, John O’Hara, James Gould Cozzens, Katherine Anne Porter, Pearl S. Buck, Henry Miller, and Erskine Cald-well.

Much of the popular music of the 1930s has also endured. Composers and lyricists such as Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and George and Ira Gershwin, usually writing for Broadway shows, created “standards” of American popular music that have retained their popularity. Spared the ravages of the Depression, Salinger and other more affluent New Yorkers had opportunities to experience the genius of some of the country’s most gifted musical artists.

Swing was the new musical phenomenon of the 1930s. Although it had evolved in the 1920s, swing, less improvisational than the earlier hot jazz, relied more on song structure. It was dance music, and it dominated the popular-music scene. Building on the successes of the black bands of Chick Webb, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Bennie Moten, clarinetist Benny Goodman took big-band swing throughout the United States. Goodman was also the first white bandleader to integrate his band, hiring pianist Teddy Wilson, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, guitarist Charlie Christian, and trumpeter Cootie Williams and welcoming the pianist and bandleader Count Basic for guest appearances. Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Bob Crosby, and Glen Miller were also famous bandleaders of the period. With the end of Prohibition in 1933, dance clubs formed throughout the country. Swing reached its peak in 1938, highlighted on 17 January of that year by the first-ever jazz concert at Carnegie Hall in New York, which featured the Benny Goodman Orchestra joined by Duke Ellington, Count Basic, and members of their orchestras.

Like the fiction of the 1930s, many Broadway plays also had Depression-era themes. Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (1933), based on his 1932 novel of the same name about Georgia sharecroppers, ran for more than three thousand performances over a period of seven-and-a-half years. Pins and Needles (1937), a comedy with music and lyrics by Harold Rome in which members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union acted, played for more than a thousand performances. Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty (1935) depicted the corruption, betrayal, and violence leading to a strike by members of a taxi-drivers’ union. Among the plays by leading dramatists were Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), Ah, Wilderness! (1933), and Days Without End (1934), by Eugene O’Neill; Winterset (1934) and Key Largo (1939), by Maxwell Anderson; Idiots Delight (1936) and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1938), by Robert Sherwood; The Children’s Hour (1934) and The Little Foxes (1939), by Lillian Hellman; Our Town (1939), by Thornton Wilder; and You Can’t Take It With You (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939), by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Few plays had the commercial success of Life With Father (1939), by Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay, which had 3,244 performances.11 Salinger’s “The Skipped Diploma,” the column that he wrote for The Ursinus Weekly while attending Ursinus College in the fall of 1938, indicates his knowledge of the New York theater. In the 31 October 1938 column he observes that Odets’s 1937 play Golden Boy is “Philadelphia bound,” and he offers a one-sentence satirical summary. In the 5 December 1938 column he mentions Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women (1936) and refers to the “sparkle” of Kaufman’s and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You.12

During the last half of the 1930s, tensions grew throughout Europe because of Adolf Hitler’s aggression. In 1937, the year before Hitler annexed Austria to Germany, Salinger was in Europe, probably spending January and February in Vienna.13 Fearful of losing their independence, Austrians had become increasingly apprehensive about German territorial ambitions, which had been growing stronger since 1934, when the Nazis assassinated Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss during an unsuccessful putsch. Despite Austrian resistance, Germany annexed Austria on 12 March 1938. Salinger must have experienced the tension and fear in Vienna during his visit there and in particular among Austrian Jews, who were later to be sent to Nazi concentration camps.

When Salinger returned to the United States in the spring of 1938, the national economy was improving. While the Depression had driven many poor families into shantytowns in major cities across the country, wealthy families had continued to live quite well, giving lavish parties, indulging themselves in luxury items, and being fashionable. Salinger’s 1942 story “The Long Debut of Lois Taggett” suggests his awareness of one fashionable custom that continued to be observed throughout the 1930s, the debutante balls at which families introduced their teenage daughters into society. As the economy improved, even far less affluent men and women were once again fashion conscious. Both women’s and men’s clothing became more stylized during the last half of the decade, and padded shoulders in women’s dresses and men’s suits were popular. A new elastic product appeared: Lastex, used in ski pants and in bathing suits. In The Catcher in the Rye Holden Caulfield remarks that Jane Gallagher, a girl he idealizes, once dated a boy who “wore those Lastex kind of swimming trunks, and he was always going off the high dive” (175).


German troops invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, marking the beginning of World War II. Americans hoped to avoid being drawn into the war and showed little preparedness, having in 1939 a standing army of 188,000 men, while Hitler’s troops numbered in the millions. In the spring of 1940 Hitler’s forces invaded and occupied Denmark and Norway. By May they had moved across Belgium to the English Channel, and by mid June they were in Paris. In the fall of 1940 the U.S. Congress approved a peacetime draft, and American industry began producing ships and planes while pressure mounted for the United States to enter the war. With England now standing alone against German domination of Western Europe and London suffering through devastating bombing raids at the beginning of the new decade, America began providing ships to the British under a lend-lease program enacted by Congress on 11 March 1941. Lend-lease allowed the United States to sell, exchange, lease, or lend defense material or to provide economic aid to nations at war with the Axis powers when the president deemed such transfers to be in the national interest. With German U-boat attacks on American shipping in the Atlantic increasing during 1941, war seemed imminent. On 7 December 1941 the Japanese attacked the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii, where much of the U.S. Pacific Fleet was moored. The following day America declared war on Japan and three days later declared war on Germany and Italy.

After the declaration of war, Americans were fighting throughout the world, resisting the Japanese in Pacific Islands and fighting the Germans in France, Belgium, Italy, and North Africa. The American economy was transformed. Old factories that had lain idle during the Depression were working to capacity, and new factories were being built in order to supply the materials needed by the American forces. In place of problems with unemployment, there were now labor shortages. Twelve million men and women left the workforce to become members of the armed services. Consequently, the face of American labor changed dramatically. Seven million unemployed in 1940 found jobs, and an additional six million were needed in the workforce. By 1942 American war production was as great as that of Germany, Italy, and Japan combined, and by 1944 double that of the enemy.14

Every American was encouraged to sacrifice, but soon sacrifice was not an option. Gasoline was rationed; drivers were restricted to four gallons (later three) a week for nonessential travel and given gasoline coupons authorizing their purchases. Americans felt food shortages even more severely than they did gasoline rationing. Food ration boards were established to set household allotments. Each member of a family was given two coupon books each month, a blue one for canned goods and a red one for meat, butter, and cheese. At the beginning of 1944 The New York Times interviewed Salinger’s father concerning the prospects for cheese imports. Sol Salinger, vice president of the J. S. Hoffman Company, observed that cheese shortages would persist because the exports of Argentina, the only country able to send large quantities of cheese to the United States, would amount to only 40 percent of the amount previously imported from Europe.15

Despite the shortages of food and gasoline, many of those who had joined the burgeoning wartime workforce benefited from the booming economy and enjoyed a new affluence. The demands for production often required that the workday be longer, giving workers overtime pay and more discretionary money than many had had in years. By the summer of 1942 the motion-picture industry was enjoying large revenues as people flocked to theaters as substitutes for recreation requiring automobile travel. Six months after Pearl Harbor, Hollywood had released seventy movies with war themes, essentially giving the typical gangster pictures, comedies, and musicals wartime twists. More-significant movies with wartime themes, such as Casablanca (1942) and Mrs. Miniver (1942), were also produced. Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down (1942), a short novel about Norwegian resistance to the German occupation, was adapted for the cinema in 1943.16 Fiction by major writers published during the war period includes Cozzens’s The Just and the Unjust (1942), Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942), Eudora Welty’s The Robber Bridegroom (1942), Robert Penn Warren’s At Heaven’s Gate (1943), Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man (1944), John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano (1944), and Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945).

Whatever diversions Americans could find during the years 1941-1945, seldom were they sufficient to allay fears and anxieties about the safety of loved ones serving in the armed forces overseas. Consequently, there was a sense of urgency concerning whatever time people had together, a need to make the most of each minute before men went off to war. The lyrics of popular songs such as “For All We Know” (1934) conveyed these sentiments: “For all we know / We may never meet again / ... / So love me tonight / Tomorrow was made for some / Tomorrow may never come / For all we know.”

In particular, anxious parents suffered, waiting daily for news that sons or daughters were safe while fearing the arrival of a War Department telegram expressing regrets for those dead or missing in action. By the end of the war nearly three hundred thousand Americans had died in the conflict.

During the years 1942-1944 the Allies drove the Germans out of much of the territory into which they had advanced at the beginning of the war. The allies achieved victory in North Africa in May of 1943 and that same summer conquered Sicily, hastening the downfall of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and the surrender of Italy to Allied forces. At the beginning of 1944 the Allies began a massive buildup of troops and materiel in England in preparation for the invasion of France. Salinger was part of that buildup. General Dwight D. Eisenhower directed the invasion, called “Operation Overlord.” On 6 June 1944 American forces crossed the channel and landed on the Normandy coast. Salinger’s unit, the Twelfth Infantry Regiment of the Fourth Division, landed on Utah Beach.

The Allies continued their advance to the east and captured Paris on 25 August 1944. From there they moved into Belgium and in September to the southern Netherlands, where Americans and British forces suffered heavy casualties as they attempted to penetrate the Siegfried Line, a strongly fortified defense of the western border of Germany. Near the city of Aachen, the first major German city to be taken by the Allies, was the Hürtgen Forest, where the Fourth Division fought in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. During the eleven months that the Fourth Division was in combat in Europe, it suffered approximately two thousand casualties a month, most of which occurred in battles such as that in the Hürtgen Forest. Salinger is reported to have witnessed in his own division “at least fifty to sixty casualties a day (with ten or more dead); some days the casualties reached two hundred.”17

The Allied broad-front movement toward Germany led to yet another devastating battle, lasting from mid December 1944 until early January 1945, when the Germans launched an offensive in the Ardennes Forest, driving through the Allied line and opening a hole nearly fifty miles wide as they advanced toward Belgium, Allied supply dumps, and the port of Antwerp. Because of the configuration of the German advance through the Allied front, it was known as the Battle of the Bulge. Two weeks after the German offensive, superior Allied air power sent the German troops in retreat.18 After the Battle of the Bulge, the Allies pushed across the Rhine, overcoming final resistance to their advance. The Germans surrendered unconditionally on 7 May 1945. The Japanese surrendered on 2 September 1945. World War II was over.


Jubilant that the war had finally ended, Americans were ready to welcome their men and women home, and they clamored for swift demobilization. The government complied, and more than ten million troops quickly became civilians again. Nevertheless, the return to civilian life was not without serious consequences for the nation as well as for those who served. Finding jobs and housing for the returning combatants presented a formidable challenge, and shortly after the end of the war, the shift from a wartime to a peacetime economy led to massive layoffs. The government was determined to quell fears of another depression, and in 1946 Congress passed the Maximum Employment Act, “ensuring full employment for Americans” and improving their purchasing power. The Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944—popularly known as the G.I. Bill—also helped delay the need for immediate employment for returning veterans. The G.I. Bill covered the college tuition of veterans, many of whom were the first in their families to attend college, and provided vocational and professional education to millions of veterans.19

Unemployment problems abated gradually as a postwar boom developed because of the need to produce and Americans’ desire to purchase goods of which they had been deprived during the war years. Soon Americans were once again purchasing appliances, now including television sets, and enjoying a love affair with the automobile. Manufacturers were producing models with new designs and improved performance. The Cadillac that features prominently in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was America’s status car.

An extraordinary demand for housing for returning veterans and their families boosted the construction industry. Between 1946 and 1951 entrepreneur William J. Levitt transformed thousands of acres on western Long Island, New York, into Levittown, a suburban community of mass-produced, affordable houses. Americans could buy a prefabricated, four-room house in Levittown for less than $8,000.20 Purchasing houses was also made easier for veterans because the government provided them with low-interest loans. During the postwar years communities such as Levittown began springing up rapidly on the edges of cities, offering millions of Americans the possibility of home ownership for the first time and initiating a suburban culture.

In the 1950s American social critics argued that the postwar era demanded conformity, and many commented on its effects. Sociologist David Riesman’s influential study The Lonely Crowd (1950) demonstrated the kinds of pressures exerted on people to conform, and in White Collar (1951) and The Power Elite (1956) C. Wright Mills attacked middle-class values and conformity. William H. Whyte expressed the view in The Organization Man (1956) that Americans were too much directed by groups and too willing to conform. Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) showed the destructive effects of prescribed conduct and dress on those who sought to advance in the corporate world. Salinger himself had experienced pressures to conform even before the war, when he was encouraged to join his father’s importing business, and he frequently mentioned gray flannel suits in his fiction.

Conforming was not easy for all returning veterans, and many found readjustment to civilian life difficult. They were required not only to find housing, proper clothing, and adequate transportation but also to make a psychological transformation in order to rejoin society and over-come feelings of alienation. For many veterans the psychic wounds of war remained long after the physical wounds were healed. The 1946 annual report from the Administration for Veterans Affairs pointed to the severity of veterans’ adjustment problems as it indicated disabilities according to type: “57.6 percent for neuropsychiatric conditions.” A report from the same agency in 1947 stated that “the personal adjustment counseling program inaugurated in 1946 was . . . designed to assist veterans who are not well adjusted emotionally.”21Good Housekeeping magazine offered practical advice to wives who experienced the psychological stress of husbands returned from the war: “After two or three weeks he should be finished with talking, with oppressive remembering. If he still goes over the same stories, reveals the same emotions, you had best consult a psychiatrist. This condition is neurotic.”22 Clearly, memories of the fighting in Normandy or Hürtgen Forest could not easily be laid aside, as Salinger himself demonstrated when he checked himself into an army hospital in Nuremberg, Germany, at the end of the war.


Speaking at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, on 5 March 1946, Winston Churchill warned the West of impending attempts by the Soviet Union to extend its jurisdiction and power. He observed: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”23 The U.S.S.R. had already drawn East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Albania behind the “iron curtain,” and Greece was involved in a civil war in which the insurgents were being supported by the Communists.24 In 1947 Bernard Baruch, the American representative to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, used for the first time the designation by which the tensions between the Soviets and the West became known, warning that America was in “a cold war.” George Kennan, a foreign-policy authority on the Soviet Union, argued for a policy of containment, and the Cold War was essentially confirmed.

The implications of the Cold War for American society were far-reaching. The conflict revitalized a weakening economy as the government spent millions of dollars in the fight to contain Communist expansion. Because the nation was in an arms race, there was need for more workers in industries that produced armaments. The Cold War became a hot war soon after North Korean forces, with strong support from the U.S.S.R., moved south of the thirty-eighth parallel, the dividing line between North and South Korea, on 25 June 1950. The United States was joined by other member countries of the United Nations in contributing troops to a United Nations Command (UNC) in defense of South Korea. Five years after the end of World War II young Americans were once again going into battle. General Douglas MacArthur, who had led American forces in the Pacific against the Japanese, commanded the UNC troops who fought the North Koreans. Sometimes called a “police action,” the conflict was not a war in which America could achieve the kind of all-out victory to which it had become accustomed. When an armistice agreement was signed on 27 July 1953, American casualties numbered 142,091, of which 32,629 had been killed.25

With the advent of the Cold War, American suspicions about Communist infiltration of the national government grew steadily. Responding to claims of widespread Communist subversion in the federal government, President Harry S. Truman established the Federal Employee Loyalty Program in 1947. In Congress the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), created in 1938, moved its focus from persons suspected of having ties to the Nazis to alleged members of the Communist Party thought to pose threats to national security. In 1947 HUAC targeted Hollywood, holding a series of hearings during which people associated with the movie industry were questioned about possible relationships with the Communist Party. When members of the Screen Writers Guild were questioned about whether they had ever belonged to the Communist Party, some writers refused to answer, arguing that the question violated their First Amendment rights. Subsequently, ten writers, including Ring Lardner Jr. and Dalton Trumbo, were cited with contempt and jailed. In 1950 former State Department official Alger Hiss, accused of leaking classified documents to a Communist espionage ring, was convicted of perjury and sentenced to prison. On 11 July 1951, five days before the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, Mary Stalcup Markward, a Virginia housewife, testified before HUAC that she had been a Communist working for the FBI as an informant from 1943 until 1950 and gave the committee “dozens of names of party members.” She reported that “the Communist Party in the United States was engaged in a conspiracy to overthrow the Government, by violence if necessary.”26 The case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg intensified the nation’s focus on the Communist threat when the Rosenbergs, convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, were executed on 19 June 1953, amid massive protests.

From 1949 until 1953 a U.S. senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, noting that Communists within the Truman administration had been convicted of treason, made his reputation pursuing and punishing persons suspected of being Communists. The senator’s methods, often seen as extreme, came to be known as “McCarthyism.” Few were free from McCarthy’s relentless attempts to identify Communists, not even General George C. Marshall, whom the senator charged with promoting Communism in “a conspiracy so immense, an infamy so black as to dwarf any in the history of man.”27 By 1954 McCarthy’s peers considered him a man obsessed, and at the conclusion of Senate committee hearings on the charges of subversion he had brought against army officers and civilian officials, his power and credibility were reduced.28 (Salinger strongly opposed communism but also vehemently rejected McCarthyism.)

From the beginning of the postwar period to the end of the 1950s, America experienced a religious reawakening that was reflected in books of the time. Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman’s best-selling inspirational book Peace of Mind appeared in 1946 and was followed two years later by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s Peace of Soul. The young evangelist Billy Graham’s Peace With God and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking were published in 1952, and the Revised Standard Version of the Bible led the best-seller lists from 1952 to 1954. Peale and Sheen also had successful television programs. Popular fiction with a religious focus included Thomas B. Costain’s The Silver Chalice (1952) and Leon Uris’s Exodus (1959).

Some Americans, especially artists and intellectuals, were embracing Eastern religions, in particular Hinduism and Zen Buddhism.

In the early 1950s Salinger is reported to have studied a Hindu school of thought, Advaita Vedanta, at the Ramakrishna Vivekananda Center in New York.29 The authoritative works on Zen by the Japanese scholar Daisetz T. Suzuki were becoming more readily available to American readers. Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism (1927-1933) had long been available in English translation, and his An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (1934) was first published in the United States in 1949. Alan W. Watts, whose The Way of Zen (1957) was among the most popular Zen studies available to Americans, observed that since the end of World War II interest in Zen had “increased so much that it seems to be becoming a considerable force in the intellectual and artistic world of the West.”30 Zen also influenced the Beat movement that emerged in New York and San Francisco in the 1950s. Although the Beats’ approach to Eastern religion appeared more superficial than that of more-serious devotees, they expressed spiritual and mystical experiences as they rejected the established values of American society. Led by poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the Beats appealed to many rebellious young people. Another Beat, Jack Kerouac, also helped introduce readers of the 1950s to Zen with his novel The Dharma Bums (1958), which centers on a quest for truth and wholeness.31 Salinger’s published fiction following The Catcher in the Rye has as its predominant focus a blend of Eastern religion and Christianity. These later stories have been criticized by some reviewers for lacking in authorial detachment as well as being too introspective and didactic.

American society in the 1950s was full of contrasts. In many respects it was a highly conservative time. Eisenhower was elected president in 1952 on his pledge to win the Korean War. Although he spoke of the need for less governmental involvement in social issues, he retained many of the Roosevelt administration’s social programs against the advice of some of his conservative supporters. Eisenhower’s years in office were considered bland by many; yet Americans were comfortable with what they saw as stability during the 1950s and reelected him to a second term in 1956. Writing about the Eisenhower years, social critics Lois and Alan Gordon observe that “most Americans looked to the time-honored virtues of home, church, and community. It was a time to cultivate the gardens of ever-growing suburbia, to learn the new mambo steps, and to make every effort to find group acceptance as a sign of moral health and patriotism.”32

There was another side to the seemingly placid 1950s. Not every family sat together at the dinner table, holding hands and saying grace before meals, as depicted in the television program Father Knows Best (1954-1963). As Sanford Pinsker has pointed out, there was a rebellion “just beneath the folds of the gray flannel suiting,” and the age, not so homogenous as it appeared to be, was receptive to books that showed another side of the society: The Catcher in the Rye, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957).33 The young actor James Dean starred in the 1955 movies Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden, both depictions of disturbed youth in rebellion.

The end of the Korean War had not brought an end to the Cold War. Rather, the arms race intensified, and American children were taught how to conduct themselves in order to survive an atomic attack. Some families built their own bomb shelters as testing of more-powerful atomic weapons continued. Faulkner had anticipated the anxiety of the time in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950, remarking that the most pressing question on the minds of young people was “When will I be blown up?”34 America and the Soviet Union seemed perpetually on the brink of war, and there were more troubles for the nation when, in January 1959, Fidel Castro led a revolution in Cuba, overthrowing dictator Fulgencio Batista. At first the United States supported Castro, but that support quickly faded and was then withdrawn when the revolutionary leader became increasingly anti-American and ultimately embraced Communism. Americans lamented that the political system of their Cold War enemy was now only ninety miles from their shores.

THE 1960s

By the time Salinger’s last published story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” appeared in The New Yorker in 1965, a series of extraordinary events had taken place in American life. In April 1961 the newly elected president, John E Kennedy, sanctioned a CIA-backed invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro refugees living in South Florida. The Bay of Pigs invasion was a humiliating failure for Kennedy and the nation, and the invading forces were repelled by Castro’s troops in three days. In October 1962 Cuba was again in the news as the president confronted a dangerous national crisis that threatened to involve America in nuclear war. When American intelligence discovered that the Russians were installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, Kennedy ordered the navy to intercept the Soviet ships carrying the missiles. Following a dangerous standoff between the navy vessels and the missile-bearing freighters, the Russian ships stopped and reversed course, averting a possible confrontation and war. The Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba following a pledge by the president not to invade the island. On 22 November 1963 Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. His vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, became the new president.

The 1960s were years of major change in American society. Many young people boldly rejected social conformity, adopted radically different dress, grew long hair and beards, and advocated free love. “The Pill,” an oral birth-control pill that had been under development since the early 1950s, became available in the 1960s, reducing fears of unwanted pregnancies. The decade was also one of intense political activity. Drawn to the growing Civil Rights movement, many college students joined in “Freedom Rides” from the North to the South in order to assist in voter registration for African Americans and to take part in efforts to integrate the segregated South. Americans who had seen much violence abroad soon saw it at home as “freedom riders” were beaten and jailed and other Civil Rights activists were assassinated. In August 1963 two hundred thousand people marched on Washington, D.C., in support of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of racial equality and integration in all areas of American life. The following year Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination in employment and in public accommodations as well as protecting the voting rights of minorities. In 1965 Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.

President Johnson’s civil rights victories were soon overshad-owed as Vietcong forces in North Vietnam began to move into the South, intensifying hostilities with which America had become involved during the Kennedy years and precipitating a civil war. America’s at first modest involvement grew rapidly. Convinced that the Vietcong incursion must be stopped, the United States sent in combat forces in support of the South, and when the fighting escalated, the country sent in more. By the end of 1967 there were nearly half a million American troops fighting in Vietnam. America was seriously divided by the war, with “hawks” pressing for further escalation and “doves” protesting for peace. As the death toll of American troops grew, so did opposition to the war, further dividing the country and giving rise to antigovernment protests. In 1968 the Civil Rights movement and antiwar forces were united in grief and anger when King was assassinated in April and Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in June. Encouraged by militant leaders, some in the Civil Rights movement called into question King’s nonviolent approach and advocated arming themselves. As the 1960s neared an end, America was under siege from within.

There are, of course, striking parallels between the politically charged 1960s and the 1930s. Writers of both periods came under pressure to focus their work on the dominant social issues of the day. Black political activist Eldridge Cleaver challenged the writer James Baldwin for not being properly involved, accusing Baldwin of rejecting his blackness. Early in his career Baldwin had shown his preference for art over politics, vehemently attacking the protest novel in American literature and declaring that “sociology and literature are not one and the same.”35 This position was as difficult for a writer to sustain in the politically charged 1960s as it had been in the 1930s. Salinger made no public statement about the volatile 1960s, and “Hapworth 16, 1924” does not deal with the social or political issues of the period.


1. E Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), pp. 100-101.

2. John J. Raskob, quoted in Nelson Manfred Blake, A History of American Life and Thought (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), p. 478.

3. William Saroyan, “International Harvester,” in Inhale & Exhale (New York: Random House, 1936), p. 81.

4. Cleanth Brooks, R.W.B. Lewis, and Robert Penn Warren, eds., American Literature: The Makers and the Making, volume 4: 1914 to the Present (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1974), pp. 2402-2406.

5. Victor Bondi, ed., American Decades: 1930-1939 (Detroit: Manly/Gale, 1995), p. 70.

6. Ibid., p. 264.

7. Warren French, J. D. Salinger; Revisited (Boston: Twayne, 1988), p. 26.

8. Bondi, ed., American Decades: 1930-1939, pp. 264-267.

9. Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p. 17.

10. Harvey Swados, The American Writer and the Great Depression (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), p. xx.

11. Bondi, ed., American Decades: 1930-1939, pp. 27-42, 72.

12. J. D. Salinger, “The Skipped Diploma,” Ursinus Weekly, 37, no. 5 (31 October 1938): 2; “The Skipped Diploma,” Ursinus Weekly, 37, no. 10 (5 December 1938): 2.

13. Ian Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger (New York: Random House, 1988), p. 40.

14. Blake, A History of American Life and Thought, pp. 515-516.

15. Jane Holt, “News of Food,” New York Times, 5 January 1944, sec. K, p. 20.

16. Bondi, ed., American Decades: 1930-1939, pp. 30-34.

17. Paul Alexander, Salinger: A Biography (Los Angeles: Renaissance, 1999), pp. 101-102.

18. Robert Leckie, The Wars of America, revised ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), pp. 814-817.

19. Bondi, ed., American Decades: 1940-1949 (Detroit: Manly/Gale, 1995), pp. 110, 143. Matthew J. Bruccoli reported that Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22 (1961), said that the war and the G. I. Bill made it possible for him to go to college.

20. Sanford Pinsker, The Catcher in the Rye: Innocence under Pressure (New York: Twayne, 1993), pp. 4-5.

21. Quoted in Blum, John Morton, V Was for Victory: Politics and American Culture during World War II (New York & San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), pp. 334-335.

22. Quoted in This Fabulous Century, volume 5: 1940-1950 (New York: Time-Life Books, 1988), p. 38.

23. Winston Churchill, quoted in Paul Johnson, Modem Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), pp. 437-438.

24. See American Military History (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1989), pp. 535-536.

25. Ibid., pp. 568-569.

26. “F.B.I. Woman Limns Hard Lives of Reds,” New York Times, 12 July 1951, sec. L, p. 9.

27. Frank M. Fahey and Marie L. Fahey, eds., Chapters from the American Experience (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), p. 335.

28. Ibid., pp. 337-344.

29. French, J. D. Salinger, Revisited, p. 12.

30. Alan W. Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: Random House, 1957), p. ix.

31. For an explanation of dharma see Watts’s description of “the Eightfold path of the Buddha’s Dharma” in The Way of Zen, pp. 50-54.

32. Lois Gordon and Alan Gordon, American Chronicle: Six Decades of American Life, 1920-1980 (New York: Atheneum, 1987), p. 285.

33. Pinsker, The Catcher in the Rye: Innocence under Pressure, pp. 5-6.

34. William Faulkner, Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in Literature, 1901-1967, edited by Horst Frenz, Nobel Lectures series (Amsterdam & New York: Elsevier, 1969), p. 444.

35. James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon, 1955), p. 19.

Kerry McSweeney (essay date Spring 1978)

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SOURCE: “Salinger Revisited,” in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 61-8.

[In the following essay, McSweeney offers a reevaluation of Salinger's fiction and critical reception. According to McSweeney, “The only work of Salinger's that has not shrunk with the passage of time is The Catcher in the Rye.]

For anyone who was a literate North-American adolescent during the 1950s, it is probably difficult, even after fifteen or twenty years, to go beyond a personal estimate and/or historical estimate of the fiction of J. D. Salinger and attempt a ‘real’ estimate. The task will be especially difficult for those who were in those days uncritical enthusiasts of Nine Stories,The Catcher in the Rye and the Glass stories; for a retrospective distaste and embarrassment over one's youthful intensities, idealisings and over-simplifications may well make for a prejudiced rereading.

The possibility of overreaction on my part may be indicated by a catalogue of the Salingeresque items—tokens of sensitivity, emblems of non-aggression, touchstones of selflessness—that fell out of my copy of Catcher when I recently opened it for the first time in a decade and a half: (a) a transcript of a poem by the then Brother Antoninus, which begins

Annul in me my manhood, Lord, and make
Me women-sexed and weak,
If by that total transformation
I might know Thee more;

b) another of a Bob Dylan song, which begins with

I ain't looking to compete with you, beat or cheat or mistreat
Simplify you, classify you, deny, defy, or crucify you,
All I really want to do is, baby, be friends with you;

c) a Peanuts cartoon, in which Linus, holding as ever his security blanket, declares to Charlie Brown that ‘No problem is so big or so complicated that it can't be run away from’; and (d) a New Yorker cartoon of two men in dinner jackets, holding highball glasses and looking at a wall on which are mounted heads of a number of ferocious looking animals—except for the centerpiece: the enormous head of a benign, quietly smiling lion, whose post-prandial countenance echoes those of the men, one of whom is explaining that ‘I was removing a thorn from its paw when I suddenly thought: “What a magnificent head”.’

Still, one aspires to objectivity and disinterest, and there is little doubt that now is a good time for a retrospective assessment of Salinger. For one thing, Warren French may well be more than self-serving when he says in the preface to the newly revised edition of his J. D. Salinger that ‘former readers, alienated from Salinger during the activist 1960s, are now returning to his books with renewed interest and are commending them to their children and their students’. For another, the Salinger canon seems essentially complete. His last published work, the unreadable ‘Hapworth 16, 1924’, appeared in the New Yorker twelve years ago. This ‘story’ consisted of an interminable letter sent from summer camp to his parents by the then seven-year-old prodigy, poet, and saint, Seymour Glass. What can you say about a kid who describes his meals thus: ‘While the food itself is not atrocious, it is cooked without a morsel of affection or inspiration, each string bean or simple carrot arriving on the camper's plate quite stripped of its tiny vegetal soul’? ‘Hapworth 16, 1924’ had given the impression that Salinger had become self-indulgent in his writing, and was withdrawing into a self-referential fantasy world. This seemed confirmed by the disheartening statement the author made in 1974 when he broke a public silence of more than twenty years to complain in a telephone interview with the New York Times about the publication of an unauthorised collection of his apprentice work: ‘There is a marvellous peace in not publishing. It's peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.’

The first of his works that Salinger regarded as post-apprentice were among those included in his 1954 collection, Nine Stories. All these stories are set in the only world Salinger knows: that of upper middle class New York City. They contain an abundance of acute social notation: Salinger is particularly good at using the details of speech, dress and decor to register the nuances of social stratification and character type. The world of the stories is mimed by Salinger's characteristic prose: the mannered New Yorker style of coy hyperbole and sophisticated overstatement, the knowing tone, and the self-conscious, mandarin poise tempered by measured colloquialisms.

While Salinger clearly finds much that is wrong with the world he describes, unlike Flaubert or Joyce he does not reveal his disapproval through his style, which in fact tends to exemplify the values of that world. This important point was made by Frank Kermode in 1962: ‘the really queer thing about this writer is that he carefully writes for an audience [a culture-acquisitive audience] he deplores.’ To put the matter differently: while there is in Nine Stories, as in the rest of Salinger, much excellent social observation, albeit of a very narrow part of the social spectrum, there is very little social vision because Salinger has no outside point of view to bring to bear on a world to which he can imagine no positive, post-puberty alternative and of which, faute de mieux, he remains a part. Philip Roth overstated the case in 1962, but one understands his exasperation: ‘the problem of how to live in this world is by no means answered … The only advice we seem to get from Salinger is to be charming on the way to the loony bin.’

The dominant subject of Nine Stories is the opposition of the few (the sensitive, delicate and discerning, usually children or disturbed young men) and the many (the crass, insensitive and phony). The upshot of this opposition can be destructive: the first and last stories, ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ and ‘Teddy’, end abruptly with the suicide of the representative of the few. But when two sensitive, non-aggressive souls can make contact, a more optimistic, even sentimental, conclusion becomes possible, as in ‘De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period’ and ‘For Esmé—with Love and Squalor’, for the latter of which, despite the narrator's Dostoyevskian rumblings, this quotation from Silas Marner would have made a perfect epigraph: ‘In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child's.’

Of course, some of the Nine Stories are better than others. One of the finest, ‘Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut’, has at its center the quintessential Salinger theme of the true life which is absent. In ‘Zooey,’ Franny Glass, on the brink of a breakdown, will say that the one person she wants to talk to is her dead brother Seymour; in Catcher, Holden Caulfield, when challenged to name just one person whom he really likes, will name his dead brother Allie. In ‘Uncle Wiggily’ two old friends, Mary Jane and Eloise, get together in the latter's suburban home for an afternoon of reminiscence, complaint and too much drink. As their conversation becomes intimate, Eloise begins to speak of the young man, a brother of Seymour Glass, who was different (the story's title alludes to one of his fey witticisms); who was in fact everything that her husband is not; whom she loved; and who was killed in an absurd accident during the war. The loss is nicely counterpointed by the relationship of Eloise's young daughter to her imaginary friend, Jimmy Jimmereeno. When Jimmy is run over, his place in the daughter's bed is taken by Mickey Mickeranno. But Eloise cannot make contact with her daughter—she even insists on making her sleep in the middle of the bed as a way of negating Mickey's existence—and for her there is nothing to fill the absence of Walt Glass except her maudlin insistence at the end of the story that she used to be a nice girl.

On the other hand, ‘De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period’, which has a similar theme, is a weak story. Its narrator is a sensitive young man stuck in a cheesy art correspondence school in Montreal, who becomes unilaterally involved through the mail with a nun in Toronto whose work shows promise but whose superiors unexpectedly require her to withdraw from the school. The nun, a variant of the Salingeresque child figure, is of course an embodiment of the absent true life for which the narrator yearns. The story's events take place when the narrator is nineteen; he is thirty-two when he recounts them (the same age, incidentally, as Salinger when he wrote the story, just as the narrator's initials are identical with the author's). But the older narrator is indistinguishable from his younger self, there is no distancing, no perspective, no way of placing or grounding, the epiphany with which the story concludes. Gazing into the window of an orthopedic appliances shop, De Daumier-Smith suddenly has ‘an extraordinary experience’, a moment of vision which leaves ‘twice blessed’ the objects in the window and leads to the assertion that he can give up Sister Irma because ‘Everybody is a nun. (Tout le monde est une nonne).’ This climactic moment, a harbinger of the notorious ending of ‘Zooey,’ where it is asserted that the Fat Lady is Christ, seems to me quite hollow and unearned, and, like the narrator, immature and callow. ‘Twice blessed’ is an empty poeticism borrowed (probably unconsciously) from Portia's speech in The Merchant of Venice. And ‘Everybody is a nun’ recalls the ‘Tout est grâce’ at the end of Bernanos' great novel, Journal d'un curé de campagne, in a way that devastatingly points up the thinness, staginess, and merely notional quality of Salinger's scene.

One generalisation that could be made about these two stories involves the old chestnut about the relative difficulty in creating convincing fictional representations of unfallen as opposed to fallen, transcendent to quotidian, gain to loss, saint to sinner, selflessness to egotism. Salinger seems to be aware of this problem in that ‘De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period’ contains a degree of narrative self-consciousness (absent in ‘Uncle Wiggily’) which suggests uneasiness in the face of a difficult creative problem. For the same reason, narrative self-consciousness becomes more and more prominent in the four Glass family stories which began to appear in The New Yorker the year after the publication of Nine Stories.

One thing that can be said about all of the Nine Stories is that they are professional pieces of work, textbook examples of the short-story form. By the same token, despite a good deal of ingenuity, they are limited by the form's conventional boundaries. One senses Salinger's dissatisfaction with this, and sees him beginning to push beyond the boundaries in ‘Franny’. As in the Nine Stories, the subject of this long short story is the opposition of the phony and the seeker after authenticity. Again, it is the phony—the splendid figure of Lane Coutell—that is better done. The presentation of Franny, an equally recognisable social type (a female Ivy Leaguer), is more fuzzy and uncertain. Particularly telling is the fact that Salinger can only convey a sense of Franny's spiritual yearning by having her summaries the contents of a Russian religious work, cry a lot, and continually mumble the Jesus prayer.

In ‘Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters’, a novella-length short story (it is not a short novella), the same contrast is in some ways better handled. The members of the wedding-party diaspora who eventually gather in Buddy and Seymour Glass's apartment are the rather too exhaustively detailed equivalent of the Lane Coutell world. The contrasting figure is again a Glass sibling, this time Seymour, like Franny a quasi-mystic, a seeker after higher truth who is half drawn towards, half put off by sexual and emotional involvement (for Franny, Lane; for Seymour, Muriel).

It is in the contrast between Seymour and Franny that the superiority of ‘Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters’ lies. Seymour is a much stronger and more convincing representation of spirituality. The principal reason for this is that he never appears in the story. He is the true life whose absence is mediated by his loving brother Buddy, the narrator. Because Salinger does not present Seymour directly he can become an acceptable, almost palpable representative of the higher life. Even his metaphorical stigmata—‘I have scars on my hands from touching certain people’ (from a diary Buddy has found)—which seems particularly annoying to certain critics, seems to me a striking evocation of what George Eliot called ‘a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life’, which if we had them would be ‘like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat’ and cause us to ‘die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence’.

The two other Glass stories, ‘Zooey’ and ‘Seymour: An Introduction’, are both disappointing pieces of work, much shrunken from the dimensions they had for me in the late 1950s. Both, particularly the latter, represent an interesting technical development in Salinger's art, for in them he has broken away completely from the conventional short-story form. This has been mainly achieved through the increased self-consciousness of the author/narrator and his active involvement in the story he is trying to tell. As Philip Roth was perhaps the first to recognise, in these stories Salinger was concerned ‘to place the figure of the writer directly in the reader's line of vision’. (More recently, in a piece in the 13 June 1975 TLS, David Lodge has suggestively discussed the ‘elaborate game with his audience and with the conventions of his art’ that the later Salinger is playing). For example, in ‘Seymour: An Introduction’ the subject of the story is as much the creative difficulties of Buddy Glass in presenting to the reader his saintly brother (‘the one person who was always much, much too large to fit on ordinary typewriter paper’) as it is Seymour himself. The spiritual theme (Seymour) and the epistemological/aesthetic theme (the apprehension and presentation of Seymour) become indistinguishable and are simultaneously held in the matrix of the writer-reader relationship.

It is from this technical point of view that ‘Zooey’ and ‘Seymour: An Introduction’ are most interesting. But this is not enough to save either story from its content. There is too much in the 44,000 words of ‘Zooey’ that is self-indulgent and inert; and the presentation and resolution of the religious problem is pitched in so shrill a key that one eventually comes to see that Salinger has taken Franny's rather run-of-the-mill collegiate identity crisis and tried to do much-too-much with it. And both the closing affirmation at the end of the 27,000 words of ‘Seymour: An Introduction’ (‘all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next’) and its climactic epiphany (the apparition of Seymour at ‘the magic hour of the day’ during a marble shooting game and his admonishing Buddy not to aim), though the latter once seemed to me the most incandescent moment in Salinger's canon, now seem too meager and too much like cut-rate Zen to justify the expenditure of time and energy necessary to get to the end of the story.

The only work of Salinger's that has not shrunk with the passage of time is The Catcher in the Rye. The macro-subject of Salinger's only novel is that of all his fiction; as Carol and Richard Ohmann say in their provocative ‘case study of capitalist criticism’ of Catcher in the autumn 1976 Critical Inquiry, the novel is ‘among other things a serious critical mimesis of bourgeois life in the Eastern United States ca. 1950. The micro-subject is a crisis point in the adolescence of a sensitive and perceptive youth: Holden Caulfield is sixteen when the events in the novel take place; seventeen when he narrates them. The social notation is superb: the expensive prep school with its Ackleys and Stradlaters; the lobby of the Biltmore (the in place for dates to meet); the Greenwich Village bar and the equally tony Wicker Bar uptown; the crowd in the theater lobby at intermission; Mr and Mrs Antolini; the sad ‘girls’ from Seattle who are in the big city to have a good time; and so on.

Similarly, the macro-theme of Catcher is that of the rest of Salinger; the almost Dickensian dichotomy between the lower world of the many and the innocent, constantly threatened world of the few: the dead Allie, who used to write poems all over his baseball mitt, and Jane Gallagher, who when playing checkers always kept her kings in the back row (both activities recall Seymour's admonition not to aim when shooting marbles); the two nuns who ‘went around collecting dough in those beat-up old straw baskets’; and Phoebe, the wise child, for love of whom her exhausted brother is moved to tears on the novel's last page.

What is different in Catcher, and what must be considered the key to its success, is its method. Holden's first person narration ipso facto removes from the novel any trace of New Yorker preciosities. Everything is seen from Holden's point of view and reported in his pungent vernacular. The voice and the perceptions are wholly convincing and of sustained freshness. Indeed, the only comparatively flat scenes—on the train with Morrow's mother, in the restaurant with the nuns—are the two places in the novel where one feels that there is something derivative about Holden's characterization and narration, that he is drawn more from Huckleberry Finn than from life.

Holden's adolescent perspective, halfway between the childhood and adult worlds, fully a part of neither yet acutely sensitive to and observant of both, provides the perfect point of focus for Catcher. Holden is in a privileged though precarious position. A two or three-year difference in his age, in either direction, would have made for an entirely different book. In his own image, to which the novel's title calls attention, Holden is ‘on the edge of some crazy cliff’, with little kids playing in a field of rye on one side of him, an abyss on the other. Like that of Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald's narrator in The Great Gatsby, Holden's bifocal vision allows him simultaneously to register both the phoniness and meretriciousness of the fallen world and the sense of wonder and tenderness, and the supernal frissons, of the innocent world. And since they are so well grounded (and thereby authenticated) in a particular person at a particular time of life, Holden's longings, needs and intimations of mystery never became sentimental or merely notional. Indeed they are the most resonant images in all of Salinger of the longing for the absent true life, as in Holden's haunting question of where the Central Park ducks go in the winter, his love for the dead brother, and for the live sister whom he wishes could, like things in the museum, always stay the way she now is and never have to grow up.

Near the end of Catcher Holden reflects that there is no place where one is free from somebody sneaking up and writing ‘Fuck you’ right under your nose. Holden's erasures of this phrase recall the last page of The Great Gatsby when Nick Carraway deletes an obscene word from Gatsby's steps before going down to the water's edge to begin his great mediation on the capacity for wonder and the longing for absent true life, which draws one ceaselessly back into the past. There are more similarities between Fitzgerald's and Salinger's novels (and between the two authors) than might at first meet the eye, and a brief concluding comparison of the two may be of help in making a stab at gauging the ‘real’ status of Catcher.

Both novels turn on the contrast of a fallen world of aggression, selfishness and phoniness and a tenuous higher world of (to use Fitzgerald's phrase) ‘heightened sensitivity to the promises of life’. Both writers have been charged with having no real social vision to complement their acute social notation: what the Ohmanns say of Holden Caulfield may, mutatis mutandis, be said of his creator: ‘for all his perceptiveness … he is an adolescent with limited understanding of what he perceives’. And Fitzgerald has of course been described as having been taken in by what he could see through. I believe that this remark is manifestly unfair to Fitzgerald at his best, and that there is much to ponder in his (admittedly oddly phrased) notebook comment that D. H. Lawrence was ‘Essential[ly] pre-Marxian. Just as I am essentially Marxian.’ There is real social insight in Gatsby, which offers a complex anatomy and moral evaluation of the world it describes. Because its bifocal vision is that of a discriminating adult, not that of an engagingly screwed-up teenager, the novel is able to offer a richer and more complex exploration both of the lower world and the higher world of threatened innocence and longing.

For these reasons, among others, Gatsby seems to me an appreciably greater novel than Catcher. But the difference is perhaps one of degree rather than of kind, and if one accepts John Berryman's definition of a masterpiece (found in his excellent essay on Gatsby in The Freedom of the Poet)—

a work of the literary imagination which is consistent, engaging, and dramatic, in exceptional degrees; which exhibits largely mastered a human subject of the first importance; and which seems in retrospect to illuminate the whole physical and spiritual situation of which it was, by the strange parturition of art, an accidental product. One easy test will be the rapidity with which, in the imagination of a good judge, other works of the period and kind will faint away under any suggested comparison with it.

—one may go on to say that both The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye belong on permanent display in the gallery of classic American fiction.

Further Reading

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Alsen, Eberhard. “The Role of Vedanta Hinduism in Salinger's Seymour Novel.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature XXXIII, No. 2 (Winter 1981): 99-116.

Examines the significance of Vedantic themes and allusions in Salinger's Glass family stories.

———. Salinger's Glass Stories as a Composite Novel. Troy, NY: Whitston Publishing Company, 1983.

Provides analysis of the characters, plot, narrative structure, and unifying spiritual themes of Salinger's Glass family saga.

Antico, John. “The Parody of J. D. Salinger: Esmé and the Fat Lady Exposed.” Modern Fiction Studies XII, No. 3 (Autumn 1966): 325-40.

Examines Salinger's use of Zen philosophy in “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor” and “Zooey” to suggest the irony and absurdity of his art and critics.

Bryan, James. “A Reading of Salinger's ‘Teddy.’” American Literature XXXX (1968): 352-69.

Provides analysis of the major themes, narrative structure, and Eastern religious concepts in “Teddy.”

Burke, Fidelian. “Salinger's ‘Esmé’: Some Matters of Balance.” Modern Fiction Studies XII, No. 3 (Autumn 1966): 341-47.

Discusses the unifying significance of characterization, narrative structure, and authorial voice in “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor.”

Howell, John M. “Salinger in the Waste Land.” Modern Fiction Studies XII, No. 3 (Autumn 1966): 367-75.

Examines metaphorical allusions to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land in Salinger's fiction, particularly The Catcher in the Rye.

O'Connor, Dennis L. “J. D. Salinger's Religious Pluralism: The Example of ‘Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters.’” Southern Review 20, No. 2 (April 1984): 316-32.

Discusses elements of Buddhist, Taoist, and Christian religious thought in “Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters.”

Whitfield, Stephen J. “Cherished and Cursed: Toward a Social History of The Catcher in the Rye.New England Quarterly LXX, No. 4 (December 1977): 567-600.

Provides an overview of critical and popular reaction to The Catcher in the Rye, drawing attention to its literary, social, and political contexts in postwar America.

Additional coverage of Salinger's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 2; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 18; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941-1968; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 39; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 102, 173; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied, Novelists, Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults; Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 1; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 2, 28; Something about the Author, Vol. 67; and World Literature Criticism.

Salinger’s Works

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The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown, 1951.

The narrator, seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield, now recuperating in a psychiatric institution, tells the story of the “madman stuff”1 that happened to him the preceding Christmas after he flunked out of Pencey Preparatory School in Pennsylvania. Emotionally fragile, Holden has never recovered from the death of his younger brother, Allie, who died from leukemia four years earlier. Holden’s narrative begins at the time of his preparations to leave Pencey. He makes a brief visit to his history teacher, Mr. Spencer. Attempting to justify failing Holden, Spencer reads aloud from the boy’s final exam an essay on the Egyptians, whom Holden admired for their mummification skills. After returning to his dormitory room, Holden fights his roommate, Ward Stradlater, who, he fears, has made sexual advances toward Jane Gallagher, a girl Holden idealizes and whose innocence he wants preserved. He leaves Pencey for New York that same night, wearing his red hunting cap with the bill reversed.

In New York, Holden takes a room at the Edmond Hotel and spends two days dancing, drinking, and going to shows, coping with despair caused by the “phoniness”—the hypocrisy, insincerity, and lack of compassion—of the corrupt adult world. He goes to a club to hear a gifted piano player, but he is disappointed that the musician has sacrificed his spontaneity and authenticity in order to appeal to an audience of “dopes” (110). Back in his hotel, he accepts a bellboy’s offer to send a prostitute to his room, but her arrival is more sad than stimulating for Holden, who sees in the young prostitute innocence lost. Demanding more money, the prostitute’s bellboy pimp punches Holden. The next day, Holden finds comfort when he sees a little boy walking with his parents and singing “in a pretty little voice . . . just for the hell of it. ... ’If a body

catch a body coming through the rye’” (150). Holden thinks of his sister, Phoebe, and, because it is Sunday, he believes he might find her at the Museum of Natural History. He likes the museum because nothing ever changes there; the animals and the people in the glass cases always remain the same. Only people change, he concludes, and that awareness suddenly lessens the museum’s attraction.

Holden goes to the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel, where he waits for a friend, Sally Hayes, with whom he has made a date to see a matinee starring the Lunts (Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, a popular acting couple). Holden finds no spontaneity in the Lunts’ performance; they are good, but “too good” (164). After the play, he and Sally go ice-skating, but their ankles hurt, and they leave the rink for a cocktail table, where he tells her how much he hates school, New York, and the demands that society forces on him. Holden asks Sally to run away with him to New England and live in the woods away from people, but she refuses. He becomes angry and insults her, causing her to leave in anger. Lonely and depressed, Holden goes to a stage show at Radio City Music Hall, where he watches a “Christmas thing” (in which he finds nothing religious), with “thousands” of actors “carrying crucifixes” (178), and a sentimental English movie that causes him to think he “might puke” (180). Holden dislikes actors and throughout the novel expresses his disappointment that his brother D. B., a talented writer, is “out in Hollywood . . . being a prostitute” (4).

Later Holden has a drink with Carl Luce, his former student adviser at Whooten, another school from which Holden was expelled. Finding Luce pretentious and phony, he taunts him, causing Luce to suggest that Holden might benefit from psychoanalysis. Luce leaves abruptly. Holden stays, becomes quite drunk and deeply despondent, and goes to Central Park to see the ducks. He wonders where the ducks go when the pond freezes. Cold and fearing that he might die from pneumonia, Holden thinks again of Phoebe, is regenerated by her memory, and walks to his parents’ apartment. They are out for the evening, but Phoebe is home. When Holden tells her his reasons for not being able to remain at Pencey—the “phonies,” “the mean guys,” (217), and the exclusivity—Phoebe says he does not “like anything that’s happening” (220). Holden wants to be “the catcher in the rye,” to stand “on the edge of some crazy cliff near a field of rye where children play so that he can catch any of them who are in danger of going over the cliff edge (224-225).

After his parents return, Holden leaves and goes to the apartment of a former English teacher, Mr. Antolini, who has invited him to spend the night with him and his wife. Antolini, to whom Holden has looked as a trust worthy adult, also disappoints him. Convinced that Holden is heading for a disastrous fall, Antolini offers advice, but Holden finds it stale and studied, revealing the teacher’s greater concern for presentation and proper words than for his former student’s well-being. Later, while sleeping on the couch, Holden is suddenly awakened by Antolini, who is petting his head and saying that he is “simply . . . admiring” (249). Holden bolts from the apartment and goes to Grand Central Station to spend the night.

Physically ill, Holden leaves the station the next morning to go to Phoebe’s school in order to leave a note, telling her that he has decided to leave New York that day and that she should meet him at a nearby art museum. While walking, he fears that he is going to pass out, to “disappear” (257), and he calls on his dead brother, Allie, whose memory is always with him, to save him. At Phoebe’s school he erases an obscenity from a wall to prevent the children from seeing it, but he finds so many other obscenities that he is forced to admit that “if you had a million years” (262), it would be impossible to erase all of them. At the museum Holden passes out when exiting a rest room. When Phoebe arrives, she has her suitcase with her and declares her determination to go away with Holden. Suddenly, he senses his dangerous influence on and responsibility to his sister and reacts angrily, telling her that he is not leaving. The story of the “madman stuff ends with Holden watching Phoebe riding a carousel at the Central Park Zoo, where he has freed himself from his obsession with being the catcher in the rye. As he looks at Phoebe, he is ecstatic, enlightened, and transformed by the presence of love. In what might be seen as an epilogue, Holden indicates that he prefers not to think about the future and regrets having told his story. “Don’t ever tell anybody anything,” he says. “If you do, you start missing everybody” (277).

Nine Stories. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Comprises “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” “The Laughing Man,” “Down at the Dinghy,” “For Esmé— with Love and Squalor,” “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes,” “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period,” and “Teddy.”

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Originally published in The New Yorker, 23 (31 January 1948): 21-25.

Seymour Glass, who was in a military hospital during World War II because of psychiatric problems, is vacationing with his wife, Muriel, at a Florida beach. Shallow and materialistic, Muriel devotes much time to her appearance and the dictates of fashion. A reader of tawdry magazine articles, she has misplaced a special book by a German poet that Seymour has given her, and she is amused that he calls her “Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948.”2 While Seymour is on the beach, he is approached by Sybil Carpenter, the child of a mother who is, like Muriel, sensitive to style and partial to martinis. Already acquainted with Seymour, Sybil engages him in conversation. Her remarks are direct and spontaneous, tactlessly honest. Seymour suggests that they try to catch a bananafish because it is, he says, a perfect day for them. As he guides Sybil and her raft into the ocean, he explains that bananafish swim into banana holes and “behave like pigs” (23), eating and becoming so fat that they die because they cannot escape their holes. When Sybil claims to see a bananafish with six bananas in its mouth, Seymour kisses the arch of her foot and takes her back to shore. He returns to the hotel, where he reacts angrily to a woman on the elevator who, he claims, is staring at his feet. Seymour leaves the elevator on the fifth floor and goes into his hotel room, which smells of “calfskin luggage and nail-lacquer remover” (26). He looks at his wife sleeping on a twin bed, takes a pistol from his luggage, and shoots himself through the right temple.

“Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.” Originally published in The New Yorker, 24 (20 March 1948): 30-36.

Eloise welcomes her college friend Mary Jane to her suburban house in Connecticut, where they drink highballs and reminisce. Eloise has a small daughter, Ramona, who wears glasses with “thick, counter-myopia lens” (37) and retreats into her private world with her imaginary friend, Jimmy Jimmereeno. As Eloise continues to drink, it is obvious that she has become a hollow and unfulfilled person whose conversation is limited to celebrities she has seen while shopping at the upscale department store Lord & Taylor and old friends. She remembers happier times with a former boyfriend, Walt, whose wit and tenderness are absent from her present life with her husband, Lew. Walt once sympathetically referred to her twisted ankle as “Poor Uncle Wiggily” (42). He was killed in World War II, not by enemy fire but by a Japanese stove that exploded as he and another soldier were packing it up for a colonel to send home. Eloise has acquiesced to the standards of a phony, corrupt world by which she has been changed. Later in the evening the drunken Eloise goes up to Ramona’s room and chides her daughter about sleeping with a new imaginary friend (Jimmy Jimmereeno has been killed). When she picks up Ramona’s thick glasses and presses them to her cheek, she weeps and kisses the child lovingly, seeing in her, perhaps, a glimpse of her former self. Downstairs again, Eloise reminds Mary Jane that there was an earlier time in her life when she was quite different: “I was a nice girl,” she says, “wasn’t I?” (56).

“Just Before the War with the Eskimos.” Originally published in The New Yorker, 24 (5 June 1948): 37-40, 42, 44, 46.

Upset that her tennis friend Selena Graff has not paid her share of their cab fare, Ginny Maddox goes home with Selena to wait until she gets money from her mother to pay her. While Selena is in her sick mother’s bedroom, her physically repulsive brother, Franklin, wearing pajamas and nursing a bleeding finger, comes into the living room thinking that his friend Eric has arrived. Franklin tells Ginny that her sister, whom he met in 1942 and who refused to answer his letters, is the “[q]ueen of the goddam snobs” (64). He also offers Ginny half a chicken sandwich, which she refuses. She learns that Franklin is twenty-four years old; he dropped out of college and then worked in an airplane fac-tory in Ohio for thirty-seven months. His bad heart kept him out of military service; he is lonely, alienated, and angry. Looking out the window at a line of people going to the draft board, Franklin says, “We’re gonna fight the Eskimos, next.” His friend Eric arrives and expresses admiration for Ginny’s coat: “It’s lovely. It’s the first really good camel’s hair I’ve seen since the war” (77). Eric is taking Franklin to see Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946) because he wants to improve his friend’s “taste” in movies. Unlike Franklin, Eric does not have a defective heart. Before she leaves, Ginny accepts the half sandwich from Franklin and tells Selena that she does not need the money. On the bus ride home, Ginny plans to discard the sandwich but puts it in her pocket, recalling that it had once taken her three days to dispose of a dead Easter chick.

“The Laughing Man.” Originally published in The New Yorker, 25 (19 March 1949): 27-32.

An adult narrator tells the story of “the Comanche Club” of 1928, of which he was a member when he was nine years old. The “Chief of the club, John Gedsudski, in his early twenties and working his way through law school, picked up the boys in his “reconverted commercial bus” (83) each afternoon from P.S. 165 and drove them to sports activities and museums, a service for which their parents paid him. Although the Chief had been an outstanding athlete, he was small and unattractive, but to the Comanches he was a hero. He would narrate installments of a continuously unfolding story, “The Laughing Man,” for the Comanches as darkness fell. Kidnapped as a child from his missionary parents by Chinese bandits, the laughing man had been disfigured when the bandits squeezed his head in a vice. Consequently, he had to wear a “pale-red gossamer mask made out of poppy petals” (88) to prevent those who looked at him from fainting. Nevertheless, his “love of fair play” earned him “a warm place in the nation’s heart” (89). He also learned to speak with the animals of the forest, and his closest allies were “a glib timber wolf named Black Wing” and “a lovable dwarf named Omba” (91). When the Comanches were suddenly forced to share the Chief’s attention with Mary Hudson, a beautiful former student at Wellesley College whose picture, affixed to the rear-view mirror over the windshield, “clashed with the general men-only decor of the bus” (93), the Comanches were confused, unable to understand the Chief’s and Mary’s relationship or the subsequent tension that led to the couple’s breakup. When Mary left the Chief, the story of the laughing man grew tragic: he was captured and shot by his evil enemies, the Dufarges, and later died. The narrator recalls that at the conclusion of the story of the laughing man, his knees shook, his teeth chattered, and the youngest Comanche, Billy Walsh, cried. As the Chief drove them home, nobody told Billy not to cry.

“Down at the Dinghy.” Originally published in Harper’s, 198 (April 1949): 87-91.

On an October afternoon Boo Boo Glass Tannenbaum’s maid, Sandra, is talking to the cleaning woman, Mrs. Snell, fearful that Boo Boo’s son, four-year-old Lionel, overheard one of her remarks and will tell his parents. Boo Boo enters the kitchen, looking for pickles to use in luring Lionel out of his father’s dinghy, to which the boy has run away. When she approaches the dock, she announces herself as “Vice Admiral Tannenbaum, Nee Glass” (121). Lionel, showing hostility, refuses to accept her nautical role and refutes her claims to navy rank. Blowing into her cupped hand “kazoo style,” Boo Boo offers “a secret bugle call that only admirals are allowed to hear” (123) and tells Lionel that she has missed him in the house. Unmoved, he refuses to let her come into the dinghy and says, “You can talk to Sandra” (126). Ever more defiant, Lionel throws a pair of snorkeling goggles into the water and, minutes later, a key chain Boo Boo gives him. Then he begins to cry. Receptive at last to his mother’s overtures, he welcomes her kisses and reveals the source of his distress: “Sandra—told Mrs. Smell—that Daddy’s a big—sloppy—kike” (129). Understating her feelings, Boo Boo minimizes the anti-Semitic remark as not “too terrible” and asks whether Lionel knows what a “kike” is. “It’s one of those things that go up in the air,” he says, “with string you hold” (129). With his pain now eased, he is able to return to his family and accept his mother’s suggestion that his father take them for a boat ride that evening. He and his mother race back to the house, and Lionel wins.

“For Esmé—with Love and Squalor.” Originally published in The New Yorker, 26 (8 April 1950): 28-36.

The narrator receives a wedding invitation from a young woman in England. He does not go to the wedding, but he tells a story that, he says, will “reveal the bride as I knew her almost six years ago” (132). One of sixty enlisted men undergoing intelligence training in April 1944 in Devon, England, in preparation for the invasion of Normandy, the narrator goes into town one day. He listens to a children’s church choir and visits a tearoom, where a girl named Esmé, “about thirteen” (136), whose voice he admired in the choir, enters with her younger brother, Charles, “about five,” and “presumably” a governess (138). They join the narrator. Esme reveals that her mother is dead and that her father was “s-1-a-i-n”—spelling out the word because Charles is present—in North Africa (146). She wears a large wrist-watch, possibly “a navigator’s chronograph” (140), that belonged to her late father. Esme asks the narrator many questions about himself. When she learns that he is a short-story writer, she requests that he write a story especially for her about “squalor” (151). Esme says that Charles “misses our father very much” and “would like to kiss you goodbye” (155). She asks for the narrator’s forwarding address and hopes that he will return from the war with his “faculties intact” (156). The conversation with Esme, the narrator says, “was a strangely emotional moment for me” (154).

The second part of “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” a third-person narrative, is about “squalor.” The setting is “Gaufurt, Bavaria, several weeks after V-E Day” (157), in a civilian home where Staff Sergeant X and nine other soldiers live. Having served in five campaigns since the Normandy invasion and having been recently released from a hospital in Frankfurt, Sergeant X “had not come through the war with all his faculties intact” (157). Before opening his accumulating mail, he looks at a book by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, titled Die Zeit ohne Beispiel (The Unprecedented Era, 1941). It was left behind by the daughter of a former resident of the house. Written on the flyleaf of the book are the words: “Dear God, life is hell” (159). Under these words Sergeant X writes, “Fathers and teachers, I ponder ’What is hell?’ I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love,” a quotation from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880). After discarding uninteresting mail from home, the sergeant finds a small package from Esme containing her father’s watch and a letter explaining that she hopes the watch will bring him good luck. The letter is signed by Esmé, with love and kisses from Charles. The letter brings Sergeant X peace and hope that he will become a man once more “with all his f-a-c-u-1-t-i-e-s intact” (173).

“Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes.” Originally published in The New Yorker, 27 (14 July 1951): 20-24.

Lee, a “gray-haired man,” answers a telephone call while in bed with a “girl” (174) who is not his wife. The caller, a younger law partner in Lee’s firm named Arthur who has been drinking heavily, asks whether Lee saw his wife, Joan, leave a party all three had attended. Lee replies that Joan is probably with another couple and will likely return soon, but Arthur is not reassured, saying that his wife has always flirted and he does not trust her. Lee defends Joan and suggests that Arthur is fortunate to be married to a woman with “good taste—or brains” (181). Incredulous, Arthur says that Joan has no brains at all and only thinks herself an intellectual, affectedly describing every man she sees as “terribly attractive” (183). He has lost a case and is obviously concerned that the principals of the firm will be upset. Despondent, Arthur recalls a poem he once sent Joan: “Rose my color is and white, Pretty mouth and green my eyes.” Embarrassed, he exclaims that Joan’s eyes are not green but like “sea shells” (190). He wants to come to Lee’s house for a drink, but the older man reminds him that he should be home when Joan arrives, and Arthur hangs up. The “girl” with Lee thinks him “wonderful” but adds that she feels “like a dog! “(193). His phone rings. It is Arthur again, saying that Joan was with friends and has returned; he assures Lee that he is not calling back because of concern for his job.

“De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period.” Originally published in World Review, new series 39 (May 1952): 33-48.

Having lived in Paris for nine years, where he won three first prizes in National Junior Art exhibitions, the unnamed nineteen-year-old narrator returns to New York in 1939. He sees an advertisement in a Quebec newspaper for art instructors at a correspondence school and applies, greatly exaggerating his experience and giving himself the pseudonym Jean de Daumier-Smith. “Les Amis Des Vieux Maitres” (205) hires him for its summer session, and he goes to Montreal. The school, located in a poor section of the city, has two other staff members, Monsieur I. Yoshoto, the director, and Yoshoto’s wife. Yoshoto gives de Daumier-Smith submissions from three students. He finds the work of two of them discouraging, even absurd, but he greatly admires a watercolor portrayal of Christ’s burial by Sister Irma, a nun from a parochial school outside Toronto. De Daumier-Smith works all night, making sketches and responding to her submission. His response addresses not only Sister Irma’s talent, to which he will give unlimited time and energy, but also the nun herself, whose sincerity, honesty, and imagined beauty he finds invigorating and exciting. De Daumier-Smith refers to her passion and genius and expresses extreme eagerness to see additional work, as well as a desire to visit her. A reply to his letter comes soon from the mother superior of the parochial school, stating that Father Zimmerman has decided that Sister Irma should not continue her art studies. De Daumier-Smith writes another letter to Sister Irma, never mailed, questioning Father Zimmerman’s rea-sons for denying her lessons and emphasizing her potential as an artist.

At twilight, while walking, de Daumier-Smith stops to look into an “orthopedic appliances shop” window where a young woman changes the truss on a “wooden dummy” (249). Seeing him watching her, she blushes and falls; he reaches, as if to help, pressing his fingers against the glass. As the young woman rises and resumes lacing the truss, de Daumier-Smith has what he calls his “Experience” (250). A blinding light, lasting only a few seconds, appears in the glass, affecting his balance. When he regains his sight, the young woman is gone, leaving behind not the enamel urinals and bedpans he observed earlier but “a shimmering field of exquisite, twice-blessed enamel flowers,” in response to which he notes in his diary some time later: “Everybody is a nun (Tout le monde est une none)” (257).

“Teddy.” Originally published in The New Yorker, 28 (31 January 1953): 26-36, 38.

Ten-year-old Teddy McArdle, clairvoyant and a precocious follower of “the Vedantic theory of reincarnation” (286), is on a transatlantic ocean liner, returning to the United States from Europe, where he has been interviewed by leading universities. He travels with his father, mother, and six-year-old sister, Booper, a child who reveals hostility and a fascination with violence. On the sundeck Teddy writes as his diary entry for 28 October 1952: “It will either happen today or February 14, 1958 when I am sixteen. It is ridiculous to mention even” (276-277). Another passenger, a professor of education named Bob Nicholson, is eager to hear Teddy’s thoughts concerning mystical experiences and foreknowledge of death and asks to join him. Teddy says that in his present incarnation he had a mystical experience one morning and suddenly saw “that everything was God” (288). He speaks also of “finite dimensions,” earthly perspectives that cause one to presume that a thing perceived, in fact, is. In order to escape these “finite dimensions,” Teddy tells Nicholson, one must be free from “[l]ogic.” It is the “[l]ogic and intellectual stuff in the apple Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden that causes people to “see everything stop-ping off all the time” (291). Therefore, they prefer to continue the birth-death cycle, refusing to try to advance spiritually to the point at which they could die and go directly to Brahma or God, denying them-selves the possibility, Teddy says, “of stopping and staying with God, where it’s really nice” (292). Fear of death, he concludes, is “silly” (294), an idea he illustrates by hypothesizing the circumstances of his own death. When he goes to his swimming lesson, as he is about to do, he might arrive on the day when the water is being changed. As he stands at the edge of the empty pool, his sister, who, as he says, “doesn’t like me very much,” might push him in, causing his death from a fractured skull: “I’d just be doing what I was supposed to be doing, that’s all, wouldn’t I?” (295). When Teddy actually leaves for his swimming lesson, Nicholson follows him. Approaching the pool, Nicholson hears “an all-piercing, sustained scream—clearly coming from a small, female child” (302). No explanation is given.

Franny and Zooey. Boston: Little, Brown, 1961. Comprises “Franny” and “Zooey.”

“Franny.” Originally published in The New Yorker, 30 (29 January 1955): 24-32, 35-43.

Lane Coutell waits on the platform of a railway station for a train bringing his date, Franny Glass, to town for “the weekend of the Yale game.”3 After the train arrives, Lane and Franny drop off her luggage at a rooming house and go to a restaurant favored by “the intellectual fringe of the college” (10). They begin lunch with martinis. Lane dominates the conversation immediately, discussing a paper he has written on Gustave Flaubert in which he argued psychological reasons for the author’s being “neurotically attracted to the mot juste,” unlike “the really good boys—Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Shakespeare . . .” (13). Franny interrupts to ask whether Lane wants the olive in his martini. Undeterred from his train of thought, he hands her the olive and ponders aloud the possibilities for publishing his paper. She interrupts again, saying that he sounds like “a section man” (14), someone who substitutes for a professor and pretentiously denigrates the writer the class is studying. Franny is “sick of pedants and conceited little tearer-downers . . .” (17). Despite her periodic self-deprecation, the conversation becomes more tense, and Franny, physically ill, excuses herself to go to the ladies’ room, where she cries “for fully five minutes.” She takes “a small pea-green clothbound book” (22) from her purse and presses it to her breast before returning to the table.

Lane is disappointed that Franny orders a chicken sandwich and a glass of milk. He has ordered snails, frog legs, and a salad. He is also disappointed that she does not remember Wally Campbell, one of his friends, but Franny reminds Lane that his friends “all talk and dress like everybody else” (25). The Wally Campbells of her world are all alike, known for their smugly critical affectations and large egos. Attempting to free herself from the force of her ego, Franny has given up acting because she feels shame when she delivers her lines. Her role as the strong female character Pegeen Mike in John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World (1907) could have been “really nice,” but the actor who portrayed the title character, she says, denied her that pleasure by becoming “so lyrical” (28).

When Lane inquires about her little green book, Franny tells him it is The Way of the Pilgrim, written by an anonymous Russian peasant. She says the pilgrim wants to “find out what it means in the Bible when it says you should pray incessantly” and that a “starets— some sort of terribly advanced religious person” (33)—provides the answer by telling the pilgrim that he must first learn the “Jesus Prayer,” the words of which are: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” When one repeats this prayer unceasingly, silently with the lips at first, Franny says, “the prayer becomes self-active,” and “the words get synchronized with the person’s heartbeats ...“ (36). Quantity becomes quality, and “You get to see God,” she says (39). Ill again, Franny leaves the table, faints, and is carried to the couch in the restaurant managers office, where she remains unconscious for several minutes. Concerned and attentive, Lane goes for a cab while Franny lies still, staring at the ceiling as her lips begin to move, “forming soundless words, and they continued to move” (43).

“Zooey.” Originally published in The New Yorker, 33 (4 May 1957): 32-42, 44-139.

The narrator, Buddy Glass, says in “the author’s formal introduction” that the story is “a sort of prose home movie” (47). His younger brother Zooey has warned him that the plot of this family story, which depends on mysticism, might harm Buddy’s writing career. Zooey has also taken issue with his brother’s overuse of the word God in telling the story. Buddy maintains that what follows is not “a mystical story” but “a compound, or multiple, love story, pure and complicated” (49). In November 1955 the twenty-five-year-old Zooey, a handsome, successful television actor, sits in a bathtub in his parents’ house reading a four-year-old letter from Buddy dated 18 March 1951, “three years, to the day” (62), since the oldest Glass brother, Seymour, committed suicide. Buddy explains in the letter that he and Seymour “highhandedly” involved themselves in Zooey’s and their sister Franny’s education and introduced them to much religion and philosophy because they thought a quest for “no-knowledge” should precede a quest for knowledge, that they should know “saints” and “bodhisattvas” before “Blake and Whitman” (65-66).

Suddenly, the mother of the Glass siblings, Bessie, announces that she is coming into the bathroom, and Zooey hides behind the shower curtain. She asks whether he has talked to Franny, who has been lying on a couch since returning from visiting her boyfriend, Lane Cou-tell, and has been repeatedly refusing her mother’s chicken broth. Zooey has talked to Franny but says he does not think his sister wants to talk again. Bessie continues her endless chatter, not only about Franny but also about Zooey’s toothpaste, his acting scripts, and the disorderly state of the bathroom. Her son replies with razor wit and sarcasm. Bessie is convinced that the source of Franny’s trouble is “that little book” (95) that she has been carrying throughout the house. Zooey seems to agree and angrily blames Buddy and Seymour for turning both Franny and him into “freaks” by instilling in them a religious fervor that leads to neurotic behavior. He tells Bessie that Franny actually has two little books: The Way of the Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way. The latter, he says, details “the whys and wherefores of the Jesus Prayer” (112).

When Zooey leaves the bathroom, he goes to check on Franny and, during a long and animated discourse, tells her that if she is going to say the Jesus Prayer, she must understand Jesus. “Jesus,” he says, “realized there is no separation from God” (169) and that “we’re carrying the Kingdom of Heaven around with us, inside” (169-170). This, Zooey says, is “the whole point of the Jesus Prayer,” which has only one aim: “To endow the person who says it with Christ-consciousness,” not to provide a “holier-than-thou trysting place” or to relieve one of world-weariness (170). Zooey leaves Franny distraught and goes into Seymour’s and Buddy’s old room. He reads from long lists of his brothers’ favorite quotations, which underscore his point about the Jesus Prayer.

Making one more attempt to relieve Franny’s anguish and encourage her to proceed with her life and acting career, Zooey picks up his brothers’ old phone on a separate line, kept in service at Buddy’s insistence; he slips a handkerchief over the receiver and dials Bessie’s number. Franny answers the phone, speaking from her parents’ bedroom. Although she soon recognizes Zooey’s voice, she does not hang up. He tells her that he once complained about having to shine his shoes before appearing on The Wise Child, a radio quiz program on which all the Glass children eventually appeared, because none of the listeners would see his shoes. Seymour told him to shine his shoes anyway: “Shine them for the Fat Lady” (199). The secret, Zooey tells Franny, is that “There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady” and that the Fat Lady is “Christ Himself, Christ Himself ...“ (200). Zooey’s words resonate with Franny. She hangs up the phone, climbs into her parents’ bed, lies quiet, and smiles at the ceiling for several minutes before falling into a peaceful sleep.

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963. Comprises “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour: An Introduction.”

“Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.” Originally published in The New Yorker, 31 (19 November 1955): 51-58, 60-116.

The narrator, twenty-three-year-old Buddy Glass, is being treated for pleurisy at an army hospital at Fort Benning, Georgia. On “May 22nd or 3rd,”4 1942, he receives a letter from his sister Boo Boo, a Navy Wave, informing him that their brother Seymour is to be married on 4 June at the house of the bride’s grandmother in New York. Because Buddy is the only member of the family who could possibly attend the wedding, she writes, he must be there. Buddy arrives at the ceremony on time, but the groom never arrives. The distraught bride, Muriel Fedder, and her “immediate family” (16) load themselves into waiting cars. Buddy climbs into one of the cars with “a hefty” and hos-tile matron of honor, who wants to get her hands on Seymour for “just two minutes” (21); her husband, a first lieutenant in the Signal Corps; Mrs. Silsburn, an aunt of the bride; and a diminutive deaf-mute, the bride’s “father’s uncle” (55), all bound for the bride’s home. Their car stops as a parade arrives, delaying them indefinitely. Furious, the matron of honor continues her attack on Seymour, whom she considers “crazy” and a “latent homosexual” (42), probably with “a really schizoid personality” (43). She adds that he reportedly asked Muriel to postpone the wedding because he was “too happy to get married” (45). The passengers abandon the car, and the matron of honor leads them to a Schrafft’s restaurant, where she can use a telephone and they can have sodas in an air-conditioned space. Buddy admits to being Seymour’s brother. The Schrafft’s is closed, so Buddy takes the group to his nearby apartment, also air-conditioned.

At Buddy’s apartment the matron of honor returns to her attack, quoting Mrs. Fedder’s conviction that former child performers like Seymour, who was once on the radio quiz program It’s a Wise Child, “never learn to relate to normal people” (68). Buddy replies that he does not “give a good God damn what Mrs. Fedder ... or any professional dilettante or amateur bitch had to say” on the subject of his brother, adding that none of “the patronizing, fourth-rate critics and column writers” ever saw him “for what he really was. A poet, for God’s sake” (69). In the bedroom Buddy finds Seymour’s bag and diary, evidence that he has been in the apartment recently. Buddy takes the diary into the bathroom, where Boo Boo has written in soap on the mirror, “Raise high the roof beam, carpenters. Like Ares comes the bridegroom, taller far than a tall man” (76). Buddy reads a portion of the diary, in which Seymour points out that he is not bothered by Mrs. Fedder’s presumptions about his psychological condition, that he finds them comforting, and that he considers himself “a kind of paranoiac in reverse.” “1 suspect people of plotting,” Seymour has written, “to make me happy” (88).

Buddy stops reading the diary and returns to the kitchen to prepare cold drinks for his guests. The matron of honor, having spoken to the Fedders on the telephone, announces that “the groom’s no longer indisposed by happiness” (100). Seymour has returned, and he and Muriel have eloped. The guests, with the exception of the bride’s father’s uncle, leave immediately, and Buddy reads from Seymour’s diary again, his last entry. Seymour has written that he asked Muriel to elope with him because he is “too keyed up” to be with people on the day he is “about to be born,” a “sacred, sacred day.” He has written also that a “miscellany of Vedanta” has pointed out that marriage is about serving. Seymour is ready to serve and experience, he says “the joy of responsibility” for the first time in his life (106). Buddy closes the diary and sleeps.

“Seymour: An Introduction.” Originally published in The New Yorker, 35 (6 June 1959): 42-52, 54-111.

“Seymour: An Introduction” is Buddy Glass’s ambitious por-trait of his late brother, who committed suicide six years after the wedding and events portrayed in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.” Buddy begins with quotations from Franz Kafka and Soren Kierkegaard that illustrate the difficulty of his task and suggest that the greatest obstacles he faces are unintended intrusions of self, born out of love for Seymour, that threaten to compete for control of the narrative. Acknowledging that his readers likewise present a challenge, Buddy seeks to establish a rapport with them, “an entre-nous spirit,” by involving them in the compositional process so that they may perceive what he calls “pure spirit” (113). He wants to overcome impediments to this perception that have been littered about by literary critics and “neo-Freudians” working in their “clinics . . . free of any inherent morbid attrait [attraction] to beauty” (118). Such persons are incapable of comprehending a “true artist-seer” like Seymour, “dazzled to death by his own scruples” (123), a poet who was “all real things” to his family but most of all an “enlightened man, a God-knower” (124).

Buddy abandons the short-story form, which he finds inadequate for an introduction to Seymour; nevertheless, he acknowledges having written two other stories about his brother. Buddy also functions as Seymour’s literary executor and plans to select for publication “about a hundred and fifty” of “one hundred and eighty-four” of Seymour’s short poems. They are about simple subjects, reflecting Seymour’s poetic roots in Chinese and Japanese poetry and his belief that the “true poet has no choice of material” (141), that the material chooses the poet. Their younger brother Waker, a priest, has concluded, Buddy says, that Seymour likely had “memorable existences” in feudal Japan and metropolitan Atlantis (155).

Buddy breaks away from his Seymour narrative briefly in order to present aspects of the Glass family history central to his portrayal of his brother, focusing on the Glasses’ roles as performers over the course of several generations and, in particular, on the nostalgic recollections of Les Glass, their father, about his own career as a stage actor and vaudevillian. Buddy recalls what he regards as an especially revealing moment, when their father asked Seymour whether he remembered the vaudeville comic Joe Jackson’s once giving Seymour a ride on his trick bicycle “all over the stage.” Seymour had answered that “he wasn’t sure he had ever got off Joe Jackson’s beautiful bicycle,” a response, Buddy adds, that had not only “sentimental value” for his father but was “true, true, true” (173-174). Commenting on Buddy’s stories, Seymour once reminded him that writing is the author’s “religion” and that one must always “trust the heart” and write from the heart (186-187).

Buddy provides details about Seymour’s physical description but concludes that he cannot truly describe him. Seymour’s suicide haunts Buddy, and though he must revisit the details of his brother’s death, he will not do so in the present narrative, nor “for several more years” (196). He has attempted many times to write about Seymour, but he has burned “at least a dozen” (212) of his stories since the suicide, discovering that understatement in describing his brother, who cannot be understated, always leads to an artistic lie. Buddy recalls that as a child Seymour “loved sports and games” and that his extraordinary proficiency at playing marbles revealed much about his life. Hoping to improve Buddy’s skill at marbles, Seymour tellingly asked him, “Could you try not aiming so much?” (236). The lessons of Seymour’s approach to marbles, Buddy suggests, involved detachment from pride and the ego. However intrusive his own ego in his portrait of his brother, Buddy acknowledges, it could never prevent him from always being “conscious of the good, the real” (248) in Seymour.

The conclusion of the narrative reveals what for Buddy was probably Seymour’s most important teaching. It is the same lesson their brother Zooey shared with their sister Franny: Seymour’s Fat Lady is not only everyone on earth but also Christ. Feeling Seymour’s powerful presence during the process of composing his narrative, Buddy puts aside his introduction, suddenly eager to return to that “awful Room 307,” where, in the morning, he will teach his class of students at a women’s college; among these young women, he says, there is not one who “is not as much my sister as Boo Boo or Franny.” Finally, remembering that “Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next,” Buddy asks himself as he goes to bed, “is he never wrong?” (248).


“The Young Folks.” Story, 16 (March-April 1940): 26-30.

At a party she is giving for her friends, young Lucille Henderson introduces William Jameson Junior, a socially inept nail-biter, to lonely, desperate Edna Phillips. More interested in a small, blond young woman at the party, Jameson remains indifferent to Edna’s attempts to impress him by her affected diction and pretended popularity. When Jameson leaves Edna to continue gazing at the young blond, Lucille asks Edna why he left, and Edna falsely implies that he made a sexual advance. At the conclusion of the story, Edna returns to a big red chair where, sitting queen-like in a big red chair, where she continues feigning the superiority by which she attempts to offset her social alienation.

“Go See Eddie.” University of Kansas City Review, 7 (December 1940): 121-124.

Bobby, a booking agent, visits Helen, his sister, whose sullied reputation he seeks to restore. With her acting career on hold, Helen dates a married man, Phil Stone, one of many men of whom her brother does not approve. Throughout the story Bobby insists that Helen go see Eddie Jackson, who is rehearsing a cast for a new show and could rekindle her career and perhaps restore her self-respect. As Helen flaunts her indifference, Bobby’s anger approaches rage. When he leaves, frustrated and pessimistic, she calls Phil and tells him that she will no longer see him. She shows contempt for the objects in her apartment that remind her of what she has become: a kept woman living in an expensive apartment with a maid. At the conclusion of the story, Helen gives a faint indication that she might reject her corrupt way of life.

“The Hang of It.” Collier’s, 108 (12 July 1941): 22.

A first-person narrator observes that his soldier son, Harry, reminds him of a certain Bobby Pettit, who was in an army training camp in 1917. Unable to perform any command correctly, Pettit drew the wrath of a sergeant named Grogan, whom Pettit attempted to reassure by repeatedly saying he would get “the hang of it.” On a military reviewing stand with his wife, the narrator, remembering Pettit, watches his inept son along with other young soldiers marching on a parade field. As the story ends, the sergeant in charge of the troops approaches the viewing stand, revealing that he is Grogan from 1917. The narrator, it turns out, is Bobby Pettit himself, now a colonel.

“The Heart of a Broken Story.” Esquire, 16 (September 1941): 32, 131-133.

Recounting the process by which he attempted to write a “boy-meets-girl” story for Collier’s, the narrator, in a parody of popular short stories, demonstrates why he was unable to bring his characters, Justin Horgenschlag and Shirley Lester, together. Although Justin could fall in love with Shirley on the Third Avenue bus, the narrator is unable to find a plausible way for the young man to introduce himself. Justin could make a direct but incongruous approach: “I’m a printer’s assistant and I make thirty dollars a week. Gosh, how I love you. Are you busy tonight?” (32) Such an approach, however, would never be acceptable to Collier’s, says the narrator. Neither should his character grab Shirley’s purse to gain attention because, as the narrator hypothesizes, Justin might be sent to jail where, despondent, he might be killed by a guard during an attempted escape, ending all chances for a romance with Shirley. The narrator composes letters to be exchanged while Justin is in prison, but it is too late, because another possible scene prevails. The two potential lovers leave the bus blocks apart, and Justin forgets Shirley. This is the reason, says the narrator, he “never wrote a boy-meets-girl story for Collier’s” (133).

“The Long Debut of Lois Taggett.” Story, 21 (September-October 1942): 28-34.

After Lois Taggett graduates from Miss Hascomb’s School, her parents give her a lavish debutante party. Lois then works briefly for her uncle, leaves suddenly to join friends in Rio de Janeiro, returns to Manhattan, dabbles in courses at Columbia University, and marries Bill Tedderton, a press agent. Initially attracted to Lois’s money, Bill sees her one morning when she “never looked worse” (29) and falls ecstatically in love with her. Inspired by this love, Lois becomes kinder than she has ever been. One evening, after a passionate embrace, Bill does “what he had to do” (30): he inexplicably burns Lois’s hand with a cigarette. A week later, amidst love and laughter, he smashes her foot with a golf club. Convinced that Bill is deranged, Lois leaves him, becomes impulsive, drinks heavily, obtains a divorce in Reno, and returns to Manhattan, where she marries dull Carl Curfman, who, because of foot irritation, wears only white socks. To escape the confines of her boring second marriage, Lois goes regularly to early movies and visits a friend who accommodates her cynicism. With the birth of a child, Tommy, whom she loves uncontrollably, Lois becomes happy and charitable again. After Tommy is accidentally smothered by a blanket, Lois no longer cares about anything. She has attempted earlier to change Carl’s unfashionable behavior, but at the end of the story she tells him, “Put on your white socks. . . . Put them on dear” (34).

“Personal Notes on an Infantryman.” Collier’s, 110 (12 December 1942): 96.

A first-person narrator, a young officer working in an orderly room, informs a civilian named Lawlor, who wishes to enlist, that he is not a recruiting officer. Lawlor, who seems too old to serve in the armed forces, has a son in the army and another in the navy, who lost an arm in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Rejecting the narrator’s attempts to dissuade him from enlisting, Lawlor leaves the orderly room, finds the recruiting officer, and enlists. Soon Lawlor’s wife calls the narrator, who “couldn’t be unkind to that voice . . . never could.” Although Lawlor proves to be an excellent soldier, his battalion commander does not ship him overseas. Hurt and disap-pointed, Lawlor returns to the narrator’s orderly room, accusing him of influencing the battalion commander’s decision. Lawlor says, “I want action. . . . Can’t you understand that?” At this the narrator experiences “a terrific thrill.” Soon Lawlor is transferred to another company and sent overseas, but army regulations prevent the narrator from notifying Mrs. Lawlor until her husband is abroad. When the narrator calls her, he reveals to the reader that the Lawlors are his parents. He tells his mother that he and his brother, a navy ensign, were present when their father’s ship departed.

“The Varioni Brothers.” Saturday Evening Post, 26 (17 July 1943): 12-13, 76-77.

“The Varioni Brothers” is written in the form of a story within a story. In the frame story the narrator, Mr. Westmoreland, guest columnist for a newspaper, asks the question, “Where is Sonny Varioni?” (12). Sonny, a composer, and his lyricist brother, Joe, were a highly successful songwriting team in the 1920s. Westmoreland recalls the night a man mistook Joe for Sonny, who owed a gambling debt, and killed him. The narrator of the embedded narrative, Sarah Daley Smith, replies that Sonny is in Waycross, Illinois, typing the manu-script of Joe’s unfinished novel. She then tells the story of what happened to the Varioni brothers. Joe was a gifted writer teaching English at Waycross College; Sarah was his student when he abandoned his writing to become Sonny’s lyricist. When producer Teddy Barto agreed to publish the Varionis’ songs and to be their agent, he insisted that they move to Chicago. Joe initially refused but later acquiesced, much to the regret of Sarah (who had fallen in love with him) and a professor at the college, Voorhees, who respected Joe’s genius. The Varioni brothers enjoyed extraordinary success, becoming rich and famous while Joe failed to produce a final draft of his novel. Sarah pled unsuccessfully with Sonny to release his brother from their agreement and begged Joe to leave Sonny so that he could resume writing his novel. Joe refused but assured Sarah that he would leave soon. After Joe’s death Sarah married dull Douglas Smith; she now teaches at Waycross. Seventeen years after his brother was killed, Sonny has returned to Waycross, where he stays with Sarah and Douglas while he works day and night typing Joe’s novel. When asked why he wants to assemble it, he replies, “Because I hear the music for the first time in my life when I read his book” (77).

“Both Parties Concerned.” Saturday Evening Post, 216 (26 February 1944): 14, 47-48.

Billy Vullmer, the narrator, and Ruthie Cropper Vullmer married young and have a tense relationship. A former high-school basket-ball player, Billy works in an airplane factory, while Ruthie stays home with their baby. She is resentful that Billy takes her out nearly every night to drink at a place called Jake’s. Ruthie wants Billy to remain home in the evening and assume his proper role as a husband and father. “We are supposed to grow out of certain things” (48), she tells him. He is unable to accept his own responsibilities as an adult, yet he regards Ruthie as a “kid.” Because Billy does not show proper attention to their baby, Ruthie leaves with the child and goes to her parents, leaving a note stating, “If you want to see the baby, please wait a while” (48). Nevertheless, when he calls Ruthie, she returns home, hoping, perhaps, for a change. That night, during a thunderstorm, Billy goes downstairs and finds his wife, “funny kid” (48), sitting at the kitchen table, reading. Convinced that she is afraid of the storm, Billy seeks to comfort her. Having memorized “backwards” Ruthie’s note about the baby, he recites it for her. Ruthie cries and says, “I don’t care about any-thing anymore,” and Billy, thinking he knows his wife “inside and out. Sort of,” says, “Wake me when it thunders, Ruthie. Please. It’s okay. I mean, wake me when it thunders” (48).

“Soft-Boiled Sergeant.” Saturday Evening Post, 216 (15 April 1944): 18, 82, 84-85.

Philly Burns, the narrator, probably speaking to a fellow soldier, says that his wife, Juanita, forces him to go to movies that falsely portray the deaths of men in wartime. Seeking to correct her inaccurate perception, Burns has told her the true story of Sergeant Burke and now tells Burke’s story also to his unidentified auditor. Burns recalls that Burke was a gentle man who befriended him. When Burns, a frightened sixteen-year-old soldier, sat on his bunk crying, Burke tossed a handkerchief filled with medals on his bunk, told him to pin them to his undershirt, and took the boy to dinner and a Charlie Chaplin movie. Burke did not remain for the entire movie because he did not “like funny-looking little guys always getting chased by big guys. Never getting no girl. For keeps like” (85). Burke was also a victim of unrequited love, and his suffering was obvious and unabated. The sergeant was transferred, and Burns later received a letter informing him of Burke’s death. There was nothing romantic about it: the sergeant was killed when he left safe shelter during the attack on Pearl Harbor in order to save three young men. Burns advises anyone considering marriage to get a girl like his Juanita, who cried when she heard about Burke. “Get one that’ll cry for Burke” (85), he says.

“Last Day of the Last Furlough.” Saturday Evening Post, 217 (15 July 1944): 26-27, 61-62, 64.

Twenty-four-year old Technical Sergeant John F. “Babe” Glad-waller is home on furlough in Valdosta, New York, before he is to be sent overseas. While he peruses his books, his mother brings cake and “ice cold” milk and watches him “lovingly” (26). Taking a sled with him, Babe leaves his room and goes to surprise his little sister, Mattie, who is about to be released from school. He and Mattie have a special relation-ship, and when he sees her at school, her youthful innocence and spontaneity make him happier than he has ever been before. As they return home, Mattie agrees, against her better judgment, to get on Babe’s back and sled down a dangerous street, but Babe, sensing her fear, refuses. When they return home, Babe’s witty friend Vincent Caulfield, whom Babe has been expecting, meets them at the door. At one point during Vincent’s joking banter, he abruptly interrupts himself to tell Babe that Holden Caulfield, his nineteen-year-old brother, is missing in action. At dinner Babe’s father talks at length about his recollections of World War I, and Babe responds sharply, pointing out that glorification of war led to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. That night, after Babe and Vincent have returned from their dates, Babe thinks about the home he will miss and the kind of young woman he would like Mattie to become. It is not enough to be smart; he wants her to be kind to people but not patronizing, to be “a swell girl.” Although Babe has told no one in his family that he is going to war, when he goes to Mattie’s room to tell her goodbye, she awakens, tells him she knows he is going overseas, and asks him not to “get hurt.” Later, Babe’s mother comes to his room, saying that she, too, knows he is going to war. She suggests that he wake Vincent and go down to the kitchen, where “there’s some chicken in the ice box.” Babe responds “happily” to her motherly invitation (64).

“Once a Week Won’t Kill You.” Story, 25 (November-December 1944): 23-27.

A young man about to enter the army during wartime packs and speaks with his self-absorbed wife, Virginia. They are an affluent couple with a cook and, it is implied, one other servant. Virginia, whose speech reflects her mental laziness, cannot see why her husband does not seek the influence of “that man with the thing on his face, The Colonel” (24), whom they met at a party. Perhaps he could ensure that her husband would receive a commission. The husband strongly disapproves of her idea. Concerned about his aunt who lives with them and suffers from dementia, he asks his wife to take her to the movies occasionally while he is away. The title of the story comes from the husband’s remark to his wife: “Once a week won’t kill you” (24). Before he has breakfast, the hus-band checks on his aunt, who lives in a continuous present. She is at work on her stamp book, filled with “cancelled American two-cent stamps” (25). He tells her he must go to war. As he is about to leave her room, the aunt gives him a letter of introduction addressed to a Lieutenant Thomas E. Cleve Jr., who, she says, is “with the 69th” and will “look after you” (26). Cleve’s photograph reveals him to have been a World War I officer. When the husband goes downstairs, he tears up the letter, but, rather than discard it, he puts the pieces in his trouser pocket as he walks into the dining room to a cold breakfast, reminding Virginia again to take his aunt to the movies once a week.

“Elaine.” Story, 26 (March-April 1945): 38-47.

After the death of her father, Elaine Cooney lives with her mother and grandmother. A pretty girl who has won child beauty contests, Elaine is mentally slow and does not graduate from the eighth grade until she is sixteen. The summer after her graduation, she joins her mother “in a Hollywood- and radio-promoted world” (41) of movies and soap operas that provide diversion for them. Just before the beginning of Elaine’s first year in high school, Teddy Schmidt, a movie usher, invites her to go to the beach with him. Another couple goes with them, but the couples separate, and Teddy entices Elaine to go with him under the boardwalk, where “it’s shady” (44). For Elaine the dark, cool place is “retreatful,” and as Teddy talks, she feels distanced from “her own familiar world” (45). A month later Elaine and Teddy are married at the Schmidts’ house, where the reception turns to disaster because of an argument between Mrs. Schmidt and Mrs. Cooney “concerning the virility of a popular male movie star” (46), Mrs. Schmidt defending the star’s virility and Mrs. Cooney challenging it and slapping Mrs. Schmidt. The incident calls further attention to Teddy’s “wavy, effeminate hair,” “white, white hands” (42), and “thin effeminate mouth” (46). As the newlyweds are about to escape the reception, “something strange happened” to Mrs. Cooney. Overcome with “a great tenderness” (46), she kisses Elaine goodbye and then abruptly orders her to come back, exclaiming, “You ain’t goin’ nowhere with that sissy boy” (47). Elaine painlessly bids Teddy goodbye “in a friendly way.” She, her grandmother, and her mother then go to a movie, where Elaine makes an easy transition from her short-lived marriage to the world of the movie theater, toward which she skips “ecstatically” (47).

“This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise.” Esquire, 24 (October 1945): 54-56, 147-149.

Sergeant Vincent Caulfield sits in a truck in the Georgia rain with thirty-four other men, awaiting a lieutenant from Special Services to accompany them to a dance. Vincent faces a dilemma: the lieutenant has authorized only thirty men to attend the dance, the number the hostess can accommodate. The title of the story derives from Vincent’s acknowl-edging the absurdity of the moment by saying that their truck “is a potential poem” that might be called, among other possibilities, “This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise” (55). Much of the story, narrated from Vincent’s first-person point of view, is an interior monologue. Although he talks to the men in the truck, his thoughts constantly return to Holden, his younger brother, who has been reported missing in action. Unable to accept the loss of his brother, Vincent rails in his mind against the government, accusing it of lying about Holden. Vincent recalls a special moment during a day at the fair when Holden asked their little sister, Phoebe, for her autograph and scoffed at the scientific exhibits, saying, “Let’s get out of this educational junk. Let’s go on the rides or something. I can’t stand this stuff. . .” (147). When the lieutenant arrives, he tells Vin-cent that four men must return to their areas. Two leave voluntarily, and two others are ordered to leave. As one of those ordered from the truck, an eighteen-year-old, stands in the downpour, insisting that he was the first in his unit to sign the dance list, Vincent reaches out and flips up the young man’s raincoat collar. The lieutenant sends the eighteen-year-old back to the truck. A local man, the lieutenant calls home to tell his sister to go to the dance. As the truck rolls toward the dance hall, Vincent thinks again of Holden and pleads: “Show up. Show up somewhere. . . . It’s simply because I remember everything. I can’t forget anything that’s good” (148).

“The Stranger.” Collier’s, 116 (1 December 1945): 18, 77.

Babe Gladwaller, home one week from the war, goes to see Helen Polk (nee Beebers), a young woman who was once engaged to his friend Vincent Caulfield, to tell her how Vincent died. Babe’s little sister, Mattie, with whom he plans to have lunch and go to a matinee, is with him. He tells Helen that Vincent was killed in the Hürtgen Forest by a mortar shell that dropped in while Vincent was standing around a fire with four other soldiers warming himself. There was no valor in his death. Having participated in five of the bloodiest campaigns in the war, Babe suffers the effects of battle and finds adjusting to civilian life diffi-cult. He apologizes to Helen “for being a stranger” and says, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me since I’m back” (77). She explains why she and Vincent broke off their engagement: she loved Vincent, but he never cared about anything after his younger brother, Kenneth Caulfield, died. Babe gives Helen a poem that Vincent wrote about her; it disturbs her, not only because it was written by her dead former fiance, but because Vincent referred to her in the poem as “Miss Beebers.” Concerned about Babe’s fragile condition, Helen offers to help him, to get theater tickets or go to lunch with him, but her kindness makes him uncomfortable, and he rejects her offer. He is “just not used to things yet” (77). Outside, Babe notes the contrast between the war and civilian life. He surmises that a doorman walking a dog probably walked it “the whole time of the Battle of the Bulge” (77). Nevertheless, Babe finds comfort in Mattie, whose sincerity and caring provide inexplicable joy. Watching her jump with her feet together “from the curb to the street surface, then back again,” he asks, “Why was it such a beautiful thing to see?” (77).

“A Boy in France.” Saturday Evening Post, 217 (31 March 1945): 21, 92.

Physically and mentally exhausted, “the boy,” an unnamed first-person narrator but clearly Babe Gladwaller, awakens after a brief sleep to look for a foxhole for the night. He is too tired to dig one and prays, “I won’t get hit. Don’t let me get hit.” He finds a foxhole, formerly used by a German soldier, removes a bloody blanket from it, and “lead-enly” digs “out the bad places” (21). Lying in the foxhole, dirty and in pain from having lost a fingernail, he fantasizes that he can magically transport himself home to his apartment, where he is once again clean, well dressed, and listening to his favorite music. There he will read, drink coffee, and receive a visit from “a nice quiet girl,” who will read Emily Dickinson’s and William Blake’s poetry to him. He punctuates each pleasure in the fantasy with the statement “and I’ll bolt the door” (21). Returned to the reality of war, the boy takes some wet newspaper clippings from his shirt pocket and reads a Broadway column about a “starlet” attending the premiere of her “grand” new picture, The Rockets’ Red Glare. She had a date “with an honest-to-goodness G.I.!” (92), a public relations officer. The boy drops this clipping on the “natural ground to the side of the hole” and takes “a soiled, unrecent envelope from his pocket” that he rereads “for the thirty-oddth time.” It is a letter from his little sister, Matilda, lacking in coherence but rich in love and caring. After reading it, he falls “crumbily, bent-leggedly, asleep” (92).

“I’m Crazy.”5Collier’s, 116 (22 December 1945): 36, 48, 51.

Holden Caulfield, the first-person narrator, has flunked out of Pentey Preparatory School, the third school from which he has been expelled. He stands in freezing rain by a cannon on Thomsen Hill, which overlooks the gymnasium where Pentey is playing a basketball game against a rival school, and tries “to feel the goodby” he needs before running down the hill and crossing a highway, where he “disappeared into Hessey Avenue” (36). Holden visits his history teacher, Mr. Spencer, who has invited him to come by. “Old Spencer” (36) has flunked Holden in history and wants to explain his reasons for flunking him. He reads aloud from Holden’s final examination an essay about the Egyptians, whose mummification techniques Holden finds interesting. Responding to Spencer’s curiosity about his last visit with the headmaster, Holden says the headmaster talked “about life being a game” that “you should play by the rules” and about “applying” oneself (48). Charitable to his teacher, Holden agrees that Spencer should have flunked him, but he finds talking difficult because his mind wanders to the frozen pond in New York’s Central

Park. He wonders where the ducks go when the pond freezes. Later, at home in his parents’ New York apartment, Holden is happy to be with his younger sisters, Phoebe and Viola, while his parents are out playing bridge. Phoebe, in whom Holden confides, is disturbed that he does not like school or anything else and fears her parents’ reaction to his expulsion. Holden gives the reader details of that reaction but says only, “When they were all done with me, I went back to the kids’ room” (51). In his own room Holden lies awake for a long time, convinced that he will never return to school, that his father will force him to work in an office he will not like, and that he will never be successful. Thinking again about where the ducks in Central Park go when the pond freezes, Holden falls asleep.

“Slight Rebellion Off Madison.”6 New Yorker, 22 (21 December 1946): 76-79.

Holden Morrisey Caulfield is on Christmas vacation from Pencey Preparatory School for Boys.7 Because his vacation coincides with his friend Sally Hayes’s vacation from the Mary A. Woodruff School for Girls, he asks her for a date. Holden takes Sally dancing, and each professes love for the other while riding home in a taxi, Sally adding that she hopes Holden will let his hair grow because “crew cuts are so corny” (76). Their schedule is full the following day. They see a play, O Mistress Mine, but the intermission proves a disgusting time for Holden, primarily because Sally’s friend George, whom Holden considers a phony, refers to the stars of the play, the Lunts, as “angels.” Following the play, Sally and Holden go ice skating. Because of their weak ankles they retire to a bar, where Holden, lighting matches and letting them burn down as he enumerates all that he hates about his school and New York, asks Sally to run away with him to the Vermont woods. They will stay in “cabin camps” until his money is gone, after which he will get a job, and they will “live by a brook and stuff.” Eventually, they will “get married or something.” Sally suggests that such a plan must be put off until he finishes college. Convinced that she is wrong and that the future will impose further unpleasant obligations on him, Holden grows impatient and tells her, “You give me a royal pain” (77). After Sally leaves in anger, Holden meets Carl Luce, another Pencey student, for drinks at the Wadsworth Bar. At two in the morning Holden, drunk and alone, calls Sally and then baits the bar’s piano player, whom he encounters in the men’s room. Tearfully leaving the men’s room, Holden goes into the street where, cold and with “teeth chattering violently,” he begins “a long wait” (79) for the Madison Avenue bus.

“A Young Girl in 1941 with No Waist at All.” Mademoiselle, 25 (May 1947): 222-223, 292-302.

Twenty-two-year-old Ray Kinsella, a staff member on the entertainment committee of a cruise ship anchored in the Havana harbor, escorts an eighteen-year-old woman named Barbara back to the ship from a jai alai game when she develops a headache. After her headache is quickly cured by aspirin, Barbara consents to go ashore again with Ray. In the tender ferrying them back to Havana, the two accept an invitation from an older couple, Diane and Fielding Woodruff, to join them for drinks on shore. During talk of the impending war, Ray tells Diane that he will be going into the army at the conclusion of the cruise, and she observes that he is fortunate to be with a young woman who “has no waist at all” (292). At “Viva Havana,” a popular tourist club, the older couple’s fun appears to be forced. As the Woodruffs dance, Barbara strikes matches from the table matchbox and reveals to Ray that she is traveling with her future mother-in-law, Mrs. Oldenhearn, who thinks Barbara needs the rest a cruise provides. Mrs. Oldenhearn was “a great athlete when she was young,” and “it’s like being with a girl my own age, almost,” Barbara says (293). Carl, her fiance, is “very nice,” but Barbara does not “understand boys” and never knows “what they’re talking about” (294). Back on the ship near morning, Ray and Barbara kiss frequently, and Ray, sensing that she is ambivalent about her fiance, asks her to marry him. Each time he repeats his request, Barbara says neither “yes” nor “no,” but rather “I don’t know” (297). Confused, she returns to her cabin, where, as she undresses for bed, Mrs. Oldenhearn, “a deadly serious tennis player in her day,” speaks of the morning’s match in which she and Barbara will play against two other women. Suddenly, Barbara tells her future mother-in-law that she does not want to get married, and Mrs. Oldenhearn observes calmly that it is better to correct a mistake in advance of making it (301). After Barbara has returned to the deck alone in her robe, Mrs. Oldenhearn’s reaction is more pronounced: “All right. It’s over,” she says. “I can hardly contain myself. I’m so happy. You’re on your own. . . . Just don’t disgrace or embarrass me.” On deck, in “the fragile hour,” Barbara “is now exclusively susceptible to the counterpoint sounding just past the last minutes of her girlhood” (302).

“The Inverted Forest.” Cosmopolitan, 113 (December 1947): 73-80, 85-86, 88, 90, 95-96, 98, 100, 102, 107, 109.

Corinne von Nordhoffen, whose mother committed suicide in 1915, lives with her father, Baron von Nordhoffen, who hosts a party on 1 January 1917 in honor of his daughter’s eleventh birthday. When Corinne’s special young friend, a poor boy named Raymond Ford, fails to come to the party, her father’s secretary, Mr. Miller, drives her into town to find him. When they reach Raymond’s home, an apartment above a lobster restaurant, he and his coarse, abusive mother are leaving town, and Corinne and Raymond can only say good-bye to each other. The story advances six years. Corinne’s father has died. She enrolls in Wellesley College, graduates, and goes to Europe, where she travels widely. Upon returning to the United States, Corinne calls an old friend, Robert Waner, who has loved her since her college days, and asks for his help in getting her a job with a magazine for which he works. At this point in the story Waner reveals himself to be the narrator but speaks of himself in third person.

Corrine goes to work for the magazine and has a career that is “entirely remarkable,” leading to rapid advancement. Waner gives her a favorite book of poems, “The Cowardly Morning,” the author of which, he says “is Coleridge and Blake and Rilke all in one and more.” The title poem includes the memorable line “Not a Wasteland, but a great inverted forest / with all foliage underground” (80). Enthralled by the poems, Corinne discovers that the author, a Columbia University professor named Ray Ford, is the Raymond Ford she loved as a child. She has lunch with Ford and learns about his difficult childhood, during which he was befriended by an older woman who introduced him to poetry, which he read until he nearly lost his eyesight. Corinne invites Ford to parties with her friends and his literary devotees, but he is uncomfortable at social gatherings. Corrine falls in love with him, and, despite the warnings of Waner that Ford is a “psychotic” (90) who can never love her, she marries Ford.

Soon after the newlyweds return from their honeymoon, a manila envelope arrives addressed to Corinne from Mary Gates Croft, a young woman who wants Ford to read and comment on her poems. Corinne asks her husband to read the poems and invites Mary for tea. Ford shocks Corinne when he bluntly tells Mary that she is not a poet because she invents; poets, he says, “find” their poetry (95). Mary tells Corinne of her troubled childhood, and Corinne befriends her. Mary also attends Ford’s lectures and has dinner with him frequently. Approximately one month after Corinne received Mary’s letter, Ford calls to tell his wife he is leaving town with Mary. Howie Croft, Mary’s husband, arrives at Corinne’s apartment nine days later and reveals that his wife is known as “Bunny,” has a child, and has lied to Corinne about her childhood.

Corinne searches for her husband. A year and a half later Waner discovers that Ford is living in a midwestern city and tells Corinne, who immediately goes to the city. From her hotel room she calls Ford’s number. Bunny answers as if Corinne is an old friend and invites her to their apartment. When Corrine arrives, she discovers squalor. Bunny greets her warmly, fixes her a drink, and encourages her to go into Ford’s study, where Corinne finds him seated at a small card table lighted by a single hanging bulb. He is drunk and is not wearing his glasses. Bunny has forbidden him to wear them, insisting that he perform eye exercises. Reduced to a child-like state, Ford reports that Bunny never liked his poetry but rather was drawn to him because she thought he looked like someone she had seen in the movies. He is “with the Brain again,” he says, implying that Bunny has assumed his mother’s role. Bunny is writing her own novel and says she hopes that Ford will “stoop to writing for money” (107). As Corinne leaves, Bunny speaks to Ford abusively, echoing his mother’s tone the night of Corinne’s eleventh birthday party.

“A Girl I Knew.” Good Housekeeping, 126 (February 1948): 37, 186, 188, 191-196.

John, the narrator, has failed five of his college classes and expects to be forced to work in his father’s business, but instead he is sent to Vienna and Paris to learn languages. He goes to Europe in July 1936, staying in Vienna for approximately five months to study German while living in an apartment above a Jewish family with a beautiful sixteen-year-old daughter, Leah, with whom he falls in love. Leah and John meet often in his sitting room, where he speaks German and she speaks English. She listens to his phonograph records and learns to sing “Where Are You” in her heavily accented English. Although there is no intimacy in their relationship because Leah is engaged to a young Polish man her father wants her to marry, John is enthralled by her beauty and innocence. When he leaves for Paris in December 1936, he writes to Leah, promising to write again and to send her a copy of Gone with the Wind. He does neither and returns to the United States, where he is permitted to re-enroll in school. John receives a package from Leah containing phonograph records he left behind and a letter dated 14 October 1937, informing him that she is living with her husband in Vienna. John cherishes the letter.

During the war John works in intelligence, stationed with an infantry division in Europe. He learns from a prisoner he interviews what “terrible things had been done to the Jews in Vienna” (194). After the war, John returns to Vienna and learns that Leah died in the concentration camp at Buchenwald. He visits his old apartment, hoping to have a last look, but discovers that it is being used as quarters for American military officers. A staff sergeant initially refuses to let John go upstairs. The sergeant asks, “What’s the big deal, anyhow, up there?” John replies that it is “no big deal,” that he once knew a girl who lived in the balcony apartment who, along with her parents, was “burned to death in an incinerator ...” (196). The sergeant relents; John climbs the stairs, goes into the apartment, and looks at the balcony below. When he returns to the ground floor, the sergeant wants to know “what the devil you were supposed to do with champagne” (196), which he is required to chill for an upcoming party. John says he does not know and leaves.

“Blue Melody.” Cosmopolitan, 125 (September 1948): 51, 112-119.

The narrator tells a story that a soldier named Rudford told him in the back of an infantry truck traveling from Luxembourg to the war front at Halzhoffen, Germany, in 1944. As an eleven-year-old child, Rudford and his classmate Peggy spent their afternoons at a hamburger cafe, Black Charles’s, listening to their friend Black Charles play the piano, which he also did in the cafe at night. Black Charles, who played “like somebody from Memphis—maybe even better . . . was kind and interested when young people came up to the piano to ask him to play something, or just to talk to him. He looked at you. He listened” (112). Rudford and Peggy found a new friend when Black Charles’s niece Lida Louise, a singer, arrived for a four-month performance engagement. When she sang “Nobody Good Around” for them on the afternoon of her arrival, Rudford had “gooseflesh,” and Peggy put her fist in Rudford’s coat pocket.

On the night of Lida Louise’s first performance at Black Charles’s, Rudford and Peggy, who told their parents they were attending “a hygiene lecture at school” (115), were present, along with a college crowd home for the Christmas holidays. Lida Louise opened with “Nobody Good Around” in honor of Rudford and Peggy, who were so moved by the singer’s voice that Peggy cried and Rudford told Peggy he loved her. During one of Lida Louise’s performances, a college student asked Lida Louise to sing “Slow Train to Jacksonville,” a song he had heard performed by a singer in New York. Lida Louise assumed that the singer was Endicott Wilson, a man whom she apparently knew well.

Lida Louise left Black Charles’s place when she was booked into a famous jazz emporium on Beale Street in Memphis, where she was an extraordinary success. She signed with record companies and recorded eighteen “sides.” The songwriters Joe and Sonny Varioni (introduced in Salinger’s 1943 story “The Varioni Brothers”) composed “Soupy Peggy” for Lida Louise, a song based on Peggy’s telling the singer that she liked Rudford when she saw him “standing at the blackboard in school” (116). Following a mysterious altercation with a man in Memphis, possibly Wilson, Lida Louise returned to Black Charles’s cafe to stay with her uncle. The fall after her return, Black Charles, Lida Louise, her mother, and Peggy had a farewell picnic before Rudford’s departure for boarding school. At the picnic Lida Louise suffered a ruptured appendix and was taken in Black Charles’s car to Samaritan Hospital. Rudford rushed into the reception area, only to find out that Lida Louise could not be admitted because she was black. When a second hospital also refused to admit the singer, Peggy yelled, “Damn you. Damn you” (118), and the group left for a hospital in Memphis. Lida Louise died on the way, her head in Rudford’s lap. Peggy and Rudford met again accidentally in 1942, fifteen years after Lida Louise’s funeral, in the Palm Room of the Biltmore Hotel in New York. Peggy was now married and accompanied by her husband, and Rudford was waiting for his date. When Peggy mentioned Lida Louise’s record “Soupy Peggy,” she was astonished to find out that Rudford had a copy and begged him to call her the next day so that she could hear it. Although Rudford promised to call, he did not, and he never saw Peggy again. The record, he told the narrator, “was terribly scratchy now. It didn’t even sound like Lida Louise any more” (119).

“Hapworth 16, 1924,” New Yorker, 41 (19 June 1965): 32-113.

Continuing his efforts to illuminate the life of his brother Seymour, Buddy Glass reproduces for the reader “an exact copy” of a thirtythousand-word letter written by seven-year-old Seymour to his parents and family in 1924 from Camp Hapworth, where he and Buddy were summer campers. In erudite prose Seymour describes his and Buddy’s daily activities and reassures the family of their well-being. Showing extraordinary analytical skill, Seymour also provides critiques of other campers—their cliques and conformity—and of the camp director, Mr. Happy, and his wife. He finds Mr. Happy a boorish sycophant but considers Mrs. Happy an attractive, sympathetic woman who, he says, arouses his own lust. He also reports on his and Buddy’s writing progress, acknowledging his brother’s advanced talent. Although Seymour himself has written some worthwhile poems, his best one, he says, “is one I have not written at all” (50). His letter is laced with allusions to Eastern religion and references to his own reincarnations, to which he refers as “appearances” (44). He is disturbingly prescient, predicting his own lifetime as “thirty (30) years or more” (60; Seymour is thirty-one when he commits suicide in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”).

Convinced that there is a divine plan that cannot be directed, Seymour suggests that the “loose ends” of life “find each other in the world if only one waits with decent patience” (62). He advises each of his family members to develop the talents with which he or she is blessed and to recognize the importance of performing good deeds for all human beings, without drawing attention to one’s self. Seymour’s “one last request” of Les Glass, his father, is that he ask Miss Overman, Seymour’s librarian friend, and Mr. Willard G. L. Fraser, a member of the library council, to send books to him at camp. The list of books is extensive, including voluminous samplings of international literature, languages, and spiritual works.

Seymour’s talk of books ignites his wrath against “false scholars, men of condescension, exploitation and quiet personal ambition . . . models of the feculent curse of intellectuality . . . without talent or penetrating humanity” (102). He acknowledges the presence of God in his own writing and also the note of warning sounded by readers of his poetry who fear that his “consuming admiration for God, straightforward and shapeless” (105), will harm his work. Concluding his booklist, Seymour again emphasizes his reincarnations, requesting works written by authors in the mid nineteenth century who, he says, he knew personally in his “last appearance” (198). At the close of the letter Seymour assures his parents that Buddy’s devotion to his art will provide him with a release from the world’s travail and sustain him.



Although Salinger’s stories published in The New Yorker from 1948 to 1951 brought him to the attention of a wide audience of readers and earned him favorable critical recognition, no one anticipated the extraordinary success that his novel, The Catcher in the Rye, ultimately found throughout the world. Early reviews were positive but uneven in their praise, often failing to acknowledge the complexity of Salinger’s most memorable character, Holden Caulfield. Nash K. Burger, writing in The New York Times, praised the narrative voice in the novel and noted, concerning Holden, that “there is nothing . . . that a little understanding and affection, preferably from his parents, couldn’t have set right.”8 In the New York Herald Tribune Virgilia Peterson viewed Holden as “contaminated ... by vulgarity, lust, lies, temptations, recklessness, and cynicism,” but “on the side of the angels.” For Peterson the integrity “of Salinger’s implication that our youth today has no moorings, no criterion beyond instinct, no railing to grasp along the steep ascent to maturity” was yet to be affirmed.9 James Stern, reviewing the novel in The New York Times Book Review, praised the book in dialogue parodying Holden’s voice but offered no insight into the protagonist’s character.10

Harvey Breit, writing in The Atlantic, was among the first reviewers to anticipate the direction later critics were to take concerning The Catcher in the Rye. Breit saw Holden as “an urban, a transplanted Huck Finn,” making a comparison that defined much of the literary criticism of the novel throughout the 1950s.11 In a long review in The New Yorker playwright S. N. Behrman declared that he “loved” the book, calling it “brilliant, funny, and meaningful.” Unlike Breit, who thought the humor in the novel overwhelming, Behrman pointed to tragic “self-communings” taking place below the “hilarity of his [Holden’s] surface activities.”12 Writing for the Book-of-the-Month Club News, Clifton Fadiman was one of the most effusive reviewers in his praise for The Catcher in the Rye, seeing it, like Behrman, as “brilliant” but also acknowledging Salinger’s “polish and depth” in creating a “rare miracle of fiction . . . out of ink, paper and the imagination.” A main selection for the Book-of-the-Month Club in the summer of 1951, the novel also received the praise of the Club’s editorial board, which issued a statement asserting that Salinger’s novel was “a source of wonder and delight—and concern.”13

Several reviewers of The Catcher in the Rye offered strongly negative opinions and objected to Holden’s language. T. Morris Longstreth wrote in The Christian Science Monitor that Salinger had written a book “not fit for children to read,” one in which “immorality and perversion” are “countenanced in the name of art or good intention.”14 In Catholic World Riley Hughes also objected to the language in the novel, finding the book “made monotonous and phony by the formidably excessive use of amateur swearing and coarse language.”15 These sentiments were echoed in England, where a reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement (TLS) said that “the endless stream of blasphemy and obscenity” in Holden’s speech “palls after the first chapter.”16 In an article written three decades after the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, Adam Moss points to reasons why some readers found the book obscene: “237 godamns, 58 bastards, 31 Chrissakes . . . were enough to earn the book its place as a major target of righteous school boards and legions of decency everywhere.”17 Although reviewers such as Longstreth and Hughes seemed to many readers to miss the point of the novel, their focus on the objectionable language in it set a tone that was to resonate later with would-be book censors.

The republication of The Catcher in the Rye as a Signet paperback in 1953 marked the beginning of a publishing success seldom seen in American literature, soon making Salinger a cult figure among many readers. Priced at 25, the paperback was affordable to a wider range of readers than the $3.00 hardcover first edition. A decade after the publication of the first Signet edition, the paperback had sold 3,364,000 copies.18 By the mid 1950s The Catcher in the Rye had made its way into the nation’s colleges and universities, being read and discussed by thousands of students and becoming a subject of scholarship for professors in English departments. In 1956 Arthur Heiserman and James E. Miller Jr. published the most influential of the early articles on Salinger’s novel, placing it in the epic tradition and “the tradition of the quest,” comparing Holden, as Breit had done, to Mark Twain’s character Huck Finn.19 The following year, another critic complained that “J. D. Salinger, one of the most gifted of the young writers to emerge in America since World War II, is rarely acknowledged by the official guardians of our literary virtue in the quarterlies.”20 Throughout the 1950s and the 1960s literary journals were deluged with submissions of scholarly articles exploring similarities and differences between Huck and Holden from a variety of perspectives, putting Salinger at the center of a widespread and sometimes passionate scholarly debate.

Edgar Branch produced one of the richest of the early Huck-Holden studies, arguing that Salinger’s novel and Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) were “related in narrative pattern and style, characterization of the hero and critical import” and that The Catcher in the Rye extends Huck’s “archetypal story” beyond the fiction of Sherwood Anderson, Ring Lardner, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner.21 Not all critics approved of drawing comparisons between Holden and Huck. John Aldridge saw each novel as “a spiritual picaresque,” but he considered Holden, unlike Huck, incapable of finding a “concrete embodiment of the ideal against which he judges,” leaving him merely to “register his contempt.”22 In an influential essay Ihab Hassan refuted Aldridge’s thesis, arguing not only for the validity of comparisons between Holden and Huck—as well as Salinger and Twain—but also drawing F. Scott Fitzgerald and Miguel de Cervantes into the comparison. Hassan claimed that the four writers endowed their characters with “a rare quixotic gesture” that seeks to embody an “idea of truth” and “style in action.” An “outsider,” Holden finds himself repeatedly facing “vulgarians” who “stand for all that is crude, venal, self-absorbed, and sequacious in our culture.”23

As the 1950s drew to a close, the first monograph on Salinger’s works appeared. In The Fiction of J. D. Salinger (1958) Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner called Holden “saintly” and stimulated further discussion of the character’s spiritual dimension.24 Predictably, the extraordinary critical attention Salinger received generated a backlash, evident in George Steiner’s attack on what he called “The Salinger Industry.” Steiner argued that scholars were ignoring worthier writers, as they had during the “[James Gould] Cozzens ecstasy of a few seasons back... ,”25 An outpouring of articles on The Catcher in the Rye continued to nourish “The Salinger Industry” throughout the 1960s, with increasing focus on Holden as “saint” and on the spiritual qualities of the novel. In particular, the short story “Teddy,” which provides evidence of Salinger’s growing interest in Eastern religion and philosophy encouraged critics to examine the Zen Buddhist underpinnings of the novel.26

The criticism of The Catcher in the Rye broadened further to include linguistic and psychological approaches. Donald P. Costello saw the novel as an authentic record of the vernacular of the 1950s,27 and Carl F. Strauch suggested that “meaning” could be derived from the interlocking metaphorical structure in the book involving “neurotic deterioration, symbolical death, spiritual awakening, and psychological self cure.”28 Salinger criticism reached its zenith in the 1960s. Two academic journals devoted issues to him and his work, and the first comprehensive study appeared: Warren French’s J. D. Salinger (1963).29 Collections of Salinger criticism and casebooks were published, treating especially The Catcher in the Rye. The first Salinger bibliography, by Donald F. Fiene, appeared in 1963.

Although the flood of scholarly criticism on The Catcher in the Rye abated in the 1970s, scholars continued to write about Holden, varying critical approaches and emphasizing psychological and political perspectives. James E. Bryan offered what he called “a full-fledged psychoanalytical reading,” provoking strong reaction from the critical community by arguing that Holden struggled against his own desire to have sexual intercourse with his little sister, Phoebe.30 In an argument as provocative as Bryan’s, the Marxist critics Carol and Richard Ohmann suggested that previous critics wrote about the novel from a capitalist point of view and ignored Salinger’s political intention, which was to offer a “critique of class distinction” by depicting “bourgeois life.”31 Although few critics concurred with this Marxist interpretation, many had taken other directions by the mid 1970s, moving away from traditional close readings and thematic and structural approaches and toward criticism driven by literary theory, with heavy emphasis on psychoanalytical readings influenced by French theorists. James M. Mellard’s reading of The Catcher in the Rye is representative of the new focus; drawing on the theories of Jacques Lacan, Mellard charted Holden’s “Oedipal” journey by which the character constructs a “self” during his evolving sexuality.32 Another critic put Holden in the context of the Cold War, interpreting him in theoretical terms set forth by Michel Foucault and contending that Salinger’s protagonist, as “both subject and object,” is caught without options and is able to replace his illusions only with an asylum.33 One feminist theorist argued that the reason for the highly successful reception of the novel was that male critics, who identified with Holden and presumed that Holden’s male voice spoke for women as well, were biased in favor of the book and had “privileged” Holden.34

Although critical interest in The Catcher in the Rye waned in the last two decades of the twentieth century, important books about the novel continued to appear. New collections of critical essays brought together much of the best criticism written about the book. Holden Caulfield (1990), edited by Harold Bloom; Critical Essays on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1990), edited by Joel Salzberg; New Essays on The Catcher in the Rye (1991), edited by Jack Salzman; and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (2000), edited by Bloom, are especially worthy of note. In 2001 a new Little, Brown edition of The Catcher in the Rye35 appeared, replacing the ten-year-old mass-market paperback that, having been reprinted thirty-one times, provided evidence of the continued success of Salinger’s enduring novel. Jack R. Sublette’s J. D. Salinger: An Annotated Bibliography, 1938-1981 (1984) provided an indispensable research tool not only for criticism of the novel but for all of Salinger’s fiction.


In 1953 Salinger’s eagerly awaited second book, Nine Stories, was published. Although story collections do not usually enjoy the sales of successful novels, Nine Stories proved to be an exception. Published by Little, Brown on 6 April 1953 and priced at $3.00, it was soon on The New York Times best-seller list, remaining among the top fifteen books for three months. Reviews were generally good, but cautious, uneven, and inconsistent in their assessment of the collection. In the Saturday Review William Peden welcomed Salinger’s “pleasing disregard for conventional narrative form and style” and praised the collection but thought “Just Before the War with the Eskimos” and “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” were “chi-chi, cute, or even coy.” In Peden’s view, Salinger was too aware of his cleverness.36 Writing in The New Republic, Arthur Mizener asserted that several stories in the collection were “better than anything in The Catcher in the Rye” because the novel lacked the “controlling intention” present in most of the stories. Mizener praised “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” but, surprisingly, did not mention “For Esmé’with Love and Squalor” or “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.”37 Gilbert Highet wrote in Harper’s that Salinger, who” published one of the best novels of adolescent distress, which have appeared in our time . . . has just produced a splendid set of Nine Stories” and “there is not a failure in the book.” Nevertheless, Highet warned that Salinger needed to avoid “falling into unconscious repetition.”38

Charles Poore, reviewing Nine Stories in The New York Times, called the collection “over-rich ... in small monsters and large shadows of the macabre and the malign” and “disappointing coming from the man who wrote the outstanding first novel of 1951, The Catcher in the Rye.” Poore liked “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” and found “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” successful even with its “double tricked ending.” Nevertheless, he thought Salinger should “put away his Halloween tricks and write as good a novel of World War II.”39 A Newsweek reviewer seemed to agree in part with Poore, but found “even the mildest of Salinger’s nine an ogre” but claiming that the ending to “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” reached “a new level of nightmarish reality.”40 Reviewing the British edition of the collection, titled For Esmé—with Love and Squalor, and Other Stories (1953), Angus Wilson said Salinger was the best of the newest American writers whose works reveal “an intensely personal vision.” Wilson praised Salinger’s portrayal of “the behaviour of ... children” but, like Peden, thought the author “a shade too clever.” Wilson singled out “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” as the best story in the collection.41 An anonymous reviewer for The Nation praised the “accomplished and effective” stories by a “fiction writer of great brilliance” but noted that Salinger might, unfortunately, be “infatuated with the charms of juvenile diseases at the expense of a larger and more complex area of human suffering.”42 Salinger could not have hoped for a more positive review of Nine Stones than the one by Eudora Welty, who wrote in The New York Times that he was “a born writer” whose work was “original, first rate, serious, and beautiful.” Salinger had the ability “to honor what is unique and precious in each person on earth” with “a loving heart.”43

Although Nine Stories generated far less critical response than The Catcher in the Rye did, individual stories in the collection were the subjects of seventeen scholarly articles by the end of the 1960s, more than half of which concerned “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”44 Among the first critics to comment on “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” were Gwynn and Blotner, who considered the story “the high point of Salinger’s art, the moment at which particular narrative and general truth are identified most successfully with one another. ...” They argued that the story is balanced by four squalid forces countered by forces of love that help to restore “the possibility of life (’f-a-c-u-1-t-i-e-s’)” for the protagonist, Sergeant X.45 John Hermann challenged the critical assumption that Esme is the main regenerative force in the story leading Sergeant X from despair to hope. Hermann argued that Esme’s little brother, Charles, “is the key” and that his “Hello Hello Hello” in the postscript of his sister’s letter triggers in the sergeant memories of a riddle the boy told him: “What did one wall say to the other wall? . . . Meet you at the corner!” (149). Hermann interpreted the riddle to mean “the corner of sanity and insanity” and asserted that Charles provides more authentic “compassion and affection” than does Esme, “the distillation of squalor” and “a truth lover or statistics lover.”46 Rebutting Hermann’s thesis, Robert M. Browne argued that Hermann followed “a romantic preconception” when asserting that lovers of truth or statistics are unable to love people and that he neglected “the role of the narrator.” Brown also contended that Hermann ignored the point of view of the narrator in concluding that Esme was “terribly cold” (her aunt’s assessment), that her “inattention in church” was “objectionable,” or that she was, as her choir coach calls the children, one of those “silly-billy parrots.”47

Other critics sought to identify Sergeant X. Tom Davis suggested that Seymour Glass is Sergeant X, pointing to “thematic parallels between ’For Esmé—with Love and Squalor’ and the Seymour stories,” to Seymour’s having been treated for an emotional breakdown, like Sergeant X, in a hospital in Germany, and to similarities between the wives and mothersin-law in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”48 Fred B. Freeman Jr. contested Davis’s argument, pointing out that the sergeant had met Esme in 1944 and received the wedding invitation six years after that meeting, in 1950. Because Seymour killed himself in 1948, said Freeman, he could not have been Sergeant X.49 Bryan argued that critics who have consistently interpreted “For Esmé— with Love and Squalor” to be about “a man’s miraculous salvation from war and squalor by the love of a child” have ignored the importance of the story’s “unsentimental and even philosophical attitude toward love and squalor,” grasped finally by the protagonist, who recognizes the

“complexities—and interdependency” of those two opposites in his own life. Bryan contended that the story’s focus is not only on war but also on marriage and the necessity of accommodation and tolerance as one faces responsibilities.50 John Wenke pointed to the difficulty of communication in the story, a problem common to Salinger’s characters. The conversation between Esme and Sergeant X, said Wenke, shows that, despite their seemingly unrelated surface meanings, the words used offer “insights” into the “psychological needs” of the characters and are essential to “the formation of a deep and lasting bond of love.” Wenke noted that the story confronts an issue central to Salinger’s fiction: how “individuals might pass through squalor to love, achieving meaningful, redemptive expression, even though the successful uses of language are a constant reminder of its general failure.”51

Seymour’s suicide in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” proved an especially stimulating subject for critics following the publication of Nine Stories. Gwynn and Blotner saw the story as another of “Salinger’s major esthetic successes” in “a world of psychically underprivileged persons occasionally saved by love.” Seymour, they claimed, was “destroyed by his own hypersensitivity pathetically heightened by lack of love,” a void made evident to him by a small child. Gwynn and Blotner also suggested that one “underlying motif” in his suicide is “sexual inadequacy,” a claim supported by phallic images in the story—the trees, for example, at which Seymour stares.52 Miller acknowledged the possibility of a Freudian reading of Seymour’s fascination with trees but suggests that this interest “might well be born of his intuitive grasp of the tree’s deep and enduring natural knowledge of its place and its role. . . .” Seymour “can see more (in trees, for instance)” because he has “begun to vomit up the apple of logic.” Miller attributed the suicide to a glutting of Seymour’s senses to the extent that “continued physical existence is unendurable” and argued that the act is a double release: for Seymour, for whom life has become too painful, and for Muriel, who can “engage life again at a level she can apprehend.”53

Leslie A. Fiedler also affirmed the role of the little girl, Sybil, in sharpening Seymour’s awareness that continued existence in the world of his wife and mother-in-law is impossible. According to Fiedler, Seymour “is awakened by the innocence of a child to enough of the awareness of the lost world he inhabits to kill himself!”54 In the early 1970s Frank Metcalf supported the view advanced by Bryan in the essay “Salinger’s Seymour’s Suicide” (1962) that Seymour commits suicide because he is unable to transcend his sexual desires, but Metcalf also argued that Seymour tended toward “heterosexual pedophilia.” Metcalf examined a pattern of behavior in Seymour that he traced from Charlotte Mayhew (a beautiful child whose face was scarred, according to Buddy Glass in” Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” after Seymour threw a rock at her) to Muriel Fedder in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and to Sybil in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” whose innocence, Metcalf said, makes clear to Seymour his “erotic pretense,” leaving him to see no option but suicide.55 Noting the prominence of the number six in the story, Charles V. Genthe argued that “six is an important key to ’Bananafish’s’ interpretation, and ... to the moral and psychological problems of Seymour.” Like the sybils of Greek mythology who predicted the future, the Sybil of the story, Genthe said, prophesies the doom that Seymour ensures by his suicide when she says that the bananafish she saw had six bananas in its mouth, suggesting the six years of Seymour’s marriage that have led to his destruction: “Seymour . . . must destroy his physical being as the ’bananas’ have destroyed his soul.”56

Gary Lane examined the relevance of the book of German poetry that Seymour gave to Muriel, concluding not only that the poet is Rainer Maria Rilke but also that the particular poems are Rilke’s Duino Elegies (1923). According to Lane, these poems lamenting the “insufficiency of man . . . and of necessary failure” reflect the problems faced by Seymour: the “poignant perception of the nearness to death” that “a child’s imagination and self-supporting world attains” and the revelation of the “unbridgeable gap between human aspiration and human possibility,” acknowledged by Seymour’s suicide.57 Ruth M. Vande Kieft claimed that Seymour’s suicide comes not from total despair or an intense awareness of the futility of human effort but from the “excess of joy” and “a rather complicated overindulgence in ecstasy.”58

Bryan examined the relationship between Boo Boo and Lionel in “Down at the Dinghy,” focusing on Boo Boo’s skill in ensuring that her son will be able to cope with life’s unpleasant experiences. Bryan, William Bysshe Stein, and Laurence Perrine have provided varied but helpful readings of “Teddy,” Bryan and Stein discussing the influences of Eastern thought in the story and Perrine attacking the way Salinger chose to end the story.59 Bernice and Sanford Goldstein pointed to the potentially disastrous effects of artificial boundaries and logic on the seeker of enlightenment in Nine Stories.60

Challenging David L. Stevenson’s unfavorable comparison of “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” with Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” (1936), John Hagopian explicated the Salinger story, lauding the use of details “embedded in imagery and ongoing action with such skill that they are not readily detachable for separate observation,” especially by readers who become “so dazzled by ... surface wit and realism . . . that they completely miss the more profound undertones of meaning.” After demonstrating the subtle skill of Salinger’s style and technique, Hagopian concluded that “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” is “one of the best of the lot” of “the finest American short stories of the last quarter-century.”61

Although there have been far fewer articles written about the other stories in Nine Stories, they have not been altogether neglected. French’s “The Phony World and the Nice World” (1963) remains one of the best examinations of “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut”; Richard Allan Davison’s “Salinger Criticism and The Laughing Man’: A Case of Arrested Development” (1981) is an excellent review of Salinger criticism and a provocative explication. John Russell’s reading of “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” is one of the most thorough and convincing explications of the story. Russell argued that this longest of the nine stories represented a turning point in Salinger’s art and was the first of his stories to present a “transcendent” experience by which a protagonist solves his “problem of appropriation,” an attempt at possession that ends in relinquishment, followed by “wisdom and joy,” and, ultimately, freedom.62

Several longer or book-length studies provided more comprehensive approaches to Nine Stories. Discussing sequence and unity in the collection, Paul Kirschner explicated each story, discussed relationships among them, and concluded that they reveal a pattern of progression leading to the spiritual advancement realized in the final story, “Teddy.”63 Miller examined the nine stories as a unit with “thematic groupings” that give “the volume a singleness of impact which belies its multiplicity.” Tracing the “dominant theme,” alienation, as well as “marital estrangement and betrayal” throughout the stories, Miller found patterns that unify the collection.64 In J. D. Salinger, Revisited (1988) French argued that Nine Stories is a unit, “a nine-story cycle,” with an “interconnectedness” resulting from a narrative “progression based upon the slow and painful achievement of spiritual enlightenment. ...” After offering readings of each of the stories, French suggested that from a “Brahman view-point, the stories may be seen as a succession of vignettes of incarnations of the soul on its path from destructive self-indulgence to readiness for the long-desired union with the infinite” but added that there are alternatives to the path Teddy McArdle takes, as de Daumier-Smith and Esme demonstrate.65 In a more recent study of Salinger’s short fiction with theoretical underpinnings, Wenke conceded that there were “thematic complexes” in Nine Stories but argued against the existence of “an ordered thematic continuum with a beginning, middle, and end,” which he saw as French’s and Miller’s desired “critical goal” deriving from “privileging the problematic.” Wenke found a “generic analogue” for Nine Stories in “those fictional domains which create the context for establishing interconnections” but do not “impose the fiction of completed wholeness,” citing as examples such modernist story collections as James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), and Hemingway’s In Our Time (1925), as well as more-recent collections such as John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse (1968) and Susan Minot’s Monkeys (1968) that “refuse to impose the fiction of closure” or “deny aesthetic closure.”66


When Franny and Zooey was published in 1961, eight years after Nine Stories, readers rushed to buy it, and some bookstores reported lines forming early on the day of publication, 14 September 1961.67 Many reviewers, however, did not share the enthusiasm of the reading public. The novelist John Updike wrote in The New York Times that the book, with its “grim bravado, . . . humor, . . . morbidity,” and “persistent hopefulness,” truly reflected American life but paid “the price . . . of becoming dangerously convoluted and static.” Updike said that “the Franny of ’Franny’ and the Franny of ’Zooey’ are not the same person,” and he added that there was nothing in “Franny” to indicate her relationship with the Glass family of “Zooey.” Finding in the Glass stories “vehement editorializing on the obvious” as well as condescension, Updike hoped, nevertheless, that Salinger would not “bog down,” as Salinger suggested he might, in his own “methods, locutions, and mannerisms.”68 After noting that Salinger “is surely the most read and reread writer in America today” and that his power is “in some ways extraliterary,” Joan Didion belittled the substance of Franny and Zooey, calling it “finally spurious” because Salinger flatters “the essential triviality” in his readers and “gives instructions for living.” The book is appealing, Didion said, because it is “a self-help copy” that “emerges as Positive Thinking for the upper middle classes.”69

In a more vitriolic review, Isa Kapp attacked Salinger’s “educating us by adopting a recklessly chummy attitude toward ideas and moral concepts” in “Zooey,” where she found equating “the Fat Lady” with Christ an offensive “democratization of the Spirit.” Kapp also thought Salinger was “embarrassed by any token of erudition” and held “a low opinion of mankind.” Although she liked the bathroom scene with Zooey and his mother and Franny’s lunch with Lane Coutell, she thought Salinger resisted “locating the moral enemy.”70 Carl Bode saw Franny andZooey as “a Dialogue between Body and Soul” and was struck by “how bitterly Salinger hates Body.” Bode found Salinger’s hostility toward Lane “so open that the effect is overdone” and his descriptions of Franny “schoolboyish.” “Zooey,” he continued, was “a religious tract” that suffered from Zooey’s “posturing” and Salinger’s attempts “to impress us with the depth of the Glass erudition”; yet, Bode thought the conversation between Zooey and his mother in the bathroom “a delightful tour de force.”71

Other reviewers had a far more positive response to Franny and Zooey. In Library Journal Robert B. Jackson called the book a “significant work, especially pertinent for the young,” that “must be included in all collections of important American writing”; he also praised Salinger’s use of Buddy as “an alter ego.”72 Poore wrote in The New York Times that “Franny and Zooey is better than anything Mr. Salinger has done before” and that every page of the book showed Salinger’s “increasing mastery.” Poore saw no danger that Salinger would “bog down” rather, he said, “Mr. Salinger’s stories will decidedly continue to widen the range of contemporary reading.”73 Anne Marple thought Buddy’s first-person introduction to “Zooey” “unnecessary,” but she generally liked the book, calling “Franny” “beautifully written” and the scene in “Zooey” between Zooey and his mother a “Salingeresque masterpiece of characterization and dialogue.” Marple found Salinger “too enmeshed in his material” for the good of his “artistic judgment” and thought his avoidance of the topic of sex might “impede the free flow of Salinger’s creative life.”74 Summing up a long list of books published in 1961 that he had reviewed that year, Granville Hicks said that Franny and Zooey was one of two he would put at the top of his list. (The other was Bernard Malamud’s A New Life.) Franny and Zooey “has something to say about the human predicament,” said Hicks, and Salinger “has no equal” in “the handling of the vernacular.”75

John P. McIntyre’s long review article offered an informative assessment of Franny and Zooey. Strongly praising the book, McIntyre took issue in particular with Maxwell Geismar76 for establishing an improper criterion for measuring Franny and Zooey in claiming that Salinger had ignored the “social, economic, and psychological bases of his craft.” McIntyre also challenged Alfred Kazin’s assertion that Salinger’s creation of “two estates,” one for the Glasses and one for everyone else, “the great mass of spiritual savages,” had “led to a violation of art.” McIntyre argued that a “social reference is not primary” in the work of Salinger, whose focus is on the “spiritual.” Salinger makes readers conscious, McIntyre concluded, “of the tension which existed between ’the Kingdom of God is here!’ and ’the day of the Lord approaches.’”77 James G. Murray called Franny and Zooey “a work of art” that makes “profound comments on our morals and mores.” That there is neither plot nor action in the book is of no real consequence, Murray said; Salinger’s characters are interesting, his talk is stimulating, and his craftsmanship is “impeccable.” Although Murray feared that the linking of “[St.] Paul and Zen” and “Jesus and the gurus” put Salinger “perilously close to the beats,” he still had something they did not have, Murray thought: “sense, wit, and taste.”78

Obviously, readers could only have been confused by the wide variety of opinions expressed by reviewers about Franny and Zooey. In fact, they probably wondered whether some of the reviewers revealed more about themselves than they did about the book.79 Nevertheless, readers made their own decisions in bookstores, where they purchased 125,000 copies of Franny and Zooey in the first two weeks after its release. The book remained on The New York Times best-seller list for six months, eventually reaching number one.80

Although critics continued to publish great numbers of articles about TheCatcher in the Rye in academic journals, they gave relatively little attention to Franny and Zooey. In the two decades following the publication of the book, fewer than a dozen articles about it appeared in American journals.81 Monographs and chapters devoted to Salinger provided the most extensive examinations of the work. As Gwynn and Blotner observed in 1958, Salinger had begun by 1953 “to mine a new vein” of transcendental mysticism, which he introduced in “De DaumierSmith’s Blue Period” and further developed in “Teddy,” continuing in the same “vein” with “Franny,” “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” and “Zooey.”82 Consequently, some of the most informative criticism relevant to Franny and Zooey was written about the individual stories “Franny” and “Zooey” before they were published as a single volume. Gwynn and Blotner provided concise but helpful Zen background for what they called “the Glass Menagerie” and showed some relationships between the Glasses and Zen. They also flatly rejected early readings by critics who claimed that Franny’s malady is a pregnancy, and they called her silent prayer at the conclusion of the story a signal that she is “at least striving toward some remote satori” (an awakening or state of pure consciousness). Gwynn and Blotner offered less a reading of “Zooey” than a review, in which they condemned the length and verbiage of the story, arguing that only “two or three” of Zooey’s “parts” were needed to advance Franny’s case history. They thought Salinger had “said something morally profound” but that he had said it more concisely elsewhere in his earlier fiction, especially in “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period,” in which de Daumier-Smith observes, “Everybody is a nun.”83

In his Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (1961) Hassan argued that “Salinger succeeds far better in rendering the experience of Smith’s conclusion: ’Everybody is a nun.’” Countering criticism that Salinger had avoided the topic of sexual love, Hassan contended that the Glass family provided Salinger “the means to exploit the nonsexual forms of love” and to examine a group whose members “deny themselves sexual preoccupations to lose themselves in an imaginative or altruistic ideal.” Hassan asserted that Franny’s wish to break out of the “ego’s shell does not confine itself to the action of an adolescent who, for the first time, reaches out beyond himself in sexual love.” In Zooey’s remedy (the union of the Fat Lady and Christ) for Franny’s spiritual sickness, Hassan found a reconciliation of “the vulgarian and the outsider . . . not in the momentary flash of a quixotic gesture, not even in the exclusive heart of a mystical revelation, but in the constancy of love,” and possibly Salinger’s own awareness of “contradictions of his vision.”84 In J. D. Salinger French provided a reading of Franny and Zooey that included a perceptive analysis of the tensions between Franny and Lane Coutell. French saw “Franny” as one of the most “devastating satires to have been written about a world that is full of pedants eager to display their erudition rather than . . . pilgrims still seeking to learn.” He also concluded that “Franny” is incomplete without “Zooey.”85 French’s section on “Zooey” is less helpful, reading rather too much like a review, speculating about Salinger’s motives in the com-position, and underscoring Updike’s contention that Salinger lectures too much.86 A quarter-century later, in his J. D. Salinger, Revisited, French suggested that Woody Alien’s movies Annie Hall (1977), Interi ors (1978), Manhattan (1979), and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) had superceded Salinger’s “dated . . . portrayal of its particular Upper East Side Manhattan apartment society.”87

In a challenging and informative Freudian reading of “Franny,” Daniel Seitzman argued that the language of the story is homoerotic and that Franny’s devotion to religious ritual “serves to repress the forbidden,” as Sigmund Freud had shown was often the case with such devotion. Seitzman attempted to demonstrate through close reading that “Franny’s hostility, her intense rivalry, and her scarcely concealed wish to emasculate all men are at the root of her problem.”88 He pointed to Franny’s praise of Sappho and her lead role of Pegeen Mike in Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World as examples of her antimale sentiment, born to a considerable degree out of her complex relationship with her dead brother, Seymour, who was, Seitzman said, the “punitive superego” of her early years. The Jesus Prayer, Sietzman postulated, enables Franny to effect a union with “the Omnipotent Father” and dissipate the harshness of the superego. Because Franny probably fantasizes that “Jesus is Seymour,” she can also be reunited with her late brother “without anger and guilt.”89 In a companion piece Seitzman analyzed Zooey’s role as Franny’s therapist. After reexamining Franny’s “illness,” illustrating the history of depression in the Glass family, and showing Zooey’s distrust of any “ordinary psychoanalyst,” Seitzman delineated Zooey’s therapy methods through three “sessions,” contending that he ultimately heals himself as he cures his sister. When Zooey who has also been affected by his strong brothers, Seymour and Buddy, assumes the role of Buddy while speaking to Franny from Seymour’s room, he surrenders the self in order to “become Buddy,” thus eliminating his own feelings of rivalry with the parent-surrogate, a major impediment to his own cure. Furthermore, when Franny accepts Zooey’s counsel, the Fat Lady becomes “Franny’s first ego ideal.” Through the Fat Lady’s “holy vision” Franny “can be embraced by Seymour” and “enfolded in the arms of the mother,” thereby replacing the “over-idealized image of Seymour.” Subsequently, the Fat Lady becomes an “amalgam of all the disparate elements,” all the rivalries in Franny’s life. Reunited with these “rivalries” through the Fat Lady and Christ, Franny is cured.90

Father Ernest W. Ranly, who reread Franny and Zooey ten years after visiting India, affirmed the “accuracy of Salinger’s knowledge of worldwide mysticism” and of “every great mystic from the East and West, every tradition, every prayer,” in particular “the true tradition of heyschasm” (purity and simplicity of the heart). Ranly also argued that the philosophy of Jainism supported Franny’s rejection of Christ’s statement that human beings are more important than “the fowls of the air.”91 Eberhard Alsen argued in his Salinger’s Glass Stories as a Composite Novel (1983) that the two stories comprising Franny and Zooey, as well as other stories dealing with the Glass family, were part of a larger narrative plan showing Buddy’s development as a writer and person. Pointing out that the religious theme in “Franny” is based primarily on Christian ideas and that no mention of Seymour is made and Franny’s last name is never given in the story, Alsen contended that “Franny” was written after ’“De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” and before “Teddy,” the true starting point for Salinger’s fiction reflecting the influence of Eastern religions. Alsen saw in “Zooey” evidence that Buddy, the proclaimed author of the stories, has made progress in his attempt to understand “the meaning of Seymour’s life and death,” in particular in his letter to Zooey indicating that “there was something wrong with Seymour’s teachings.” Alsen’s argument added significantly to the relevance of Buddy’s letter to the story as a whole and suggested a reason for Zooey’s more liberated approach to a cure for Franny.92

Wenke’s J. D. Salinger: A Study of the Short Fiction (1991) included helpful background information on the Glass family, interesting observations about the effects of Salinger’s narrative process, and a perceptive reading of Franny and Zooey. Although Wenke’s explication was not heavily psychoanalytical, his probing of the complexities of the “conflicted psyche” of Zooey, as well as that of Franny, was stimulating and credible. Wenke argued that the Jesus Prayer as said by Franny initially “disengages her from, rather than connects her to, the actualities of life. ...” He maintained that Zooey, playing the role of Buddy and participating in a mutually advantageous therapy, “rehabilitates Buddy.” According to Wenke, Zooey also “rehabilitates Seymour” by reviving the image of the Fat Lady, “a synoptic metaphor for everyone” that leads both Franny and Zooey to “a healthy communal interaction.” Wenke concluded that “the (at least momentary) achievement of peace suggests the possibility of a full-hearted embrace of spiritual identity that is compatible with ego.”93


Knowing that Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction was to face many of the same reviewers who attacked Franny and Zooey, Salinger must have anticipated hostility from his critics. In fact, Hicks predicted as much in his review of the book for the Saturday Review. Hicks thought the two stories would cause difficulties for both the “admirers of Salinger and those out to get him,” noting that” Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” had Salinger’s “mastery of dialogue” and “Seymour: An Introduction” “the wordy style” to which the narrator admits. Hicks thought the book “at times unbearably self-conscious and coy,” and yet speaking “with power and authority.” Although he found “self-righteousness and sentimentality” in the Glass stories, he praised Salinger as “a gifted and serious writer” and implied that he should simply “get on with his work.”94

Hicks’s predictions were soon fulfilled. In The New Republic John Wain gave examples of what he considered “slipshod writing . . . soap opera prattle . . . and sweat-making dribble of author-comment from the straw-filled headpiece of Buddy Glass.” Wain did “not like Buddy,” whom he found “insufferable” because he could not “leave anything out.”95 William Barrett wrote that he preferred “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” “the more traditional and successful narrative,” to “Seymour: An Introduction,” “a series of rambling notes and ruminations” in which Salinger had abandoned form. Barrett saw the “the whole Glass family” as imitating Seymour and remaining “curiously childlike.”96

Especially sardonic, Robert Martin Adams observed in the Partisan Review that although Salinger had refused to provide “a manageable title” for Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduc tion, he had not objected when “some languid menial” working for his publisher put “$4” on the dust jacket. Adams added that “as works of literature” the stories needed little comment. In more a personal attack on Salinger than a review of the book, Adams concluded, “If Mr. Salinger can’t forget about Seymour Glass altogether, he’d be well advised to hold back indefinitely his further appearance in the fiction.”97 Negative and mocking, Kathleen Nott had little but scorn for the book, apart from an observation that Salinger had transcended the Beats and written a “quite funny” account of the wedding that Seymour did not attend. Nott found the book “bad” and “wicked,” not only “Holier-than-Thou” but also “Holier-than-thy-holiness” and theorized that it “is a Koan, one of those cock-eyed Zen riddles which provide the formula for the antirational.”98 Hugh McGovern acknowledged that the stories “demonstrate the trappings of his [Salinger’s] genius and compulsive charm, but . . . are frequently irritating in the manner in which they avoid coming to real grips with their subject, Seymour Glass.” McGovern thought “Seymour: An Introduction” “a nearly manic effort” to “reconstitute . . . Seymour,” who emerges as “an attractively brilliant ’weirdo’” who killed himself, an act out of which not even “our only authentic literary giant” can make a God.99

In The New York Times Book Review Irving Howe called Salinger “the priest of an underground cult” of nonactivist young people “who have inherited the material good of this world.” Howe also described Salinger as a spokesperson for “inner emigration,” referring to the creation of a “compensating inner life” as a substitute for a preferred life denied. Howe thought that Buddy, the narrator, influenced by Seymour’s “Buddhist quietism” and a “sentimentalized version of Christian love,” failed to portray a Seymour whose saintliness readers could accept. Howe considered both stories in the book “hopelessly prolix” and “marred by the self-indulgence of a writer flirting with the depths of wisdom, yet coy and embarrassed in his advances.” He added that Salinger’s characters were “largely compliant,” failing to “struggle” against “the familiar social world” or to make “a true retreat from it.”100 In Library Journal Robert B. Jackson expressed gratitude that “two of the most important stories of the Glass family” were available in book form. Salinger’s new book, Jackson said, was a “significant work by an important writer and essential, for God’s sake, to all fiction collections.”101 Laurence Smith, writing in The Critic, conceded that Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction seemed to provide “author-invitational licenses to open season” for reviewers and critics, whom Salinger teased “with impetuous disregard,” but claimed that “these stories are every bit the artistic achievement, every bit as significant, and perhaps more revealing than Franny and Zooey.” Smith contended that in light of the problem with which Seymour and subsequently all the Glass children struggled—the reconciliation of “the private conscience of Zen with the public conscience of Christianity”—the “tortured style” of “Seymour: An Introduction” is “artistically valid.” In Smith’s view the story implies “Buddy’s own dilemma of reconciliation, to live by what his brother taught” and “to learn to live with the world on its own terms” while putting “his brother’s suicidal ghost to rest.”102

Hassan offered the most informative review of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction and made the best case for Salinger’s style and method. Hassan argued in the Saturday Review that because Salinger’s Glass stories marked a shift in the author’s focus from squalor to love, the “language and the form, or rather antiforms, of his later stories are conditioned by a sacrament of vision” whose “verbal correlative” in Zen would be “a kind of silence.” As a writer, Hassan continued, Salinger’s difficult task was “to convey in words a life that finds its true consummation beyond words,” while not only capturing the essence of Seymour but also releasing him, exorcising his ghost, and forgetting him “without betrayal.” Thus, Hassan said, the narrative “form must be shattered, and the language must aspire to a wordy silence,” which he called Salinger’s “stunning achievement.” Hassan saw Salinger not as a writer lacking control but one “in clownish guise,” seeking “to inhibit the profane impulse of language by indulging language prodigally,” especially in “Seymour: An Introduction,” in which language is “brilliantly diffracted in various forms: letters, diaries, footnotes, quotations, scrawled messages, telephone conversations, and endless digressions that divert the power of speech.” Hassan pointed out that the epigraphs from Kafka and Kierkegaard are central to the form and design of “Seymour: An Introduction.” The conflict in the story, Hassan contended, is between “love” (Kafka) that “prevents language from exercising its verbal power” and “language” (Kierkegaard) that “openly revolts against the author.” The “true artist,” Hassan concluded, will “accept the subversion of language in the name of a more integral, a more sacred art” (as it is implied Salinger does in the narrative) and “like Seymour playing marbles must try not to aim, try not to try.”103

Although Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction generated even fewer individual critical articles than Franny and Zooey, many general studies of Salinger’s work include perceptive and compelling examinations of his last book to appear in the twentieth century. Examining Salinger’s “later novelettes” in Wisconsin Studies in Con-temporary Literature, Hassan greatly expanded the argument he offered in his review of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. Hassan remarked that “the stories exhibit a new conception of form, particularly suitable to their vision . . . essentially sur-real,” making “use of all the resources of language, including accident or distortion, to convey an unmediated vision of reality.” Commenting on the effect of Salinger’s intent, Hassan explained that “the relations between author, character, and reader are redefined in space as in time; they no longer maintain their habitual distance from one another.” There is no longer “a formal frame” of action, and “language and reality are refracted in a thousand mirrors—witness the “endless chatter, overlapping modes of discourse, dazzling interplay of views—so that language and reality may appear for what they are in Salinger’s estimate: something whole, holy, and perhaps as ineffable as silence.” Hassan argued that Salinger’s aim in “Seymour: An Introduction” was “less to describe Seymour . . . than to justify language which must, in the same breath, try and fail to encompass holiness.” In this regard, Hassan said, “Salinger and Buddy are similar; they both seek confirmation of their art in the wordiness which is at the other side of silence.” Hence, according to Hassan, “the maddening shapelessness of the narrative, the protean distortions of the language.”104

Underscoring Hassan’s argument concerning Salinger’s narrative approach in “Seymour: An Introduction,” Sam Baskett asserted that “Salinger’s . . . fictional technique”—“the minimizing of action in favor of characterization” and the “inclusion of seemingly irrelevant detail”— could “be most meaningfully understood in the context of Zen,” which considers “codification” and “formal systems” to be “antithetical” to “apprehension.” Baskett’s opinion is consistent with Hassan’s observation that artists writing within the context of Zen “must try not to aim” in their narrative approach, and that Buddy’s story introducing Seymour “inveighs against any formalizing scheme.” Furthermore, in trying “to capture the paradoxical splendor and squalor of life” while attempting to enable his readers to “apprehend Seymour’s meaning,” Buddy observes that Seymour’s character did not lend itself to a spare presentation. Baskett implied that Salinger’s technique bore comparison with the sentiment expressed in two lines of the poet Wallace Stevens: “The poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice.”105

Bernice and Sanford Goldstein shared Hassan’s contention concerning the centrality of the quotations from Kafka and Kierkegaard that preface “Seymour: An Introduction.” The Goldsteins agreed that the Kafka quotation supported the view that Buddy’s “excess of love” for Seymour would inhibit his ability to portray him accurately, and they maintained that the Kierkegaard quotation underscored Salinger’s concern, as expressed through Buddy, for his own “lack of ability” as a writer.

The “entire story is a fictional treatise on the artistic process,” the Goldsteins argued, in which the impediments of “love” and “lack of ability” are resolved at the conclusion of the story. The “key” to the story “becomes,” for Buddy, “process, change, and eventual illumination, partial-satori (state of illumination).”106 Responding “to critics’ discomfort” that Salinger placed himself “in the middle of his fiction” and failed to recognize “brevity to be the essence of fiction,” John O. Lyons wrote that Salinger should not be judged by the style and form of more-modern writers. Rather, Lyons said, he should be compared to “the Romantic writers,” whose work, like his, was “discursive, organic in form, autobiographical, anti-intellectual, and mystical.” Examining the works of Laurence Sterne, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Henry David Thoreau, Lyons identified techniques in their writing that helped to explain Salinger’s methods in “Seymour: An Introduction”: a seeming lack of revision in order to maintain the appearance of spontaneity; the “assertion by the Romantic writer that he is dealing with reality and not fiction,” an illusion supported by references to specific times and place in the writing; “a venerable Romantic tradition for ... incompleteness”; “joy in digression”; a “mysterious interrelation of all things”; the occasional “spot in time” that provides a moment of ecstasy; and the protagonist or central object of the fiction (such as the title figure in Byron’s Don Juan [1819-1824] and Walden Pond in Thoreau’s Walden [1854]) as a benchmark or reference point by which the world is measured. To “be testy” about the flouting of the rules in “Seymour: An Introduction,” said Lyons, “is quite mistaken”: Salinger resuscitated an “effective literary stance” that roughened “the sheen coating most modern fiction.”107

Ernest J. Johannson also responded to critics who objected that in Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction there was no “distinction between reality and illusion” and that Salinger’s alter-ego relationship to the narrator, Buddy, was an artistic flaw. Rather than provide a defense of Salinger, Johannson charted the evolution of changes in his fictional techniques from “Franny” to “Seymour: An Introduction” in an attempt to explain how the narrator’s dilemma came to be, pointing out that “the closer the author approaches Seymour through Buddy, the more diffuse, discursive, and unexpected the writing becomes.” Johannson argued that because Salinger “has not limited Buddy’s place in the development of Seymour,” readers consider Buddy’s memorial to his brother as nothing more than “Buddy’s dramatic narration of his [own] feelings.” Johannson also suggested that because of Buddy’s lack of restriction, the reader is deprived “of the illusion of knowing Seymour as a fictional character” or “as an actual brother” and “gets neither illusion nor reality, neither fiction nor biography” from the book. Consequently, the reader is unable to greet “Salinger’s justification of form and style with anything but ambivalence.” Concurring with other critics who saw the narrator’s dilemma foretold in the Kafka and Kierkegaard epigraphs to “Seymour: An Introduction,” Johannson explained that the relevance of the quotations is amplified because Buddy and Seymour “spring from the same aesthetic-emotional matrix,” a condition that makes more difficult the narrator’s assumption of a separate identity from his brother.108

In his Salinger’s Glass Stories as a Composite Novel Alsen provided an extended discussion of “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and of “Seymour: An Introduction,” devoting chapters to each of the stories and examining them as parts of what he regarded as Salinger’s evolving composite novel, from two structural perspectives: “Buddy’s struggle to understand Seymour by writing about him” and “Seymour’s quest for God.”109 Alsen examined what he saw as the primary concern in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”: “Buddy’s attitude toward Seymour’s choice of Muriel as a marriage partner”110 when the wedding took place, in 1942, and later, in 1955. According to Alsen, the story involves a process of discovery, during which Buddy experiences resolution of his “inner conflict” as he reads the last entry in Seymour’s diary prior to his marriage to Muriel. In the first half of his study Alsen focused largely on Buddy as narrator and the way in which both “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour: An Introduction” mark different stages of his development as narrator. Alsen pointed out that in the first of the two stories, although Buddy’s narrative style has changed since he wrote “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (as he claims to have done in “Seymour: An Introduction”) he has not been able to “follow his heart and write spontaneously” as Seymour suggested; therefore, he has given “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” a “conventional structure.”111 Alsen also offered a rationale for one of the most perplexing scenes in the story: Seymour’s

hitting Charlotte Mayhew with a rock. Algren contended that in Charlotte, Seymour saw not only beauty but also “the person who he thought would make him relinquish the paths of study and meditation.”112

In “Seymour: An Introduction,” Alsen asserted, Buddy has reached “the high point” of his “development as a writer” and demonstrates by the form of the story that he has accepted Seymour’s advice about writing, that he is no longer bound by the forms and conventions of “a Beginning, a Middle, and an End.”113 The “form [of the story] expresses its meaning,” and its “rambling narrative development,” or formlessness, is consistent with Seymour’s advice about writing, which is implicit in his advice about marbles, paraphased by Alsen as “Aiming but no aiming.” Buddy has not chosen the story: “it chose him.” Buddy understands “the essence” of “Seymour’s teachings,” Algren concluded, but he does not learn the reason for his brother’s suicide until he reproduces “Hapworth 16, 1924.”114

In J. D. Salinger, Revisited French responded to Alsen’s reading of “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” agreeing with his judgment that Seymour needed his wife’s “simplicity and undiscriminating heart just as Muriel needs his intellectual and spiritual values” but taking issue with Alsen’s argument that Seymour’s in-laws, the Fedders, are “normal” and that intellectuals are the target of the story.115 In French’s view Seymour, who triumphs over “Mrs. Fedder’s half-baked psychoanalytic busybodying,” “the matron of honor,” and “anti-intellectualism,” is the victor in the story. French saw the “real message”116 of “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” in one of Seymour’s diary entries: “Marriage partners are to serve each other. Elevate, help, teach, strengthen each other, but above all, serve” (106). French read the enigmatic rock-throwing incident as a “key to understanding Seymour’s vision and his doom”117 and concurred with Alsen’s contention that Seymour threw the rock at the beautiful Charlotte because he feared she would cause him to abandon his study and meditation. French rejected the exalted opinion of Seymour voiced by “Buddy-Salinger,” as well as Seymour’s claim that indiscrimination leads to happiness. French read “Seymour: An Introduction” as “Salinger’s most original experiment in attempting to manipulate readers,” cultivating them by attributing special status to them, apart from “the grounded everywhere” (113)118 but thought that the description of Seymour not as an “artist” but as a “seer” required “testimony” rather than “criticism” from the narrator.119 French also concurred with Alsen that form expressed meaning in the story and was evidence of the success of “Seymour: An Introduction” as “a work of presentational art.”120

In J. D. Salinger: A Study of the Short Fiction Wenke suggested that Seymour’s character in Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction is illuminated by “competing perspectives that speak explicitly to Seymour’s fitness for marriage and implicitly to his relationship to those who survive his death”: Boo Boo Glass, Mrs. Fedder (Muriel’s mother), the matron of honor, and Buddy.121 Wenke read Seymour’s preference for “indiscrimination” differently from French, seeing it “not so much a blanket acceptance of individual idiosyncrasy as the capacity to perceive all entities without regard to hierarchy, classifications, or distinctions.” Although he made no attempt to interpret Seymour’s hitting Charlotte with a rock, Wenke suggested that “symbolically Seymour’s marriage seems to include a reconciliation with Charlotte,” who looks like Muriel. Despite a recurring pattern in which Salinger’s characters find peace and sleep after a moment of enlightenment or consolation (Babe Gladwaller, Sergeant X, and Franny Glass), Wenke found no relationship between Buddy’s reading Seymour’s last diary entry and his falling asleep, saying only that “Buddy then passes out from too much drink.”122

Discussing “Seymour: An Introduction,” Wenke acknowledged the relevance of the Kafka and Kierkegaard epigraphs but suggested that Seymour is like Vincent van Gogh, whom Buddy lists among the “notorious Sick Men or underadjusted bachelors” (117). Wenke also endorsed Hassan’s contention that the “true aim” of the story is less to describe Seymour than to “justify language” that must “try and fail to encompass holiness.”123 Buddy’s inability to describe Seymour’s face, Wenke said, illustrates “the limitations of words” within the narrative and affirms the further difficulty Buddy encounters: “There is no single Seymour.”124 Wenke concluded that Salinger’s digressive style is intentional, that it “celebrates the randomness and vagaries of the creative imagination.” “Wenke added that [t]he cessation of Seymour finds Buddy opening him-self up to the world,” prepared, like Sergeant X, “to take the next step.”125 However diverse critics’ readings of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction may be, the opinion most commonly shared is that Salinger’s discursive, digressive, free-flowing narrative was not only intentional but also appropriate to show Buddy engaged in the process of discovering his art, his brother, and himself.


With Love and Squalor: 14 Writers Respond to the Work of J. D. Salinger (2001), edited by Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller, comprises fourteen articles by contemporary American fiction writers discussing their responses to Salinger and his work and describing his influence on a more-recent generation of writers. Kotzen underscores the universal quality of Salinger’s themes: “conformity, loneliness, community, family, friendships, and relationships with the opposite sex.” The highly personal responses to Salinger in this collection differ from those of academic critics. As Kotzen points out, the writers express “both deep affection and deep frustration with Salinger. . . ,”126 Walter Kirn notes that he has occasionally reread The Catcher in the Rye as an adult, after having been introduced to it in the eighth grade. One is never free from the influence of the best books, such as The Catcher in the Rye, Kirn says; they seem to vanish, but they always return. Rene Steinke shares her feelings as a young woman reading Salinger’s fiction in Friends-wood, Texas, identifying with both his characters and his writer’s mind and concluding that she wanted to protect Salinger; what she wanted to protect in him was her “own thirteen-year-old self.”127 Charles D’Ambrosio discusses Salinger’s treatment of suicide in the context of his own brother’s suicide. Lucinda Rosenfeld offers a view based on a separation of Salinger the man from his art, implying that he is probably like other fiction writers whose writing process requires a total suspension of outside voices. Whatever his “self-aggrandizement,” his prose “in the context of its own terms, achieves some kind of perfection.”128


In his published writing Salinger was, like most authors, a perceptive observer of society. He carefully registered its values, its distinctive qualities, and its vices and virtues, much of which found its way into his fiction. Although two biographies and two memoirs about Salinger have been published, relatively little is known about his personal and professional life in comparison with what is known about other writers of note.129 The reason is simple: Salinger has guarded his privacy so fiercely and denied access to and dissemination of his papers so effectively that many documents essential to a portrayal of his life and creative process have not been available. Nevertheless, what spare facts have been forth-coming reveal that his life has informed his art.


Salinger’s early stories not only reveal the influence of events from his youth but also affirm the heartfelt effects of his personal experiences. His soldier stories of 1944, written when he was anticipating being shipped overseas, convey the resignation, tension, and anxiety associated with such departures. Babe Gladwaller in “Last Day of the Last Furlough” and the protagonist in “Once a Week Won’t Kill You” both wish to set their houses in order before leaving home. Uncertain about his own future, as Salinger must have been about his, Babe is nonetheless concerned about the future of his sister, Mattie, as he tosses in bed on his last night home, thinking about how he should advise her. The main character in “Once a Week Won’t Kill You” is also concerned about the situation he is leaving behind and wants to make sure that his self-absorbed wife will provide a comforting alternate reality for his delusional Aunt Rena by taking her to the movies at least once a week.

Salinger’s later soldier stories show more-specific influences of time and place and reveal a change in tone reflecting the horrors of war he experienced during the Normandy invasion and the deadly advance across France and Belgium toward Germany. “A Boy in France” depicts Babe Gladwaller trying to find rest in a muddy foxhole once inhabited by a German soldier. Babe can only fantasize about the warmth and comfort he has left behind in America, finding peace only in the love expressed in a letter from his little sister. In the weeks prior to the Normandy invasion Salinger sensed that his own happiness would likely be found in recollection rather than in anticipation. He wrote his former fiction-writing teacher, Whit Burnett, from England, saying that his “nostalgia” was then directing his fiction “because that’s all there seems to be anymore.”130 It is a remark that speaks to his anxiety as much as to then-current writing trends. Set in an army truck filled with soldiers like those Salinger had known while stationed in Georgia in 1943, “This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise” is, like “A Boy in France,” nostalgic, imparting a sense of loss and of longing for happier times. In “The Stranger” Salinger again expresses loss and sorrow born out of personal experience. An old phonograph record stirs prewar memories of young men of the Twelfth Infantry Regiment (Salinger’s own regiment) dancing before they had “ever heard of Cherbourg or Saint ô or Hürtgen Forest or Luxembourg,”131 where so many of them died in battles that Salinger knew first-hand. “The Stranger” also focuses on the fragility and problems of civilian readjustment for the battle-scarred Babe Gladwaller, an experience Salinger also shared.

“I’m Crazy” and “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” Salinger’s first published stories to feature Holden Caulfield as the protagonist, derive from the author’s prewar life. He experienced complex emotions as a result of his unsuccessful academic record, which brought disappointment to his father, and he feared that he would be required to take a job with his father’s importing business, a career in which he had no interest. Having returned home after being expelled from his preparatory school, Holden, the neurotic narrator in “I’m Crazy,” says, “I knew this time when Father said that I was going to work in that man’s office that he meant it, that I wasn’t going back to school again ever, that I would be working in an office.”132 Although the Holden character in “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” has not been expelled from school but is home for the Christmas holidays, his neurotic symptoms are even more pronounced than those of the Holden in “I’m Crazy.” This Holden is “fed up” and wants to run away from New York, which he finds filled with phonies and stifling in its demands for conformity, but Sally Hayes, his date, refuses to accompany him, assuring him that there will be time later for such escapes. “It would not be the same at all,” Holden replies. “And I’d have to work at my father’s and ride in Madison Avenue busses and read newspapers.”133

“A Young Girl in 1941 with No Waist at All,” the story of a brief romantic encounter between Ray Kinsella, a young man working on a cruise ship, and Barbara, a young woman traveling with her future mother-in-law, reveals not only awareness of complex human relation-ships but also firsthand knowledge of cruise ships. Again, the story was inspired by Salinger’s personal experience. After a brief stay at New York University, Salinger, probably seeking to avoid working for his father, joined his friend Herbert Kauffman to take a job in 1937 with the recreation staff on the cruise ship Kungsholm, which toured the Caribbean and provided the two friends with opportunities to enjoy the company of young women on board.134 A description of the Havana harbor in the story is a possible acknowledgment of that episode from Salinger’s past:” Through the mist the Kungsholm could be seen, anchored sleepy and rich, just a few hundred feet aft.”135

After a brief and unsuccessful stint at New York University, Salinger appeared certain to join his father’s importing business, but because Sol Salinger thought that his son might be better prepared if he traveled to Europe first in order to learn German and French, Salinger left for Europe in the fall of 1937 and spent time in Vienna and Paris. From his visit to Vienna came “A Girl I Knew,” the story of John, a young man who falls in love with Leah, a young Jewish woman living with her parents in the same apartment building where he lives. The opening of the story, highly autobiographical, offers reasons for the narrator’s trip to Europe, much in the same terms that Salinger later used in an interview with William Maxwell in 1951.136 According to Ian Hamilton, Salinger was probably in Vienna during the months of January and February 1937 and thus could have observed the Nazi disturbances then taking place in the city,137 an experience that would have prepared him to write the conclusion of” A Girl I Knew,” in which John recounts his return to Vienna after the war only to discover that Leah has died in a concentration camp. While serving in the army, John had the same military duties as Salinger: “During the war in Europe,” John says, “I had an Intelligence job with the regiment of an infantry division. My work called for a lot of conversation with civilians and Werhmacht prisoners.”138 It is a page out of Salinger’s own life.

“Hapworth 16, 1924,” Salinger’s last published work of the twentieth century, owes its setting, a summer camp for boys, to his own experiences at Camp Wigwam in Harrison, Maine, in 1930. Although the story probably includes some of his memories of his time at the camp, the essence of it comes from experiences in his life some twenty years later, when he began his serious study of Eastern religions. On the surface Salinger is removed from the narration, that duty falling briefly to Buddy Glass, who offers only a brief introduction to a nearly thirty-thousand-word letter that seven-year-old Seymour Glass wrote to his parents from Camp Hapworth. Buddy shows his similarity to his creator by indicating that he is forty-six years old, the same age as Salinger at the time the story was published. Seymour, a genius, speaks of his reincarnations and demonstrates extraordinarily wide reading and wisdom, revealing particulars of Salinger’s own literary influences and knowledge of Advaita Vedanta, a Hindu school of thought, and Zen Buddhism.


It is not unusual for first novels to be drawn from a writer’s life. In fact, Salinger affirmed similarities between Holden Caulfield and himself in one of his rare interviews, given two years after The Catcher in the Rye was published, when he said that the novel was “sort of autobio-graphical” and that his “boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the novel.”139 As French has observed, Salinger had been developing the character of a young man “hard pressed by the world” for a long time, probably from his early days at Valley Forge Military Academy, when he first determined to become a writer.140 Classmates from Valley Forge remembered that he had a “sardonic wit,” that his conversation was frequently filled with sarcasm, and that he hated “the silly routines” the cadets were required to follow. One former cadet reported that Salinger “enjoyed breaking the rules” and sneaking off “at 4 A.M. to enjoy a breakfast at a local diner.” Others recalled that Salinger “couldn’t stand stuffed shirts” and “seemed miscast in a military role.”141 He was “sort of a ’wise guy’ and rather cynical about everything.”142 Students from Ursinus College also remembered him as much like his famous protagonist, one woman remarking that when she knew “Jerry” Salinger at the college, he wore “a black Chesterfield coat (complete with velvet collar),” and he “was Holden Caulfield.”143

Salinger began writing about Holden at least by 1941, when his memories of his own youth were fresh. Like Holden, Salinger had disappointed his parents by his poor academic performance and an inability to remain in school. He felt estranged from them, in particular from his father, whose business career he rejected much as Holden rejects his father’s career as a lawyer in The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger attended a military school over which Colonel Milton S. Baker, recalled by one former student as “a great promoter,” presided; Baker is thought to have been the inspiration for the headmaster at Pencey Prep in the novel.144 Salinger’s roommate at Valley Forge was Ned Davis, a strong, handsome young man recalled by a classmate as someone who “combed his hair constantly and believed himself to be the answer to a woman’s prayer.”145 Davis was possibly a model for Holden’s roommate, Ward Stradlater. Salinger, of course, was also thoroughly familiar with New York, the city of his birth and upbringing, visiting theaters, museums, and Central Park like Holden.

Salinger’s thinking is manifested in The Catcher in the Rye in Holden’s insistence on the importance of essence, of purity, in its various forms. Salinger demonstrated on more than one occasion his strong feelings about the importance of leaving the essence of art unobstructed and free from commentary or labeling,146 a sentiment Holden exemplifies obsessively in The Catcher in the Rye with regard to music, theater, and religion. All three of these, he observes, are consistently obstructed by people who have lost touch with spontaneity and the core of original inspiration. Like Holden, Salinger also suffered a mental breakdown, and he empathized knowingly with Holden’s desperate cry “I’m in lousy shape” (171), as well as with his protagonist’s search for peace. By early 1950 Salinger had begun such a search through his study of Eastern religion at the Ramakrishna Vivekananda Center in New York,147 learning of the possibilities for the kind of enlightenment Holden experiences near the conclusion of the novel, when he sits watching Phoebe ride the carousel in the rain.


The stories collected as Nine Stories were written from 1948 to 1953. Although “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” is assumed to be derived most directly from Salinger’s experiences, other stories in the collection also have parallels to events in his life. He informed his friend Elizabeth Murray of the dissolution of his short-lived marriage to his first wife, Sylvia, in a letter sent from the Sheraton-Plaza Hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida, a setting similar to that in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Salinger told Murray that for the first time since his marriage he could complete a story, one called “The Male Goodbye.”148 This choice for a title suggests not only a departure or farewell but also the release, albeit by suicide, achieved by Seymour Glass in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”

From 1948 to 1952 Salinger lived in Connecticut. In “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” he depicted the sad result of acquiescence to the materialistic values and superficiality of affluent suburban culture, an aspect of postwar society he knew well. Salinger’s disgust for military inefficiency and absurdity likely grew out of the horrific scenes he witnessed in the five campaigns he had endured in World War II.149 In “Just Before the War with the Eskimos“ Salinger might have had a youthful version of himself in mind as a model for at least some of the characteristics of Franklin Graff, the poorly groomed, repulsive misfit who was kept out of the armed services because of heart problems. Although Franklin bears a stronger resemblance to Holden’s schoolmate Robert Ackley in The Catcher in the Rye, one of Salinger’s classmates at Valley Forge Military Academy remembered him as similarly ill formed and ill fitted: “He was all legs and angles, very slender, with a shock of black hair combed backward. His uniform was always rumpled in the wrong places. He never fit it. He always stuck out like a sore thumb in a long line of cadets.”150 Like Franklin in “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” Salinger had a slight heart problem that meant he was not subject to the draft.151

One reading of “The Laughing Man” is consistent with a major target of Salinger’s real-life contempt: the artificial nature of WASP society, in which the true merits of John Gedsudski are ignored because of his low social status.152 It should also be noted that Gedsudski is pursuing his law degree at New York University. Although the university is not an Ivy League institution, Salinger abhorred the snobbishness and class-consciousness he encountered there as a student. “Down at the Dinghy,” a story that explores the irrepressible malice of anti-Semitism, likely had its roots in Salinger’s experiences as the son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother.

In the first half of “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” often considered Salinger’s finest short story, the narrator says, “In April of 1944, I was among some sixty American enlisted men who took a rather specialized pre-Invasion training course directed by British Intelligence in Devon, England” (132). This statement derives entirely from the facts of Salinger’s first overseas assignment in April 1944 with the Fourth Infantry Division in Devon, England, where he, too, was given intelligence training prior to participating in the Normandy invasion on 6 June 1944. Salinger also listened to a children’s choir in a local Methodist church153 and probably dined in local civilian tearooms, as does the narrator of the story. The second half of “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” depicting Sergeant X after his return from a German hospital, where he was treated for a mental breakdown, also blends Salinger’s life into his art. After surviving five of the bloodiest campaigns in the European theatre, Salinger checked himself into a German hospital following what has been described as a breakdown.154

“Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes,” Salinger’s story of betrayal and marital infidelity, appears to bear no comparison with documented events in his life. Yet, Wenke’s characterization of the story as “a world of disposable friendships and easy betrayals”155 calls to mind Salinger’s disillusionment during his dealings with publishers who he felt betrayed him.

“De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” and “Teddy” are the most obviously spiritual selections in Nine Stories. By 1951 Salinger had become deeply immersed in Eastern mysticism, dashing off a list of “the ten best books on Zen” for a new friend, Leila Hadley, and railing against her plan to write a descriptive travel book because “he couldn’t see the separateness of things ... so why bother to describe them?” As Gwynn and Blotner have pointed out, “De Daumier-Smith and Teddy McArdle, the protagonists in the last two of the Nine Stories, are very different from the other central figures in the collection.”156 One reading suggests that these characters represent the spiritual enlightenment toward which all the previous stories in the collection have been tending: “the successive stages that a soul would pass through according to Vedantic teachings in at last escaping fleshly incarnations.”157 Of all the nine stories in the collection, “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” and “Teddy” are the ones most informed by Salinger’s increasingly mature awareness of transcendental mysticism and Zen Buddhism during his own personal search for enlightenment and the truest examples of his spiritual life in his art.


Franny Glass’s visit with her boyfriend, Lane Coutell, on the weekend of the Yale game and their subsequent conflicts, which cause Franny to seek refuge in “the Jesus Prayer,” have led to much speculation concerning events from Salinger’s life that might have served as sources for “Franny.” Paul Alexander suggests that the name Franny Glass came from one of Salinger’s friends at Ursinus College with whom he corresponded, a woman named Frances who married a man named Glass-moyer shortly before Salinger wrote “Franny.”158 Claire Douglas, whom Salinger married in 1955, is often suggested as the model for Franny, based on assertions made by her half brother Gavin, who reported that after meeting Salinger in 1953, Claire discovered mysticism and “was hung up on the Jesus Prayer.”159 She also had an Ivy League boyfriend, a Harvard Business School graduate, whom she continued to date during 1953 and married suddenly in 1954, after breaking off her relationship with Salinger. Gavin added validity to the Claire-Franny parallel by reporting that his half sister, too, had a blue suitcase like the one Franny carries in the story, “the navy-blue bag with the white leather binding ...” (10). Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, supports the view that Claire was the model for Franny. In Margaret’s account, her mother said that “Franny” was indeed based on her life and pointed out that she herself was “the girl in a blue dress with the blue-and-white overnight bag slung over her shoulder. ...” Margaret adds that her mother “still has the order slip from Brentano’s Bookbinding Department for ’Franny’s’ book, The Way of the Pilgrim.”160

Salinger’s own religious study, emphasizing the rejection of ego, likewise corresponded closely with the views Franny expresses in the story, and his animosity toward persons he considered Ivy League phonies and pompous intellectuals was consistent with her opinions. He, too, resented the exploitation of writers by academics, whom he viewed as making their reputations at authors’ expense. Furthermore, Lane’s pos-turing and pontificating, as well as his pretentious labeling of writers, were from Salinger’s perspective not only functions of what Franny sees as “ego, ego, ego” (29) but also manifestations of studied academic demeanor, a kind of group affectation, that drew attention from writers’ work and focused it on members of the group. Lane is a perfect target for Franny’s and Salinger’s disgust.

Addressing Franny’s spiritual malaise and debilitation, Salinger attempts in “Zooey” to provide a remedy that will enable her to proceed with her life and career. Margaret Salinger’s recollection of her father’s activities during the years in which “Zooey” was evolving suggests that both Franny and Zooey derive in great part from events in Salinger’s life. The most important of these activities was his spiritual quest during a time when he appears to have confronted issues common not only to Franny and Zooey but also to their brother Buddy, who reveals in the story an awareness of the potentially harmful effects of the heavy dose of Eastern religion he and Seymour gave their siblings. Margaret Salinger reports that her father not only became a God seeker but also encouraged Claire to study religious literature before they were married. By 1954 they were reading Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi (1946), which was encouraging to Claire because of Yogananda’s report that his guru, Lahiri Mahasaya, had said that “the path of the yogi” was not restricted to celibates but open to married persons.161 Salinger also included Claire in his sessions at the Ramakrishna Vivekananda Center in New York.

Having read Autobiography of a Yogi, Salinger and Claire intensified their spiritual pursuits. They both wrote to the publishers of the book asking for a recommendation of a “teacher-guru” who would consider initiating them into “the Self-Realization Fellowship.” Their request granted, they studied outside Washington, D.C., with Swami Premananda, who gave them a mantra and taught them how to coordinate their breathing. According to Margaret Salinger, her father apparently immersed himself in a wide variety of religious literature:” Zen Buddhism, Vedanta Hinduism, 1950s off and on; Kriya yoga, 1954-55; Christian Science, . . . Scientology, called Dianetics at the time, 1950s; something having to do with the work of Edgar Cayce; homeopathy and acupuncture. . . .”162 Claire expressed her frustration at being required to follow her husband as he shifted from one spiritual path to another, each new one displacing an old one and becoming “Jerry’s new super-encompassing God.”163

Reaching toward myriad and diverse paths, Salinger, like Franny, needed a remedy for the problems he encountered in his own search for enlightenment. Zooey speaks of Franny’s incapability, comparable to Salinger’s, of finding spiritual satisfaction, pointing out that she has moved from Jesus to St. Francis of Assisi and on to the Rus-sian peasant’s Jesus Prayer, only to become immobilized. Yet, finding parallels for the Jesus Prayer in Nembutsu Buddhism and the anonymous fourteenth-century English mystical work The Cloud of Unknowing, Franny reveals that her sampling of mystical routes has been even more extensive than Zooey’s examples suggest. Salinger had provided the answer that ultimately satisfies Franny in “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period,” in which de Daumier-Smith acknowl-edges the oneness of everything by declaring that “Everybody is a nun” (164). The secret that Zooey reveals to Franny in “Zooey” is essentially the same: there is no separation, separateness, or distinction. “Jesus,” he says, “realized there is no separation from God” (170). Given this premise, Zooey’s argument is logical. If everybody is Seymour’s Fat Lady, and the Fat Lady is Christ, and Christ is inseparable from God, then all is oneness. This lesson permeates the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, who observes that “Each action of our lives, the grossest as well as the finest, the highest, the most spiritual—is alike tending toward this one ideal, the finding of unity.” There is no “I,” only “Thou . . . and what is meant by this is the recognition of non-individuality— that you are part of me, and I of you; the recognition that in hurting you I hurt myself. . . . This is the theme that runs through the whole of Vedanta, and which runs through every other religion.”164 Both “Hindus and Buddhists,” says Alan W. Watts, “prefer to speak of reality as ’non-dual’ rather than ’one’ since the concept of one must always be in relation to that of many.”165 The teachings of Vedanta occupied much of Salinger’s life throughout the 1950s and greatly inform Franny and Zooey.


“Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” was published in 1955, the same year as “Franny,” and also conveys, albeit with more subtlety, the Hindu and Zen message of one-ness with which Zooey leads Franny out of her spiritual quagmire. Seymour loves and needs Muriel’s “undiscriminating heart” (77), and he, too, is disturbingly undiscriminating from Buddy’s point of view, saying in his diary that he loves Muriel’s mother, Mrs. Fedder, and finds her “unimaginably brave” (84), despite her cold psychoanalytic probing and brutal labeling of Seymour. Buddy cannot initially grasp that the undiscriminating Seymour is able to transcend the ugly distinction that Mrs. Fedder represents for Buddy and others because Seymour knows that Christ is the Fat Lady and that even Mrs. Fedder is the Fat Lady. Salinger found a metaphor for oneness even in a frequently criticized phenomenon of postwar America that he and every other soldier saw soon after their return home: the look-alike houses that filled the new suburbs. Zooey, Seymour says in his diary, giving his spiritual concept a physical context, thought the housing developments “nice” because they blurred difference. Zooey “even wished that everybody in the world looked exactly alike” so that “you’d keep thinking everybody you met was your wife or your mother or father” (79-80). Margaret Salinger reports that her father “has three cats whose names are Kitty 1, Kitty 2, Kitty 3,”166 distinctions but barely so.

In “the author’s formal introduction” (47) to “Zooey,” Salinger distances himself from his narration, creating an “alter ego collaborator”167 in Buddy. Since Buddy is also the narrator of “Seymour: An Introduction,” Salinger once again stands back from the narrative, claiming no real ownership of his character’s observations. Buddy’s narration demonstrates a process of discovery during which he, like Franny and Zooey, gains more distance from Seymour while remaining a beneficiary of his brother’s lesson of oneness. The narration also provides Salinger with an opportunity to express through Buddy a thinly disguised version of himself and his thoughts about his own reception by the world. Buddy’s close resemblance to Salinger is illustrated in the early pages of “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” in which he says that in the year 1942 he “was twenty-three, newly drafted” (29). Salinger, too, was twenty-three when he was drafted that same year. In “Seymour: An Introduction” Buddy declares that he also served in “the European Theater of Operations” (132), as did Salinger.

Because “Seymour: An Introduction” follows the organizational structure of “Zooey,” moving from rancor to rest, many of Salinger’s targets appear in the early pages of the story: “the Dharma Bums, . . . the Beat and the Sloppy and the Petulant, the chosen cultists ... all the bearded, proud, unlettered young men and unskilled guitarists and Zen-killers . . .” (114); “the neo-Freudian Arts and Letters clinics” (118); “the current ruling intellectual aristocracy educated in one or another of the big public psychoanalytical schools” (121); and “the little band of regulars, moderate-salaried pedants, and income supplementers who can be trusted to review new books on poetry not necessarily either wisely or passionately” (133-134). From Salinger’s perspective, the members of the Beat generation were not serious students of Eastern religion but dabblers for whom he always felt contempt. He disliked those who saw psychoanalysis as the easy answer to personal ills and psychoanalytical criticism as the key to the interpretation of a writer’s life and work. Salinger had come to detest critics, despite his repeated assertions that he did not read their reviews. Joyce Maynard, the young woman who was briefly involved with Salinger in the early 1970s, reported that he expressed “a particular loathing for John Updike, who once published a highly critical piece about his work.”168

Salinger also mocks his own reclusiveness in “Seymour: An Introduction.” In a long footnote that includes advice about suitable translations into English of Japanese poetry, Buddy says in one of his many parenthetical asides, “This last little piece of pedantry, I repeat is for the young, who write to authors and never get any replies from the beasts” (137). Salinger’s refusal to respond to inquiries is well known, as is his refusal to admit literary pilgrims to his compound in Cornish, New Hampshire. Buddy speculates that the publication of Seymour’s poetry will stimulate a mad dash to his door by “matriculating young men and women ... in singlets and twosomes, notebooks at the ready.” Even Buddy has been visited by “many young English Department people” who know where he lives, and he has “their tire tracks” in his “rose beds to prove it” (159). As Lane Coutell might have wanted to know, they wish to learn whether there is “an endemic American Zeitgeist” (161). Salinger is recounting scenes from his own experience with curious students. The freely discursive voice of Buddy in “Seymour: An Introduction,” speaks both for Salinger and about him, providing readers with an opportunity to hear the intensely private author respond to events that have touched his life and informed his writing.


The Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction remained in print throughout the twentieth century, and new paperback editions of all four were published in 2001. The Catcher in the Rye has been not only Salinger’s most successful book but also one of the best-selling novels in American literary history.

Appearing a decade before the political activism of the 1960s, The Catcher in the Rye spoke to young Americans who saw themselves as driven to conform to the dictates of an increasingly materialistic and success-oriented society. Those who chose to reject societal prescriptions for and gauges of success shared Holden Caulfield’s sense of alienation and his contempt for what they viewed as the hypocrisy and phoniness of the era. Salinger’s novel caught the spirit of an evolving rebelliousness among American youth that was exemplified in subsequent books and movies.

Although The Catcher in the Rye enjoyed an extraordinarily large following, it also elicited a vituperative public reaction among parents and citizens’ groups objecting to offensive language in the book. Steven J. Whitfield observes that “no postwar American novel has been subjected to more—and more intense’efforts to prevent the young from reading it.”169 By 1954, one year after the first paperback edition of the novel made it more accessible, attempts to censor the book began to spread. According to Pamela Hunt Steinle, “The base of censorship operations in this period was the National Organization for Decent Literature,” and it supported attempts to ban books such as The Catcher in the Rye that were thought to have “’immoral,’ ’atheistic,’ or ’communist’ content.”170 Although teachers assigning the novel to students in public schools were particularly vulnerable to the hostile forces of censorship (many of these teachers were transferred or fired), college and university professors were also subject to attack. A Houston attorney objected to his daughter’s being assigned The Catcher in the Rye in an English class at the University of Texas and threatened to remove her from the institution, charging that no sane person would use language like Holden’s. He also attacked the university for corrupting youth and encouraging the “lessening of spiritual values which in turn leads to communism.”171

Two deranged readers of The Catcher in the Rye credited the novel with inspiring them to commit acts with tragic consequences that few people would have imagined. On 8 December 1980 Mark David Chapman fatally shot musician John Lennon, the former Beatle, as he stepped from his limousine to enter his apartment building in New York. At the time of his arrest Chapman had in his possession a copy of The Catcher in the Rye that he had inscribed “To Holden Caulfield from Holden Caulfield.” Later he proclaimed that those looking for explanations for his crime could find answers in the book. During the trial, Chapman testified that he had killed Lennon because he thought the pop star had become a phony, “corrupted by commercialism,” in Alexander’s para-phrase. Killing him, Chapman believed, had preserved Lennon’s innocence.172 On 30 March 1981 John W. Hinckley Jr., waiting outside a hotel in Washington, D.C., where President Ronald Reagan was to speak, stepped from the crowd when the president arrived and fired six shots at him. Hinckley, who confessed to shooting Reagan in order to impress the actress Jodie Foster, was carrying in his pocket a well-worn copy of The Catcher in the Rye at the time of his crime.173

Critics continue to evaluate The Catcher in the Rye, arguing about whether it merits recognition as an enduring work of literature. Harold Bloom acknowledges that Holden Caulfield continues to speak “for our skepticism, and for our need,” and he asks whether the “aesthetic salvation” of the book or its relegation to the status of “a period piece” will not ultimately be determined by Holden’s success or failure to address these issues to the satisfaction of future readers over an even greater period of time.174 Sanford Pinsker maintains that The Catcher in the Rye, “the novel we most associate with the nervous, angst-ridden 1950s,” has already “stood the test of time better than the novels” of Salinger’s contemporaries.175

Although Salinger’s reputation was made by his one novel, his other three books have continued to attract readers, but in far fewer numbers than has The Catcher in the Rye. New generations have been drawn to Salinger’s works, often for the same reason readers rushed to buy Nine Stories when it was published in 1953. They are enthralled by The Catcher in the Rye, and they want to see more writing by the same author. Salinger’s increasing reclusiveness following the success of his novel and the publication of his story collection also generated interest in his work for readers who sought to discover the mysteries of the missing artist through his art. The serial quality of his fiction has likewise attracted readers who, after being introduced to the Glass family, looked forward to future installments. Interest in Eastern religion and transcendental meditation in the 1960s also contributed to the popularity of the Glass stories.176 French has conjectured that some of Salinger’s appeal, based on readers’ fascination with the mystical pursuits of his characters, likely waned because of “the overreaching” of more-recent “emissaries from the orient,” leading to a disaffection from which not even Seymour Glass was spared.177

Public schools, colleges, and universities that have introduced Salinger’s books annually to students are largely responsible for ensuring that they continue to be read. Nevertheless, critical attention has not remained as constant as his readership, having sharply diminished since the surge of response during the first two decades after the publication of The Catcher in the Rye. Writers, of course, go in and out of favor with literary pundits, who, as Salinger demonstrated, often pursue their own private agendas while following the critical herd, sometimes expressing voguish opinions or even fashionable contempt. Yet, The Catcher in the Rye has remained in favor with readers since it was published in 1951, probably because, as Whitfield has said, it “is utterly apolitical,”178 and perhaps even because of the continued presence throughout the world of the objects of Holden’s scorn.


As a young writer Salinger wanted to have his work adapted for the cinema. Other writers had reaped financial gains from Hollywood, and he, too, hoped to see his works translated to the screen. As early as 1943 he wrote to Burnett indicating that he was eager to “sell some stuff to the movies.”179 Hamilton says that Salinger was “looking toward Holly-wood” for “one big killing in the movies” in order “to buy the freedom to set up as a full-time writer after the war.”180 Hamilton nevertheless suggests that the young author was also ambivalent about Hollywood, con-tending that Salinger’s work “had movie potential” but that he “both yearned for and despised the movies.”181

By 1948 Salinger’s New Yorker stories had begun to gain considerable attention. Samuel Goldwyn bought the screen rights to “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” at the suggestion of the successful screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein and adapted the story as the motion picture My Foolish Heart. Although Samuel Goldwyn Studios officially released the movie on 21 January 1950, it had been shown in 1949 in New York and Los Angeles in order to be eligible for the Academy Award nominations for that year. Goldwyn made every effort to ensure the success of the movie by having the Epsteins write the screenplay and hiring proven director Mark Robson to direct a cast that included the stars Dana Andrews and Susan Hayward. Victor Young composed the theme song, “My Foolish Heart,” which soon became a popular-music standard.182 Salinger, however, loathed the movie, especially the screenplay, which greatly distorted his story and turned it into a sentimental tearjerker.

Although William Brogden praised My Foolish Heart in Variety,183most other reviewers agreed with Salinger’s assessment. Movie critic Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times that the purpose of Goldwyn’s picture “is obviously to tear at the emotions in the most elementary and uninhibited ways.”184 An anonymous reviewer in Time concurred, noting that “the screenplay turns on all the emotional faucets of a Woman’s Home Companion serial.”185 Even harsher, Jane Lockhart, reviewing the movie in The Rotarian, wrote that if “intelligent people” were “this maudlin . . .they would be more suitable subjects for a psychiatrist or the writers of soap operas than for grade-A motion-picture attention.”186 John McCarten must have anticipated Salinger’s feelings when he wrote in The New Yorker (the magazine in which “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” was first published) that My Foolish Heart was “full of soap-opera cliches” and that it was “hard to believe it was wrung out of a short story by J. D. Salinger. . . .” McCarten said the screenwriters, the Epsteins, “have certainly done Mr. Salinger wrong.”187 Salinger obviously agreed with this view and refused all future requests to have any other work of his adapted for radio, television, or the cinema. Despite many requests for the movie rights to The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger’s response has always been the same: “I had a bad experience with Hollywood once.”188


1. J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (Boston: Little, Brown/Back Bay, 2001), p. 3. Subsequent parenthetical page references in the text are to this edition.

2. Salinger, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” in Nine Stories (Boston: Little, Brown/Back Bay, 2001), p. 7. Subsequent parenthetical page references in the text for this and all other stories collected in Nine Stories are to this edition.

3. Salinger, Franny and Zooey (Boston: Little, Brown/Back Bay, 2001), p. 3. Subsequent parenthetical page references in the text for “Franny” and “Zooey” are to this edition.

4. Salinger, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (Boston: Little, Brown/Back Bay, 2001), p. 9. Subsequent parenthetical page references in the text for “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour: An Introduction” are to this edition.

5. “I’m Crazy” is Salinger’s first published story to feature Holden Caulfield as the protagonist. Salinger integrated most of the material in this story into chapters 1, 2, 21, and 22 of The Catcher in the Rye.

6. “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” was accepted for publication by The New Yorker in 1941, but the magazine delayed publication until after World War II. Salinger incorporated parts of the story into chapters 17, 19, and 20 of The Catcher in the Rye.

7. Salinger changed the name of Holden’s preparatory school in this story to Pencey, the same name as the school from which Holden is expelled in The Catcher in the Rye.

8. Nash K. Burger, “Books of The Times,” New York Times, 16 July 1951, p. 19.

9. Virgilia Peterson, “Three Days in the Bewildering World of an Adolescent, New York Herald Tribune, 15 July 1951, p. 3.

10. James Stern, “A, the World’s a Crumby Place,” New York Times Book Review, 15 July 1951, p. 5.

11. Harvey Breit, “Reader’s Choice,” Atlantic, 188 (August 1951): 82.

12. S. N. Behrman, “The Vision of the Innocent,” New Yorker, 27 (11 August 1951): 71, 76.

13. Henry Seidel Canby and others, in The Book of the Month: Sixty Years of Books in American Life, edited by Al Silverman (Boston: Little, Brown, 1986), p. 127.

14. T. Morris Longstreth, “New Novels in the News,” Christian Science Monitor, 19 July 1951, p. 11; reprinted in Holden Caulfield, edited by Harold Bloom (Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1990), pp. 5-6.

15. Riley Hughes, “New Novels: The Catcher in the Rye,” Catholic World, 174 (November 1951): 154.

16. “Young Minds,” Times Literary Supplement, 7 September 1951, p. 60.

17. Adam Moss, “ Catcher Comes of Age,” Esquire, 96 (December 1981): 56.

18. Ibid., p. 51.

19. Arthur Heiserman and James E. Miller Jr., “J. D. Salinger: Some Crazy Cliff,” Western Humanities Review, 10 (Spring 1956): 129-132; reprinted in Malcolm M. Marsden, If You Really Want to Know: A Catcher Casebook (Chicago: Scott, Foresman, 1963), pp. 16-22.

20. David Stevenson, “The Mirror of Crisis,” Nation, 184 (9 March 1957): 215.

21. Edgar Branch, “Mark Twain and J. D. Salinger: A Study in Literary Continuity,” American Quarterly, 9 (Summer 1957): 158; reprinted in Studies in J. D. Salinger: Reviews, Essays, and Critiques of The Catcher in the Rye and Other Fiction, edited by Marvin Laser and Norman Fruman (New York: Odyssey, 1963), pp. 39-49.

22. John W. Aldridge, In Search of Heresy: American Literature in an Age of Conformity (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1956), p. 129.

23. Ihab Hassan, Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), pp. 262-263. The chapter from which the quotations are taken was originally published as “Rare Quixotic Gesture: The Fiction of J. D. Salinger,” Western Review, 21 (Summer 1957): 261-280.

24. See Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner, The Fiction of J. D. Salinger (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1958), pp. 28-31.

25. See George Steiner, “The Salinger Industry,” Nation, 189 (14 November 1959): 360-363; reprinted in Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait, edited by Henry Anatole Grunwald (New York: Harper, 1962), pp. 82-85.

26. See Tom Davis, “J. D. Salinger: Some Crazy Cliff Indeed,” Western Humanities Review, 14 (Winter 1960): 97-99; reprinted in Marsden, If You Really Want to Know, pp. 95-97; Bernice and Sanford Goldstein, “Zen and Salinger,” Modern Fiction Studies, 12 (Autumn 1966): 313-324; and Gerald Rosen, “A Retrospective Look at The Catcher in the Rye,” in Critical Essays on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, edited by Joel Salzberg (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990), pp. 158-171.

27. See Donald P. Costello, “The Language of The Catcher in the Rye,” American Speech, 34 (October 1959): 172-181; reprinted in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, edited by Bloom (Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000), pp. 41-49.

28. Carl F. Strauch, “Kings in the Back Row: Meaning through Structure—a Reading of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye,” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 2 (Winter 1961): 5-30; reprinted in Critical Essays on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, p. 66.

29. See Wisconsin Studies in Language and Literature, 1 (Winter 1963); Modem Fiction Studies, 3 (Autumn 1966); and Warren French, J. D. Salinger (New York: Twayne, 1963). For another perceptive analysis of The Catcher in the Rye, see Miller, J. D. Salinger, University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers, no. 51 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965).

30. James Bryan, “The Psychological Structure of The Catcher in the Rye,” PMLA, 89 (October 1974): 1065-1074; reprinted in Critical Essays on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, pp. 101-117. For a response to Bryan’s article see Dennis Vail, “Holden and Psychoanalysis,” PMLA, 91 (January 1976): 120-121; reprinted in Critical Essays on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, pp. 117-119.

31. Carol and Richard Ohmann, “Reviewers, Critics, and The Catcher in the Rye,” Critical Inquiry, 3 (Autumn 1976): 15-37; reprinted in Critical Essays on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, pp. 119-137. For a response to the Ohmann article see Miller, “Catcher In and Out of History” in Critical Essays on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, pp. 140-144.

32. See James M. Mellard, “The Disappearing Subject: A Lacanian Reading of The Catcher in the Rye,” in Critical Essays on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, pp. 197-214.

33. Alan Nadel, “Holden and the Cold War,” Centennial Review, 32 (Fall 1988): 351-371; reprinted in Holden Caulfield, pp. 153-166.

34. Mary Suzanne Schriber, “Holden Caulfield, C’est Moi,” in Critical Essays on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, pp. 226-238.

35. Little, Brown’s Back Bay edition of the novel was published in January 2001; it features the cover illustration used for the original hardcover edition and the same pagination.

36. William Peden, “Esthetics of the Story,” Saturday Review, 36 (11 April 1953): 43-44.

37. Arthur Mizener, “In Genteel Traditions,” New Republic, 128 (25 May 1952): 19-20.

38. Gilbert Highet, “New Books: Always Roaming with a Hungry Heart,” Harper’s, 206 (June 1953): 100-109.

39. Charles Poore, “Books of the Times,” New York Times, 19 April 1953, p. 25.

40. “Nine by Salinger,” Newsweek, 41 (6 April 1953): 98.

41. Angus Wilson, New Statesman and Nation, 46 (15 August 1953): 187.

42. “Youthful Horrors,” Nation, 176 (18 April 1953): 332.

43. Eudora Welty, “Threads of Innocence,” New York Times, 5 April 1953, sec. 7, p. 4.

44. Sublette, Jack R., J. D. Salinger: An Annotated Bibliography, 1938-1981 (New York: Garland, 1984), pp. 187-193.

45. Gwynn and Blotner, The Fiction of J. D. Salinger, pp. 4-8.

46. John Hermann, “J. D. Salinger: Hello Hello Hello,” College English, 22 (January 1991): 262-264; reprinted in Studies in J. D. Salingen pp. 254-259.

47. Robert M. Browne, “Rebuttal: In Defense of Esme,” College English, 22 (May 1961): 584-585; reprinted in Studies in J. D. Salinger, pp. 559-561.

48. Tom Davis, “The Identity of Sergeant X,” Western Humanities Review, 16 (Spring 1962): 181-183; reprinted in Studies in J. D. Salinger, pp. 261-264.

49. Fred B. Freeman Jr., “Who Was Sergeant X?” American Notes & Queries, 2 (September 1972): 6. Freeman also refutes Dan Wakefield’s attempt to identify the sergeant as Buddy Glass, pointing out that Buddy is not married. See Wakefield, “Salinger and the Search for Love,” in Studies in J. D. Salinger, pp. 77-87.

50. Bryan, “A Reading of Salinger’s ’For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,’” Criticism, 9 (Summer 1967): 275-276, 288.

51. John Wenke, “Sergeant X, Esme, and the Meaning of Words,” Studies in Short Fiction, 18 (Summer 1981): 251-259.

52. Gwynn and Blotner, The Fiction of J. D. Salinger, pp. 19-21.

53. Miller, J. D. Salinger, pp. 27-30. Miller’s remark that Seymour has “begun to vomit up the apple of logic” is an allusion to Teddy McArdle’s advice to Bob Nicholson in “Teddy,” the last story in the collection. See Salinger, Nine Stories, p. 291.

54. Leslie A. Fiedler, “From Redemption to Initiation,” New Leader, 41 (26 May 1958): 20.

55. Frank Metcalf, “The Suicide of Seymour Glass,” Studies in Short Fiction, 9 (Summer 1972): 243-246.

56. Charles V. Genthe, “Six, Sex, Sick: Seymour, Some Comments,” Twentieth Century Literature, 10 (January 1965): 170-171. Dallas E. Weibe also discusses the relevance of the number six in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” suggesting that Seymour thinks he has six toes, just as he thinks he has a tattoo. See Weibe, “Salinger’s ’A Perfect Day for Bananafish,’” Explicator, 23 (September 1964): item 3.

57. Gary Lane, “Seymour’s Suicide Again: A New Reading of J, D. Salinger’s ’A Perfect Day for Bananafish,’ Studies in Short Fiction, 10 (Winter 1973): 27-33.

58. Ruth M. Vande Kieft, Eudora Welty (New York: Twayne, 1962), p. 153. That Seymour suffers occasionally from “an excess of ecstasy” is supported by Buddy Glass’s explanation for Seymour’s hitting Charlotte Mayhew with a stone. “He threw it,” Buddy says, “because she looked so beautiful sitting there in the middle of the driveway with Boo Boo’s cat.” See Salinger, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, p. 104.

59. See James Bryan, “A Reading of Salinger’s ’Teddy,’” American Literature, 40 (November 1968): 352-369; William Bysshe Stein, “Salinger’s ’Teddy’: Tat Tvam Asi or That Thou Art,” Arizona Quarterly, 29 (Autumn 1973): 253-265; and Laurence Perrine, “Teddy? Booper? Or Blooper,” Studies in Short Fiction, 4 (Spring 1967): 217-224.

60. See Bernice and Sanford Goldstein, “Zen and Nine Stories,” Renascence, 22 (Summer 1970): 171-183.

61. John V. Hagopian, “’Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’: Salinger’s Paolo and Francesca in New York,” Modern Fiction Studies, 12 (Autumn 1966): 351, 354.

62. John Russell, “Salinger, From Daumier to Smith,” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 4 (Winter 1963): 70-87.

63. Paul Kirschner, “Salinger and His Society: The Pattern of Nine Stories,” London Review, 6 (Winter 1969-1970): 34-54.

64. Miller J. D. Salinger, pp. 19-21.

65. French, J. D. Salinger; Revisited (Boston: Twayne, 1988), pp. 63, 87.

66. Wenke, Salinger: A Study of the Short Fiction (Boston: Twayne, 1991), pp. 31-62.

67. Ian Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger (New York: Random House, 1988), p. 176.

68. John Updike, “Anxious Days for the Glass Family,” New York Times, 17 September 1961, sec. 7, pp. 1, 52; reprinted in Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait, pp. 53-56.

69. Joan Didion, “Finally (Fashionably) Spurious,” National Review, 11 (18 November 1961): 341-342; reprinted in Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait, pp. 77-79.

70. Isa Kapp, “Salinger’s Easy Victory,” New Leader, 45 (8 January 1962): 27-28; reprinted in Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait, pp. 79-82.

71. Carl Bode, “Book Reviews,” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 3 (Winter 1962): 65-71.

72. Robert B. Jackson, review of Franny and Zooey, Library Journal, 86 (1 October 1961): 3303.

73. Poore, “Books of the Times,” New York Times, 14 September 1961, p. 29.

74. Anne Marple, “Salinger’s Oasis of Innocence,” New Republic, 18 (September 1961): 22-23.

75. Granville Hicks, “Another Look at the Deserving,” Saturday Review, 44 (23 December 1961): 18.

76. See Maxwell Geismar, American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity (New York: Hill & Wang, 1958), p. 207.

77. John P Mclntyre, “A Preface for ’Franny and Zooey,’” Critic, 20 (February-March 1961): 25-28.

78. James G. Murray, “Books,” Critic, 20 (October-November 1961): 72-73.

79. The novelist Mary McCarthy wrote one such critique of Franny and Zooey. Paul Alexander, a Salinger biographer, describes her review as “so vicious it bordered on a personal attack.” See Alexander, Salinger: A Biography (Los Angeles: Renaissance, 1999), pp. 220-221. See also McCarthy, “Franny and Zooey,” Observer (London), 3 June 1962, p. 21; reprinted in Harper’s, 225 (October 1962): 46-48.

80. Alexander, Salinger, pp. 212-214.

81. Sublette, J. D. Salinger: An Annotated Bibliography, pp. 201-204.

82. See Gwynn and Blotner, The Fiction of J. D. Salinger, pp. 32-33, 42-44, 46-52.

83. Ibid., p. 48, 50, 51.

84. Hassan, Radical Innocence, pp. 278-279, 281-283.

85. French J. D. Salinger; pp. 139-143.

86. Ibid., pp. 143-148.

87. French, J. D. Salinger, Revisited, pp. 97-98.

88. Daniel Seitzman, “Salinger’s ’Franny’: Homoerotic Imagery,” American Imago, 22 (Spring-Summer 1965): 58-59.

89. Ibid, pp. 73-74.

90. Seitzman, “Therapy and Antitherapy in Salinger’s ’Zooey,’” American Imago, 25 (Summer 1968): 140-153, 159.

91. Ernest W. Ranly, “Journey to the East,” Commonweal, 97 (23 February 1973): 468-469.

92. Eberhard Alsen, Salinger’s Glass Stories as a Composite Novel (New York: Whitston, 1983), pp. 21-22, 57-59.

93. Wenke, J. D. Salinger: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 63-89.

94. Hicks, “A Glass Menagerie,” Saturday Review, 46 (26 January 1963): 37-38.

95. John Wain, “Go Home, Buddy Glass,” New Republic, 148 (16 February 1963): 21-22.

96. William Barrett, “Reader’s Choice,” Atlantic, 211 (February 1963): 128, 129.

97. Robert Martin Adams, “Fashions in Fiction,” Partisan Review, 30 (Spring 1963): 128-130.

98. Kathleen Nott, Encounter, 20 (June 1963): 80-82.

99. Hugh McGovem, America, 2 (February 1963): 174-175.

100. Irving Howe, “More Reflections in the Glass Mirror,” New York Times Book Review, 7 April 1963, pp. 4-5, 34.

101. Jackson, review of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, Library Journal, 88 (15 January 1963): 237.

102. Laurence Smith, Critic, 21 (February-March 1963): 73-74.

103. Hassan, “The Casino of Silence,” Saturday Review, 46 (26 January 1963): 38.

104. Hassan, “Almost the Voice of Silence: The Later Novelettes of J. D. Salinger,” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 4 (Winter 1963): 5-6, 14.

105. Sam Baskett, “The Splendid/Squalid World of J. D. Salinger,” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 4 (Winter 1963): 56, 60, 61.

106. Bemice and Sanford Goldstein, “’Seymour: An Introduction’: Writing as Discovery,” Studies in Short Fiction, 7 (Spring 1970): 248-249, 256.

107. John O. Lyons, “The Romantic Style of Salinger’s ’Seymour: An Introduction,’” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 4 (Winter 1963): 62, 65-67, 69.

108. Ernest J. Johannson, “Salinger’s Seymour,” Carolina Quarterly, 12 (Winter 1959): 51-54

109. Alsen, Salinger’s Glass Stories as a Composite Novel, pp. xi-xii.

110. Ibid., p. 33.

111. Ibid., p. 46.

112. Ibid., p. 189.

113. Ibid., p. 75.

114. Ibid., pp. 76-77.

115. French, J. D. Salinger, Revisited, p. 102.

116. Ibid., p. 103.

117. Ibid., p. 105.

118. Ibid., p. 107.

119. Ibid., p. 108.

120. Ibid., p. 109.

121. Wenke, J. D. Salinger: A Study of the Short Fiction, p. 93.

122. Ibid., p. 99.

123. Ibid., pp. 100-101.

124. Ibid., p. 105.

125. Ibid., 106.

126. Kip Kotzen, introduction to With Love and Squalor: 14 Writers Respond to the Work of J. D. Salinger, edited by Kotzen and Thomas Beller (New York: Broadway Books, 2001), pp. 3, 4.

127. Rene Steinke, “The Peppy Girls of Friendswood, Texas,” in With Love and Squalor, p. 26.

128. Lucinda Rosenfeld, “The Trouble with Franny,” in With Love and Squalor, p. 87.

129. See Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger; Alexander, Salinger; Joyce Maynard, At Home in the World: A Memoir (New York: Picador, 1998); and Margaret Salinger, Dream Catcher: A Memoir (New York: Washington Square Press, 2000).

130. J. D. Salinger to Whit Burnett, 19 March 1944, quoted in Sublette, J. D. Salinger: An Annotated Bibliography, pp. 30-31.

131. J. D. Salinger, “The Stranger,” Collier’s, 116 (1 December 1945): 18.

132. J. D. Salinger, “I’m Crazy,” Collier’s, 116 (22 December 1945): 51.

133. J. D. Salinger, “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” New Yorker, 22 (21 December 1946): 78.

134. Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, pp. 38-39. Hamilton says that Salinger worked on the Kungsholm with Herbert Kauffman, a friend from Valley Forge Military Academy, in 1937. French disputes this date, saying that Salinger worked on the ship in 1941 and “may have been cruising the Caribbean when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.” The Kungsholm, French adds, did not return from its cruise, like the ship Salinger describes in “A Young Girl in 1941 with No Waist at All,” but “was commandeered by the United States and converted into a troopship.” See French, J. D. Salinger, Revisited, p. 5.

135. J. D. Salinger, “A Young Girl In 1941 with No Waist at All,” Mademoiselle, 25 (May 1947): 222.

136. See William Maxwell, “J. D. Salinger,” in The Book of the Month, pp. 128-130.

137. Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 41.

138. J. D. Salinger, “A Girl I Knew,” Good Housekeeping, 126 (February 1948): 194.

139. Shirley Blaney, “Twin State Telescope,” Claremont (New Hampshire) Daily Eagle, 13 November 1953, p. 1.

140. French, J. D. Salinger, Revisited, p. 33.

141. Quoted in Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 23.

142. Ibid., p. 31.

143. Ibid., p. 45.

144. Ibid., p. 23.

145. Ibid., p. 25.

146. See Maxwell, “J. D. Salinger,” pp. 129-130. Salinger told Maxwell that after commenting about his favorite writers while speaking to a short-story class at Sarah Lawrence College, he was embarrassed about becoming “oracular.” He observed to Maxwell that when a writer is “asked to discuss his craft,” he ought to respond to such a question by merely calling “out the names of the writers he loves in a loud voice,” without affixing labels. See also Salinger, “A Salute to Whit Burnett, 1899-1972,” in Hallie and Whit Burnett, Fiction Writers Handbook (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), pp. 187-188. Salinger praises Burnett’s reading of William Faulkner’s story “That Evening Sun” (1931), saying that with Burnett “You got your Faulkner straight,” that “not once did Burnett come between the author and his beloved silent reader.”

147. French, J. D. Salinger; Revisited, pp. 11-12.

148. Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 98.

149. Ibid., p. 101.

150. Quoted in Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 23.

151. French, J. D. Salinger; Revisited, p. 5.

152. Ibid., p. 74.

153. Alexander, Salinger, p. 91.

154. Ibid., pp. 107-109. Alexander recounts how Salinger checked himself into a military hospital in Nuremburg, Germany, where he was treated for a “nervous breakdown.”

155. Wenke, J. D. Salinger: A Study of the Short Fiction, p. 55.

156. Gwynn and Blotner, The Fiction of J. D. Salinger p. 33.

157. French, J. D. Salinget; Revisited, pp. 63-64.

158. Alexander, Salinger, pp. 185-186.

159. [Jack Skow], “Sonny: An Introduction,” Time, 78 (15 September 1961): 89.

160. Margaret Salinger, Dream Catcher, p. 84.

161. Ibid., pp. 86-87.

162. Ibid., pp. 94-95.

163. Claire Douglas Salinger, quoted in Margaret Salinger, Dream Catcher, p. 95.

164. Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, volume 6 (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1978), pp. 5-6.

165. Alan W. Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: Random House, 1957), p. 40.

166. Margaret Salinger, Dream Catcher, p. 107.

167. J. D. Salinger makes this observation on the dust jacket of the first edition of Franny and Zooey.

168. Maynard, At Home in the World, p. 87.

169. Stephen J. Whitfield, “Cherished and Cursed: Toward a Social History of The Catcher in the Rye,” New England Quarterly, 70 (1997): 575.

170. Pamela Hunt Steinle, In Cold Fear: The Catcher in the Rye Censorship Controversies and Postwar American Character (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2000), p. 73.

171. Quoted in Whitfield, “Cherished and Cursed,” p. 577.

172. Alexander, Salinger, pp. 270-271.

173. Ibid., pp. 271-273.

174. Bloom, introduction to J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, p. 2.

175. Sanford Pinsker, The Catcher in the Rye: Innocence under Pressure (New York: Twayne, 1993), p. 15.

176. Salinger’s works reveal his strong dislike for dabblers in social science, art, and religion The references to the psychology-student girlfriend of Clay (a corporal in Sergeant X’s unit) in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” and Buddy Glass’s observations about “all the bearded, proud, unlettered young men and unskilled guitarists and Zen-killers” in “Seymour: An Introduction” underscore Salinger’s strong dislike of such dabblers. It is unlikely that the rush to mysticism in the 1960s would have received his blessing.

177. French, J. D. Salinger, Revisited, pp. 122-123.

178. Whitfield, “Cherished and Cursed,” p. 587.

179. J. D. Salinger to Whit Burnett, early 1943, quoted in Sublette, J. D. Salinger: An Annotated Bibliography, p. 29.

180. Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 75.

181. Ibid., pp. 106-107.

182. See Alexander, Salinger, pp. 140-141. Hamilton says that it was Darryl Zanuck who bought the screen rights to “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.” See Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, p. 107.

183. William Brogden, “My Foolish Heart,” Variety, 19 October 1949, p. 8.

184. Bosley Crowther, “Heart Trouble,” New York Times, 22 January 1950, sec. 2, p. 1.

185. “Cinema,” Time, 55 (6 February 1950): 83.

186. Jane Lockhart, “Looking at the Movies,” Rotarian, 75 (April 1950): 39.

187. John McCarten, “The Current Cinema,” New Yorker, 26 (28 January 1950): 75.

188. J. D. Salinger, quoted in Alexander, Salinger, p. 142.

Edwin Haviland Miller (essay date Winter 1982)

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SOURCE: “In Memoriam: Allie Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye,” in Mosaic, Vol. XV, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 129-40.

[In the following essay, Miller draws attention to Holden's conflict with his brother's death as a principal theme in The Catcher in the Rye.]

Although J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye deserves the affection and accolades it has received since its publication in 1951, whether it has been praised for the right reasons is debatable. Most critics have tended to accept Holden's evaluation of the world as phony, when in fact his attitudes are symptomatic of a serious psychological problem. Thus instead of treating the novel as a commentary by an innocent young man rebelling against an insensitive world or as a study of a youth's moral growth,1 I propose to read Catcher in the Rye as the chronicle of a four-year period in the life of an adolescent whose rebelliousness is his only means of dealing with his inability to come to terms with the death of his brother. Holden Caulfield has to wrestle not only with the usual difficult adjustments of the adolescent years, in sexual, familial and peer relationships; he has also to bury Allie before he can make the transition into adulthood.2

Life stopped for Holden on July 18, 1946, the day his brother died of leukemia. Holden was then thirteen, and four years later—the time of the narrative—he is emotionally still at the same age, although he has matured into a gangly six-foot adolescent. “I was sixteen then,” he observes concerning his expulsion from Pencey Prep at Christmas time in 1949, “and I'm seventeen now, and sometimes I act like I'm about thirteen.”3

On several occasions Holden comments that his mother has never gotten over Allie's death, which may or may not be an accurate appraisal of Mrs. Caulfield, since the first-person narrative makes it difficult to judge. What we can deduce, though, is that it is an accurate appraisal of Holden's inability to accept loss, and that in his eyes his mother is so preoccupied with Allie that she continues to neglect Holden, as presumably she did when Allie was dying.

The night after Allie's death Holden slept in the garage and broke “all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it. I even tried to break all the windows on the station wagon we had that summer, but my hand was already broken and everything by the time, and I couldn't do it. It was a very stupid thing to do, I'll admit, but I hardly didn't even know I was doing it, and you didn't know Allie.” The act may have been “stupid”—which is one of his pet words to denigrate himself as well as others—but it also reflects his uncontrollable anger, at himself for wishing Allie dead and at his brother for leaving him alone and burdened with feelings of guilt. Similarly, the attack on the station wagon may be seen as his way of getting even with a father who was powerless either to save Allie or to understand Holden. Because he was hospitalized, he was unable to attend the funeral, to witness the completion of the life process, but by injuring himself he received the attention and sympathy which were denied him during Allie's illness. His actions here as elsewhere are inconsistent and ambivalent, but always comprehensible in terms of his reaction to the loss of Allie.

So too is Holden's vocabulary an index to his disturbed emotional state—for all that it might seem to reflect the influence of the movies or his attempts to imitate the diction of his older brother, D. B. At least fifty times, something or somebody depresses him—an emotion which he frequently equates with a sense of isolation: “It makes you feel so lonesome and depressed.” Although the reiteration of the word reveals the true nature of his state, no one in the novel recognizes the signal, perceiving the boy as a kind of adolescent clown rather than as a seriously troubled youth. As his depression deepens to the point of nervous breakdown, furthermore, Holden—who at some level of awareness realizes that he is falling apart—seeks to obscure the recognition by referring to everything as “crazy” and by facetiously likening himself to a “madman.”

“Crap,” another word he uses repeatedly, is similarly self-reflexive. Although it is his ultimate term of reductionism for describing the world, like “crazy” it serves to identify another of his projections. He feels dirty and worthless, and so makes the world a reflection of his self-image. Similarly, if he continually asserts, almost screams, that the phony world makes him want to “puke,” it is because Holden's world itself has turned to vomit. In his troubled, almost suicidal state he can incorporate nothing, and, worse, he believes there is nothing for him to incorporate. In turn, the significance of his repeated use of variations on the phrase “that killed me” becomes almost self-evident: reflecting his obsession with death, it tells the unsuspecting world that he wishes himself dead, punished and then reunited with Allie.

Although his consistently negative and hostile language thus reflects Holden's despair and is his way of informing the world of his plight, if no one listens it is primarily his own fault. For with the usual fumbling of the hurt he has chosen a means which serves his purposes poorly. While his language may serve to satisfy his need to act out his anger, at the same time it serves to isolate and to punish him further. If in his hostile phrases he is calling for help, he makes certain that he does not receive it. Ashamed of his need—a sixteen-year old crying for emotional support—and unable to accept kindness since in his guilt he feels he does not deserve it, Holden is locked into his grief and locked out of family and society.

In this respect, the first paragraph of Catcher in the Rye is one of the most deceptively revealing possible. Although Holden, the would-be sophisticate, relegates his familial background to “David Copperfield kind of crap,” he talks about little else except his “lousy childhood.” Arguing that he will not divulge family secrets so as not to cause pain, and pretending to respect the feelings of his parents, he verbally mutilates them, and in an ugly way; but if he is to suffer, so must they. He retaliates in kind, not in kindness. Yet the aggressive, assertive tone masks a pitiful, agonized call for emotional support and love.

Equally revealing of Holden's problem is his observation, as he stands alone on a hill that cold December, his last day at Pencey Prep, looking down at the football field where his classmates are participating collectively in one of the rites of adolescence: “it was cold as a witch's teat, especially on top of that stupid hill.” What he wants is the good mother's breast. And why he needs this maternal comfort so much is implicitly suggested when he descends the hill to say good-by to his history teacher, who cannot understand why in answering a question about Egyptian history on an examination Holden should have begun and ended with a description of the preservation of mummies. The teacher cannot know that Holden has no interest in the Egyptians, only in what happened to Allie, and that he cannot focus on ancient history until he has come to terms with his own past. Nor can he know that Holden has misinterpreted as rejection his father's concern for his future, that the boy wants to be at home, and that to accomplish his goal he has failed in four different schools.

But lest one think that this insensitivity is a fault of the older generation, Salinger next portrays the response of one of Holden's peers to the first of a number of roles he will play in his desperate attempt to disguise his obsession with Allie's death, on the one hand, and his need for parental comfort, on the other. Thus when Holden pulls his red hunting cap over his eyes and says histrionically, “I think I'm going blind. … Mother darling, everything's getting so dark in here. … Mother darling, give me your hand,” the response of his classmate is: “You're nuts. … For Chrisake, grow up.” Ackley cannot know that Holden assumes Allie's red hair when he puts on the red cap, that the simulated blindness is descriptive of Holden's state, or that he uses the script as a (futile) means of asking for the maternal hand that he believes has been denied to him.

If Ackley does not appreciate the extent to which the death of Holden's red-haired brother informs his posturing, even less is his room-mate Stradlater aware of the chain of associations that he sets off when he asks Holden to write a composition for him. Unable to write about a “room or a house” Holden writes about Allie's baseball mitt—an object which is a complex version of a child's security blanket, a sacred relic of the living dead, at the same time that it reminds Holden of betrayal. And thus as he writes about the mitt, we learn directly for the first time of Allie's death and of Holden's self-punishing rage.

By coincidence, Stradlater has a date that evening with Jane Gallagher, the girl to whom Holden had shown the glove in a combined attempt to sympathize with her for her unhappy childhood and to solicit her sympathy for himself. Worried that Stradlater will make “time” with an attractive girl with whom Holden plays checkers—the only kind of play of which the self-styled sex maniac is capable—Holden presses to know what has happened on the date. And when Stradlater implies that he got what he wanted, Holden lashes out with the hand he injured on the day of Allie's death. Subsequently pinned to the floor until he promises to stop his ridiculing insults, as soon as he is released, Holden shouts, “You're a dirty stupid sonuvabitch of a moron,” and then he receives the blow that subconsciously he wants. “You asked for it, God damn it,” Stradlater says, and he is right for reasons he does not understand.

And so on his last day at Pencey Prep Holden makes a clean sweep of it: he writes off the school, his chums, and even Jane. There is no Tom Sawyer to rescue him when he eventually quotes Huck Finn: “I felt so lonesome, all of a sudden. I almost wished I was dead.” Suddenly Holden decides to leave late that evening even though his family is not expecting him until the following Wednesday. His Mark Cross luggage packed, he is “sort of crying. I don't know why. I put my red hunting hat on, and turned the peak around to the back, the way I liked it, and then I yelled at the top of my goddam voice, ‘Sleep tight, ya morons!’” Thus, in his usual hostile fashion, Holden makes sure that he will be rejected. Protected only by the red hat, which he now wears like a baseball catcher as he evokes Allie's favorite sport, he stumbles down the stairs and “damn near broke my crazy neck.”

On the train to New York he strikes up a conversation with a Mrs. Morrow, who turns out to be the mother of one of his former classmates. He lies through his teeth praising her son who is “about as sensitive as a goddam toilet seat.” But “Mothers are all slightly insane. The thing is, though, I liked old Morrow's mother,” who happens to be proud of her moronic son. When she wonders whether Holden is leaving school before the beginning of vacation “because of illness in the family,” he casually informs her, “I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.” The fib achieves the expected result, Mrs. Morrow's genuine sympathy for an ill “son.”

Though Holden plans to spend the next few days in a hotel, he is “so damn absent-minded” that he gives the cab driver his home address. After he realizes his “mistake,” they drive through Central Park, and Holden asks the driver whether he knows what happens to the ducks in the pond during the winter. The “madman” replies angrily, “What're ya tryna do, bud? … Kid me?” Worried that he has antagonized the man, Holden invites him for a drink. When the driver refuses, Holden, “depressed,” retaliates against “father”: “He was one of those bald guys that comb all their hair over from the side to cover up the baldness.”

In the hotel he is bored but “feeling pretty horny,” as a sixteen-year old is supposed to feel, and he calls up a whore but lets her put him off (“I really fouled that up.”) Then he thinks of telephoning his sister Phoebe, who “has this sort of red hair, a little bit like Allie's was,” but he is afraid his mother will answer. He goes to the bar in the hotel and dances with some older women from Seattle who are in New York to see the celebrities, not to provide Holden with entertainment or solace. He punishes them for neglecting him when he fibs that Gary Cooper has just left the room. On the way to a bar frequented by his older brother D. B., who is now, according to Holden, prostituting himself in Hollywood, he asks a cabby named Horwitz about the ducks in the lagoon in Central Park. Horwitz gets “sore” and counters in a typical New York taxi discussion that “The fish don't go no place.” Desperate for companionship, Holden invites Horwitz for a drink. The driver refuses and has the last word: “If you was a fish, Mother Nature'd take care of you, wouldn't she? Right? You don't think them fish just die, when it gets to be winter, do ya?” Holden does not comment, but Horwitz unwittingly summarizes the boy's dilemma.

Later, in D. B.'s nightclub Holden glosses over his loneliness by observing the behavior of the phonies in the club, and then rejects the invitation of one of D. B.'s girl friends as others have rejected him. When Holden returns to his hotel, an elevator operator named Maurice sets him up with a call girl, but when “Sunny” arrives, he is “more depressed than sexy,” and asks her to stay and talk. He pays her $5.00 and then “depressed” begins “talking, sort of out loud, to Allie.”

Maurice returns with Sunny and demands another $5.00 for services not rendered. Holden tries to defend his rights but begins to cry. Sunny wants to leave quietly after she takes money from Holden's wallet, but Maurice “snapped his finger very hard on my pajamas. I won't tell you where he snapped it, but it hurt like hell.” (The sudden self-protective chastity is an amusing and effective detail.) When Holden calls Maurice “a stupid chiseling moron,” for the second time that evening he is smacked, with a “terrific punch” in his stomach. Hardly able to breathe, fearing he is drowning, he stumbles toward the bathroom. “Crazy,” he acts out a scenario: with a bullet in his gut, he goes down the stairs and puts six shots into Maurice's “fat hairy belly,” and then throws the gun down the elevator shaft. He calls up Jane, who comes over and bandages his wound: “I pictured her holding a cigarette for me to smoke while I was bleeding and all.” Finally he goes to sleep “What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide I felt like jumping out the window. I probably would've done it too”—except for the “stupid rubbernecks.”

Holden's protestations to the contrary, the associations in this scene are only superficially from the “goddam movies.” Maurice threatens Holden with castration, even though he has not had sex with Sunny, and then pummels him in the stomach. In retaliation Holden commits parricide. In his fantasy he summons Jane, who is associated with Allie through her knowledge of the baseball mitt, and has her play the role of mother.

When Holden thinks of jumping out the window, he is recalling an event which the reader does not learn about until later. A few years earlier Jimmy Castle, a classmate, was so tortured and brutalized, presumably genitally, by a bunch of students that he leaped from a window, wearing Holden's turtleneck sweater. As though Holden is not sufficiently burdened with his unresolved grief for Allie, he has had to cope with this tie to an unfortunate classmate. Sunny, the prostitute, anticipates the appearance of Phoebe, who is both the kid sister and by mythic association the sun goddess. Sunny offers Holden sex, Phoebe will offer him love. Unable to handle sex, Holden wants Sunny to be a confidante, a role which she is unable to handle. Yet she tries unsuccessfully to protect him from Maurice's aggression, which may be Holden's construction of his mother's ineffectual role in the Caulfield household.

At breakfast on the following morning he meets two nun school teachers, and begins a conversation which shortly turns to Romeo and Juliet. If the scene with Sunny reveals that Holden is not ready for sexual relationships—he is a “sex maniac” only in his head—his comments on the tragedy solely in terms of Romeo's culpability in Mercutio's death confirm the arrestment. He is attracted to the nuns, or mothers, who remind him of “old Ernest Morrow's mother,” but they also remind him that his father was a Catholic until he “married my mother.” This leads him to recall some unpleasant associations with Catholics, and when he says good-by to the nuns, “by mistake I blew some smoke in their faces. I didn't mean to, but I did it.” In atonement for his unkindness Holden makes a symbolic apology to the nuns when he imagines them standing in front of a department store raising money for charity. He tries “to picture my mother or somebody, or my aunt, or Sally Hayes's crazy mother, standing outside some department store and collecting dough for poor people in a beat-up old straw hat. It was hard to picture.” Since his “picture” of his mother is too harsh, and anxiety-producing, he guiltily corrects it: “Not so much my mother, but those other two.”

Walking along the street, he sees a family coming from church—“a father, a mother, and a little kid about six years old.” Holden “sees” the family, but only in terms of his own situation. Without evidence he initially assumes that the parents are neglecting the boy who walks along the curb singing to himself. “If a body catch a body coming through the rye”—or so Holden imagines. For it is doubtful that the six-year-old, if he knows the poem in the first place, duplicates Holden's misreading of the famous lines. What Holden “hears” anticipates the grandiose fantasy he will later relate to Phoebe in which he catches and saves children. For a moment he is charmed with his fantasy of a self-contained kid whose parents are at hand to protect him: “It made me feel not so depressed any more.”

In the afternoon Holden escorts Sally Hayes to a Broadway show and goes ice skating at Rockefeller Center. Then they sit down for a chat—about Holden. He pours out his anger at the phony world, and when Sally tries to be sensible, he almost screams at her, “I don't get hardly anything out of anything. I'm in bad shape. I'm in lousy shape.” Sally can hardly be expected to understand how empty he feels, or know how to respond to his cry for sympathy. Then he proposes what he knows she cannot agree to, that they run off together to New England. When she objects to the scheme, he verbally assaults her but not without self-pity: “she was depressing the hell out of me.”

After this rejection, which in his usual fashion he makes inevitable, he tries to lift the depression by evoking earlier, happier days when the Caulfield family was intact. He goes to Radio City Music Hall, where, with the parents in another part of the theater, Allie and he had sat by themselves watching a favorite drummer. But pleasant memories of Allie cannot rescue him, and he goes to a bar to meet a former classmate named Luce. Although Holden wants Luce's companionship and assistance, he subjects him to an offensive, crude interrogation about his sex life. Twice Luce asks, repeating the question put earlier by Ackley, “When are you going to grow up?” After Holden confesses that his sex life “stinks,” Luce reminds him that once before he had advised him to see an analyst. At once Holden asks for more information and comes as close as his pride permits to begging for the kind of aid which Luce of course cannot provide. When Luce gets ready to leave for his date, Holden implores, “Have just one more drink. Please, I'm lonesome as hell.”

Now “really drunk” and wounded, because Luce like the others betrays him, he replays the scenario of “that stupid business with the bullet in my guts again. I was the only guy at the bar with a bullet in their guts. I kept putting my hand under my jacket, on my stomach and all, to keep the blood from dripping all over the place. I didn't want anybody to know I was even wounded. I was concealing the fact that I was a wounded sonuvabitch.” Even in fantasy his self-pity turns into self-disparagement: he hates himself as he screams for attention.

He decides to call up Jane Gallagher, but by “mistake”—it is almost a comedy of errors—he dials Sally Hayes and makes up for his insults. Then he goes to the men's room, dunks his head in a washbowl, and sits on a radiator to dry himself. When the pianist, a “flitty-looking guy,” enters, Holden asks him to arrange a date with the singer at the club. The pianist tells him to go home.

“You oughta go on the radio,” I said, “Handsome chap like you. All those goddam golden locks. Ya need a manager?”

“Go home, Mac, like a good guy. Go home and hit the sack.”

“No home to go to. No kidding—you need a manager?”

Holden, who needs “a manager,” is crying as he goes for his coat. When the middle-aged attendant gives him his coat even though he has lost his check, he returns the kindness by asking her for a date. She laughs, but not derisively, and, intuiting the role he wants her to play, makes him put on his red hunting hat. His teeth chattering, Holden goes to Central Park to “see what the hell the ducks were doing.” On the way, one “accident” following another, he drops the phonograph record he has bought for Phoebe. If, as he believes, nothing has been given to him, he cannot give even to his favorite sister and must punish her as he has been punished. When he finds the pond he nearly falls in. “Still shivering like a bastard,” he imagines that he has pneumonia and dies.

In this fantasy he acts out his anger against his parents and inflicts upon them the ultimate punishment, his death. His funeral is mobbed and everybody cries: “They all came when Allie died, the whole goddam stupid bunch of them.” He feels “sorry as hell for my mother and father. Especially my mother, because she still isn't over my brother Allie yet.” In this reenactment of Allie's funeral he displaces his brother and enjoys exclusively the love of his mother. But not for long, since his “picture” cannot lift his guilt, dissolve his rage, or make over reality. People will not mourn him long, no longer than they mourned Allie, and life in the phony world will go on without him. Like Allie he will lie in the cemetery exposed to the elements.

To take his “mind off getting pneumonia and all,” he skips “the quarters and the nickel” across the lagoon. “I don't know why I did it, but I did it.” Perhaps he imitates a game Allie and he played together, but when he throws away his money, there is only one place he can go—home. Which he does, although he disguises the desire by preserving his fantasy: he goes there to see Phoebe “in case I died and all.” In the foyer of the Caulfield apartment he recognizes “a funny smell that doesn't smell like any place else,” and he finds Phoebe asleep in D. B.'s bed: “I felt swell for a change.” Safe and protected, he begins to relax and no longer worries “whether they'd catch me home or not.” What he does not say is that he would like to be caught. At first Phoebe is “very affectionate” until she guesses that he has been kicked out of Pencey Prep. Then, hurt and angry, a reaction which he cannot understand, she beats him with her fists and says over and over, “Daddy'll kill you!” At last Holden tellingly replies, “No, he won't. The worst he'll do, he'll give me hell again, and then he'll send me to that goddam military school. That's all he'll do.”

In this climactic scene Phoebe plays a double role. About Allie's age when he died, she is the sister disappointed in the failures of her idealized brother, but she is also an underaged, undersized mother figure. Firmly but affectionately Phoebe presses Holden to explain why he has been expelled. He pours forth all his phony rationalizations, most of which begin and end with something or somebody “depressing” him. When Phoebe suggests that the fault may be his—“You don't like anything that's happening”—he is “even more depressed.” She insists, now perhaps not unlike the lawyer father, that he name some things he likes. Unable to “concentrate” on her disturbing questions, Holden thinks of the two nuns and of Jimmy Castle's suicide—kind mothers and a dead son. Relentlessly but not without a concession, Phoebe asks him to tell her “one thing” he likes.

“I like Allie,” I said. “And I like doing what I'm doing right now. Sitting here with you, and talking, and thinking about stuff, and—”

“Allie's dead—You always say that! If somebody's dead and everything, and in Heaven, then it isn't really—”

“I know he's dead! Don't you think I know that? I can still like him, though, can't I? Just because somebody's dead, you don't just stop liking them, for God's sake—especially if they were about a thousand times nicer than the people you know that're alive and all.”

Phoebe is silent. Holden believes that “she can't think of anything to say.” More perceptive than her older brother, she gives him time to recognize the significance of what he has said: that Allie is dead. Then, like the parents and the teachers, but with an affection that dilutes his anger, she tries to direct Holden to a consideration of a future which—as she tactfully does not say—must be lived without Allie. When she suggests that he may want to be a lawyer, Holden is unable to reply precisely, not merely because he is trapped in his negations, but also because, in spite of his anger, he can only attack the father by indirection. “Lawyers are all right, I guess,” he replies, with wayward antecedents, “but it does not appeal to me.” He draws a picture of lawyers “saving innocent guys' lives”—which is another rescue fantasy and a disguised self-reference. When he discusses, from his hurt viewpoint, the role of the corporation lawyer, he deflects the indictment of his father through use of the second-person pronoun: “All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot.” Ironically, Holden emulates his father's behavior, from his Mark Cross luggage to his drinking and “hot-shot” attacks on phonies.

Soon Holden confides his most heroic fantasy, undeterred when Phoebe corrects the misquotation of Burns's poem on which it is based.

“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy.”

This is the most complex of all the rescue fantasies. Holden has the “crazy” idea that he should have saved Allie, and that in the future he will save children abused by adults. If he is savior, he is also victim. For he himself is at “the edge of some crazy cliff” and feels himself, as he puts it later, going “down, down, down.” He acts out the role he wants the adult world, particularly his father, to play: that of rescuer.

When a moment later Phoebe and Holden horse around and dance about the bedroom, the youth's delight illuminates his desire for a childhood where there are no fears, only joy and protection. The idyll ends abruptly when the parents come home, and Holden, fearing rejection, hides in a closet. Before he leaves, he borrows Phoebe's Christmas money. For the fourth time he begins to cry: “I couldn't help it. I did it so nobody could hear me, but I did it.” For the first time he achieves what he has cried for from the beginning: Phoebe, now the mother, not the little sister, “put her old arm around my neck, and I put my arm around her, too, but I still couldn't stop for a long time.” Before he goes, he almost tells the truth about himself as well as about the catcher-in-the-rye fantasy. “I didn't give much of a damn any more if they caught me. I really didn't. I figured if they caught me, they caught me. I almost wished they did, in a way.”

Holden leaves to spend the night with a former teacher at a preparatory school, now an English professor at New York University. Antolini has been a role model, a good father, for Holden: he carried the body of Jimmy Castle to the infirmary after his suicide, and he banters in the witty style of D. B. Holden is disappointed when Antolini informs him that he has had lunch with Mr. Caulfield and shares the father's concern that “you're riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall.” The professor tries intellectually to check the boy's self-destructive tendencies, as Phoebe does in her quite different way. Antolini puts the boy to bed on a couch in the living room, and says “Good night, handsome.” Later Holden wakens to find “something on my head, some guy's hand.” “Shaking like a madman,” he concocts an excuse to leave and spends the rest of the night sleeping on a bench in Grand Central Station. “I think,” he writes, “I was more depressed than I ever was in my whole life.”

Although initially Holden interprets Antolini's caress as a sexual advance, in the morning he has doubts, “I mean I wondered if just maybe I was wrong about thinking he was making a flitty pass at me.” Whatever his intentions, sexual or paternal, Antolini sets off the not unusual homosexual panic of adolescents. But Holden's problem is not primarily sexual. He cannot connect with anyone in any way until the burden of Allie's death is lifted.

Alone, depressed, he walks up Fifth Avenue in the morning looking for the two nuns—looking for mother—when something “very spooky” happens. “Every time I came to the end of a block and stepped off the goddam curb, I had this feeling that I'd never get to the other side of the street. I thought I'd just go down, down, and nobody'd ever see me again.” Once more he is at the cliff, and there is no one to catch him, to keep him from going “down, down, down”—except Allie. He cries out, “Allie, don't let me disappear.”

Holden has at last touched bottom, although he is not to be spared further indignities, some of his own making. Never again will he summon Allie, which means that he begins to turn from the past and death and to move into the present and toward the living. The inevitable fantasy that he creates in moments of crisis subtly changes. He plans to go “out West, where it was very pretty and sunny and where nobody'd know me.” When Holden proposes to Sally that they run off to Vermont or Massachusetts, the flight is in the direction of Maine, where Allie died. In going west he moves toward the living, for D. B. is in Hollywood. Still damaged and still hungering for security, he pictures himself as a deaf mute working at a filling station and—most important—married to another deaf mute. “If we had any children,” he declares, with obvious reference to his own lot, “we'd hide them somewhere. We could buy them a lot of books and teach them how to read and write by ourselves.” At last Holden's locked world is opening up.

He goes to Phoebe's school to say good-by and to return her Christmas money. He is upset to find “Fuck you” scrawled on a wall, no doubt more upset than the kids who share neither his naive ideas of purity, despite his verbal profanities, nor his fears of sexuality. While he waits for Phoebe at the museum, two boys ask the way to the mummies. As Holden leads them to the Egyptian room, he begins to repeat the information given in his history examination at Pencey Prep about the process of preservation, and frightens the lads who do not share his obsession with death. Instead of a savior or a catcher, Holden turns out to be a bogey man—as unfeeling as the unfeeling adults who have never understood him. Alone in the tomb, he is mocked again by the ugly epithet of sexual assault which he finds on the walls. Typically he overreacts and at the same time punishes himself as he pictures his tombstone: Holden Caulfield—“Fuck you.”

If this debasement is not enough, he suddenly has diarrhea, and passes out on the floor of a toilet. It is as though he must experience an elemental purging—get all the “crap” out of his distorted picture of life and of himself. Compulsively he creates still another fantasy of flight. This time he is a thirty-five-year-old man living by himself: “I even started picturing how it would be when I came back. I knew my mother'd get nervous as hell and start to cry and beg me to stay home and not go back to my cabin, but I'd go anyway.” If he is still punishing his mother—and himself—at least he pictures himself alive and at the middle of the journey.

When Phoebe comes to the museum with her luggage because she plans to go west too, once again she reaches out to her brother. The act of love is almost too much for Holden. “I got sort of dizzy and I thought I was going to pass out or something again.” But he does not fall nor pass out. Instead like the loved-hated parents or like a protective older brother—in short like all the other adults—he automatically advances all the sensible reasons why Phoebe's plans are “crazy.” When he begins genuinely to think of someone else's lot, he assumes responsibility. He is no longer the kid who needs and demands everybody's attention.

When Phoebe proves stubborn, he returns her gift of love with another gift. He escorts her to Central Park, not to the duck pond—with its associations with death—but to the carrousel. “When she was a tiny little kid, and Allie and D. B. and I used to go to the park with her, she was mad about the carrousel.” In the bedroom Holden and Phoebe had danced together like two kids, but at the carrousel Holden refuses to ride with her and watches her reach for the gold ring. In turn, when he promises to go home with Phoebe, he delights her and at the same time achieves the goal hinted at on the first page of his narrative: “I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling. I felt so damn happy.”

In the epilogue, Chapter 26, Holden writes of himself at age seventeen in an institution near Hollywood, not far from D. B. After a period of rest and therapy there has been no fabulous transformation, although there has been change. His language is no longer negative, nor is his attitude. He is not sure that he is going to apply himself when he returns to school in September: “I think I am, but how do I know? I swear it's a stupid question.” Although he has to put up token resistance—after all, he is Holden Caulfield—he is ready to go “around and around” in the game of life and no longer needs Allie's mitt or hat to protect him. Nor must he picture himself as the victim of insensitive adults; the psychoanalyst's advice is not “bull.”

When D. B. asks him about “all the stuff I just finished telling you about,” he replies truthfully, without a defensive wisecrack. “About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about.” At last he cuts through his “crap,” his evasions and hostile defenses. He wants, as he has always wanted, to establish connections, and he is well on his way to doing just that, for in his narrative he has at least established connections with readers.

“Don't ever tell anybody anything,” he writes at the conclusion; “if you do, you start missing everybody.” But telling is precisely what he has been doing and in the process Holden has finished mourning. Allie now rests in peace.


  1. Holden Caulfield has been called “a lout,” a saint, a “sad little screwed-up” neurotic, and a “beatnik Peter Pan,” but he deserves none of these epithets, positive or negative. The novel has been read as a critique of “the academic and social conformity of its period” (Maxwell Geismar), as a modern version of the Orestes-Iphigeneia story (Leslie Fiedler), as a commentary on the modern world in which ideals “are denied access to our lives” (Ihab Hassan), or as a celebration of life (Martin Green). These essays appear in Salinger—A Critical and Personal Portrait, ed. Henry Anatole Grunwald (New York, 1962).

  2. James Bryan recognizes that “the trauma” behind Holden's problems is the death of his brother Allie, but he proceeds to examine the work in terms of Holden's psychosexual growth when clearly the youth's development is emotionally arrested. See “The Psychological Structure of The Catcher in the Rye,PMLA, 89 (1974), 1065–74.

  3. J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (New York, 1964), p. 9.

Salinger on Salinger

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Salinger has refused to admit visitors to his grounds and home in Cornish, New Hampshire, and he has denied nearly all requests for interviews. Rarely has he answered letters or responded to inquiries of any kind. Furthermore, he has steadfastly prevented publication of his letters, always one of the best sources of information about any public figure. So extreme has Salinger been in observing a vow of silence with respect to his personal life that shortly after the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, he began rejecting even his publisher’s requests for biographical material to be used in the promotion of his work. Those who have sought facts about Salinger or his opinions concerning his life and writing have been forced to depend heavily on statements from friends, family, and professional associates, most of whom have also honored his desire for total privacy. There have been few exceptions.

Around the time of the publication of The Catcher in the Rye Salinger consented to an interview by his friend William Maxwell. An article based on this interview, published in the July 1951 issue of the Book-of-the-Month Club News, provides much of the limited biographical information available on Salinger. It includes his reflections on a talk he gave for a short-story class:

A year or so ago, ... I was asked to speak to a short story class at Sarah Lawrence College. I went, and I enjoyed the day, but it isn’t something I’d ever want to do again. 1 got very oracular and literary. 1 found myself labeling all the writers I respect. (Thomas Mann, in an introduction he wrote for The Castle, called Kafka a “religious humorist.” I’ll never forgive him for it.) A writer, when he’s asked to discuss his craft, ought to get up and call out in a loud voice just the names of the writers he loves. I love Kafka, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Proust, O’Casey, Rilke, Lorca, Keats, Rimbaud, Burns, E. Bronte, Jane Austen, Henry James, Blake, Coleridge. I won’t name any living writers. I don’t think it’s right. 1 think writing is a hard life. But it’s brought me enough happiness that I don’t think I’d ever deliberately dissuade anybody (if he had talent) from taking it up. The compensations are few, but when they come, if they come, they’re very beautiful.1

Not long after Salinger moved to Cornish in 1953, a high-school student named Shirley Blaney, who, along with other students from her school, had been befriended by the author, managed to persuade him to consent to a brief interview over lunch at a coffee shop in nearby Windsor, Vermont. This interview has been called “one of the great scoops of literary history.”2 When Blaney asked Salinger whether The Catcher in the Rye was autobiographical, he replied, “Sort of. I was much relieved when I finished it. My boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book, and it was a great relief telling people about it.”3

In 1974 Salinger granted one of his rare interviews when he called Lacey Fosburgh of The New York Times to complain about the unauthorized publication of a two-volume set of his uncollected stories. Commenting on his refusal to continue publishing his work and his feelings about the injustice of the unauthorized publication, Salinger said,

There’s a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But 1 write just for myself and my own pleasure. Some stories, my property, have been stolen. . . . Someone’s appropriated them. It’s an illicit act. It’s unfair. Suppose you had a coat you liked and somebody went into your closet and stole it. That’s how I feel. ... I wrote them a long time ago . . . and I never had any intention of publishing them. I wanted them to die a natural death. I’m not trying to hide the gaucheries of my youth. I just don’t think they’re worthy of publishing.

Addressing the subject of his refusal to publish, Salinger stated, “I don’t necessarily intend to publish posthumously . . . but I do like to write for myself. I pay for this kind of attitude. I’m known as a strange, aloof kind of man. But all I’m doing is trying to protect myself and my work. I just want all this to stop. It’s intrusive. I’ve survived a lot of things . . . and I’ll probably survive this.”4

Two weeks after Fosburgh’s story appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek published an article on Salinger that included reporter Bill Roeder’s account of his attempt to gain an interview with the author. Arriving at Salinger’s house uninvited and unwelcome, Roeder asked him whether he was writing and intended to publish again. Salinger reassured him, saying, “Of course I’m still writing ... I’d like to hang onto my privacy—my undocumented privacy ... is there anything more boring than a talking writer?”5

In 1978 Michael Clarkson, a reporter from the Niagara Falls Review, drove to Cornish, where he, too, attempted to speak with Salinger. Unsuccessful during his first visit, Clarkson returned a year later, planted himself on Salinger’s doorstep and succeeded in getting terse replies to questions about how he, Clarkson, might have his own work published:

SALINGER: The only advice I can give you is to read others, get what you can out of a book, and make your own interpretation of what the author is saying. Don’t get hung up on critics and that madness. Blend in your experiences, without writing facts, and use your creativity. Plan your stories, and don’t make rash decisions. Then when it’s finished, you’re in your own stew.

CLARKSON: You haven’t given an explanation to your fans . . . why you ran away from them, then stopped publishing.

SALINGER: Being a public writer interferes with my right to a private life. I write for myself.

CLARKSON: Don’t you want to share your feelings?

SALINGER: No, that’s wrong. That’s where writers get in trouble.6

In June 1980 a reporter for the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, Betty Eppes, made a trip to Cornish, where she left a letter for Salinger at the local post office requesting to speak with him and telling him she would be waiting in a blue Ford Pinto the following day near the Windsor covered bridge. Salinger met Eppes and responded to questions about his travels, his writing, and his dietary preferences:

EPPES: Have you visited Indonesia?

SALINGER: I really don’t want to talk about all of this.

EPPES: You told Miss Blaney you were going to London to make a movie. Did you?

SALINGER: Where’d you get all this old stuff?

EPPES: Did you make or work on a movie? Will you in the future?

SALINGER: Can we go on to something else?

EPPES: Of course. But just for fun, do you remember the name of the ship you worked on?

SALINGER: I do, yes. The Kungsholm.

EPPES: You were in the Counter-intelligence Corps. How many languages do you speak?

SALINGER: French and German, but not very well. And a few phrases of Polish.

EPPES: Given your family background, why writing?

SALINGER: I can’t say exactly. I don’t know if any writer can. It’s different for each person. Writing’s a highly personal act. It’s different for each writer.

EPPES: Did you consciously opt for a writing career, or did you just drift into it?

SALINGER: I don’t know. (A long pause.) I truly don’t. I just don’t know. . . .

EPPES: I’ve heard you’re into organic foods. Do you feel eating food stuffs organically grown is that important?

SALINGER: Yes, or I wouldn’t bother.

EPPES: Is it true that you’ll eat fried foods only if they’re prepared in cold-pressed peanut oil?


EPPES: Why is that?

SALINGER: Are you informed on the differences between cold-pressed oil as opposed to oil extracted by other methods?

EPPES: Yes, I am. 1 don’t use peanut oil but only cold-pressed oils. 1 make all my salad dressing from cold-pressed apricot kernel, sesame seed, sunflower seed oil. With a few herbs thrown in you come up with a super salad.

Eppes reported that Salinger said he believed in the American Dream, “my own version of it,” but refused to elaborate about his version. When Eppes suggested that perhaps the Constitution, having been written by men, never intended women to participate in the American Dream, Salinger replied, “Don’t you accept that! Don’t ever listen to that. Who says you don’t have a right to the American Dream, who says? That’s frightful. Awful! Don’t you accept that. The American Dream is for all Americans. Women are Americans too. It is for you too. Proceed. Claim it if you want it.... ” Concerning his writing, Salinger told Eppes, “I am really writing. I told you. I love to write and I assure you I write regularly. I’m just not publishing. I write for myself. For my own pleasure. I want to be left alone to do it. So leave me alone. Don’t drop in on me like this again.”7

On 10 October 1986 Salinger responded to questions from attorneys representing Random House and Ian Hamilton, whom Salinger had sued for the unauthorized use of his letters in Hamilton’s soon-to-be-published biography of him. Characteristically spare, Salinger’s responses during the deposition concern his writing since his last published work:

Q. Mr. Salinger, when was the last time you wrote any work of fiction for publication?

A. I’m not sure exactly.

Q. At any time during the past 20 years, have you written a work of fiction for publication?

A. That has been published, you mean?

Q. That has been published.

A. No.

Q. At any time during the past 20 years, have you written any fiction which has not been published?

A. Yes.

Q. Could you describe for me what works of fiction you have written which have not been published?

A. It would be very difficult to do. ...

Q. Have you written any full-length works of fiction during the past 20 years which have not been published?

A. Could you frame that a different way? What do you mean by a full-length work? You mean ready for publication?

Q. As opposed to a short story or a fictional piece or a magazine submission?

A. It’s very difficult to answer. I don’t write that way. 1 just start writing fiction and see what happens to it.

Q. Maybe an easier way to approach this is, would you tell me what your literary efforts have been in the field of fiction within the last 20 years?

A. Could 1 tell you or would I tell you? . . . Just a work of fiction. That’s all. That’s the only description 1 can really give it. ... It’s almost impossible to define. I work with characters, and as they develop, I just go on from there.8


1. J. D. Salinger, quoted in William Maxwell, “J. D. Salinger,” in The Book of the Month: Sixty Years of Books in American Life, edited by Al Silverman (Boston: Little, Brown, 1986), pp. 129-130.

2. Ernest Havemann, “The Search for the Mysterious J. D. Salinger,” Life, 51 (3 November 1961): 137.

3. Salinger, quoted in Shirley Blaney, “Twin State Telescope,” Claremont (N.H.) Daily Eagle, 13 November 1953, p. 1.

4. Salinger, quoted in Lacey Fosburgh, “J. D. Salinger Speaks About His Silence,” New York Times, 3 November 1974, pp. 1, 69.

5. Salinger, quoted in “The Catcher on the Hill,” Newsweek, 84 (18 November 1974): 17.

6. Quoted in Paul Alexander, Salinger: A Biography (Los Angeles: Renaissance, 1999), p. 262.

7. Betty Eppes, “What I Did Last Summer,” Paris Review, 23 (Summer 1981): 232-236, 238.

8. Quoted in Ian Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger (New York: Random House, 1988), p. 202.

Sanford Pinsker (essay date Winter 1986)

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SOURCE: “The Catcher in the Rye and All: Is the Age of Formative Books Over?,” in Georgia Review, Vol. XL, No. 4, Winter, 1986, pp. 953-67.

[In the following essay, Pinsker reflects upon the enduring popularity and cultural significance of The Catcher in the Rye and on the role of formative adolescent novels in contemporary American literature.]

The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. … Nobody'd be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.

—Holden Caulfield1

I first read these lines about Holden's recollections in anxiety long before I could have identified the allusion to Wordsworth, long before I fell half in love with easeful death and Keats's “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” long before I would scrawl “stasis” on the blackboard when lecturing about The Catcher in the Rye. And even though I hadn't the foggiest idea about which subway line takes one to the Museum of Natural History, I understood, at sixteen, what Holden was talking about.

In short, there was a time when books—or at least some books—used to matter. One wonders if the same excitements, the same confusions, the same affections persist. Or have formative books gone the way of penny candy and unorganized baseball games? Perhaps our age is too restless, too sophisticated to suspend its disbelief, much less to sit still long enough to read a book. What follows, then, is an attempt, admittedly autobiographical, to talk about certain connections between reading and culture—not as a “reader-response” theorist, not as a statistics-and-graph sociologist, but rather as one who fell in love with The Catcher in the Rye early, and who has been trying to figure out what that has meant ever since.

About some underlying things I am fairly certain: the public indicators that presumably separate one generation in its youth from another (e.g., hairstyling, popular music) are finally less important than the conditions they share. “So much of adolescence,” the poet Theodore Roethke once wrote, “is an ill-defined dying, … A longing for another time and place, / another condition.”2 Roethke may have been wrong about the death wish that I, for one, didn't have, but he was dead right about my ill-defined longings. Like Holden, I yearned for a world more attractive, and less mutable, than the one in which we live and are forced to compete. As Holden puts it, with a sadness he does not fully comprehend:

That's the whole trouble. You can't ever find a place that's nice and peaceful, because there isn't any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you're not looking, somebody'll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it'll say “Holden Caulfield” on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it'll say “Fuck you.” I'm positive, in fact.

That Holden renders a diffuse, universal condition in vivid particulars and that he gives eloquent expression to what I could not have articulated myself are both ways of saying that The Catcher in the Rye was, for me, a formative book. Others, no doubt, have candidates of their own: Mother Goose, Treasure Island,The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes—whatever books they remember as making the imagination's power immanent. But I would argue that our most important formative books are those which lead double lives as cultural statements, fastened as firmly to the here and now as they are to fiction's universals. One wrestles with genuinely formative books, often in ways that are as divided as they are paradoxical. Recalling his own experiences with such books, Lionel Trilling put the matter this way: “The great books taught me, they never made me dream. The bad books made me dream and hurt me; I was right when 4 years ago I said that the best rule-of-thumb for judgment of a good novel or play was—Do you want to be the hero? If you do, the work is bad.”3

One could claim, and with some justification, that The Catcher in the Rye encourages precisely the sort of dreaming and heroic identification that Trilling stands four-square against. Indeed, if moral complexity were the sole issue, one would need look no further than Trilling's The Middle of the Journey (1949), an extraordinary novel published a scant two years before The Catcher in the Rye. But that said, who would be comfortable in claiming The Middle of the Journey as a formative book? To be sure, accessibility is part of the formula, but timing is equally important. A formative book catches its reader at a point when options loom larger than certainties, when an admonition to “change your life” can still have teeth.

For those who grew up in the 1950's, The Catcher in the Rye was the formative book. My own case, as I struggle to reconstruct it, was one of sharply divided loyalties, of as many repulsions as attractions. A part of me—the part that was reading a book called On the Road by an author whose name no one in my literary crowd could even pronounce—wanted, more than anything in the world, to be a beatnik. There were, clearly, no beatniks—at least none in the Kerouac mold—at a cushy joint like Holden's Pencey Prep. My dilemma, I hasten to add, was hardly unusual: formative books come in bunches and, more often than not, send contradictory messages about exactly how one goes about changing one's life. To make matters even more confusing, I kept testing what I read against the life I was actually living. When, for example, ol' Phoebe keeps repeating “Daddy'll kill you,” I knew, even at sixteen, that this was so much Oedipal bluster. On the other hand, my father really would have leveled me—that is, if I had pissed away even half the money Holden did, or lugged home a single C, much less a fistful of F's.

It was Holden's voice, rather than his circumstances, that hooked me. Long before the book appeared in its now-familiar bright red, plainly lettered, paperback cover—a dead giveaway that the novel has become a “classic” and can move off the shelf on its own power—I kept faith with a well-thumbed copy sporting a picture of an apple-cheeked, perplexed Holden (wearing his reversed hunting cap) gazing on the debauchery that was, presumably, New York City. Apparently, the cover designer sought to blend brows high and low, the lurid (soft porn à la 1955) with the literary (Daisy Buchanan eyeballing Manhattan on the dust jacket of The Great Gatsby). Anyway—as Holden might put it—it was the voice that got me each time I turned to the first page; to get the voice going—or, if you will, talking—all you had to do was sit back and read:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

To call a Dickens novel crap—and in the same sentence that heaves in a “lousy” no less!—was to yank literature away from those who pronounced it “lit-er-ah-tour.” Huckleberry Finn warms up to his task by telling us that Mark Twain “told the truth, mainly,” but Holden really does it, without an apology or so much as a “by your leave.”

At least that was the way I read the book when I was sixteen and itching to pull down a few vanities myself. In those days Holden was my “secret sharer,” the part of me that knew, down deep, that whatever Life was, it was decidedly not a game: “Game, my ass [Holden thinks as Spencer hectors him about yet another poor academic performance]. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game all right—I'll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it? Nothing. No game.” To be sure, what Holden said in bald print I dared only whisper sotto voce. That I could live with. It was having to share my secret sharer with others that gave me the gripes. Holden was fast becoming a doppelganger-in-residence for an entire generation, including those who pointed to the obligatory fart-in-the-chapel scene and guffawed. What right have any of you, I wanted to shout, to think of Holden as a fellow traveler? Holden would expose you as a “secret slob,” as a Joe Flit, as a phony.

It took some years before I realized the painful truth—namely, that Holden would probably say the same or worse about me. As Holden would have it, you can count the nonphonies on the fingers of one hand: Allie, his dead brother; Phoebe, his little sister, and of course Holden himself. Everybody else stands either suspect or convicted.

I took a measure of comfort from those passages in which even Holden wonders if he hasn't pulled the self-righteous trigger too quickly. Mr. Antolini, for example, might—or might not—have been a “pervert.” What seemed clear enough when Holden was sleeping on Antolini's couch turns complicated when he hits the Manhattan street: “… What did worry me was the part about how I'd woke up and found him patting me on the head and all. I mean I wondered if just maybe I was wrong about thinking he was making a flitty pass at me. I wondered if maybe he just liked to pat guys on the head when they're asleep. I mean how can you tell about that stuff for sure?”

By this time I was in college: a place where I acquired for the first time that phenomenon known as a roommate, a place where novels like The Catcher in the Rye were dissected and placed under critical microscopes. It had taken the New Criticism two decades to trickle down to the small liberal-arts college I attended, but we soon learned to sniff out a paradox or an ambiguity with the best of them. If Salinger hadn't written The Catcher in the Rye, one of my professors certainly would have. At least that was the way it seemed, so unerring were they on those quirky Salinger touches we enjoyed without quite knowing how to talk, or write, about them: the kings Jane Gallagher kept in the back row; the question Holden keeps asking about the ducks of Central Park; the whole business of being a “catcher in the rye.”

A few years later, while browsing through back issues of Modern Fiction Studies, I heard snippets of their dazzling lectures once again, but this time the insights were attached to names I kept bumping into in graduate school: Arthur Mizener, Leslie Fiedler, Alfred Kazin, James E. Miller, Jr., Frederick L. Gwynn, Joseph L. Blotner—none of whom, I hardly need add, taught at my college. No wonder my professors had wowed the pants off the undergraduates in the third row! Everything they said was safely tucked away in the MLA Bibliography—more critical articles on Salinger than on Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Faulkner. What had started out as an effort to give critical respectability (the Academy's Seal of Approval) to a wildly popular book had turned into a gusher of ink.

In short, the burgeoning Salinger industry did its best, but The Catcher in the Rye held up, and together, better than most similarly “saturated” books. After such knowledge, there was—in my case at least—forgiveness. So what if the intimations that would become Holden Caulfield could be unearthed in the wanderings of Odysseus, in the legends surrounding the Grail knights, in Huck Finn's adventures among con men and scalawags, in Quentin Compson's obsession with his sister? So what if my undergraduate professors took in the best that had been thought and printed about Holden's world and then modified it into their own lectures? Salinger's book was more or less the same book it had always been, and Salinger was, of course, still Salinger.

The truth is, however, that our formative books survive not only subsequent readings but also ourselves. In the case of The Catcher in the Rye, it even managed to survive what I would not then have believed possible—a time when I no longer counted myself among the Holden-lovers. The well-meaning but ineffectual Mr. Antolini came to strike me as a better model—despite his bows to Wilhelm Steckel and his penchant for stump speeches about the Great Tradition:

… you'll find [he tells a shaken Holden] that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's beautiful, reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.

Indeed, there will probably come that dreaded day when a bathrobed, bumpy-chested avatar of Mr. Spencer will stare back at me from the mirror. And no doubt I will find him a good deal more sympathetically drawn than I did when I first encountered him reeking of Vicks Nose Drops and made to carry the symbolic role of Sickness Personified.

Teaching Holden's saga in Belgium (under the auspices of a Fulbright grant), I was struck by ironies better than I could have concocted myself, ironies that surely would have made even a Salinger smile. For example, in a university where Fuck You's are scrawled on nearly every bathroom wall (graffiti, apparently, requires plain-talking, Anglo-Saxon words; in Belgium, neither French nor Flemish would suffice), my students—reading The Catcher in the Rye in the expurgated Penguin edition—had trouble figuring out what the dash in “—You” stood for. Nonetheless, they fell in love with Holden at first sight. Our most American books—everything from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Invisible Man—are as portable as they are powerful. To be sure, my Belgian students had some difficulty understanding the easy arithmetic we make between the American West and the American Dream. When, for example, Holden imagines lighting out for the West, we read the passage with Huck Finn and Frederick Turner firmly in mind:

Finally, what I decided I'd do, I decided I'd go away. I decided I'd never go home again and I'd never go away to another school again. … What I'd do, I figured, I'd go down to the Holland Tunnel and bum a ride, and then I'd bum another one, and another one, and another one, and in a few days I'd be somewhere out West where it was very pretty and sunny and where nobody'd know me and I'd get a job.

My Belgian students knew about the American West by watching Dallas and Dynasty, but they also knew that riding westward—to, say, Ghent—is at best only a two-hour drive from the German border. In short, they found it hard to make the translation, to feel—as well as to “know”—just how big, how sprawling, America is.

On the other hand, the things that made Holden “fed up”—the competitive and the materialistic, as well as, of course, the phony—struck an easy, sympathetic chord, even in those who found themselves attracted by his description of life among the corporate lawyers: “All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot.” At this point the line between my Belgian students and the American students with whom I'm more familiar began to blur. In roughly the same way that the well-heeled students at my college in Pennsylvania cheer when the film series shows “Breaking Away,” Belgian students have no trouble empathizing with Holden while simultaneously keeping their eyes on the main chance. Which is simply to say that The Catcher in the Rye has always had more appeal to rebels under the skin than to those who actually lugged their failing transcripts from one prep school to another.

What did not change in my development, however, was my abiding sense of a formative book's continuing power. Granted, I may have accounted for the power in language that changed with the decades, I may have shifted this allegiance, altered that loyalty, to its characters, but the plain truth is that Salinger's death-haunted tale of spiritual yearning, of youthful angst, of dream and nightmare, has much to do with the how-and-why I plug away at teaching literature to a generation willing to settle for a safe job and a three-piece suit. I say this not as Mr. Antolini, much less as Holden; not as Spencer, much less as Salinger. Each of them has become a part of me in the way that Hester and Huckleberry, together with Madame Bovary and Leopold Bloom—from other formative books—also share in the making of my sensibility.

Indeed, the very plurality of formative books is worth speculating about. There was a time, of course, when the Zeitgeist defined itself by a single book: the Bible. In our age, however, one might argue that the itch for the formative book has been replaced by a series of one-night stands: the I Ching, the est Reader, the Beverley Hills Diet Book. To update Thoreau, the mass of men, and women, now lead lives of noisy desperation—either screaming “I'm ter-rrr-if-ic” at an Amway sales rally or shelling out two-hundred bucks to learn the secrets of Greenspring. In this sense, formative books still abound. People stick them in your face with a missionary zeal not unlike those who waved copies of The Sayings of Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution. To be sure, the American equivalents are more diversified, more concerned with the pursuit of happiness (defined as everything from “inner harmony” to outer appearance) than with ideological purity, but they share the general belief that a single book can change things utterly.

Intellectuals, presumably, know better. In the late 1930's Bernard Smith proposed a series of essays in which specialists would choose a work of nonfiction and then show how it had helped to shape the contemporary American mind. After all, as far back as Franklin, we have been makers of lists and lovers of the opinion poll. The New Republic warmed to the idea instantly and conducted a lively symposium in its pages. The result is a curious volume entitled Books That Changed Our Minds, edited by Malcolm Cowley and Bernard Smith. I say curious not because the choices or the discussion about them is odd (e.g., Charles A. Beard on Turner's The Frontier in American History or David Daiches on I. A. Richards' The Principles of Literary Criticism), but, rather, because the book was published in 1939, even as the world tottered on the brink of a war that would call these academic assessments of culture into deep question. (E. L. Doctorow's recent novel World's Fair makes a similar point about the celebrated exposition held in New York during the same ominously foreshadowing and pivotal year.)

That the disillusionments of World War I gave birth to the roaring jazz-age twenties, that the stock market's crash ushered us into the Great Depression, that Hitler's invasion of Poland plunged us into the nightmare of World War II, that Eisenhower's benign, smiling face represented the fifties in bold relief—these become the convenient shorthand we use to mark the passing of one decade to another. And in large measure, literature seemed to cooperate—the jazz-age flappers of Fitzgerald giving way to the tight-lipped Hemingway heroes of the 1930's, the anxious, world-weary protagonists of World War II fiction giving way to the spiritually questing beatniks of the 1950's.

History, of course, does not always cooperate—as we discovered when, for example, President Kennedy had the doubly bad fortune to be assassinated in 1963, a year that teetered uneasily between whatever was left of the somnambulant fifties and what was yet to be born as the militant sixties. Shaped by the art and lives that mattered—in the twenties by The Waste Land, by Ulysses, by In Our Time, by The Great Gatsby; in the thirties by Faulkner, by Steinbeck, by Dos Passos; in the forties by a series of brilliant debuts (Bellow, Mailer, Ellison)—successive generations of critics held faith with the belief that their decade would also revolve around a handful of Great Books. That it has, alas, not been so—not in the counterculture's grip on the 1960's, not during the nondescript 1970's, not as we pass the midpoint of the 1980's—has come as something of a rude, perplexing shock. Indeed, some literary critics began to make much ado about the death of fiction: literature (or, as it came to be fashionably called, “print media in the linear mode”) could no longer compete with film, with television, with the dizzying speed and sheer power of popular culture. As my students used to put it in the late sixties: “Literature just ain't where it's at.” Now they tell me it's not “cost effective.”

All of which brings me back to The Catcher in the Rye and the Holden Caulfield who roamed Manhattan's unsympathetic streets. When the novel first appeared in 1951, Holden was seventeen years old. To imagine him now in his early fifties is rather like playing one of those Victorian parlor games that encouraged speculation about Ophelia's childhood or about the life Pip and Estella might lead beyond the final page of Great Expectations. The difference, of course, is that American culture takes its blurrings of Art & Life quite seriously. Those who find some measure of solace in Jerry Rubin's turnabout from a Yippie member of the Chicago Seven to a Yuppie wheeler-dealer on the stock exchange are precisely those likely to be cheered by the thought of Holden getting his comeuppance in a New Yorker cartoon.

Mr. Antolini, we remember, had some thoughts about how a moral uncompromiser like Holden might end up:

“I have a feeling that you're riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall. … It may be the kind where, at the age of thirty, you sit in some bar hating everybody who comes in looking as if he might have played football in college. Then again, you may pick up just enough education to hate people who say, ‘It's a secret between he and I.’ Or you may end up in some business office, throwing paper clips at the nearest stenographer. I just don't know. …”

To be sure, Mr. Antolini has difficulty imagining Holden beyond thirty, but in that regard he is in good American company. Long before the counterculture turned it into the stuff of slogan, Henry David Thoreau made it abundantly clear that he had “lived some thirty years on this planet, and [had] yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.” Graybeards—that is, those over thirty—were simply not to be trusted. And in our century, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald, more than any other writer of stature, who equated life in one's thirties with the loss of all that was once held dear: youth, good looks, romance, infinite possibility. As Dexter Green, the protagonist of “Winter Dreams,” puts it:

The dream was gone. Something had been taken from him. … He wanted to care, and he could not care. For he had gone away and he could never go back any more. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished.

“Long ago,” he said, “long ago there was something in me, but now that thing is gone. Now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more.”4

No other American writer gave himself so completely to our capacity for Dream, and no writer was better equipped than Fitzgerald to write its Romantic elegy. The wags in Hollywood insisted that he was a “failure at failure,” but they were dead wrong. Failure was Fitzgerald's subject, just as it is Holden's, just as it is at the center of every sensitive adolescent's complaint. In Theodore Roethke's notebooks—where he did not mince words, where he did not have to curry favor or cover his flanks—he wrote Fitzgerald down in a single, telling sentence: “He was born, and died, a Princeton sophomore.”5

Holden, of course, remains frozen in his adolescence—in a novel dominated by images of stasis, of freezing (the snowballs he lovingly packs but refuses to throw at cars or fire hydrants because they, too, look “nice and white”; the icy lake of Central Park; the unmoving, Keatsian figures at the museum). And despite our knowing better, we hope against hope that Salinger will also remain the same pipe-smoking, tweed sports-coated, “sensitive” young author who appears on the dust jacket of The Catcher in the Rye's first edition. After all, didn't Salinger himself say, in a contributor's note he wrote for Harper's in 1946, “I almost always write about very young people”? And as the Glass family saga unfolded through the 1960's, Salinger kept faith with his manifesto. He wrote of the young and for the young, so it seemed only fair that the work should continue to be written by the young as well. No matter that the mind knows Salinger is now old enough to collect social security; the heart insists that he remain, like his characters, forever fixed, red hunting cap pulled over his ears, the broken pieces of “Little Shirley Beans” in his pockets.

This insistence takes a bizarre, fabulist turn, in W. P. Kinsella's recent Shoeless Joe, a novel in which a cast of improbable characters (e.g., Shoeless Joe Jackson, Moonlight Graham, and J. D. Salinger himself) are assembled at a baseball stadium the protagonist has built in, of all places, Iowa City. Baseball is the stuff that American Dreams are made of. When an announcer's “voice” tells Ray Kinsella “If you build it, he will come,” Ray turns his bulldozer on the cornfield and—voila!—Shoeless Joe Jackson appears. And when the voice tells him to “Ease his pain,” Kinsella sets off for Salinger's New Hampshire retreat, fully prepared to kidnap him, to drive him across country to Iowa, to “ease his pain.”

The rub, of course, is that Salinger's major pain is being pestered by the adoring, the curious, and the downright crazy. As Salinger, the character, puts it:

Serenity is a very elusive quality. I've been trying all my life to find it. I'm very ordinary. I've never been able to understand why people are so interested in me. Writers are very dull. It's people like you who keep me from achieving what I'm after. You feel that I must be unhappy. A neurotic, guilt-torn artist. I'm not unhappy. And I have no wisdom to impart to you. I have no pain for you, unless … you and your family were to be plagued with strangers lurking in your bushes, trampling your flower beds, looking in your windows. … Once someone stole the valve caps off my jeep. I suppose he sold them or displays them under glass in his library. I don't deserve that!6

One could argue that he doesn't deserve a fate as “character” either. After all, a public writer like Norman Mailer leads with a cocked right fist; that he is dragged, kicking and screaming, into Alan Lelchuck's novel, American Mischief, has a measure of poetic justice about it. By contrast, Salinger has been eloquent about his “silence.” Unfortunately, any public figure appears to be fair game in an age that takes a special delight in blurring the distinctions between what we used to know as fiction and what we have learned to call “the new journalism.”

Part of Salinger's problem, of course, is that he represents a time when literature formed literature, when allusions to Romeo and Juliet and Return of the Native, to The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, could be incorporated into the fabric of a novel like The Catcher in the Rye. No doubt the deconstructionists would give Holden poor marks, but he is a critic of sorts, nonetheless:

The book I was reading was this book I took out of the library by mistake. They gave me the wrong book, and I didn't notice it till I got back to my room. They gave me Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen. I thought it was going to stink, but it didn't. It was a very good book. I'm quite illiterate, but I read a lot. … What I like best is a book that's at least funny once in a while. I read a lot of classical books, like The Return of the Native and all, and I like them, and I read a lot of war books and mysteries and all, but they don't knock me out too much. What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.

One has the sinking feeling these days that Holden's counterparts at, say, Yale or Johns Hopkins would prefer to shoot the theoretical breeze with imaginative critics rather than with imaginative writers.

Small wonder, then, that most discussions about Salinger's work begin and, all too often, end in nostalgia. As John Romano would have it:

… those who were young and literate in the Eisenhower and Kennedy years can be said to have received such pictures [e.g., Zooey's blue eyes, which were “a day's work to look into”; Franny muttering the Jesus prayer under her breath; Phoebe, in her blue coat, going around and around on the carrousel] with utter credulity and in a state of mind resembling awe. Some of us founded not only our literary taste but also a portion of our identity on Holden Caulfield and Franny Glass: we were smart kids in a dumb world or sensitive kids in a “phony” one, and Salinger was playing our song.7

Now it is Ann Beattie who plays somebody else's song in the pages of The New Yorker, but the tunes that blare out of her characters' radios sound unfamiliar, and the characters themselves strike us as inarticulate. Allusions shrink to last season's TV schedule, a movie, a “hot” rock album. To be sure, people in New Yorker stories still suffer angst, but if technique is still style, theirs is a threadbare version.

In this sense, Jay McInerney's recent Bright Lights, Big City is also a book about the glitz, the fashion, the tempora et mores of Manhattan's faster lanes. As Holden's saga is simultaneously a satiric attack and a cautionary tale, so too is McInerney's. Moreover, behind Bright Lights, Big City's smart talk about Bolivian Marching Powder (i.e., cocaine) and its quick studies in SoHo eccentricity lies a long history of American writers who equated the City with infinite possibilities, and who surrendered themselves to its Dream: the Hawthorne of “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” the Whitman of Leaves of Grass, the Dos Passos of Manhattan Transfer, and of course the Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby.

Bright Lights, Big City has its Salingeresque connections—in the way, for example, that its protagonist describes one woman as having “cheek-bones to break your heart” or another as having a voice “like the New Jersey State Anthem played through an electric shaver”—and, more important, in the way it has apparently been adopted by many as an etiquette book for the eighties.8 But the real connections, the shivery ones, are to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Jay McInerney is News—whether the “news” be about the $200,000 he received to turn Bright Lights, Big City into a Hollywood screenplay or his accounts of “partying” with Mick Jagger. He is sleek, handsome, barely past thirty, and an “established author” on the strength of one book. In short, McInerney is a secret sharer with the Fitzgerald who rocketed to stardom, literary and otherwise, by way of This Side of Paradise.

But this is also a case in which history repeats itself with a difference. If Fitzgerald's account of “parlor snakes” and “petting parties,” of Princeton undergrads who got “boiled” at dances and vamps who had been kissed by “dozens of boys,” was both a sensation and a Victorian shocker, McInerney's guided tour of Manhattan night life will, no doubt, strike even the most permissive parent as an updated, and upsetting, equivalent:

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. … Somewhere back there you could have cut your losses, but you rode past that moment on a comet trail of white powder and now you are trying to hang on to the rush.9

Shimmering surface details are, of course, only a small part of what make Fitzgerald and McInerney such fascinating doppelgängers. At a deeper, more significant level, what they share is a vision about failure, about breakdown, about crack up. With an i dotted here, a t crossed there, this passage from Big Lights, Big City might have been lifted from the Old Master:

You started on the Upper East Side with champagne and unlimited prospects, strictly observing the Allagash rule of perpetual motion: one drink per stop. Tad's mission in life is to have more fun than anyone else in New York City, and this involves a lot of moving around, since there is always the likelihood that where you aren't is more fun than where you are. You are awed by his strict refusal to acknowledge any goal higher than the pursuit of pleasure. You want to be like that. You also think he is spoiled and dangerous. His friends are all rich and spoiled. …10

This is the sort of world my students can “relate” to, the sort of world they hope to discover themselves after graduation. That most of them are not yet reading the book McInerney has written is a matter we will take up—with mixed results, I suspect—when Bright Lights, Big City elbows its way into the syllabus for English 263: Contemporary American Novel. Then I will tell them that, in Holden Caulfield's day, the Joe Flits wore tattersall vests and gray suiting; now they deck themselves out in designer jeans and Reeboks. What doesn't change, however, is the single word required to write both down: phony.

No doubt my students will shake off what I say about their current favorite, and perhaps they should. After all, when those in the know about postmodernist fiction wag their fingers at The Catcher in the Rye and call it “counterfeit,” I continue to listen to the voices that mattered, and that still matter—namely those in Salinger's novel. Given the choice of being “suckered in” by fiction or by a critic of fiction, I know where to take my stand. And I hope that my students do too.

What worries me, however, is not so much that a hot book like Bright Lights, Big City may or may not weather the storms of time (few novels do), but that the notion of formative books per se may be sunk. Our culture moves with a speed as blinding as it is fickle. Mark Twain once quipped that few humorists last forever, and then went on to define “forever” as thirty years. “Forever,” I would submit, has grown considerably shorter in our own time, and if we have not quite reached Andy Warhol's dream of everyone in America being famous for fifteen minutes, we are coming dangerously close. Even the most “with-it” of my students would squirm if they had to read yellowing copies of People magazine or sit through reruns on MTV. That, they would argue, is so much history, which Henry Ford, in another time and place, called so much bunk.

Rather than formative experiences, contemporary culture demands new ones—slicker, trendier, and (most important of all) disposable. Bright Lights, Big City—sandwiched uneasily between a film like St. Elmo's Fire and the current Land's End catalogue—is simply the latest, most interesting example of “This is how the world goes. …” I take some consolation in reminding myself that this, too, shall pass—and no doubt with deliberate speed—but I take a larger measure of satisfaction from my certain knowledge that, despite everything, and at 50+, Holden Caulfield still has an honored place in the minds of what might well be the last generation to have formed its imagination, its sense of who we were, from the pages of a formative book.


  1. J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (New York: New American Library, 1953), p. 121. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  2. From “I'm Here” in The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1966), p. 162.

  3. “From the Notebooks of Lionel Trilling,” ed. Christopher Zinn, in Partisan Review: The 50th Anniversary Edition, ed. William Phillips (New York: Stein & Day, 1985), p. 15.

  4. The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Malcolm Cowley (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951), p. 145.

  5. Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke, 1943–63, ed. David Wagoner (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1974), p. 249.

  6. W. P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982), pp. 78–79.

  7. John Romano, “Salinger Was Playing Our Song,” The New York Times Book Review (3 June 1979), 11.

  8. In roughly the same way that The Catcher in the Rye taught my generation “how to speak”—and often in ways my prudish parents did not approve—Bright Lights, Big City is a manual about where, and how, the action is. That they represent cases in which Life imitates Art was brought home to me with especial force when a student of mine wondered, half seriously, if Jay McInerney might like to do a line of coke after his public lecture. McInerney, I hasten to add, declined the invitation.

  9. Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City (New York: Vintage Books, 1984), p. 1.

  10. McInerney, pp. 2–3. Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero (New York: Penguin Books, 1985) raises the “rich and spoiled” ante considerably. If McInerney is out ot spin a cautionary tale about Manhattan night life, Ellis seems content simply to chronicle the high-fashion clothing and pricey dinners, the drugs and fast cars that apparently come with the territory of being young and rich in Los Angeles.

Max F. Schulz (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: “Epilogue to ‘Seymour: An Introduction’: Salinger and the Crisis of Consciousness,” in J. D. Salinger, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, pp. 53-61.

[In the following essay, Schulz examines Salinger's artistic, psychological, and religious preoccupations, and the characterization of Buddy in “Seymour: An Introduction.”]

Salinger's imagination has begun to impose upon the reader. Like the initialed mystery of his name and the childish nicknames of the Glass children, his prose nowadays darkens more than illuminates, obscures more than enlightens. Despite the steady maturing of an incredibly skillful technique, Salinger finds himself writing words that multiply fractionally, so that more and more adds up to less and less. The paradox is that he seeks greater depths of communication. Unfinished dialogue, telephone conversations, letters, diaries, and bathroom mirror messages are brilliantly manipulated within the linear limitations of the print-bound media to approximate what Marshall McLuhan calls the immediacy and disjunction of the new electronic media and what Salinger would define as the comprehensiveness and simultaneity of the Zen visionary experience. Contrariwise, this strategy of Salinger's language also images, inadvertently, a breakdown of communication in our century (in spite of the paper blizzard, or, if McLuhan is right, because of it), for the unfinished, disjointed, and cut-up dialogues of his characters reflect the retreat of mechanized mass man into indirect articulation. Salinger's exploration of the spiritual ways in which man's sensibility can reach out to touch another's has become paradoxically a rendering of the incommunication intrinsic to the modern scene. Most intriguing in this reversal of situations is that in The Catcher in the Rye and the stories chronicling the Glass family, Salinger has become less and less a recorder of the phenomenon and increasingly a mute testifier to its truth. His receptivity to this distinctly modern problem mirrors a crisis of consciousness in J. D. Buddyfrannyzooeyseymour Salinger, whose exacerbated sensibility seems to be reflecting ever multiple refractions of reality, with infinity apparently the end in mind. Since Buddy is of all the Glasses the most complete spokesman for Salinger (the blurring of the two identities has reached the point where Buddy has laid claim to Salinger's one novel and four of his short stories), “Seymour: An Introduction,” which is Buddy's most ambitious creative effort to date (at least that we have been shown), is probably the best work to examine for clues to the imaginative impasse which I believe to be presently troubling Salinger.

Stanley Edgar Hyman comments angrily in a review of Salinger that the Glass series has progressed in little more than one decade from one of the finest short stories of our time, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” to one of the most appalling ever written, “Seymour: An Introduction.” He applauds Salinger's steady drift away from the well-made story of the New Yorker into the ever widening pool of experience; but, he carps, a maturing writer breaks through limiting forms into fuller and deeper form, such as those of Moby-Dick or Ulysses, not into anarchy and incoherence. “Seymour: An Introduction” is not, however, without its defenders. John O. Lyons contends that Salinger has resuscitated the effective literary stance of the early nineteenth-century romantics, whose experience presupposed (1) the mysterious interrelation of things, with the identification of art and reality, and (2) the writer as the subject of his art, with form in endless process, not a completed product, of creation. Joseph L. Blotner (in the same issue of WSCL) would consign Salinger to an even earlier literary epoch, asserting that Buddy's “interminable, reminiscent colloquy with the reader” represents a fictional study in “something like hysteria” and that if Salinger continues this mode of the anti-short story far enough he will be writing “something very like Aubrey's Brief Lives or the Conversations of William Drummond of Hawthorndon.” Henry Anatole Grunwald in the introduction to his edition of Salinger criticism argues along somewhat the same lines that Salinger is concerned not so much with a characterization of Seymour as with pulling off an indirect revelation of Buddy's personality. And Ihab Hassan contends that Salinger is engaged in the risky experiment of constructing stories that will convey through form a sacramental view of life and through language the Zen ideal of the silence of things espoused by Seymour and his disciple Buddy. Rather than attempt still another rhetorical exegesis of the astonishing direction that Salinger's muse has taken, I wish to approach this question of Buddy's wordiness as posing for Salinger a problem in point of view that is, in origin at least, more psycho-religious than literary. Indeed, one needs to emphasize this point. We cannot in any final critical judgment separate the religious and artistic intentions in Salinger's work.

Buddy as portrayed in “Seymour: An Introduction” is a man wracked by contradictions. He presents the anomaly of a Zen enthusiast in retreat from sensation and of a creative mind in unmedicated contact with the world. He is “a species of literary shut-in,” living alone in a “cringing, little house” (surely a trope for his sensibility), “set deep in the woods and on the more inaccessible side of a mountain,” where he sees “very few people during the working week or year.” Despite this refinement of surroundings for contemplation, his portrait of Seymour remains unformulated and incomplete, because he cannot discriminate among his memories. “It would help enormously,” he cries forlornly, “if some kind soul were to send me a telegram stating precisely which Seymour he'd prefer me to describe.” When Buddy tries to characterize Seymour, he gets “a vivid-type picture” of Seymour “simultaneously at the ages of approximately eight, eighteen, and twenty-eight, with a full head of hair and getting very bald, wearing a summer camper's red-striped shorts and wearing a creased suntan shirt with buck-sergeant stripes, sitting in padmasana and sitting in the balcony at the R.K.O. 86th street.” In short, the whole stream of experience impinges on his sensibility. Like Seymour's face (“the last absolutely unguarded adult face in the Greater New York Area”), Buddy's sensibility has no built-in defenses. It responds to all stimuli, swelling into “a thesaurus of undetached prefatory remarks.” When he narrates an incident about Seymour, irrelevant, minor, and insignificant details jostle each other in noisy clamor to gain his harried attention. A reminiscence of Seymour's answer to an innocuous question put by their father, Les, balloons with expanding surface: instantly Buddy recalls “Seymour, sitting in an old corduroy armchair across the room, a cigarette going, wearing a blue shirt, gray slacks, moccasins with the counters broken down, a shaving cut on the side of his face that I could see.” Hence Buddy's near breakdown in communication when he gives up trying “for Selectiveness with a description” (“I can't sort out,” he laments, “can't clerk with this man”) and, engulfed in particulars, begins to give us Seymour, hair by hair, and ears by eyes by nose by skin to get at the face. Seymour has become “much too large to fit on ordinary typewriter paper,” he confesses, ostensibly paying tribute to his brother's larger-than-life saintliness but also betraying his own unmediating sensibility. Buddy is the victim of what Coleridge and Wordsworth a century and a half ago recognized epistemologically as a despotism of the senses, which destroys one's self-identity and hence one's imaginative control of experience.

Understandably Buddy's effort to reduce his memories to esthetic form leaves him exhausted and even physically ill. A “little pentimento” about Seymour's instruction in how to shoot marbles starts him “sweating literally from head to foot.” The description of Seymour's nose, he tells himself, will “only hurt a minute.” The subject of Seymour's ears causes his hands to sweat and his bowels to churn. “The Integrated Man is simply not at home” he laments. And after recalling the show-business environment of his childhood, he suffers an attack of hepatitis. But again the anomaly. Not frustration but joy puts him on the sick list. “Professionally speaking,” he confesses at the outset, “I'm an ecstatically happy man.” Still, he admits, “an ecstatically happy writing person is often a totally draining type to have around.” Moreover he is prone to self-immolation. The “true artist-seer” is “dazzled to death by … the blinding shapes and colors of his own sacred human conscience.” If a pun on consciousness is not intended here, certainly the persistent pressure of Buddy's “confession” in the story makes it eminently applicable. For the writer and man of unmediated sensation, then, personal happiness—joy—becomes identifiable, as Buddy in a hesitant side step admits, with liverishness. Openness of the senses, aliveness of the spirit, is akin to inflammation of the organs. No wonder Buddy believes that Seymour, an echte Dichter, carried “the Muse of Absolute Joy” on his back like the monkey of addiction and that Beethoven increased and improved in creativity “after he ceased being encumbered with a sense of hearing.”

The joy Buddy has in mind here is concomitant with the Zen ideal of satori, “to be in a state of pure consciousness” (so he defines it, quoting Dr. Suzuki, in a letter to Zooey), of the flow of things in the universe. In such a comprehension of the natural way of things, self-effacement paradoxically is not involved, because self does not exist. In fact, the comprehension is that there is no self. Hence one is reinstated in the natural flow without the artificial barrier of a sense of otherness. The experience is clearly akin to the “spots of time” in Wordsworth's life when the external world ceased to exist for him apart from the image of that world in his mind. Why then the illness? Both Seymour and Buddy are writers as well as Zen neophytes; and literature and Zen—despite the cosmic paradox of such great Chinese Taoist poets as Chuang-tzu—seek irreconcilable goals. Seymour, the holy guru as bananafish, gorged himself on sensation in an effort to achieve nirvana. Buddy wishes to emulate Seymour in the same religious gesture at indiscriminate love of all things. Yet he also nervously wishes to practice the highly discriminating art of writing, which we learn from Seymour is also Buddy's religion. The two gestures, contrary to Seymour's tendency to confuse them, are incompatible, the one a private apprehension of being, the other a public rendering of objects. Even Wordsworth, whose greatness as a poet lies, in part, in his ability to communicate his experience esthetically, kept the two separate in his mind. If, for him, at moments of identification with nature, as he tells us in The Prelude,

the light of sense
Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed
The invisible world,

like an enormous short-circuiting of perception brought on by an overload of the senses with the world of objects, still his poetic rendering of the experience selectively invokes the visible world. Buddy's problem is his failure in straining for communicable form to keep these contradictory impulses separate.

One may start from another angle, Buddy's likeness to Seymour, and one will arrive at the same broken sentence and blank sheet of paper. To Buddy, a junior tagging after his brilliant two-years older brother, Seymour (who represented “all real things” to the other Glass children) was an ideal to be jealously, despairingly emulated. Seymour was the tireless person who made Buddy the “Second-Fastest Boy Runner in the World,” who played inimitable stoopball superior to any kid in the neighborhood and demon-inspired games of Ping-Pong and football, and who was “never wrong.” The similarity of the two brothers, as contrasted to the four younger Glass children, is physical as well. Their noses and lack of chins were “close to being identical.” Buddy unwittingly reveals his subconscious desires, when, in alluding to his story about Seymour's suicide (“A Perfect Day for Bananafish”), he admits to having described “the young man, the ‘Seymour,’ who did the walking and talking … not to mention the shooting,” not after Seymour but “oddly” after “someone with a striking resemblance to—alley oop, I'm afraid—myself.” In a backhanded fashion in one of his parenthetical disclosures, Buddy later acknowledges that his efforts at a description of Seymour involve his own ego, his “perpetual lust to share top billing” with his older brother. Hence the act of recreating Seymour becomes for Buddy an endless, terrifying exploration into himself. In this respect Buddy is a true romantic and “Seymour: An Introduction” as romantic a work as Byron's Don Juan or Wordsworth's The Prelude. “I yearn to talk, to be queried, to be interrogated, about this particular dead man,” he exclaims; but he cannot enjoy being his “brother's brother for nothing.” The price he must pay is personal discovery. Each scrap of fact about Seymour has attached to it a revelation about Buddy. It is this note of the intime that the baffled Buddy is “really not up to.” At the beginning of his attempt to write about Seymour, he distinguishes between professional speech and private speech. The one is a joyous exercise, the other a sweaty penance. His trouble is that the story of Seymour blurs the two activities. Hence his inability to get on with the tale and his envy of the reader's “golden silence.” He stalls with ballooning details about Seymour. The “drama of reason,” Coleridge once called the luxuriant spread of parenthetical expressions in his prose, that presents “the thought growing, instead of a mere Hortus siccus”; and Buddy echoes him in tagging his “early [and late]- blooming parentheses” “the bowlegged—buckle-legged—omens of my state of mind and body at this writing.” Understandably his “psychedelic” backings and forwardings into the times of his and Seymour's selves end in sweaty silence—or, the same thing, in hepatitis, Buddy's inventive variation on bananafish gorging. Like Seymour, he can utter “cries for help” at intervals, only to “decline to say in perfectly intelligible language where it hurt” at length.

But what of Salinger? In the fictional charade of the Glass family, Seymour functions as surrogate of Buddy and Buddy as alter ego of Salinger. That much is evident. Less evident are the implications to date and for his future in this literary ploy of a tale about a pseudonymous alter ego's surrogate, which pretends at once to distance the author from and to merge him with the flow of experience. “Seymour: An Introduction” represents in its portrait of Buddy a skillful dramatization of a creative mind at the crossroads, in agony over the spiritual problem of how to travel simultaneously the bisecting roads of the actual and the ideal that meet somewhere between this and the next world and between oneself and another man's being. That is certainly an ethical theme that this and the other Glass stories explore, but there are also important considerations about creativity implied in the rendering of the theme. (If this assumption confuses the author with his fictional creation, then the author himself must be indicted along with me as an accessory.) The writing of “Seymour: An Introduction,” with its attempt to create a modern saint, images an unbearably paralyzed ambience of the creative spirit. It retails sub rosa a terrifying confession of the havoc wrought in the romantic mind when it grapples in isolation with inchoate raw experience. One is reminded of the din, the painful bellowing and energetic despair, of the efforts of Los, Blake's personification of the imagination, to give form to matter. One cannot easily forget that the fires of Los's energy eventually burn out and Los lies inert, frozen, in the “nerveless silence” of “a cold solitude and dark void,” foreshadowing Blake's own verbal silence the last twenty years of his life.

The signs in Salinger's work are similarly there for one to read. Buddy-Salinger admires Seymour's poems for their impersonality. The more autobiographical they “appear to be, or are, the less revealing the content is of any known details of his actual daily life in this Western world.” They fulfill the ideal of Zen, revealing emotion and personality without “spilling a single really autobiographical bean.” That is to say, when Seymour is least “personal,” least involved with “self” (since ego according to Zen is purely illusion), he is most truthful. It is not entirely coincidental that all the Glasses have more than a touch of the actor in them, another way of achieving this ideal. But Buddy significantly is less the poet-mystic than Seymour and less the actor than Franny or Zooey. Like Salinger he is a storyteller; “Seymour: An Introduction” is his sprawling prose effort to emulate his brother's achievement. Interestingly, however, he produces the exact reverse of Seymour's double haikus. Prodigally he distributes autobiographical beans about on the page, ignoring the niceties of literary expression in his frenzy to realize the koan-like wholeness of Seymour. In short, a persona has not helped Salinger to achieve the distance necessary for imposing imaginative form on experience. He identifies as closely with Buddy as Buddy with Seymour, and Seymour is committed to the Taoist goal of indiscriminate embrace of the world. Few men's nervous systems have the appetite for such a program and few artists the synthesizing powers for such a task. Buddy-Salinger seems to comprehend this; yet, like the old vaudeville team of Gallagher and Glass, he finds himself unable or unwilling to update his routine. As early as The Catcher in the Rye, Buddy-Salinger's most impersonal and still most successful book, even though and perhaps in part because least ambitious, Holden Caulfield is made to reject the careful selectiveness of Hemingway's manner as phony. A thorough romantic Buddy-Salinger will embrace all experience—or none.

The ambivalence of that aim appears everywhere in his stories. “Don't ever tell anybody anything,” Holden warns the reader. “If you do, you start missing everybody.” His ideal of a future is to pretend to be a deaf-mute married to a real deaf-mute. “Then I'd be through with having conversations for the rest of my life,” he thinks, adding details to his fantasy that unmistakably parallel Buddy's real-life situation: “Everybody'd think I was just a poor deaf-mute bastard and they'd leave me alone … and I'd build me a little cabin somewhere … and live there for the rest of my life.” Yet, although he does not tell his “whole goddam autobiography,” he does spill all “about this madman stuff.” In “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” Seymour summarizes in his diary a conversation he had with the analyst of his fiancée's mother: “I told him … [apropos of the Gettysburg Address] that 51,112 men were casualties at Gettysburg, and that if someone had to speak at the anniversary of the event, he should simply have come forward and shaken his fist at this audience and then walked off—that is, if the speaker was an absolutely honest man.” In further discussion with the analyst about his being a perfectionist, Seymour takes to the hustings in favor of indiscriminate experience, “on the ground that it leads to health and a kind of very real, enviable happiness,” even though he recognizes that “for a discriminating man to achieve this … he would have to dispossess himself of poetry, go beyond poetry. That is, he couldn't possibly learn or drive himself to like bad poetry in the abstract, let alone equate it with good poetry. He would have to drop poetry altogether.” Here the indiscriminate embrace of all experience leads inevitably to the Taoist's silence. One of the still unanswered mysteries about Seymour is why his loving absorption of all life became nihilistic for him, ending in his suicide. As a poet, could he have mistakenly confused verbal silence with personal nihilism? Whatever the illogic of his act, it inadvertently substantiates Cadmium Greene's rhetorical question (in Earl Rovit's novel The Player King) about whether “the pathetic yen for Zen” is not one of the “sickly suicides” of our time—“the deceptively buoyant bubble of air in the veins.” In the climax of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” Buddy-Salinger does not shrink from the integrity of the artistic act. To unite with all life indiscriminately is to deny any immediate object of one's love. As Seymour's mother-in-law is reported in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” to have said, Seymour has “never learned to relate to anybody.” The net effect of Franny's step from squalor toward love at the end of “Zooey” is similar. When Zooey hangs up the telephone after telling her about Seymour's parable of the Fat Lady who is Christ, for whom he used to shine his shoes before going on the radio, “Franny took in her breath slightly but continued to hold the phone to her ear. A dial tone, of course, followed the formal break in the connection. She appeared to find it extraordinarily beautiful to listen to, rather as if it were the best possible substitute for the primordial silence itself.” The heroic effort, to date, of Salinger to portray the Glass children's flirtation with religious enlightenment—willy nilly Buddhist or Christian (why not Judaic?)—by way of telling all about them constantly threatens to end in the same stellar nothingness or in its complement, the cancerous formlessness of the recent stories. His meld with Buddy has not altered but rather intensified this problem. For Buddy to achieve satori is for Salinger to court a nullification potentially disastrous for writing; whereas for Buddy to fall short of enlightenment is for Salinger to develop a psychological theme other than a paean to the attainment of the full spiritual life in America.

Nothing in Salinger's latest story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” published six years after “Seymour: An Introduction,” refutes these conclusions. Buddy has lapsed into silence. As a substitute, however, he has finally screwed up his courage sufficiently to let us look at one of Seymour's writings: in the words of Seymour a “very long, boring letter” written “at blissful random,” more inchoate in structure and cute in tone than any of the stories that preceded it. Salinger has dispensed with the alter ego of Buddy—who at least pretended to some of the ordering instincts of a writer of fiction but who is here reduced to the ineffectual role of copiest—and succumbed to the self-indulgence of the seven-year-old Seymour's account in a letter to the folks back home of his and Buddy's happenings at a summer camp in Maine.

The by now familiar obsession of Seymour—even at seven—is only too evident. “It is not in your son Buddy's nature or mine or your son Walter's to be in the least shocked or disgusted by any sweet, earthly side of humankind,” he tells his mother and father. “Indeed, all [that key word again] forms of human folly and bestiality touch a very sympathetic chord within our breasts!” Even, he assures them, the beautiful, “despised, touching pimples,” blemishes, and cysts on human bodies. Not even sibling rivalry upsets Seymour's euphoria. He is full of schoolgirl praise of that “droll and thrilling companion,” that “dear, comical,” “maddening, indomitable” younger brother of his, the “most resourceful creation of God.” He quotes Blake's Proverb of Hell, “Damn braces, bless relaxes,” and proudly assures Les and Bess that he and five-year-old Buddy are “damning braces all over the place”—most visibly in the unfettered renderings of this letter. He even declines anesthesia for eleven stitches in his leg because he will not give up his state of consciousness for flimsy reasons. And his passion for sanctifying all experiences prompts him to by-pass Caruso in favor of Mr. Bubbles, of Buck and Bubbles, “merely singing softly to himself in his dressing room” in Cleveland. The same indiscriminate appetite has him reading all the books on God or merely religious from A to Z, all books in the public library on the structure of the human heart and on the formation of the callus, and all the back comic strips of Moon Mullins.

Some idea of the rambling sprawl of the story is suggested by the list of books Seymour asks to be sent to him. It occupies—with gratuitous interspersed remarks, again “at random,” about Charlotte Brontë's carnal attractions and other such “insights” of a seven-year-old genius into the authors he is reading—one fourth of the letter! Buddy-Salinger's resort to the letter of a seven-year-old is a resourceful tactic for giving credence and inevitability, if not esthetic responsibility, to such insouciant dips into the pool of experience. But the trick does not hide the growing desperation of this reliance on the mouths of little babes. The child as saint grows somewhat stale in repetition—and quite suspicious when, as in this case, he is merely a ventriloquistic device for the voice and thoughts of the author. Hyman's estimate following publication of “Seymour: An Introduction” of the cul-de-sac Salinger has gotten himself into still holds true. “His highway has turned into a dirt road, then into wagon ruts, finally into a squirrel track and climbed a tree.” From his treetop only the great, empty sky unfolds in primordial quiet. It would seem that the ambiguity of the Glass name as metaphor has its insidious consequences. It is not accidental that Buddy-frannyzooeyseymour are Glasses, bent on not just the myope's refracted aperçus of the bay but on the mystic's wide-eyed vision of the world, a luminous purchase on eternity. Given Salinger's proclivity for a dramatic frame in his Glass stories, he may find the way down from his tree and back onto the highway with the prosaic eyes of one of the non-Zen Glasses, whose point of view has not yet been explored. Surely Gallagher and Glass offer Salinger's religious mystique few of the temptations to identify with them as have their progeny. If their outlook is not the route to spiritual salvation, it may prove the turn to esthetic redemption, for they too are artists of a sort, with a practical idea of what does not “go” with audiences. Or will it? After all, Les and Bess sired and spawned the brood and must have some of the aspirations of their children lodged in their own chromosomes. It may well be that his obsessive creation of the Glasses was a wrong move for Salinger and he will never be able to achieve with them, in the words of Ihab Hassan, “the forms of dramatic permanence.”

Salinger as Studied

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MARK TWAIN (1835-1910): Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), like The Catcher in the Rye, features a first-person narrator who speaks with a distinct voice in the American idiom. Both novels follow in the tradition of the quest narrative and provide strong criticism of American society. Alienated from their societies, Huck and Holden retain moral purity while affirming goodness and opposing whatever demeans other human beings. Both books present social indictments and attack hypocrisy and pretentiousness. Perhaps one of the most interesting comparisons between Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye is each protagonist’s perspective concerning formal religion—in particular, the conflict between what practitioners of religion say and what they do. Both Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield seek not only to avoid the societal evils that are so much in conflict with their essential morality but also to rid themselves of the evils with which they have already been tainted by a society that requires them to adjust and conform. To use Huck’s vernacular, both characters resist a society that would “sivilize” them; in so doing, they achieve nobility, each in his own way.

RING LARDNER (1885-1933): One of the writers for whom Salinger (and Holden Caulfield) expressed admiration, Lardner used in his fiction many of the same stylistic devices preferred by Salinger: first-person narrative voice, authentic vernacular, and letters and diaries that create the effect of a more-direct discourse. Like Salinger, Lardner also criticized corruption and hypocrisy in American society. In You Know Me Al (1916) Lardner portrays rookie professional baseball player Jack Keefe through a series of letters Keefe writes to his friend Al. In the letters Lardner debunks the popular conception of the heroes of the national pastime and exposes the greed and corruption of professional baseball, which might be seen as his metaphor for

society as a whole. Lardner’s story collection How to Write Short Stories (1924) offers several works that similarly complement the Salinger canon. “Some Like Them Cold” records the stages of a budding love affair through one of Lardner’s most effective uses of the epistolary technique; “The Golden Honeymoon” delineates the characters of an aging couple through a first-person narrative delivered by the husband; and “A Caddy’s Diary” offers recollections from the diary of a sixteen-year-old caddy who records instances not only of cheating by golfers but also of his own corruption when he assists them in cheating. Lardner and Salinger achieved similar results by their frequent use of letters and diaries in their fiction: they were able to gain authorial distance, mask their own points of view, and achieve refreshing spontaneity in their prose.

F. SCOTT FITZGERALD (1896-1940): Fitzgerald’s portrayal of his generation in This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Great Gatsby (1925) influenced Salinger and bears comparison with the latter’s portrait of his own generation in The Catcher in the Rye. Both Holden and Jay Gatsby are involved in quests, and both are severely affected by them. Gatsby is killed, and Holden is psychically damaged. Readers might also compare Fitzgerald’s mastery in the dialogue between Charlie Wales and his daughter, Honoria, in the story “Babylon Revisited” (1931) with Salinger’s similar skill in handling the dialogue between Seymour Glass and Sybil, the little girl he meets on the beach, in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Focusing on the narrative voices of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby and Buddy Glass in Salinger’s stories about the Glass family, one critic has suggested that “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” “is much more indebted to Gatsby than has been recognized,”1 as is perhaps indicated by Buddy’s reference in “Zooey” to The Great Gatsby as “my Tom Sawyer” (49).

RALPH ELLISON (1914-1994): Like Holden, the narrator of Ellison’s Invisible Man speaks from a first-person, retrospective point of view and recounts a journey in which he learns that he can neither save the world nor live in it as it is. Both characters experience alienation and find themselves confronted with pretenders whose precepts and propaganda are self-serving. Like The Catcher in the Rye, Ellison’s Invisible Man endures because of the universality and commonality of its themes: a search for identity and acceptance in a world filled with confusion and hypocrisy. Ellison’s unnamed narrator and Holden both struggle to survive the conflict between their moral idealism and the phoniness and corruption of their worlds. Ultimately, each recognizes that survival cannot depend on his ability to reform the world or to count on the assistance of others but on facing, alone, what lies before him. Finally, both protagonists must define the parameters of their existence.

KEN KESEY (1935-2001): Like The Catcher in the Rye, Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) depicts a protagonist, Randle Patrick McMurphy, confronting a society to which he can neither adjust nor acquiesce. Sharing Holden’s love of humanity as well as his contempt for everything that abuses it, McMurphy, too, remains inviolate following his struggle—for as long as he lives. Both novels illustrate the destructive effects of a society demanding conformity.

HERMANN HESSE (1877-1962): Sharing Salinger’s interest in Zen, Hesse describes in his Siddhartha (1922) a journey to enlightenment by a Brahman’s son. Hesse’s novel compares well with Salinger’s later stories that reveal Zen influences and illustrate quests as well as moments of spiritual enlightenment. Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf (1927) also bears comparison with Salinger’s works. Harry Haller, the protagonist of the novel, has been described, much like Salinger’s characters, as rising “above his own neurosis in a discovery, based on Buddhist thought,” to learn “that the potentialities of the soul are limitless.”2

JACK KEROUAC (1922-1969):1 Although Salinger viewed unfavorably the Beat Generation, with which Kerouac was affiliated, Kerouac’s novel On the Road (1957) is often read with Salinger’s works because of its repudiation of social conformity, which is seen as an obstacle to self-fulfillment. On the Road depicts a quest that compares well with those of Huck and Holden. The narrator, Sal Paradise, must, like Holden, eventually conclude that one cannot always find the answers one seeks during a quest.

SHERWOOD ANDERSON (1876-1941): Anderson was one of the writers Salinger most admired in his apprenticeship years. Anderson’s best-remembered work, Winesburg, Ohio (1919), provides another perspective on many themes common to Salinger’s novel and stories, such as alienation, loneliness, and lack of communication.3 In the various quests that readers acknowledge in Holden’s spiritual journey, his quest for understanding calls for comparison with the quests of a variety of characters Anderson presents in the interrelated stories that comprise Winesburg, Ohio. Anderson’s characters suffer cruelties and indignities because they, like Holden, are incapable of making themselves understood and are forced to live on the perimeters of their societies. Both Holden and the characters in Anderson’s town of Winesburg struggle for speech that will make them understood, and in the process they become engaged in self-discovery. Commenting on Winesburg, Ohio, Irving Howe observes that Anderson’s characters emerge “shyly or with a false assertiveness, trying to reach out to companionship and love, driven almost mad by the search for human connection,”4 and so does Holden.

SAUL BELLOW (1915- ): Like Salinger, Bellow also wrote a highly successful novel about a personal quest, The Adventures of Augie March (1953). Augie March, the narrator, also confronts a world capable of control and destruction, and he experiences, though under vastly different circumstances from those of the far more financially privileged Holden, the redeeming and affirmative power of love. The Adventures of Augie March is, like The Catcher in the Rye, a ground-breaking novel of initiation. At the end of the novel, Augie has benefited from his experience, but, as one critic has observed, he is no more suited to “the established forms of American life . . . than Huck or Holden. . . .”5


1. Warren French, J. D. Salinger, Revisited (Boston: Twayne, 1988), pp. 101-102.

2. Carl E Strauch, “Kings in the Back Row: Meaning through Structure—A Reading of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye,”Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 2, no. 1 (Winter 1961): 5-30; reprinted in Critical Essays on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, edited by Joel Salzberg (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990), pp. 64-84.

3. Readers might wish to compare the lesson Dr. Parcival shares with George Willard at the conclusion of “The Philosopher” in Winesburg, Ohio to that which Zooey shares with Franny at the conclusion of Franny and Zooey. Pessimistically, Parcival observes, “The idea is very simple, so simple that if you are not careful you will forget it. It is this—that everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified.” See Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio (New York: Huebsch, 1919), pp. 56-57. Zooey also says that everyone in the world is Christ, but his conclusion is far more affirmative.

4. Irving Howe, introduction to Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio (New York: Penguin, 1993), p. xiii.

5. Ihab Hassan, Radical Innocence:Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), p. 311.

Study Questions

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  1. Critics in the 1950s and 1960s frequently compared Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye with Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, arguing that both novels were in the tradition of the quest narrative. In what way is Holden Caulfield’s journey a quest? What has he been seeking, and what have been the results of that search?
  2. In “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” the narrator points out that the first part of the story is about love and the second part about squalor. Why does the narrator shift from a first-person to a third-person point of view and refer to himself as Sergeant X in the squalor part of the story?
  3. Critics have noted that the last two stories in Nine Stories, “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” and “Teddy,” marked a shift in Salinger’s narrative focus that anticipated his stories about the Glass family. Read these two stories, as well as “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” and “Down at the Dinghy.” What are the major differences between the first two stories and the last two that suggest a new direction in Salinger’s writing?
  4. Salinger once told a young interviewer that his boyhood was much the same as that of Holden. After reading The Catcher in the Rye, as well as the first chapter of the present study, discuss ways in which Salinger’s youth was similar to Holden’s. What are the major differences between them?
  5. In “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” why does Seymour Glass call his wife, Muriel, “Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948,” and how does this derogatory name underscore the major conflict in their marriage?
    What does the child Sybil’s mother have in common with Muriel?
    Why does Seymour take his own life?
  6. Some critics have suggested that the stories in Nine Stories are not interrelated by a central character or a consistent tone but rather by a progression toward spiritual enlightenment. Make a case for or against the idea that the stories are interrelated. Upon what basis might one conclude that the stories illustrate progress toward spiritual enlightenment?
  7. In “Zooey,” Zooey offers a remedy for Franny’s spiritual dilemma when he tells her about their brother Seymour’s “Fat Lady.” Zooey says that everyone is the Fat Lady and the Fat Lady is Christ. What does Zooey mean by this enigmatic statement? Why does this idea appeal to Franny?
  8. On the dust jacket for the first edition of Franny and Zooey is a quotation from Salinger in which he calls Buddy Glass his “alter-ego and collaborator.” Buddy also refers to himself as the author of the stories about the Glass family (with the exception of “Franny”). Why might Salinger have chosen to make Buddy the narrator of these works, and what effect has he achieved by doing so?
  9. Throughout much of Salinger’s work, and especially in The Catcher in the Rye, children bring comfort to troubled older persons. What are the special qualities of Salinger’s child characters that enable them to bring peace to characters such as Sergeant X and Holden?
  10. When Holden studied the Egyptians in Spencer’s class at Pencey, he was most impressed by what he learned about the ancient Egyptians’ mummification processes. Later in The Catcher in the Rye, when he thinks about his childhood trips to the Museum of Natural History, Holden says, “Certain things should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in those big glass cases and just leave them alone” (158). How are these two points related, and how do they help illustrate the crisis Holden confronts?
  11. After Seymour Glass’s suicide in 1948, he remains a dominating presence in the lives of his family members. One lesson learned by the Glasses is that they must ultimately free themselves from Seymour’s compelling presence, without, as one critic has observed, feeling that they have betrayed him. How do the conclusions of “Zooey” and “Seymour: An Introduction” support this assumption?
  12. Salinger once referred to his art as a quest for enlightenment. Looking back at The Catcher in the Rye after learning about Salinger’s study of Eastern religion, some readers have suggested that Holden attains enlightenment at the conclusion of the novel. What evidence does the text offer to support this argument or refute it?
  13. In “Seymour: An Introduction” Buddy, the narrator, says that “the true artist-seer, the heavenly fool who can and does produce beauty, is mainly dazzled to death by his own scruples, the blinding shapes and colors of his own sacred human conscience” (123). To what extent is Buddy’s observation an accurate description of Seymour? In what ways could it also be a description, or analysis, of himself by Salinger?
  14. In many ways The Catcher in the Rye is a dated novel, reflecting a time when television sets were slowly making their way into American homes, when, as Holden says, “a Jaguar . . . cost damn near four thousand bucks” and space travel was the stuff of science fiction. Yet, the novel continues to appeal to new generations of readers. What are the reasons for the continuing popularity of The Catcher in the Rye? Why does Holden maintain readers’ interest and affection?
  15. E Scott Fitzgerald, an author Salinger greatly admired, observed that writers repeat themselves, that they tell “two or three stories—each time in a new disguise—maybe ten times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen.”1 If Fitzgerald’s observation is applied to Salinger, what are Salinger’s “two or three stories”?


1.. See F. Scott Fitzgerald, “One Hundred False Starts,” The Saturday Evening Post, 205 (4 March 1933): 13, 65-66; reprinted in F. Scott Fitzgerald on Authorship, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli with Judith S. Baughman (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996), pp. 125-132.

Helen Weinberg (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: “J. D. Salinger's Holden and Seymour and the Spiritual Activist Hero,” in J. D. Salinger, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, pp. 63-79.

[In the following essay, Weinberg discusses post-Freudian criticism of Salinger's fiction and offers an analysis of Salinger's innovative literary techniques and the psychological and metaphysical motivations of his protagonists in The Catcher in the Ryeand “Seymour: An Introduction.”]

Mary McCarthy attacks J. D. Salinger's work as sentimental and narcissistic. One expects coolheadedness, tough-mindedness, from Miss McCarthy, and this is of course what she is giving her reader in assailing Salinger's sentimentality; but her view of his narcissism is not tough-minded. To criticize Salinger's work on psychological rather than literary grounds seems to me too arbitrary and simpleminded a method of judging his representation of reality. And it is on psychological grounds that Miss McCarthy's case against Salinger's oral-anal narcissism finally rests. As such it gives us a valid footnote on the Salinger hero but not, I think, a valid or full criticism of him. It would be a narrow psychology which did not make reference to the oral-anal narcissism possible in man; it would be a narrow literature, indeed, which had for its only hero the fully genital hero of Wilhelm Reich and D. H. Lawrence.

On the other hand, other critics of Salinger overemphasize the Freudian validity of his insights. Gwynn and Blotner's book, while useful for its bibliography and general comment, is clumsy in its Freudian analysis of some of the stories. In “De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period,” for example, it does the most shocking job of Freudian analysis possible in its insistence on the castration complex as centrally significant in that story. Blotner, Mary McCarthy, and all those who talk about Salinger's works as if they were case histories forget that we are all post-Freudian: Salinger, too, is post-Freudian, and to analyze him for his readers in Freudian terms is meaningless.

Facile Freudian criticism of modern literature is no longer possible. Perhaps Freud's insights clarify great literary intuitions of the past. We may realize Hamlet's situation to a fuller extent if Hamlet is seen in the light of the Oedipal complex. However, today's literature is post-Freudian: it starts from Freud; it includes Freud; it leaps out of and away from Freud; it opposes itself to Freudian clichés along with a host of other sorts of inherited clichés. The post-Freudian novelist has been given what the post-Freudian critic or reader has been given. I think a modern novelist expects the reader to assume the Freudian ideas with him as part of the general intelligence which he brings to bear on (or which he opposes to) the reality that he presents in his novel.

It is, in fact, on the basis of the recognition that the investigation of heroes with wonderfully varied psyches and an assortment of psychological differences which remain outside Freudian (or other established psychological) categories is possible in literature that I would find fault with much of the favorable and unfavorable criticism of Salinger. Salinger, as many new novelists do, explores possibilities outside normal behavior and outside the usual categories for abnormal behavior. Clearly, today's novelists are not psychological realists in any of the established ways.

However, Salinger may attract critiques based on psychological categorizing from his admirers and detractors because he cheats, especially in his earlier work, on his own vision (a vision of goodness on the edge of madness) in order to structure a story according to external, formalized rules of the storytelling craft. I am not talking of the twenty stories of the apprentice period; these are experiments in storytelling in a number of styles: the styles of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Katherine Mansfield, and a little of the simple surprise-ending stuff of O. Henry. Nor do I find a conflict between vision and form in seven of the Nine Stories. All except “Teddy” and “De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period” are formal studies of love and loneliness; all have the New Yorker tone as they make their understatements on the sweet and the sad in modern life. They are, no matter how successful of their kind (in the way, for example, that “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” is successful), slight and ephemeral. They are informed by no special vision. “Teddy” and “De Daumier-Smith” are informed by a mystical vision of madness which provides the way to fullness of being otherwise unavailable in modern life. The vision in these two stories is just beginning to be defined and is, therefore, only contained in some conceptual form within the confines of the craftsmanlike story—the vision in not strong enough to conflict with the form or insist upon a form of its own. In The Catcher in the Rye the vision conflicts with the tight formalistic planning; in “Seymour: An Introduction,” the vision insists on finding its own form and thoroughly usurps the Salinger craftsmanship apparent in earlier work.

The vision to which I have been referring should be perhaps more carefully defined before any detailed examination of The Catcher in the Rye and “Seymour: An Introduction.” The emergent vision in the whole of Salinger's work is one of the potential of the spiritual self, and the elusiveness of that self, which is always ahead of the movement of the particular moment. He sees the inner self as potentially loving, compassionate, in touch with a human goodness that encompasses the mysteries of the world: in this sense, it is a vision of hope and carries with it a celebration of life. However, the full realization of the compassionate inner self is forever out of reach, because, as is seen in “Seymour,” the existential facts of life make the inner self one of the ineluctable mysteries. “Seymour” shows the self as unavailable, no matter how seriously sought, in metaphysical terms expressive of the vision at its fullest. Catcher shows the self as unavailable in social terms: the corruption and phoniness of society defeat the strivings for personal and spiritual freedom. But the visionary idea in Catcher is betrayed as much by the formal craft of storytelling and its rules, to which Salinger became addicted in his earliest work, as Holden is betrayed by society's insistence that he conform to its rules. But Salinger asks for the safety of conformity (as Holden does not) when he writes The Catcher in the Rye perhaps Salinger's inability to risk his vision here may be understood if the vision is seen as an edge-of-madness one which ultimately involves the writer as much as his subject—a curious phenomenon demonstrated in “Seymour,” a story in which Buddy Glass, the writer-narrator of the story, becomes temporarily a madman while trying to capture the essence of a ghost's existential madness.

In The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger gives us an open, innocent, protean hero who lives, antisocially, on the periphery of conventional sanity—a modern rebel and existential hero, in fact. And he places this hero in a closed, corrupt, highly structured society, the alleys and byways of which become the ground of his exploration during his journey of adventure, his dark night of the soul during which he wanders through New York City. We would wish to find out, through the representation of this adventure, what can be existentially discovered in such a situation. It would seem that Salinger, along with other contemporary American novelists, such as Malamud in A New Life and Bellow in Henderson the Rain King, would somehow wish to show the subjective truths of the particularized but protean hero in an open-ended situation. But the overzealous craftsman in Salinger closes the situation: he makes a structure of Holden's “open” character and puts it against the structure of society, thereby intrinsically denying Holden's inner character, his self, at the same time as he sets it in motion in its primal openness, innocence, and claim to authentic discovery. The closed, literary, prestructured character of Holden is embodied in the archetypal figure of Christ, the incongruously ironic hero who, according to Northrop Frye, appears increasingly innocent the more he is punished by society. He is the innocent victim. The archetypal pattern would not of itself suffice to make Holden a closed, labeled hero; it is the enunciating of this pattern in the details of the story that too tightly restricts the movements of the hero. The significance of Holden's dark wandering, full of temptations encountered; the Christmas season setting; Holden's clearly symbolic wish to be the catcher in the rye (that is, the pastoral Jesus figure, a shepherd in the rye field who would save the innocence and purity of the small children, who make up the Salinger “flock,” from the fall, the cliff, the dangers beyond the field). These things overwhelm Holden's becomingness with too rigid a pattern of being, and the being is essentially labeled Jesus. If the suffering in Holden's becomingness merely pointed to an archetypal pattern of the incongruously ironic figure, Holden's particularity would not be restricted by the literary device; but in Salinger's structuring, the archetype rules, and we are given a formula for ideal being rather than an urgent existence. We know the end, and in knowing it, we lose the process.

Holden's definition of ideal being is made in response to Phoebe's demand that he name something he would like to be. “‘Like a scientist. Or a lawyer or something.’” It is at this time that Holden verbalizes his choice, a choice against society, and describes his dream of ideality—his wish to be the catcher in the rye—which he will finally achieve in that concluding moment of the narrative action, when he sees that staying with Phoebe is the meaningful gesture he can make, the gesture which “saves” Phoebe, and, fulfilling the Jesus-pattern, puts him into society's hands to be “crucified.” The artistry of this; the sense of wholeness achieved in what appears on the surface to be random observations of an adolescent boy; the final paradox—these things evoke in us an admiration for Salinger's craftsmanship and, more than that, for his ability to create a novel, totally modern in its questions, within the context of older novelistic conventions.

But it is just exactly those modern questions which cannot be answered when they are enclosed in the traditions, novelistic or religious, of the past. Holden's questioning of his society makes an insistent claim to fresh insight; it promises more: it promises to shape, through the process of the hero's adventure, something new, if only a new formulation of the question. It is this claim to modern insight which is forfeited when Salinger fails to take the risks his material demands and to strive for the new forms which might make the material manifest. In his later work, the Glass family stories, and especially in “Seymour,” even though he very apparently uses Zen ideas, which are after all also given ideas, I think Salinger is a truer artist and is beginning to take the risks his material demands. Seymour, for example, is allowed to be a hero in process, not one imprisoned by a special given literary, mythic, or social idea. Seymour uses all ideas available to this experience; they do not use him. In so doing he shapes his fictive world; Salinger allows him to do this. And it is a risky business, as is attested by the almost unanimously adverse comment on this story. If “warring impulses of the soul distend the shape of Salinger's fiction,” as Ihab Hassan suggests, the distended shape is honest and no charge of literary phoniness may be leveled at it.

“Seymour,” a long short story, a plotless narrative, details the events, occasions, and gestures of a unique sort of activist; for Seymour, though a situational man in the world (one who responds to occasions rather than inventing them), is an activist of the spirit. In secular situations, he invents his spirit, but he does not invent the situation for the sake of his spirit, or spiritual self, as one might say spiritual activist heroes of other novels do. Given a situation, he transcends it: he does not reject it or change it. Thus, the story of Seymour depends less on his acts and more on his gestures and words, which become significant as the true outward clues to his inner activity. He is the poet or the saint, as Buddy Glass, the writer-narrator, tells us. But Buddy does not merely tell this, as Salinger tells us Holden is the catcher in the rye: he tries to show this, to prove it. In the process of trying to prove Seymour's saintliness, Buddy is afflicted by delirium, mania, chills, and fever which indicate the strain of the task of making manifest in worldly terms the spiritual activity of a living man, dead at the time of the storytelling, a ghost in fact. Buddy is haunted and, therefore, like the Ancient Mariner, somehow compelled to tell the tale. (There is a Gothic-horror quality about this. Perhaps when Salinger first thought of writing a series of stories about the Glass family, he thought in terms of a modern Gothic tale of a dead brother's ghost. However, Salinger's vision is here more metaphysical than Gothic, and there is, I think, no significant horror for the reader.)

While Seymour is the story's hero, who must finally be isolated and discussed, Buddy as narrator has almost as primary a function in the tale as Seymour; for this is as much a story of the process of storytelling as it is a capturing of the process of a saint's life in New York City. It is as if when Salinger risks himself in telling Seymour's story fully he must tell his own, through Buddy. (I do not think he is being coy or cute, as some critics have suggested, when he gives to Buddy biographical data that belong to himself. Rather I think he is honestly attempting to meet the demands made on him by his tale.) That he must tell his own story as the writer seems very suitable on this occasion when his craft is broken by his vision and he searches for new forms that may encompass the largeness and strangeness of the vision. The story is governed by a sense of breakthrough and experiment.

If significant function in the narrative is equally shared by narrator and hero, the story becomes an exemplification of the relationship between the writer and his material; since it is a story, one might say it is, patently, the relationship between the writer and his material. That is always true; here, however, this truth is overt and functional rather than a simple fact of all storytelling.

The story is prefaced by two comments on the act of writing, one by Kafka, one by Kierkegaard. The quotation from Kafka, used as an epigraph for “Seymour,” is:

The actors by their presence always convince me, to my horror, that most of what I've written about them until now is false. It is false because I write about them with steadfast love (even now, while I write it down, this, too, becomes false) but varying ability, and this varying ability does not hit off the real actors loudly and correctly, but loses itself dully in this love that never will be satisfied with the ability and therefore thinks it is protecting this ability from exercising itself.

Kafka is saying that the characters of a writer, once created, have a presence, a reality, in the world, which belongs to them, not to the writer, and that the writer respects this and protects it even from his own craft, which is perhaps mechanical and falsifies the truth the characters have assumed by their viable presence. Kafka's sense of his characters, created by his art but belonging, once there, to the reality of existence, is illustrated in his own work in which the spiritual and secular levels are inextricably joined, creating a thick unity that has seduced scholars and critics to try to separate the parts in order to see what might make such a substantial yet curiously elusive wholeness. Perhaps Salinger is so seduced, but rather than write a critical essay, he brings his question to his own storytelling. He has, until “Seymour,” postponed the question, although one sees him working with it in the three earlier long stories about the Glass family, “Franny,” “Zooey,” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” in which he has, some of the time, permitted his vision to overwhelm simple storytelling techniques, thus encouraging the personae of his characters to emerge more convincingly than they have in the early stories and Catcher.

The epigraph from Kierkegaard reads:

It is (to describe it figuratively) as if an author were to make a slip of the pen, and as if this clerical error became conscious of being such. Perhaps this was no error but in a far higher sense was an essential part of the whole exposition. It is, then, as if this clerical error were to revolt against the author, out of hatred, for him, were to forbid him to correct it, and were to say, “No, I will not be erased, I will not be erased, I will stand as a witness against thee, that thou art a very poor writer.”

Again, this is an enunciation of the writer's creation as having a life of its own, once on the page, once there, even if there by error or accident. Again the material of the work defeats the techniques for its control: a presence once created cannot be dispelled.

The fact of Seymour-as-ghost works as well on this level of the story, which depends upon the dialogue between the writer and his material, as it does on the level of the fictive hero's “simple” story, where saintliness, mysticism, and ghostliness interoperate in a diversity of situation. Seymour, whose death Buddy has depicted in “Perfect Day for Bananafish,” must be confronted as a Kafkan “actor” or a Kierkegaardian “clerical error” that achieves presence as he is acknowledged by his creator, the writer. On the level of the writer's awareness, Seymour's ghostliness is interchangeable with this sort of artistic presence, and Buddy, the writer, struggles with it in chills and fever, reminiscent of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling. Curiously, Buddy the writer recognizes the urgent reality of his actor as Kierkegaard would have the reader know the immediacy of the Abraham and Isaac story and of all stories. But Salinger makes visible, or conscious, this “immediacy” in his story through his creation of a double for himself, Buddy Glass.

It is possible to say that in some way Seymour is also Buddy's double; he is after all his brother, his sharer of a youthful bedroom and of ideas. Buddy is a writer of prose and Seymour is a poet. Both strive to catch and hold for a moment the continuum of poetry they sense flowing through all life. Buddy considers Seymour to have been a true poet although he is unable, finally, to say how or why. (Buddy's failure to say how or why Seymour is a true poet seems appropriate: the mystery of Seymour's poetry remains ultimately inexplicable.)

Seymour is to Buddy as Buddy is to Salinger. If there is indeed a series of doubles here, as there seems to be, then the comment on the creative act and on the immediacy of the created actors (the living relationship between writer and fictive character) is very special and complex. The comment is also singularly modern in its insistence on the dynamics of the creative act itself, and on the creative juggling of the is and is-not of the two realities: the world's and the work's. This is the literary juggling of what might in the past have been called reality and appearance—but in the past the question has been which, indeed, is which. The “Seymour” story does not give us an ironic picture of a reality controverted by a reality. It comes to no ironic conclusions in areas of necessity, worked through probabilities and the final exhaustion of all possibilities. The novelty of this story is that it is an inconclusive presentation of probabilities which remain probabilities and of possibilities, always open: the story is without ironic undertones.

In his total willingness to suspend judgments, conclusions, answers, and finalities, ironic or not, Salinger achieves two things with the story: uncompromised openness and an affirmation of constant flux. He has, furthermore, erased aesthetic boundaries and aesthetic distance (his own and, with that, the reader's); by determining to recreate experience as experience-in-process and at the same time focusing on the difficulty in the task and the unknowability of reality, he has established spontaneity through seeming chaos (rather than making order out of chaos as is the case in most traditional storytelling). The term “seeming chaos” is used not to suggest that the chaos is accidental but to suggest that the seemingness of this quality is intentionally apparent in the work in which it occurs. A surface chaos is intentional, or, more than that, it is a necessary manifestation on the formal level of the story of the conflict between craft and powerful material. Chaos, never in the history of art and literature considered a formal criterion, becomes in much modern American literature a new dynamic form, reflecting the actual conflict between an outworn traditional form and a new content. The new content, the powerful material, is that of the spirit of man, loosed from its conventional motivations and social modes in literature, art, and religious institutions, but still present to be contended with, accounted for, encountered. If in new literature, madness seems to be the clearer cause for disorder than is spiritual longing, this may be seen as a proof of the struggle with spiritual material that the writer or the hero of the narrative (in the case of “Seymour” both, or all three, if we count the very important Buddy) gives himself to irrationally while half-knowing as he begins that the answers he seeks are by their very nature inaccessible: it is the spiritual adventure that exists in reality which engrosses him; there is no easy conclusion, goal, or answer. The writer knows this and his hero knows this. The task is precipitous since madness is the risk. This risk is clearly indicated in the chaos of such experimental literary work where the destruction of aesthetic limitations, definitions, and aesthetic distance result from the implicit madness (or the choice to live on the edge-of-madness, as Leslie Fiedler has designated the modern spirit-tracking impulse).

Paradoxically, this sort of literature confirms the older aesthetic idea of art as orderly and sane by presenting the reverse of that idea. Perhaps this is the reason that the new activist novel appears to be an anti-art novel, or an anti-novel. In a simpler sense the new novel may be called anti-art because it tries to come closer to life by imitating its literal surface and also by asking metaphysical questions about what is below the surface. Literal reality and serious philosophical questions, combined with the breaking down of aesthetic distance, it may be argued, however, are peculiarly novelistic since the novel has always been extra-literary; it has functioned since the eighteenth century in England as a place for direct commentary on life. When it has not been a commentary on life, it has been a comment on manners. However, the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century novel contained this commentary within clear aesthetic limits or literary conventions. The comment in the new American novel is often referential, unconventional, and uncontained, hence overwhelming, in the work, to the point that the novel often is philosophical more than novelistic in its first commitment, and sometimes prophetic in its final tone.

To weigh an older form against the new, and to call the old “art” and the new “anti-art” is perhaps a merely confusing and misleading comparison, and surely it is an inappropriate stringency. Anti-art is a new form of art; the anti-novel is a new form of novel. It is only necessary to take note of the anti-art (or, here specifically, the anti-novel) idea as such in order to discuss new formalities in the apparent chaos, or “formal discontinuity as a perceptual mode,” as one critic recently put it. And it is an interesting fact that the most energetic mainstream in art continues by feeding on all that which traditional art formerly denied. There is inherent in this the demand for reevaluation on all levels.

The “formal discontinuity” of Salinger's story “Seymour” is such a reevaluation. Its distended form is part of that reevaluation, as is the substance of the story dealing with the narrator's conflict with his material. Because Salinger is very aware of what he does here, this story becomes important to the conscious examination of story and novel forms in a way that William Burroughs' fragmentized novel Naked Lunch does not. Naked Lunch, however, participates just as much in a new formal use of chaos as a constant element as “Seymour” does. It may be more important than “Seymour” because it antedates that story, and in its naturally sprawling, totally undisciplined, drug-addicted way it exists as the ultimate in anti-novel chaos. Yet it is a novel; it is a novel in which the vision of the writer has “destructively” usurped his craft. But the vision is real and powerful; it is so powerful that the serious reader cannot read for any length of time in the book without becoming terrified by the imagery. This, I think, is the reason the book is unreadable. The reason is not the one often given, that is, that the fragmentary pieces of the novel are incoherent to the point of meaninglessness. Incoherent the novel often is, but through this incoherence comes the terrible vision of man's helplessness (man as the naked lunch at the end of the fork) so vivid as to be unreadable, certainly unreadable in any concentrated period of reading time. Burroughs starts where Conrad's “Heart of Darkness” ends—with the horror. He stays always inside the horror, never at a distance from it. And unlike the suggested Gothic horror of “Seymour,” the horror of Naked Lunch is felt.

Since, unintentionally or intentionally, Burroughs and Salinger dispose of formal distance and the consequent literary structures for their material in Naked Lunch and “Seymour,” they make language qua language do most of the work in their narratives. One is almost tempted to say that it is all done with language. As if language by itself were the last, as it was the first, instrument of the writer. The vision is the language and the form is the language: there is in these writers a linear, fluid verbal surface, a slangy, inventive, witty argot with its own vitality. Burroughs' nonsense lines are as much a part of this rich verbalism as his sensible lines. Sense and nonsense work together. (Having invented a word, Burroughs will give in parentheses, in a solemn dictionary like way, its definition. For example, when listing the activities of “adolescent hoodlums … of all nations” he says they “throw … candiru into swimming pools,” and in parentheses he defines the candiru, which is a product of his imagination: “the candiru is a small eel-like fish or worm about one-quarter inch through and two inches long patronizing certain rivers of ill-repute in the Greater Amazon Basin.”) Burroughs' words add up; they multiply themselves: they become an inundation, a flow that covers the surface, washing away rational conjectures.

Salinger is not so entirely lost inside his vision or its language as Burroughs is; one must, after all, acknowledge that Naked Lunch was largely written when Burroughs was in a drug-addicted state and, therefore, immersed in his private vision and its own language. But that fluid, all-pervasive verbalism, so often noticed in Holden's speech in The Catcher in the Rye, expands in “Seymour.” Buddy talks and talks: the story is a talkathon. Jokes, witticisms, slang, colloquialisms, aphorisms—the stream of language is torrential. Buddy talks compulsively to the reader as if he might lose the ghost of his hero entirely if he permitted a moment of silence. Through the crack of silence, nothingness might enter.

It has been suggested that the verbal flood in “Seymour” is the ultimate exploration of civilized sound, which marks an attempt to exhaust that sound and come finally to a Zen silence. This judgment seems strained to me because, while Salinger is committed to a Zen idea for the saintly character of Seymour, he does not seem to be so committed for himself as a writer. A modern novelist like Jack Kerouac suggests a Zen ideal for the writer himself when he indulges in automatic writing for its own sake in a way that even Burroughs does not. Certainly Salinger nowhere implies that automatic writing is his aim. Buddy, who is a writer, feels cursed by his inability to cope with his saintly brother as hero. Any seeming automatism in the writing of Buddy, and implicitly of Salinger, is not purposeful but rather imposed by the material. The compulsive and automatic talking of Buddy is artfully viewed as a disease, the artist's disease, a “seizure.” Art—albeit a new art—is Salinger's undeniable aim, not Zen silence.

Buddy's confrontation with the ghost of his saintly brother has two significant themes: Buddy's theme, the writer and his material, deals with the process of storytelling; the other, Seymour's theme, the saint in the material world, explores the process of saintly and “poetic” living. (“Poetic” adds a new dimension which will be taken up later. I might mention here, however, that Seymour-as-poet is more overtly discussed by Buddy than Seymour-as-saint, though poet and saint overlap; their activities would seem to be, in “Seymour,” synonymous. The emphasis on Seymour-as-poet in the secondary theme, Seymour's, complements the primary theme, Buddy's.)

I have already investigated the theme of the writer and his material. To look at the story as it exists on its simplest level, the level which embodies Seymour's theme, one must look at the character created as its hero and at the all-but-plotless plot. Who is Seymour? How does he act? What does he do? Is there a semblance of plot through which the character of the hero is revealed in a series of coherently, causally related moves or acts? There would appear to be no true plot in this essayish confession of a writer; however, there are a group of episodes, seemingly disconnected, which exist in a significant relationship to one another under the surface of the work. These are Seymour's episodes; Seymour is the hero after all, and we are in fact introduced to him as it is Salinger's avowed intention in the title of the piece that we be.

The events or episodes which make up the plot are hidden in among Buddy's digressive comments on writing and his descriptions of Seymour. The references to Seymour first emerge subtly (as later the episodes, told in anecdotal form, will come in quietly and unobtrusively) during the course of Buddy's discussion of the Kierkegaard and Kafka quotations which introduce the story. Kierkegaard and Kafka are two of Buddy's four favorite Sick Men and Great Artists. The other two are Van Gogh and Seymour. Thus Seymour gets on the page; then, in quick succession, this hero goes from Sick Man, to Seer, to Muktah (or Mystic), to Saint, to God-seeker, to Fool, to Poet. All these titles or roles given to Seymour are worked into the fabric of Buddy's discourse on writing, the first section of the total work. In the second section of the work, Buddy discusses the poet and his poetry; the poet is Seymour. There are four anecdotes told. These deal with Seymour as a boy of eight, when he brought the right coat for each guest in his parents' living room to the person to whom it belonged without having foreknowledge of the ownership of the coat; as a boy of eleven, when he first discovered poetry books in the library; as a boy of fourteen, when he constantly jotted down poems wherever he was; as an older boy, when he tried to find a poetry form for his “un-Western” vision. There is also mention of his suicide, after which was found one of four poems paraphrased by Buddy. This second section, focusing on the poet and his poetry, ends with a depiction of the literary scene in America, complete with Buddy's amusing concession that critics are not fools because Seymour had said that Christ meant that there were no fools when He said “call no man Fool.” In connection with literary gossip, Buddy paraphrases the fourth Seymour poem about a wise old man who, dying, would rather eavesdrop on gossiping in the courtyard than listen to the learned talk in his room.

In the first section we have met Seymour and learned of his several “heroic” roles; in the second section, we have seen him as mystic and poet, heard him talk as saint and poet. In the third section, we have the history of the family which has produced this hero. The family ancestry includes a juggling Polish Jewish clown, an Irish tramp, and Les and Bess, the father and mother who were vaudeville stars. Seymour as poet becomes Seymour as juggler of experience: deep personal experience is balanced with autobiographical experience in his haiku-like poems—that is, while the poems are intensely personal, they are not factually autobiographical: a remarkable feat which Buddy finds a juggling feat.

The fourth section returns to literature, with the emphasis directly on Buddy's writing rather than on Seymour's poetry; however, Seymour is now very much in the piece, and it is on his comments about Buddy's stories that the fourth section concentrates. This section is a new start in a way: at the very beginning of the story we have had Buddy's comments on writing and writers, leading to Seymour's appraisal of him as prose writer. An intricate twist, this return is properly introduced by Buddy's declaration that he has been away from the story and the reader, suffering from acute hepatitis, for nine weeks. He takes us back to the beginning, when he announced his manic happiness to have been an artist's seizure, a compulsion to speak. Perhaps, he says now, he was only liverish; what brings him from his literal sickness now to re-encounter Seymour is an old note of Seymour's, dealing with a 1940 story of Buddy's. The story goes from this note to others until the sum of Seymour's critical thoughts on writing is finally revealed: writing is a religious activity. It is necessary, therefore, to write one's heart out. Writing the heart out is more important, more germinal to the writer, than writing a masterpiece. “‘I want your loot,’” not some neat formulized tricks, Seymour tells the young story writer, Buddy. “‘Trust your heart,’” he adds. By way of bolstering these critical insights and dicta of Seymour to Buddy, there are more episodes, anecdotally told, involving Seymour and Buddy as adults. Without the reader's noticing, Seymour has grown up. There are, in the fourth section, fewer tales of his childhood, more tales of his mature activity and thought. However, childlikeness pervades his personality. Adulthood does not change the nature of his innocence.

The last and most important section of the story might be called Seymour as corporeal being. Since this story is about Seymour, who was almost all spirit in life, and is literally all spirit at the time of writing, this fifth and last section, which takes more than one-third of the story's 137 pages, is an attempt on Buddy's part to keep Seymour on the page, to give him material being, in “life” and in literature, the dual task of Buddy the brother and Buddy the writer. As Buddy goes through the specifics of describing Seymour's earthly appearance, there is a paradoxical intensifying of Seymour's otherworldliness. The random list, a device of many contemporary American novelists, makes its appearance in this section as an element of structure. Nose, wrists, hair, hands, teeth—all of these fall into line, but without apparent order. One physical aspect grows out of a story about another. The organization is linear, not gestalt, and Buddy makes a special point of repudiating cubist theories of art that might be applied to his attempt to see the parts of Seymour at the same time that he sees the whole of Seymour, to see a point in time in Seymour's life at the same time that he sees all of Seymour's life. Buddy says, always keeping his focus on Seymour and Seymour's thoughts, even while discussing his own ideas of prose writing:

It wouldn't worry [Seymour] a very great deal, I think, if after due consultation with my instincts I elected to use some sort of literary Cubism to present his face. For that matter, it wouldn't worry him at all if I wrote the rest of this exclusively in lower-case letters—if my instincts advised it. I wouldn't mind some form of Cubism here, but every last one of my instincts tells me to put up a good, lower-middle-class fight against it.

Buddy, as usual, puts down the literary label, whether Freudian or cubist or other, before it comes up. He is being, above all else, honest, as Seymour would have him be. (Alfred Chester notes Salinger's honesty in writing this story; he calls it “courageous” and suggests its honesty be compared to the dishonesty of earlier Salinger stories. Salinger, through Buddy, keeps his effort at honesty in the foreground.)

Sticking to his linear organization of this final section, Salinger allows Buddy to leap from physical feature to physical feature until he lands in the description of the essence of Seymour's physicality—Seymour's inexplicable athletic prowess—based on a formlessness which for anyone but Seymour would have led to a loss of control in games such as tennis, Ping-Pong, stoopball, pocket pool, and curb marbles. The curb marbles anecdote, set in a time-suspended moment on a New York City sidewalk, is the appropriate climax of the whole story; it is not a climax in the usual sense of the culmination and coming together of several strands of action in a story but rather in the sense of the high moment (perhaps to be compared to Joyce's epiphany, although epiphany, as Joyce defines and exploits it, is even more a mysteriously poetic, organic, and final revelatory moment) when the reader feels that he at last has “the loot”—Salinger's loot, Buddy's loot, and Seymour's loot: the metaphysical loot of the story which goes beyond the story. And the reader gets to his point not with a sense of consummation and conclusion but with a sense of a meaningful respite in a continuum that extends outside the story and past its final sentences.

The curb marbles episode is, again, anecdotal and tells of a ten-year-old Seymour, a figure coming into the field of marble-playing through the shadows of a city dusk (“his face shadowed, dimmed out”—that physical face which Buddy has just gone to great trouble to capture, pin down on the page, piece by piece, returns for this scene to immateriality); he sees the game that Buddy, a boy of eight, is playing with a friend, and advises Buddy on his playing. Two things Seymour says at this time stand out particularly: “‘Could you try not aiming so much?’” and “‘If you hit him when you aim, it'll just be luck.’” Seymour walks toward the two marble players; and Buddy quickly breaks up the game. Several pages later, just before the last pages of the story, Buddy interprets Seymour's advice:

When he was coaching me, from the curbstone across the street, to quit aiming my marble at Ira Yankauer's—and he was ten, please remember—I believe he was instinctively getting at something very close in spirit to the sort of instructions a master archer in Japan will give when he forbids a willful new student to aim his arrows at the target; that is, when the archery master permits, as it were, Aiming but no aiming.

Buddy goes on from here to disclaim the wish to make a one-to-one relationship between Seymour's instruction and Zen instruction. He insists that he himself is Zenless though interested in the classical Zen writings; that Zen is in disrepute because it has been dirtied by popularizers who make of Zen detachment “an invitation to spiritual disinterestedness”; that pure Zen will survive however. But the comparison between Seymour and the Zen archery teacher stands, and Seymour's Zenfulness, as opposed to Buddy's Zenlessness, stands. The heart of the curb marbles anecdote is the sense of formlessness as value; deliberate formal aiming corrupts because it be tokens a belief that one may or may not hit his target. Formlessness assumes that one naturally, intuitively, instinctively hits the target. The arrow is made for the bull's-eye, the thrown marble for the stationary marble. The man attuned to the game, the true player, stands between the two—arrow and bull's-eye, marble and marble. He can best be an intermediary by shunning formal, external, given rules or forms for the game, by simply playing.

In life, as in games, the Seymour-hero goes, without method, rule, or external form, from “one little piece of Holy Ground to the next.” In life, which is a meta-game, formlessness is still the rule (or nonrule). (In spite of Buddy's insistence on his own Zenlessness, he has adopted Seymour's nonrule formlessness for this story, the implication being that he must since Seymour is its hero and the story shapes itself in acquiescence to the hero and his gestures and acts.) It is because Seymour makes of life a meta-game that excludes worldly social and ethical rules of conduct and depends instead upon a formlessness in responses which are dictated by an awareness and “feel” for any particular situation that I call him a spiritual hero.

Since Salinger, through the narration of Buddy, explores possible formula types, or archetypes, for Seymour (Sick Man, Poet, Mystic, Saint) and is forced always beyond each of these by the nature of his hero, he is finally committed to a description of Seymour's existential being, unformulated and loose, as it confronts the thick and secular world. The question posed (more posed than answered) by Seymour's behavior is the question of what is spirit in the modern world, on the street, released from religious institutions? How does the spirit function, act, and move? Seymour's existential being is to be understood as a cipher for spirituality. (The initial S. is sometimes used by Buddy to stand for Seymour and seems more of an indication of the nature of the hero as cipher that it does a mere abbreviation of the name.) Buddy's strenuous effort to capture the material substance of his brother Seymour is an inverse way of showing us that this is impossible and of proving Seymour's existence to have been almost wholly a matter of spirituality, not physicality. Seymour does not live in a secular world but redefines the world of things in his own terms so that he goes from one piece of holy ground to the next. It is not necessary for him to rebel against the secular as it is found in the community (the village in The Castle), for he does not recognize the community. He sees only individuals and he sees only one group, the family group. The family is so thoroughly released from everyday concerns (in spite of the Glass parents' concern when Waker gives away his new Davega bicycle) and its members are so much more spiritual descendants of clowns and hoboes than they are New Yorkers that Seymour's willing and intimate involvement with them puts no strain on his secularly ignorant spirituality.

As has been said, Seymour makes of life a spiritual meta-game, in which the only code is formlessness. The object of the game seems to be that the man be an intermediary between one concreteness and another for the sake of an undefined but absolute spirit. In the guise of poet, for example, Seymour, writing his own brand of double haiku, brings the red balloon, or the old wise man, or the widower to language. He makes himself a passive connection between the thing-in-life and the language. The double haiku, invented by Seymour, represents the loosening of an already “formless” form, the Japanese haiku, which restrains the poem only in number of lines and syllables. The only reason he looks for a form at all is so that he may write poems that will be understood by his favorite librarian. He does need a form in order to communicate, but he finds only a tenuous one, as a gesture of love. In the passive, innocent, mediating role that Seymour plays as a primary stance in his life meta-game (the corollary roles to this total one are those of mystic, poet, teacher, et cetera), love is not a commitment but a natural, effortless gesture. Seymour overcomes alienation and nothingness, those twin curses of modern life, by turning alienation into the necessary solitary independence of the saintly and spiritual man and by turning nothingness into a formlessness to be celebrated. The modern traumas are grist for his particular mill.

“To unlearn the illusory differences: this is what for Salinger it means to be as a child. And the Glasses, we remember, are in this sense children, holy innocents still at twenty or thirty or forty.” If Seymour is in the serene state of being of a child, free of the illusory differences of worldliness, he is in a state of lyrical freedom which K. partially achieves in what Paul Goodman calls “manic responses in abnormal states of consciousness” and finds in four particular lyrical passages in The Castle: the walk through the snowy night with Barnabas; the encounter with Frieda under the bar; the wait for Klamm in the snow; the bedroom scene with the castle official, Bürgel. Goodman also speaks of the “turmoil of conflicting plots” in The Castle: “[The conflicting plots] are in two sets: K.'s purpose and the high authorities; and the village, Frieda … —and this turmoil is so managed and so kept in motion by the protagonist's character … that it can never come to an end.” But, he says, the lyrical passages interrupt the turmoil and hold the possibility of a resolution. The protagonist is “watchful, willful, and stubborn,” and Goodman contends that the “pattern of the book … is to exhaust him and carry him away with the satisfaction that comes with finally giving in.” He adds: “We must envisage a resolution passage in the ending not unlike the four just quoted, but with one important difference: it is not manic. … it is an open-eyed view of the actual scene and therefore spontaneous and unwilled.” This finding from an analysis of the structure of The Castle is very ingenious, but I do not think the abnormal lyric passages necessarily point to a consummation in the grace of a lyrical resolution. Grace, through access to the castle, may be that toward which K. strives, but his existence as hero depends upon the process of striving; he is watchful and willful, aware and active. That his story ends without resolution, without a true conclusion, seems appropriate to the full realization of his character, his existence. Seymour, on the other hand, is constantly in this state of formless lyrical freedom and grace and not abnormally or manically so. He is never so because he is drunk, sleepy, or involved in sexual fantasy, as is K. in the lyrical passages Goodman cites. The striving for the castle is Buddy's Buddy becomes the Kafkan hero, and Seymour is his castle. Shall we ask ourselves of Seymour, as we do of the castle, is he diabolic or divine? And does it matter? To the story qua story I think it does not matter. The definition of spirit lies as much in the process of attempting its capture in language as it does in the description of Seymour which finally evolves, and the twofold structure of the “Seymour” story rests on the process of description as well as on the ultimate description.

Spirit may be diabolic or divine in the modern world. It is sought for itself. It would seem not to matter very much in which direction the spiritual activist goes in the modern world, up, down, sideways, in circles, so long as he goes, moves Erich Heller, after discussing the modern loss of “the relation between mundane and transcendental reality,” with the transcendental, or spiritual, losing its validity in a positivistic-scientific time and the mundane “becoming more ‘really’ real than before,” says that by Kafka's time “reality has been all but completely sealed off against any transcendental intrusion” and that, therefore, in Kafka's world the “heroes struggle in vain for spiritual survival.” He continues, “Thus [Kafka's] creations are symbolic, for they are infused with … negative transcendence.” It is because K. does not gain the castle (or finally give in to the lyrical state of consciousness which Goodman speaks of) and because Buddy remains Zenless and cannot firmly capture the essential nature of Seymour's existence that K. and Buddy both seem to be literary heroes created in the terms of the most honest modernist vision of the spiritual quest, and its inevitable failure.

John Wenke (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: “Sergeant X, Esmé, and the Meaning of Words,” in J. D. Salinger, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, pp. 111-18.

[In the following essay, Wenke examines the significance of failed communication and self-expression in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor.”]

She went on to say that she wanted all her children to absorb the meaning of the words they sang, not just mouth them, like silly-billy parrots.

—“For Esmé—with Love and Squalor”

During a time when many writers are reconsidered, reconstructed, rediscovered, or revisited, the last ten years have been remarkable for the apparent decline of critical interest in J. D. Salinger. Over the last two decades, Salinger has had so little to say that his commentators, once a spirited and argumentative group, seem to have followed the lead of the master and have become, for the most part, silent. Many readers of Salinger's work vacillate regularly between the conviction that he is in New Hampshire composing masterpiece after masterpiece but refusing to publish, and the less fantastic, more sobering suspicion that he is simply growing vegetables and repeating the Jesus Prayer. Nevertheless, the small body of fiction remains as a cryptic reminder of a significant contemporary writer who has adopted an enigmatic public silence. While any resolution to the mystery of Salinger's silence must remain elusive for the moment, certain implications in his best short story may go some way in accounting for the retreat, without having to construe it as an outgrowth of his later preoccupation with Zen. His continuing silence may well have evolved from the conviction that deeply felt human emotions need no expression—a position implied by the successful aesthetic resolution of “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor.”

In the fifties and sixties, the critical debate over “For Esmé” focused on various aspects of love and squalor as they relate to the narrator (Sergeant X), Esmé, Charles, and Clay (Corporal Z). While the story does in fact dramatize Sergeant X's redemption from an emotional and physical breakdown through the transformative powers of love, the narrative also—and most importantly—examines the reasons why forms of expression—whether conversational, literary, or epistolary, to name a few—either have meaning and propagate love, or lack meaning and impede emotional stability. For Salinger, failures of language advance the horror, vacuity, and despair of modern life. Throughout the narrative, Salinger reflects his concern with exploring the validity of language by persistently alluding to such indirect, constructed modes of discourse as letters, books, or inscriptions. Failed forms of communication seem to be everywhere, the most notable of which is Sergeant X's illegible response to a Nazi woman's inscription, “Dear God, life is hell,” in Goebbels' “Die Zeit Ohne Beispiel.” In “For Esmé” letters, books, conversations, and inscriptions usually create (or continue) rather than alleviate the emotional vacuum in which most of the characters live. Nowhere else in Salinger's fiction does he more intensely present the paradox and dilemma of modern man: to speak is not to express; to employ forms of expression is often to evade the difficulties of significant communication. Beneath the most obvious progression of action and theme in “For Esmé” resides the moral basis for Salinger's art which indicates why, at the end of the story, two successful acts of communication are completed, while, throughout most of the story itself, dramatizing the reasons why most acts of expression fail.

In a story replete with failed forms of communication, one must consider why Esmé's saving letter has such a positive effect, and how it has anything to do with the rest of the narrative as well as Salinger's later and continuing silence. These issues can be explored by first examining the story's many human relationships. In “For Esmé,” it is difficult to find many instances of love based on sympathetic understanding and shared experiences. Debased, destructive relationships predominate and are manifested most vividly through the narrator's relation to his wife and mother-in-law, his fellow soldiers in camp, and Clay and Loretta. Underlying these failures of love and sympathy reside the breakdown and deterioration of the power of language to express true feeling.

At the outset of the story, Salinger satirizes the mundane actualities and practical considerations of postwar America. The narrator's wife, a “breathtakingly levelheaded girl,” and the impending visit of Mother Grencher, who, at fifty-eight, is “not getting any younger,” detain him from going to Esmé's wedding. Apparently, the wife has little sense of Esmé's importance to her husband, and the narrator, while wryly undercutting his wife's practicality, does not seem capable of acting against her wishes. His tongue seems to be firmly in cheek as he ticks off the reasons why the proposed trip need not be made. In fact, he seems to be repeating the strictures as they were dictated to him. Such a failure marks a continuation of the “stale letters” the narrator received during the war. Reports on the service at Schrafft's and requests for cashmere yarn, like the prohibition against attending the wedding, extend selfish interests, while, at the same time, they evidence little concern for the narrator's needs.

His difficulties with these two women signal a problem that appears elsewhere in other forms—the sterility of conventional relationships. There is, for example, no fellowship among the troops at the training camp. The absence of community is predicated upon the failure of language. These letter-writing types, living in a self-imposed limbo, pen their letters in order to avoid human contact. The narrator, in particular, uses forms of expression to distance himself from those around him; he escapes, for example, into the books which he carries about in his gas mask container. His general disgust with experience appears most clearly through his use of cliché. Such tired language mocks the traditional bravado associated with war, and it exploits the disparity between fresh rhetorical assessments and degraded, sterile statements:

I remember standing at an end window of our Quonset hut for a very long time, looking out at the slanting, dreary rain, my trigger finger itching imperceptibly, if at all. I could hear behind my back the uncomradely scratching of many fountain pens on many sheets of V-mail paper. Abruptly, with nothing special in mind, I came away from the window and put on my raincoat, cashmere muffler, galoshes, woolen gloves, and overseas cap. … Then, after synchronizing my wristwatch with the clock in the latrine, I walked down the long, wet cobblestone hill into town. I ignored the flashes of lightning all around me. They either had your number on them or they didn't.

Just as the narrator's exploitation of cliché reflects the general bleakness of military life, so also does the perversion of romantic language point to significant failures in conventional ways of ordering experience. The relationship between Clay and Loretta is maintained through meaningless forms which make their courtship an exercise in mutual self-delusion. Intending to marry “at their earliest convenience,” she writes to him “fairly regularly, from a paradise of triple exclamation points and inaccurate observations.” Their relationship epitomizes the way in which language in “For Esmé” fails to communicate deep feeling, but instead propagates the antithesis of love—squalor. Salinger implies that their lack of self-awareness and moral introspection is not merely contemptible, but is actually a succinct embodiment of those very forces of insensitivity and self-justification which create and sustain the absurdity of war. Clay revels in the delusion that temporary insanity, rather than sadism, made him shoot a cat.

In “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” such characters as the narrator's wife and mother-in-law, Clay and Loretta, are impervious to the existential ravage inflicted by the war; others, like the soldiers in the camp and the narrator himself, perceive the bleakness of experience but can do little or nothing to overcome it or escape from it. By escaping into letter-writing, into books, or by adopting a cynical attitude, they repudiate the possibility of community and compound their isolation through acts of quiet desperation.

Nonetheless, the very fact that the story is even told in the first place suggests that there is a way to be immersed in squalor, recognize it as such, and eventually overcome it. “For Esmé” depicts extreme human misery, the suffering of being unable to love, at the same time that the narrator's very capacity to tell his story provides the completion of the psychological therapy which began when he read Esmé's letter and fell asleep. In telling the story, the narrator has clearly achieved a balance in his life, which, at the outset of the story, is implied by his good-natured, if ironic, tone. Unlike all other attempts to communicate, Esmé's letter and the process of telling the tale itself come directly out of the forces underlying their personal encounter in the Devon tearoom and possess a basis in love which is founded upon similar recognitions of the effect of squalor on the other. These acts of communication are not spontaneous emanations, but come out of periods of retrospection and consolidation during which each perceives the import of that “strangely emotional” time which they spent together. Esmé's decision to send X her father's watch could not have been hasty or gratuitous. A six-year period of recovery precedes the composition of the narrator's “squalid and moving” story. For Salinger, it seems, meaningful human expression must be founded on authentic emotions which evolve into a sympathetic comprehension of another's individuals needs. Forms of expression are, in themselves, neutral; they become meaningful or parodic to the extent that love or squalor resides at the heart of the relationship. The love that Salinger affirms in “For Esmé” does not depend on words, but on an emotional inner transformation which must be understood and assimilated before it can be expressed. Forms of expression cannot create love, as Clay and Loretta try to do through letters, but only express what has mysteriously been there from the start. In “For Esmé,” we encounter a significant moment in Salinger's fiction, a moment during which ineffable emotional states find expression in literary forms.

Given what has been argued thus far, it would be helpful to examine just how the conversation between the narrator and Esmé in the tearoom relates to his epiphany at the conclusion of the story. Basically, we shall see how their conversation offers vital insights into the psychological needs of each character, even though the apparent surface meaning of their words does not seem to indicate the formation of a deep and lasting bond of love.

For both the narrator and Esmé, language does not directly mirror their true inner states, but instead provides a defense, a kind of mask from behind which the suffering self cryptically speaks. The narrator adopts a protective cynicism, which largely accounts for the strange shifting of tone and point of view evident throughout the meeting, Esmé's famous malaprops and inflated diction are the basic elements with which she constructs her persona. For both characters, language offers a way to cover up their psychological fragility, insecurity, and acute self-consciousness, even though some very minor actions help to reflect most clearly the tenuousness of their respective poses. The narrator, for example, smiles but is careful to hide his “coalblack filling,” while Esmé's fingernails are bitten to the quick and her tendency to keep touching her hair belies her posture of self-assurance.

It is probably not necessary to detail Esmé's strained attempts to appear older, more mature, self-possessed. Nonetheless, a brief look at the way the narrative voice oscillates between sarcasm and sincerity will suggest how language covers up, rather than directly reflects, the true state of the narrator's being. When watching the choir practice, the narrator emanates a glib, sardonic attitude: “Their voices were melodious and unsentimental, almost to the point where a somewhat more denominational man than myself might, without straining, have experienced levitation.” His deflation of the choir is offset a few lines later by a genuine admiration for Esmé's voice: “Her voice was distinctly separate from the other children's voices, and not just because she was seated nearest me. It had the best upper register, the sweetest-sounding, the surest, and it automatically led the way.” During their conversation itself, his tone and emotional state continue to fluctuate between sarcasm and sincerity. When asked whether he attends that “secret Intelligence school on the hill,” he notes that he is “as security-minded as the next one” and therefore tells Esmé that he is “visiting Devonshire for my health.” Shortly thereafter, the narrator admits that he is glad she came over, since he “had been feeling lonely.”

Generally, their conversation is amiable, congenial, interesting, and leaves the narrator pondering the “strangely emotional” moment which the departure of Charles and Esmé creates. On the surface, this meeting does not seem to satisfactorily explain Esmé's capacity to overwhelm X with love at the end of the story. On the basis of the language and action alone, one may be inclined to view Leslie Fiedler's nearly blasphemous assertion that “For Esmé” is “a popular little tearjerker” with some sympathy. The conversation, however, helps to suggest some basic facts about each character: the narrator is greatly in need of emotional sustenance; Esmé, midway between childhood and adulthood, must cope with the pain of having lost both parents at the same time that she must bear the responsibility of taking care of her brother. Their conversation implies, but does not explicitly record, the extent of each character's emotional reaction. Ultimately, one must perceive that, underlying the words and actions of this scene, some kind of inscrutable magnetism touches the narrator and Esmé, which evolves from an instinctual and unconscious sense that each possess what the other most deeply needs. In light of the subsequent action, it can be argued that Esmé senses in the narrator the capacity to represent a surrogate father, while the narrator, disgusted by the petty actualities of stale middle-class life and the bleak atmosphere among the letter-writing types, senses in Esmé a saving balance between the “silly-billy” innocence of children and the squalor of adulthood. In the tearoom, neither character is fully aware of the implications of this “strangely emotional moment.” But as time passes, each retrospectively achieves insight into the nature of their love, and the capacity to respond is manifested by the creation of meaningful forms of expression. Only later, with Esmé's letter and the loan of her father's watch, do we find that she fully recognizes the import of the meeting. For the narrator, the recitation of the story—the artistic process—fulfills his promise to write Esmé a story both “squalid and moving.”

Salinger denies us a view of the psychological process which prompts Esmé to forward her father's watch. We do, however, witness X's emergence from a hell characterized by explicit failures of language to communicate love. While his inability to read, write, or think clearly is a result of the “suffering of being unable to love,” human contact causes even further deterioration. His conversation with Clay and the letter from his brother structurally parallel X's earlier conversation with Esmé and the letter he later opens from Esmé. Here, however, these forms of communication perform exactly the opposite office, indicating that language, not founded on love and a sympathetic comprehension of another's condition, express negation and advances alienation. Because of his insensitivity, Clay cannot comprehend the extent and cause of X's emotional deterioration. Clay does not even understand why X sarcastically interprets Clay's reasons for killing “that pussycat in as manly a way as anybody could've under the circumstances.” The conversation culminates in X's nausea, which follows Clay's most ironic failure to perceive the meaning of X's words:

“That cat was a spy. You had to take a pot shot at it. It was a very clever German midget dressed up in a cheap fur coat. So there was absolutely nothing brutal, or cruel, or dirty, or even—”

“God damn it!” Clay said, his lips thinned. “Can't you ever be sincere?

X suddenly felt sick, and he swung around in his chair and grabbed the wastebasket—just in time.

This is undoubtedly the same wastebasket which holds the torn remnants of his brother's request for souvenirs, the accoutrements of the very war which threatens to destroy X's being. His brother's letter was probably sent in the unquestioned belief that the Sergeant receiving the letter would be the same one who left home. This Sergeant, however, has gone through a revolution of consciousness, profoundly altering his relation to home, self, and society. Americans back home like X's wife, mother-in-law, and brother inhabit a spatial, experiential, and psychological world which is entirely foreign to X's life. They have no way to comprehend the waste and horror which X has seen. Thus, his brother's letter accentuates distance, fails to provide relief, and moves X closer to an absolute loss of reason.

Neither callous letter, nor talking to Clay about Loretta, nor listening to Bob Hope on the radio can help X to recover his faculties. Instead, he needs personal contact with someone who has a sensitive understanding of the way war can destroy one's being. Like X, Esmeacute; has been ravaged by the war and, emotionally, her experiences and problems are similar to the Sergeant's: she has been stripped of her former source of coherence, order, and love through the death of her parents; Sergeant X's former way of ordering experience no longer pertains to his life; both need to reconstruct their lives after being “wounded” by the war. By chance, X opens Esmé's letter and receives help from the only available source. The act of reading the letter stuns him, touching off an awareness of the significance of their meeting in the tearoom. The letter and the loan of her father's watch spring from Esmé's deep desire to express love. It is not so much the letter's stilted words or the statistics which affect X; instead, it is his deeply felt, overwhelming experience of Esmé's love which begins his cure by inducing sleep.

“For Esmé” reflects the power of language to communicate love. Here, Salinger successfully mediates between silence and sentimentality by presenting two instances of expression—Esmé's letter to the narrator and the narrator's story “for Esmé”—which evolve from each character's comprehension of the meaning of love. These forms of expression represent moral and aesthetic resolutions to the problems of human communication permeating the narrative. Unlike the endings of many classic American tales, the conclusion of “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” fulfills the process of self-recovery rather than simply bringing the hero to a point at which he either has nowhere to go or is about to make use of what he has learned. “For Esmé” has closure at the same time that it suggests how the narrator will live within society, even though his experiences have taught him the inherent failure of conventional society. On the one hand, the ending of the story completes the process of therapy which began with the discovery of Esmé's letter, fulfills the promise to write her a story, and completes the office of symbolic father. As Ihab Hassan notes, the story can be looked at as a “modern epithelium.” It is also a wedding gift, a parting gesture of love from father to daughter. On the other hand, the narrator has managed to gain a balanced perspective; he has found a way to avoid paralyzing isolation and survive with good humor even though living within a world dominated by the likes of his wife and mother-in-law. Even though he may be impeded from acting as he would like, he still has his art.

Communication is difficult within such a world, but possible. Salinger dramatizes this difficulty by crowding his world with people who are not so much malicious as unconscious. The best one can say about Clay, for example, is that he tries to help X. But like most characters in Salinger's fiction, Clay is impeded by his utter incapacity to transcend the values which he holds sacred and never questions. Thus, one response to the horror which threatens civilization resides in accommodating oneself completely to the stereotypical conventionalities of middle-class existence—the world of Saks, cashmere, convenient marriages, college psychology courses, war souvenirs, and complacent acceptance of army bureaucracy. But in presenting two successful expressions of love, Salinger offers an optimistic answer to the implied question: How can one respond to the void after confronting, in Esmé's words, “a method of existence that is ridiculous to say the least?”

Nevertheless, “For Esmé” presents the early signs in Salinger of his apparent acceptance of silence, not as a negative or cowardly retreat from the literary field, as some of his detractors would have it, but as a positive, implicit recognition of emotions that are in themselves meaningful and therefore need no expression. This story is so interesting because it confronts the difficulty of significant human communication at a time when he still seemed to believe in writing (or at least publishing). “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” is indeed a high point in Salinger's art for many of the reasons his other commentators have noted. Most notably, though, it addresses one of the central problems of Salinger's fiction in particular and modern literature in general—the problem of finding valid forms of communication—at the same time that the story suggests that love is the force which animates expression. In a story in which love ultimately triumphs, the relationship between the narrator and Esmé embodies a beautiful, if tenuous, example of how individuals might pass through squalor to love, achieving meaningful, redemptive expression, even though the successful uses of language are a constant reminder of its general failure.

Terry Teachout (essay date September 1987)

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SOURCE: “Salinger Then and Now,” in Commentary, Vol. 84, No. 3, September, 1987, pp. 61-4.

[In the following essay, Teachout provides an unflattering reevaluation of Salinger's fiction, literary career, and critical reception in the wake of Salinger's lawsuit against biographer Ian Hamilton.]

Even though he has published nothing since 1965, the books of J. D. Salinger remain popular. The Catcher in the Rye alone still sells some 250,000 copies worldwide each year. It has been a long time, however, since anyone worth listening to thought Salinger a first-rate writer, long enough that most of us have forgotten just how seriously he used to be taken by some of our best critics. (“Have you been reading Salinger's stories about the Irish-Jewish Glass family in the New Yorker?” Edmund Wilson wrote to John Dos Passos in 1957. “I think they are very remarkable, quite unlike anything else.”)

So it was against a background of comparative critical neglect that the case of J. D. Salinger v. Random House Inc and Ian Hamilton made the newspapers last summer, putting J. D. Salinger back in the lime-light for the first time in years. The occasion was the scheduled publication of a book about Salinger by Ian Hamilton, an English critic best known in this country for his biography of Robert Lowell. Advance interest in Hamilton's book was surprisingly high. Not that anyone really expected him to come up with anything much in the gossip department. Such biographical fodder as exists had already been quite thoroughly chewed over by the Salinger cultists. But the prospect of an intelligent biography of the creator of Holden Caulfield and Seymour Glass was encouraging enough. Galleys of the book were sent out, a publication date of August 29 was announced, and reviewers went to work.

The title of Hamilton's book, J. D. Salinger: A Writing Life, suggests the considerable diffidence with which the biographer had approached his task. “Since 1965,” he wrote in an introductory note, “J. D. Salinger has chosen to withhold his work from the public domain—thus, it seems to me, effectively forbidding biographical intrusion.” Having settled on this stiffish line, Hamilton hewed resolutely to it, passing up the chance to rummage through Salinger's garbage in favor of a reasonably careful interim examination of the public record, eked out with a few interviews here and there. It seemed more than likely that the ferociously and famously reclusive Salinger would be irked by even so modest an attempt at getting beneath the shiny surface of his enigmatic career, but the general assumption was that he would simply have to tough it out.

A few weeks before the official publication date, Random House sent every recipient of the galleys of J. D. Salinger: A Writing Life a form letter announcing that publication of the book had been postponed pending the resolution of a dispute with Salinger's counsel. Critics were warned not to publish until the case was settled. Salinger had clearly decided to try to suppress the book, and, as it turned out, Ian Hamilton himself had placed in Salinger's hands a weapon which in the end proved lethal.

The original version of J. D. Salinger: A Writing Life contained material drawn from seventy letters written by Salinger that had made their way over the years into the archives of various university libraries and which Hamilton had hunted down and copied for use in his book. A smart copyright lawyer had obviously gone over the manuscript carefully, for direct quotations from these letters were generally either kept very brief or shunned in favor of paraphrase. This material, while interesting enough, was hardly earth-shattering in its implications, but Salinger sued anyway, charging that Hamilton had made unfair use of his correspondence.

In an effort to mollify Salinger and his lawyers, Random House produced a second version which trimmed back the letters even further. But Salinger was so eager to prevent the book from seeing print that he actually came to New York in October to give a deposition, an unprecedented action for a man whose reputation for eremitism has long made Greta Garbo look like a party hound.

Salinger lost his suit in November but won on appeal in January. Though Random House is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, the damage has already been done. Scheduled and rescheduled and finally announced for this year's Christmas season. J. D. Salinger: A Writing Life now floats uneasily in what is likely to prove a permanent limbo. Barring an unexpected reversal, Ian Hamilton is out one book and a couple of dozen reviewers have unusable manuscripts on their hands. The only winners may be those lucky individuals who hung on to their galleys of the book, which are already soaring in value.

There are any number of possible interpretations of J. D. Salinger's suit, just as any number of salacious Salinger stories regularly make the rounds in New York. The suit was a publicity stunt. A sincere gesture by a genuine recluse. A purely professional action designed to protect Salinger's legal interests. A desperate measure by a man who for obscure reasons of his own does not want his work interpreted or his life recounted. This last explanation has a pleasingly solid ring to it. For Salinger is more than just a recluse: he is a critic-hater of long standing. “Against interpretation” might well serve as the motto on his coat of arms. And Ian Hamilton's book, for all its inadequacies, provided more than enough raw biographical ammunition for critics, sympathetic and hostile, to undertake a detailed examination of what made J. D. Salinger run.

Not that such an examination has been rendered impossible by Salinger's suit. The pertinent facts after all were in circulation long before Ian Hamilton appeared on the scene, and they remain readily available to anyone within striking distance of a reasonably good library.

Jerome David Salinger was born on January 1, 1919. His father, a well-to-do New York importer of ham and cheese, was Jewish, his mother Irish. (This sentence alone contains sufficient material for a two-volume psychobiography.) Raised on the Upper West Side, Salinger moved with his family to an apartment in the East 90's in 1932 and was sent to Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania two years later.

The senior Salinger apparently expected his son to follow him into the ham and cheese business, but Jerome had other plans. After an abortive stay at Ursinus College, a Protestant liberal-arts school in Pennsylvania, he returned to New York and began his career in earnest by enrolling in a night-school course in short-story writing taught at Columbia University by Whit Burnett, the editor of Story magazine. Salinger's work first saw print in 1940 when Burnett published one of his class assignments. Within a few years he was regularly placing stories in “slick” magazines like Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post. These early efforts are a frankly commercial reshuffling of the trashiest aspects of William Saroyan and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Salinger, who knew them for what they were, refused to collect them in later years.

Drafted in 1942, Salinger served in the Counter-Intelligence Corps as an interrogator, going ashore at Normandy on June 6, 1944 with the Fourth Division, taking part in the liberation of Paris and the Battle of the Bulge, and writing stories for the slicks in his spare time. He returned to the United States in 1946, deeply shaken by his combat experience and by an unsuccessful postwar marriage to a French girl named Sylvia.

Three of Salinger's stories, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” and “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” were bought by the New Yorker in 1948. These stories, unlike their fluent but undistinguished predecessors, were quickly and widely recognized as something special. “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” was bought by Hollywood. The publisher Robert Giroux offered to bring out a collection. But the real excitement came in 1951 when Little, Brown published Salinger's first book, a novel about a confused prep-school student that turned a moderately successful magazine writer into one of the gaudiest literary success stories of the postwar era.

The Catcher in the Rye, the story of a teen-ager named Holden Caulfield who flunks out of “Pencey Prep” and embarks on a solitary Christmas visit to New York, was immediately—and correctly—hailed as a tour de force of characterization. Clifton Fadiman, writing about The Catcher in the Rye for the Book-of-the-Month Club, was no more than just when he said that in Salinger.

we have a fresh voice. One can actually hear it speaking. … Read five pages; you are inside Holden's mind, almost as incapable of escaping from it as Holden himself. The portrait is complete and convincing. That rare miracle of fiction has again come to pass: a human being has been created out of ink, paper, and the imagination.

But it was Ernest Jones, Freud's pupil and biographer, who inadvertently captured the essence of the book in his sourly disapproving review for the Nation. Finding the novel “predictable and boring,” Jones grumbled that Holden Caulfield was nothing more than an embodiment of “what every sixteen-year-old since Rousseau has felt.” This is of course the point: Holden's alienation is universal. Nearly every unhappy adolescent who reads The Catcher in the Rye finds in it a comprehensive statement of his emotional plight, and the book will no doubt remain popular as long as there are still teen-agers around to read it.

To reread Catcher after the age of, say, twenty-five is to be freshly struck by the eerie precision with which Salinger evokes the sensation of adolescent Angst. Far more striking, though, is the sheer airlessness of his portrayal, the lack of any detachment from the dreary particulars of Holden's condition. The New York of 1951, widely reported by other witnesses to have been a moderately interesting place, exists in Catcher solely as a vague backdrop for the narrator's neuroses. And the metronomic alternation of phony and goddam and crumby in Salinger's first person récit is equally oppressive. Henry James could have chosen any random paragraph from Catcher as supporting evidence when he explained why he chose to tell What Maisie Knew in the voice of a fully adult consciousness:

Small children have many more perceptions than they have terms to translate them; their vision is at any moment much richer, their apprehension even constantly stronger, than their prompt, their at all producible, vocabulary. … Maisie's terms accordingly play their part—since her simpler conclusions quite depend on them; but our own commentary constantly attends and amplifies.

To be sure, there are other ways to write about children, and Mark Twain made use of most of them in Huckleberry Finn, a book to which Catcher bears a distinct resemblance. But Salinger's angry tale of imperfect self-discovery contains nothing remotely like the great passage in Huckleberry Finn when Huck takes his first uncertain step toward adulthood and responsibility (“All right, then, I'll go to hell”) by deciding to help Jim escape from slavery. Faced with a dilemma roughly comparable to that of Huck, Holden Caulfield decides instead that “If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn't rub out even half of the ‘Fuck you’ signs in the world” and promptly throws any question of responsibility overboard by having a nervous breakdown.

It is clear that Salinger means for us to see Holden's breakdown as being in some undefined way desirable. But what can he be getting at? Are we to conclude merely that adulthood itself is “crumby,” a consummation devoutly to be avoided? Or is the rejection implicit in Holden's breakdown more extensive in its significance? The world of Catcher is a pretty lousy place on the whole. All of Holden's teachers are fools or hypocrites or homosexuals. (Nothing dates this novel quite so much as Salinger's unhesitating equation of homosexuality with phoniness.) All of his friends are variously disagreeable. His brother is a Hollywood sellout. Only Phoebe, his kid sister, is pure.

Genuine misanthropy seldom wears well, and it is the adolescent misanthropy of Holden which is likely to strike adults as the least attractive quality of The Catcher in the Rye, the part that grates the most on rereading. If nothing else, one comes away from Catcher convinced that Holden Caulfield will grow up to be as disaffected and miserable an adult as he was a teen-ager.

But such criticisms come easily enough thirty years and three more Salinger books after the fact. “Gatsby for kids,” a friend of mine remarked when I mentioned that I was rereading The Catcher in the Rye. So fliply revealing a dismissal was simply not possible in 1951. The first readers of Catcher saw only Salinger's freshness and technical mastery, and responded with unfeigned enthusiasm. The skepticism would come later, as critics began to suspect that Holden Caulfield was not so much a tour de force of Salinger's imagination as a brilliant but cripplingly narrow exercise in something very much like straight autobiography.

Salinger's literary antecedents are more clearly displayed in Nine Stories, which appeared two years after The Catcher in the Rye. The easy effects of first-person narrative are for the most part abandoned here in favor of an agreeably personal fusion of the relaxed, confiding tone of F. Scott Fitzgerald with the precisely observed social detail of John O'Hara. (“She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing. She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty.”)

But the strongest influence on the author of Nine Stories is an institutional one. For these stories constitute a stylistic epitome of what has come to be known as “the New Yorker formula,” an individualized but nonetheless recognizable extension of the familiar idiom out of Chekhov by O'Hara which has shaped the fictional approach of countless American short-story writers in the years since Harold Ross founded the New Yorker in 1925. Critics were reluctant to praise Nine Stories without elaborate qualifications, and it is probably the New Yorker influence that is responsible for the mixed feelings these stories still evoke in even the most sympathetic reader. One sometimes feels that the Salinger of Nine Stories, like the Puccini of Tosca, is just a little too good to be true.

The prepossessing interest in children and adolescents, that seemed merely an idiosyncrasy of characterization in Catcher emerges more clearly as a recurring theme in these stories, most of which feature small children in emotionally prominent roles of a distinctly unsettling kind. At the end of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield rejects the struggle for maturity as an unsatisfactory alternative to the purity and authenticity of childhood. The reader of Nine Stories, encountering a whole series of variations on this theme, naturally begins to suspect that Salinger's own values are closely related to those of his own characters.

One incident from this period, recounted in detail by Hamilton but already familiar to Salinger buffs, is particularly revealing. Salinger moved to Cornish, a small New Hampshire town, in 1953. Shortly after his arrival, he made friends with a group of local high-school students who frequented a Cornish coffee shop, entertaining them regularly at his home. This idyll came to an abrupt halt when one of Salinger's young friends asked if she could interview him for the weekly high-school page of the local newspaper. Her article was subsequently run as a front-page scoop. Salinger, who apparently felt betrayed by the prominence the paper gave this interview, promptly cut himself off from his adolescent friends, erecting a man-high wooden fence around his Cornish home and retreating into the bizarre secretiveness which has characterized his behavior ever since.

At about the same time, Salinger met a nineteen-year-old Radcliffe student named Claire Douglas. Claire married a Harvard Business School graduate in 1954, but the marriage lasted only a few months, and when it was over she moved in with Salinger in Cornish. They were married in 1955, a month after the publication in the New Yorker of “Franny,” an event which marked the beginning of Salinger's fateful literary obsession with the Glass family.

Various members of the Glass family, a snotty clan of child prodigies with a pronounced interest in Eastern spiritualism, turn up here and there in Salinger's earlier stories. (Seymour Glass, the family poet and guru-in-residence, commits suicide in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”) But the five stories Salinger published in the New Yorker between 1955 and 1965 deal exclusively with the Glasses. These stories, two of which are collected in Franny and Zooey and two in Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (one remains uncollected), have since been subjected to a degree of critical scrutiny that has infuriated Salinger. He dedicated his last book, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, as follows:

If there is an amateur reader still left in the world—or anybody who just reads and runs—I ask him or her, with untellable affection and gratitude, to split the dedication of this book four ways with my wife and children.

There is an unintended touch of irony in this paean to the hasty reader. For while “Franny” is fully up to the standards of the best pieces in Nine Stories, the other four stories are marred by a peculiarly odious kind of narcissism. With each succeeding story Salinger retreats still further from the autonomous third-person point of view of Nine Stories in favor of lengthy and smotheringly mannered narratives in which the confiding tone he undoubtedly picked up from The Great Gatsby is exaggerated well past the point of distraction. (“The facts at hand presumably speak for themselves, but a trifle more vulgarly, I suspect, than facts even usually do.”)

What is going on here? Once again, Salinger provides a clue, this time in the embarrassing jacket copy he wrote for Franny and Zooey:

It is my rather subversive opinion that a writer's feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second-most valuable property on loan to him during his working years. My wife has asked me to add, however, in a single explosion of candor, that I live in Westport with my dog. … I work like greased lighting, myself, but my alter-ego and collaborator, Buddy Glass, is insufferably slow.

The last sentence is worth a closer look. For Buddy Glass, Salinger's “alter- ego,” is an Irish-Jewish short-story writer without a college degree who shuns publicity and who once wrote a story about the suicide of his saintly brother Seymour. His major literary vice is cleverness. He does not know how to talk to people he does not love. And he is unable to talk to those who do not love him.

One possible solution to this dilemma comes to mind at once: Buddy can always talk to himself. This is what actually happens in the long monologue, “Seymour: An Introduction,” a love song that J. D. Salinger croons to Buddy Glass, his acknowledged self-portrait. As Salinger steadily decreases the distance between himself and his fictional creations, the narcissistic aspect of his work becomes increasingly distasteful, and Salinger's own “cleverness” in ascribing it to an “alter-ego and collaborator” does not diminish in any way the precision of the indictment. The more one knows about Salinger, in fact, the more he begins to sound very much like a clever but shallow diarist, and it is hard not to feel that this has a great deal to do with his extreme hostility to critics and biographers.

Salinger's solipsism reached a climax of sorts in “Hapworth 16, 1924,” a still uncollected story published in the New Yorker in 1965. Indeed, all of Salinger's most exasperating preoccupations achieve apotheosis in this dreadful work, cast in the form of a letter from summer camp written by the seven-year-old Seymour Glass. Not surprisingly, Salinger has published nothing since “Hapworth 16, 1924,” though longstanding rumors that he continues to write were confirmed by Salinger himself last October in the deposition he gave in Salinger v. Random House and Ian Hamilton. Asked what he had been working on since 1965, he replied, “Just a work of fiction. That's all. That's the only description I can really give it.”

J. D. Salinger was written off by the majority of American critics after the publication of “Hapworth 16, 1924.” But timing is all in matters of popular culture. Salinger's second career, in which he emerged enshrined as a cult figure of the Age of Aquarius, was just hitting its stride in 1965, and he would become far more influential in this latter capacity than he ever was as a novelist or short-story writer.

V. S. Pritchett once described The Way of All Flesh as “one of the time bombs of literature.” J. D. Salinger's books have had an equally potent and similarly delayed effect on American culture. The influence of Catcher could be seen as early as the mid-50's, at the height of the first teen-age revolution, when James Dean and Elvis Presley and Jack Kerouac were on the mind of every right-thinking American teen. And the earliest children of the baby boom responded with equal fervor a few years later to Salinger's seductive invitation to join what Mary McCarthy has aptly called “the world of insiders.” Salinger became their very own author, a hip guru whose Zen-flavored gospel of youthful authenticity and neurotic rebellion was presumably unintelligible to the unfeeling adult world.

All demographic accidents have unforeseen consequences, and one of the most unlikely cultural outcomes of the baby boom has been the survival of Holden Caulfield into the age of Ronald Reagan. That Salinger's work would have an enduring appeal for the baby boomers was predictable. He is, after all, their Glenn Miller. His books, like Mrs. Glass's “consecrated chicken soup,” are a kind of literary comfort food for bruised veterans of the Big Chill. But it is even more significant that some of the baby boomers who read Salinger as teen-agers are now teaching him as adults.

For years one of the most widely banned authors in America, J. D. Salinger has now become one of the most widely taught. The Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories, with their appealing subject matter, pat ambiguities, and lazy symbolism, are classroom naturals. No self-respecting parent would dare object (in public, anyway) to the mildly vulgar language that once kept Salinger's books as far away from American classrooms as Lady Chatterley's Lover. In a better-ordered universe, it may be, such parents would storm the nearest school-board office, baseball bats in hand, to protest having Holden Caulfield's vision of the world forced into the minds of their children. But life is rarely so orderly, and so it looks as if Holden and his nasty friends are here to stay.

Joyce Rowe (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Holden Caulfield and American Protest,” in New Essays on The Catcher in the Rye, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 77-95.

[In the following essay, Rowe examines Holden's quest for authenticity and meaning in The Catcher in the Rye, drawing attention to the novel's portrayal of rebellion and alienation in postwar American society and its thematic antecedents in American literature.]

On a gray winter afternoon Holden Caulfield, frozen to the quick by more than icy weather, crosses a country road and feels he is disappearing. This image of a bleak moral climate which destroys the soul is not only the keynote of J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye but of much that now seems representative of the general tone of American cultural commentary in the aftermath of World War Two, when the novel was conceived. By 1951 (the year of Catcher's publication) the ambiguities of the cold war, of American global power and influence, were stimulating a large popular audience to find new relevance in well-worn images of disaffection from the modern world. These, which historically had been identified with an aesthetic or intellectual elite, were increasingly being adapted to popular taste as they bore on current social and political concerns. The impact of David Riesman's classic sociological study, The Lonely Crowd, published one year before Catcher, may have paved the way for a new public concern with the disturbing subject of American character; but the immediate interest Riesman's book aroused and its relatively large sale suggest a readership already sensitized to the kind of anomie which Riesman described and from which Holden Caulfield suffers.1

In a sense, Salinger's novel functions at a crossroads, a point on an aesthetic and spiritual journey that he was soon to leave behind.2 Not unlike the author of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, whom he is all too anxious to mock, Salinger created a work that is rich enough in language, reference, and scene to captivate innocent and sophisticated readers alike. Indeed, it is only through the democratic nature of his audience that Salinger achieves any version of that ideal community of sensibility and response whose essential absence determines Holden's resistance to the world as it is.3

Putting aside the many pleasures of authorial wit, narrative skill, and aesthetic energy that are the first fruits of a reading of Catcher, I want to concentrate on a perspective which, thus far, has not received any real critical scrutiny. This is Salinger's ability to infuse a rather formulaic disaffection not merely with the tormented urgency of an individual adolescent voice, but with a resonance that suggests much about the contemporary state of traditional American ideals and aspirations. Holden's brand of alienation gains in significance when viewed not only laterally, in relation to contemporary styles of resistance (as many critics have already done), but historically, in its relation to and displacement of cultural themes which had preoccupied many earlier American writers.4 To trace such a pattern is, I hope, to deepen our sensitivity to the role that literature plays in shaping the social and moral options that define identity in an historical culture.

Like earlier social resisters in American literature, Holden holds to his own vision of authenticity in the teeth of a morally degraded society. Unlike his forebears, however, he has little faith in either nature or the power of his dreams to compensate for what his “own environment [cannot] supply.”5 The “perfect exhilaration” that Emerson once felt, crossing the snow puddles of Concord Common at twilight, has been transmuted in Holden's urban, modern consciousness to a puzzled speculation: periodically he “wonders” where the ducks in Central Park go in winter when the lagoon in which they live freezes over.6 The contrast of freezing and freedom, a keynote of Salinger's style, reminds us that the spiritual freedom traditionally symbolized by migratory birds is the remotest of possibilities for Holden. From beginning to end of his journey, from school to sanitarium, Holden's voice, alternating between obscenity and delicacy, conveys his rage at the inability of his contemporaries to transcend the corrosive materialism of modern American life. Many critics have berated him for being a rebel without a cause, asking, in Maxwell Geismar's words, “But what does he argue for?7 But this inability to move forward and assert a positive goal would seem to be precisely the point of his character.

As a precocious but socially impotent upper-middle-class adolescent who is entirely dependent upon institutions that have failed him, Holden has none of the resources—spiritual, economic, or vocational—that might enable him to become Thoreau's “majority of one.” In Thoreau's claim that each of us can become a sovereign unit if we act according to the dictates of conscience, we have a classic American “Antinomian” statement, in which the highest form of individualism, of true self-reliance, is to become, paradoxically, an image of the community's best self. Walden opens with “Economy,” an account of Thoreau's expenditures for building his house, and ends with a vision of spiritual regeneration spreading through the land. In this conception, to rebuild the self is to regenerate the community. Thoreau's Antinomianism is thus not merely a private or eccentric choice but one that manages to fuse all elements of experience—aesthetic, spiritual, social, national—into a unified endeavor. All need not go to the woods, but all must live as if they had discovered Walden Pond within themselves. Although Holden, lacking faith in the power of self-regeneration, is no Thoreau, neither is his dilatory rebellion merely the measure of his own eccentricity. It too symbolizes a pervasive social failure. Like Pencey Prep, an elite boarding school full of crooks, materialist America desecrates and debases whatever falls to its care. A society that had once expressed its redemptive hopes in symbols of great moral or millennial power—Winthrop's City on the Hill, Melville's Pequod going down with a “living part of heaven” nailed to its mast—now finds its goals in the platitudes of “adjustment” psychology and the regenerative therapeutic of the sanitarium. What, indeed, is it for?

In Holden's postwar lexicon, America and the world are interchangeable terms. And American global hegemony is given its due in the “Fuck you” expletives which Holden sees as an ineluctable blight spreading through space and time—from the walls of his sister's school, to the tomb of the Egyptian mummies at the Metropolitan Museum, to his own future gravestone. (“If you had a million years … you couldn't rub out even half the “Fuck you” signs in the world.”) Like Scott Fitzgerald, Salinger envisions American society as a kind of gigantic Midas, frozen at the heart and thus unable to mature. For all its wealth, its members cannot generate enough respect for their own humanity to care either for their past or their future.

But while Holden lacks the moral energy to make resistance signify as an individual action, he shares with his classic forebears (Hester Prynne, Ishmael, Jay Gatsby) an unwillingness to recognize the ambiguous truths of his own nature and his own needs.8 This lack of self-awareness characteristic of American heroes, this refusal to probe the tangled underbrush where psychological and social claims intertwine, leads to a familiar pattern: a sense of self-versus-world, an awareness so preoccupied with a lost ideal that any real social engagement is evaded. Thus, paradoxically, rebellion only reinforces the status quo.

Holden's evasion is embodied in a strategy familiar to those who recognize that when Huck Finn lights out for “the Territory” he is making a bid for a hopeless hope—freedom from human contingency; and that when Nick Carraway returns to the West he is following the same path to an unrepeatable past that he has consciously rejected in the pattern of Gatsby's life. Like these dreamers, Holden too is committed to a hopeless vision that makes all the more acute his disgust with the actual. But, in comparison to his forebears, Holden's ideal is a far more diminished thing. It lies in a sunlit childhood Eden, dominated by the image of his dead brother, Allie, who stands for whatever is most authentic in Holden's inner life. Unlike Gatsby, who sacrifices himself to his passion for the past, Holden cannot deceive himself: there is no resurrecting the past, because Allie is dead. This hard fact reduces what was in Gatsby a buoyant, if misguided, hope, to a barren and ineffectual nostalgia. As a mordant comment on American dreamers, it is the last twist of the knife.

Allie's death occurred when Holden was thirteen, the age when puberty begins. On Allie's side of the border it is still childhood, a time when self and world seem, at least in memory, to exist in an enchanted unity. The painful rupture of this sense of self-completion by adolescent self-consciousness and self-doubt is figured in Holden's ritual smashing of the garage window panes at the news of Allie's death. The fact that Holden breaks his own hand in the act—a kind of punitive self-sacrifice—only underscores its symbolic relation to the greater self-mutilation which the loss of childhood signifies for him. The psychic wilderness into which he falls leaves him in a state of continuous nervous anxiety—of being and belonging nowhere, of acute vulnerability to the aggressions and depredations of others against his now-diminished sense of self. But this anxiety never catalyzes any recognition of the enormity of his needs, or of the inevitable limitations of his character. By the end of the story Holden does realize that his vision of himself as catcher was only a daydream. He cannot save either himself or those he loves. (“The thing with kids is, … If they fall off, they fall off, but it's bad if you say anything to them.”) But this hard-won insight—sustained through his feeling for his little sister Phoebe—is as close as Holden ever comes to establishing any reciprocity with others, or any awareness of the imperatives that operate in their lives.

The notion of the fall into experience as spiritual castration or social betrayal—the dark legacy of romanticism—has had particular importance for those American artists who have viewed American experience from the vantage point of the country's historic ideals. Of course, among those writers we term “classic” there are distinctions to be made. In “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” Hawthorne allegorized adulthood in terms of the marriage ritual, whereby a man and a woman, brought to moral consciousness through their feeling for one another, sublimate the primitive passions of childhood in the social responsibilities of communal life.9 But Hawthorne's view of the potential for human happiness in adult life (which becomes his own form of idealism) is something of an exception to the more common, albeit complex, ambivalence of nineteenth-century American writers toward the value of what Wordsworth called “the still sad music of humanity”—a melody which can be heard only by those who relinquished their longing for the intuitive glories of childhood.

Indeed, as the century wears on and industrial society assumes its characteristic modern shape, the American sense of despair at and revulsion from the norms of adult life seems to increase. Writers as diverse in sensibility, experience, and social orientation as Dreiser, Wharton, and Hemingway have created, in Sister Carrie,The House of Mirth, and The Sun Also Rises, works that are remarkably congruent in their protagonists' ultimate response to their world. Hurstwood, disintegrating under the pressure of his confused longings, can find solace only in the rhythmic motion of his rocking chair pulled close to the warmth of the radiator. Similarly, Lily Bart, overcome by her tortuous social battles, seeks a lost primal warmth by imagining herself cradling a baby in her arms as she relapses into a final narcoticized sleep; and Jake Barnes, made impotent by the war, is unable to imagine a way out of that no-man's-land of lost souls whose wayward pleasures postpone forever the psychosexual dilemmas of adult life. In one form or another, the regression to childhood serves as an “over-determined” response to the limitations of social and individual reality confronting these protagonists. So Holden, praying to the image of his dead brother, fights to hold onto what he fears most to have lost, struggling through a barren present peopled by Stradlaters and Ackleys—“slobs” secret or pathetically overt; moral ciphers who exploit by arrogance or by whining manipulation. The bathos of American society turns out to be the real illness from which Holden suffers. In the degree to which we respond to his voice, to the bid his apostrophes make for our allegiance, his condition of loneliness and longing becomes a mirror of our own predicament.

What Holden shares with, indeed inherits from, such classic American prototypes as the new man of Emerson's essays, the narrator of Walden, or of “Song of Myself,” or of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is both a way of perceiving reality—a “horizon of expectations,” in the words of E. H. Gombrich—and a way of speaking that enforces this view on the reader/auditor by discrediting or delimiting all potentially competing voices.10 Both his overt aggression and his more subtle hostility toward others are regularly redeemed by the vitality of his compassion, intelligence, and wit. The reader, like one of Holden's loyal though exasperated teachers, is continually persuaded to acknowledge Holden's innate superiority to those around him. All his conflicts seem designed to reinforce this persuasion, to bind the reader closer to him. The startling intimacy of his address, beginning with “If you really want to hear about it,” but quickly becoming “You should have been there,” “You would have liked it,” flatters the reader by implying that he or she shares in Holden's delicacies of feeling and taste. In effect, the reader fills the space that Allie's death leaves vacant, his silent allegiance the token of an ideal communion in which Holden might find his authenticity confirmed. Indeed, Holden's idiosyncratic friendship with the reader compensates proleptically for the final loss he suffers in freeing his sister from her sacrificial loyalty to him. But such an “ideal communion,” demanding nothing less than the absolute acceptance and mutual joy of his lost relations with Phoebe and Allie, leads to a profound distortion of the reciprocal norm implied in the term. By trying to convert us to his way of seeing and feeling—incorporating us, as it were, into his consciousness while distancing himself from others—Holden unconsciously makes clear that such a bond could never be the basis for the dialogic tensions, sympathies, and re-visions upon which real community depends.

Although Holden's consciousness, like that of all first-person narrators, is the lens through which we view his world, it does not follow that the perspective which the reader shares with the narrator must be as restricted as it is here. Not that Holden is so thoroughly reliable that we cannot see his own confusions and pretensions; there are obvious discrepancies between what he says about himself and the truth of his situation and feelings. His boarding school precocity masks a vulnerability to social humiliation; his pride in his looks and intelligence does little to assuage his guilty fascination with and fear of female sexuality; and his displaced aggression only underscores his doubts about his own sexual potency. But these effects are all too obvious. They exist not for the sake of challenging or complicating our empathy with Holden, but of reinforcing it by humanizing him with the same falsities and fears, the same ambiguous mix of “crumby” and decent impulses, that we can accept in ourselves. They make us like him better, believe in his innate decency as we wish to believe in our own, and so encourage us to accept his view of experience as an adequate response to the world. Indeed Holden, “confused, frightened and … sickened” by the behavior of others, flatters the reader's sense of his own moral acumen; it is all too easy to accept Holden as an exemplar of decency in an indecent age.

Although Holden claims that in telling his tale he has come to “miss” Ackley, Maurice, and the others, his presentation of these figures hardly suggests a deep engagement with the substance of their lives. Like Thoreau's Walden neighbors, whose prodigal habits are introduced only to reinforce the superiority of the narrator's “economy,” the characters that Holden meets have little depth apart from their function as specimens of a depressingly antithetical world. If one cares about the three female tourists from Seattle with whom Holden tries to dance, it must be for the sake of one's own humanity, not theirs. They are like flies on the wall of Holden's consciousness—their own histories or motivations need not trouble us. Thus Holden's plunge into the urban muddle, while it seems to provide images of the social complexity of modern America, turns out to be a curiously homogeneous affair: each class or type merely serves as another reflection of a predetermined mental scheme. In this hall of mirrors the apparent multiplicity of experience turns out to be largely a replication of the same experience, in which those who act out of purpose, conviction, or faith are heartbreakingly rare.

In place of authenticity Holden finds an endless appetite for the glamour of appearance, for the vanity of effect and approval. The story that he writes for Stradlater about the poems on Allie's baseball mitt is rejected by his “unscrupulous” roommate because it doesn't follow the rules of the English composition assignment: “‘You don't do one damn thing the way you're supposed to,’” says the infuriated Stradlater. “‘Not one damn thing.’” Holden, of course, resists the rules in order to explore his own nascent artistic integrity, while around him those with more claim to our respect than the obtuse Stradlater betray talent and spirit alike by modeling themselves on one another and conforming their behavior to the regulations of a standardized “performance.”

Ernie, the talented “colored” piano player who runs his own New York nightclub, is a case in point. He has learned to capture the attention of his customers by performing before a spotlighted mirror. His face, not his fingers, as Holden points out, is the focus of his style. Once very good, he now parodies himself and packs in the customers who, themselves anxiously performing for one another, applaud Ernie wildly. “I don't even think he knows any more when he's playing right or not,” Holden says. Holden's sense of artistry thus serves as a measure of all false values. To the degree that we endorse his authenticity we, who would “puke” along with him, are enabled to share it.

Because there is no other character in the book to provide serious commentary on, or resistance to, Holden's point of view, his experience lacks the kind of dialectical opposition, or reciprocal sympathy, through which he, and we, might develop a more complex sense of the imperatives of American social reality. As he says about the abortive attempt of Mr. Spencer to focus his attention on his failed history exam: “I felt sorry as hell for him. … But I just couldn't hang around there any longer, the way we were on opposite sides of the pole. …” It is this need to polarize and abstract all personal relations that defeats any possibility of normative social connection and engagement. Though Holden complains that people “never give your message to anybody,” that “people never notice anything,” it is his dominating consciousness, setting himself and the reader in a world apart, that insures his isolation.

Holden's continuous need to defend himself from the encroachments of others generates the verbal disguise he uses to fictionalize all his encounters with adults. The games he plays with Mr. Spencer and Mrs. Morrow, “shooting the bull,” telling each what he thinks will most interest and please, enable him to distance himself from the false self his false phrases create as he attempts to protect the true core of his being. As the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott has described it, “the true self” is a core of identity which is always invulnerable to external reality and never communicates with it. In adolescence, “That which is truly personal and which feels real must be defended at all cost.” Winnicott's description of what violation of its integrity means to the true self—“Rape and being eaten by cannibals … are mere bagatelles” by comparison—brings to mind the emotional horror that Hawthorne displays toward the violation of another's deepest self, which he calls the Unpardonable Sin.11 This sense of an integrity to be defended at all cost shapes the Antinomianism, as it does the duality, of Hester Prynne, Huck Finn, and Melville's most notable protagonists. But unlike these forebears, whose need for self-protection is clearly denoted by their double lives, Holden has very little inner or secret freedom in which to function. If society is a prison, then, as in a nightmare tale of Poe, the walls have moved inward, grazing the captive's skin.

Seen in this light, Holden's constant resort to obscenity serves as a shield, a perverse rite of purification that protects him from the meretricious speech of others, which threatens his very existence. Language, for Holden, is a moral matter. In the tradition of Puritan plain-speech, which has had such a marked influence on American prose style, the authenticity of the word derives from, as it points toward, the authenticity of the mind and heart of the speaker. But unlike the narrators of Walden and “Song of Myself,” who give voice to a language fully commensurate with their visionary longings, Holden's imprecations and expletives ultimately serve to define his impotence; they reveal the degree to which he is already contaminated by the manners, institutions, and authorities of his society. The inadequacy of his vocabulary, upon which he himself remarks (“I have a lousy vocabulary”) is a reflection not merely of his adolescent immaturity, but of the more abiding impoverishment from which he as a representative hero suffers—the inability to conceptualize any form of social reciprocity, of a reasonably humane community, in which the “true self” might feel respected and therefore safe. Lacking such faith there is finally nothing that Holden can win the reader to but complicity in disaffection.12

It is a literary commonplace that the English novel—from Austen, Dickens, and Conrad to writers of our own day, like Iris Murdoch—has regularly focused its critical energies on the interrelation of social institutions and individual character. In the work of English and European writers generally, society is the ground of human experience. Although many English protagonists enter their stories as orphans, their narratives lead toward a kind of self-recognition or social accommodation to others that represents the evolving meaning of their experience. One grows, develops, changes through interactions with others in a web of social and personal forces which is simply life itself.

But classic American heroes never make such accommodations. Their identities are shaped, not by interaction with others but in resistance to whatever is, in the name of a higher social, ethical, or aesthetic ideal. This, as I have noted, is the ground of their Antinomianism—a public or exemplary heroism, designed to be the only morally respectable position in the narrative. Orphanhood has functioned quite differently for American heroes than for European. More than a starting point from which the hero must evolve a social and moral identity, it represents a liberation from the past that is a totalizing condition of existence—spiritual, psychological, political, and metaphysical. American heroes, seemingly alone, free, and without family or history, test the proposition that a new world might bring a new self and society into being. Although in each case the hero's or heroine's effort issues in failure, there is no conventional recognition of this experiential truth on the part of the protagonist, no willingness to recalculate his or her relations to society or history. American individualism thus reshapes the archetypal pattern of the orphaned young man (or woman) seeking an adult identity by coming to terms with him or herself in the matrix of family life.

Indeed, the family, as the basis for individual as well as social identity, hardly exists in classic nineteenth-century American literature. Almost invariably American heroes lack the memory of past roots. Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is perhaps the proof text for this statement. Hester Prynne, having shed her European past, stands before the Puritan community, her infant in her arms, unwilling to identify the father—a revelation that would establish a new family (in Hester's ideal terms) on these shores. The fact that Pearl returns to Europe at the story's end, that Dimmesdale tortures himself to death rather than acknowledge his paternity, and that Hester herself remains alone, dreaming of the New World community yet to be, suggests how thoroughly discouraged this most “social” of our classic novelists was about the prospects for authentic family relations in American society.

American heroes like Ishmael and Gatsby are fatherless by choice as well as circumstance. Ishmael will continue to wander as he searches for his lost homeland; Gatsby reaches toward an impossible transcendence whose measure lies precisely in its ineffable difference from the world he knows. Thus Holden's initial dismissal of family history as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap” suggests his affinity with the traditional American rejection of the kind of bildungsroman which David Copperfield, among other Dickens novels, exemplifies. But while Holden fully shares, on the deepest spiritual level, in the isolation of the traditional American hero, nothing enforces our sense of his impotence more than his ineffectual play at orphanhood in an urban wilderness. Enmeshed as he is in a labyrinth of social roles and family expectations, escape—to a sunny cabin near, but not in the woods—is envisaged in terms of a cliché whose eerie precision illuminates the core of desperation that sustains the image. Salinger's hero is wedded to a pattern of thought and aspiration in which he can no longer seriously believe. He invokes it because it is the only from of self-affirmation his culture affords.

If the old dream of regeneration through separation has become both terrifying and foolish, society remains for Holden what it has always been for American heroes—an anti-community which continues to betray its own high birthright for a mess of commercial pottage. Holden's fear of disappearing—an image which joins the beginning and end of the story—as he crosses from one side of the road or street to the other, aptly expresses his sense of the diminishing ground for authenticity in America. The peculiar sense of a materialism so blanketing that it produces a pervasive deadening of affect becomes the mark of the age. One thinks of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, whose heroine finds a correlative to the terror of inner emptiness in the social sterility of Madison Avenue glamour—just that world which Holden imagines himself as headed for. Books such as The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and Sincerely, Willis Wayde, written to attract a large popular audience, turn these perceptions into the simplified, world-weary clichés of growing up and selling out.13 But whether cynical or sincere, the protagonists of these novels share with Holden an inability to conceptualize the future as anything but a dead end. “It didn't seem like anything was coming,” says Holden, conveying the sense of a world that seems to annihilate the possibility of growth.

Trying to imagine himself a lawyer like his father, Holden wonders if his father knows why he does what he does. Holden knows that lawyers who rake in the cash don't go around saving the innocent. But even if you were such an idealistic fellow, “how would you know if you did it because you really wanted to save guys' lives, or because what you really wanted to do was be a terrific lawyer, with everybody slapping you on the back and congratulating you in court. …” In a society as replete with verbal falsities as this one, how do you trust your own words, your own thoughts? How do you know when you are telling yourself the truth?

Dickens's tales also show adolescence in an urban commercial society to be a dislocating and frightening process. But from Nicholas Nickleby through Great Expectations there is regularly a kindly, decent figure who provides aid, comfort, and tutelage in time of need. However bad the adult world seems, enough sources of social strength remain to make the protagonist's struggle toward maturity worthwhile. But Holden never finds such an adult. Mr. Spencer, the history teacher who seems to take a fatherly interest in him, is actually most interested in shaming and humiliating him. D. B., the older brother he admires, is as emotionally remote from him as is his father, and Holden takes revenge by reviling him for “selling out” to Hollywood. His mother, as he repeatedly notes, is too nervous and anxious herself to do more than pay perfunctory attention to her children's needs. His father is a shadowy abstraction—a corporate lawyer, defined by his preoccupations and vexations. We hear from Phoebe that “Daddy's going to kill you,” rather than experience the father directly through any memory of Holden's.

Holden's anxiety, then, is of a specifically contemporary kind. Those adults who should serve as moral tutors and nurturers are neither wholly absent nor fully present. Perhaps, as David Riesman puts it in speaking of middle-class American parents, “they are passing on to him their own contagious, highly diffuse anxiety,” as they look to others to define values and goals increasingly based upon socially approved ephemera.14 Yet, however shadowy these adult figures may be, they are as controlling of Holden as is the impersonal, elusive corporate authority which, he knows, ultimately determines the values of his home. Like the corporate structure itself, these adults are profoundly ambiguous figures whose seeming beneficence it is dangerous to trust. All are effectively epitomized in the teacher Mr. Antolini, whose paternal decency may be entwined with a predator's taste for young boys, and whose advice to Holden turns out to be as puzzling, if not as specious, as his midnight hospitality.

Remarking that Holden is a natural student, Mr. Antolini urges education on him for its efficiency: “After a while, you'll have an idea what kind of thoughts your particular size mind should be wearing. For one thing, it may save you an extraordinary amount of time trying on ideas that … aren't becoming to you. You'll begin to know your true measurements and dress your mind accordingly.” Mr. Antolini's words, like his manners, are glibly seductive, and a trifle coarse. Ideas as garments that one slips on for the fit—a ready-made identity—is a concept not far removed from the kind of stylized performance that Holden detects in the Lunts (“they were too good”) and Ernie. It is suited to a society that increasingly emphasizes image and appearance as intrinsically valuable; a society in which the mess and pain of a real struggle with ideas and feelings is considered an unwelcome deviation from the approved norm of “personality.”

Because Holden's final return to his family, his “going home,” is never dramatized, we are deprived of the experience of a reckoning in which some genuine moral insight, in distinction to Mr. Antolini's sartorial version in the quest for knowledge, might occur. Instead, we are left with the sense of a society that Holden can neither accept nor escape. His encounter has only served to increase his sense of himself as a creature at bay. His anxiety is never allayed.

Because Holden is never allowed to imagine or experience himself in any significant struggle with others (his bloody fistfight with Stradlater emphasizes the futility of any gesture that is open to him), neither he (nor his creator) can conceive of society as a source of growth, or self-knowledge. In place of a dialectical engagement with others, Holden clings to the kind of inner resistance that keeps exiles and isolates alive. In response to the pressures for “adjustment” which his sanitarium psychiatrists impose, he insists upon the principle that spontaneity and life depend upon “not knowing what you're going to do until you do it.” If the cost of this shard of freedom is the continuing anxiety which alienation and disaffection bring—of life in a permanent wilderness, so to speak—so be it. Impoverished it may be, but in Holden's sense of “freedom” one can already see foreshadowed the celebrated road imagery of the Beats.

Holden's struggle for a moral purity that the actual corruptions and compromises of American society, or indeed any society, belie is a familiar one to readers of classic American works. But as I have already suggested, for Holden the terms of that struggle are reversed. Unlike nineteenth-century characters, Holden is not an obvious social outsider or outcast to those he lives among. Well-born and well-favored, his appearance, abilities, and manners make him an insider—he belongs. And yet, as the heir of all the ages, blessed with the material splendors of the Promised Land, Holden feels more victim or prisoner than favored son. Like the country at large, he expresses his discomfort, his sense of dis-ease, by squandering his resources—physical, emotional, intellectual—without attempting to utilize them for action and change. But the willful futility of his acts should not blind us to the psychic truth which they reveal. Ultimately Holden is performing a kind of self-mutilation against that part of himself which is hostage to the society that has shaped him. Moreover, while previous American heroes like Hester Prynne and Huck Finn evaded social reality at the cost of denying their human need for others and their likeness to them, Holden's resistance concludes on a wistful note of longing for everybody outside the prison of his sanitarium—an ambivalence that aptly fixes the contemporary terms of his predicament.

Holden's self-division is thus reduced to the only form in which his society can bear to consider it—a psychological problem of acceptance and adjustment; yet Salinger's irony results in a curious double focus. The increasing prestige of American psychoanalysis in the 1950s may be attributed to its tendency (at least in the hands of some practitioners) to sever individual issues and conflicts from their connections to more obdurate realities in the social world. There is familiar comfort in the belief that all problems are ultimately individual ones which can, at least potentially, be resolved by force of the individual mind and will. This irony surely lies within the compass of Salinger's story.15 But its effect is undercut by the polarized perspective that Salinger has imposed on his hero. As we have seen, the stoic isolation through which Holden continues to protect his authenticity is itself an ethic that devalues confrontation or action and so fixes human possibility in the mold of a hopeless hope. Indeed, it becomes a strategy for containment, as much an evasion of social reality as is the psychiatric imperative to adjust.

There is nothing finally in Holden's diffuse sympathies to offend or dismay the reader, nothing to keep him permanently on edge. By the end of the story the reader has seen his familiar social world questioned, shaken, only to be reconstituted as an inevitable fate.16 Having been drawn to Holden's side we are finally drawn to his mode of perception and defense. To keep the citadel of the self intact by keeping others at a distance is the kind of social agreement that guarantees that the longed-for community which American experience forever promises will surely forever be withheld.

In discussing the romantic novelist in nineteenth-century European literature, René Girard remarks that the romantic establishes a Manichean division of self and other, refusing to see how “Self is implicated in Other.” But since Gerard's concern is as much with the author as with the characters, he goes on to note that this situation is finally attributable to the novelist who stands behind the character and refuses to free either himself or his character from these limitations. In distinction, a “classic” novelist, such as Cervantes, transcends this opposition by distancing himself from his character and so frees himself from the character's perspective. Some form of reconciliation is then possible between protagonist and world.17

In Girard's terms, Salinger never frees himself, or therefore the reader, from the grip of Holden's perspective. What happens is just the reverse. We are initiated into a process of seeing in which we are either on the side of integrity and autonomy (Holden) or on the side of the predators and exploiters—from Maurice the pimp to the anonymous psychoanalyst who wants Holden to promise to “apply” himself. A Manichean choice indeed. For the reader, this duality preempts all other modes of perception. The corrosive materialism that blasts Holden as it does his world finally becomes irrelevant to any particular historical moment or reality. Instead, isolation, anxiety, the modern sickness of soul turns out to be the given, irremediable condition of our lives.


  1. David Riesman, with Reuel Denny and Nathan Glazer, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950). By 1967 the book was in its thirteenth printing. An abridged version (New York: Doubleday, Anchor Press, 1955) has been widely available ever since, though I have not been able to obtain exact sales figures. Riesman derives the term anomie from the French sociologist Emile Durkheim's anomique, “meaning ruleless, ungoverned.” But Riesman uses it in a broader sense than did Durkheim. For Riesman, anomic individuals are out in the cold, caught between the more desirable state of “autonomy” and the blind conformity of the “adjusted” (abridged ed., p. 278). For another perspective on the mass cultural anxieties which can be figured in Riesman's term, see Michael Wood's comments on the imagery of film noir in America at the Movies (New York: Basic Books, 1975).

  2. For a consideration of the sacramental vision of experience, tentatively broached here, but confidently asserted in the later stories, especially “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Zooey,” see Ihab Hassan, “Almost the Voice of Silence: The Later Novellettes of J. D. Salinger,” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 4, no. 1 (Winter 1963).

  3. In 1965 Catcher was listed as one of ten leading mass-market paperback bestsellers. In 1967 it was one of “the leading twenty-five bestsellers since 1895” (Facts on File, quoted in Jack R. Sublette, J. D. Salinger: An Annotated Bibliography, 1938–1981 [New York: Garland Publishing Co., 1984], p. 132). It has not been possible to obtain current sales figures but the book still seems to be a perennial favorite among high school students. In a personal, survey, every one of the college freshman in my required English course (two sections, seventy students) was familiar with it.

  4. Two well-known views that place Holden in his own time suggest the range of many others. Maxwell Geismar (“J. D. Salinger: the Wise Child and The New Yorker School of Fiction,” in American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity [New York: Hill and Wang, 1958]) exclaims that “The Catcher in the Rye protests, to be sure, against both the academic and social conformity of its period. But what does it argue for? Contemptuous of what he detects as a faked Anglicized patina, glossing a deracinated Jewish world, Geismar dismisses the novel's perspective as “well-to-do and neurotic anarchism” (p. 198). David Galloway (The Absurd Hero in American Fiction [Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966]), far more sympathetic to Holden's plight, finds it readily assimilable to his own existentialist concerns. “Holden doesn't refuse to grow up so much as he agonizes over the state of being grown up.” He stands for modern man (frustrated, disillusioned, anxious)—a “biting image of the absurd contemporary milieu” (p. 145). While Holden may indeed stand for modern man, I find Galloway's argument, from absurdity to frustration, to be a circular one. The question remains: why should this time be more absurd than any other time; why must frustration be predicated upon absurdity? Holden has often been compared (unfavorably) to Huck Finn. But these comparisons are essentially limited to differences in character and social scene. The deeper structural and thematic affinities between Catcher and earlier classic American works have either been ignored or dissipated in the generalities characteristic of the transcultural myth criticism so popular in the 1950s and 1960s. For an example of the latter, see Arthur Heiserman and James E. Miller, Jr., “J. D. Salinger: Some Crazy Cliff,” Western Humanities Review 10 (Spring 1956): 129–37.

  5. The Catcher in the Rye (New York: Bantam, 1964.), p. 187. All quotations will be from this edition and hereinafter will be cited in parentheses.

  6. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Collected Works, Alfred R. Ferguson, general editor (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971), vol. 1, p. 10.

  7. Geismar, American Moderns, p. 198. See also Mary McCarthy, “J. D. Salinger's Closed Circuit,” Harper's Magazine 225 (October 1962): 46–7.

  8. See the introduction to my Equivocal Endings in Classic American Novels (Cambridge University Press, 1988) for an outline of the pattern this resistance takes in classic American novels.

  9. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Centenary Edition of Collected Works, ed. William Charvat and others (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1963–1985), vol. 9, pp. 54–67.

  10. E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), p. 60.

  11. D. W. Winnicott, The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment (New York: The International Universities Press, 1965) pp. 190, 187. Winnicott stresses the value of isolation to the adolescent. “Preservation of personal isolation is part of the search for identity and for the establishment of a personal technique for communicating which does not lead to violation of the central self” (p. 190). The difficulty for Holden is that his culture offers no support for his struggle; it is as if the subject of identity has become such a chronic and pervasive cultural dilemma, generating so much anxiety, that the adolescent adults who surround him treat the problem (as his mother does) like a headache they have learned to live with and ignore.

  12. Unusual among early critical responses to Catcher is Hansford Martin's “The American Problem of Direct Address,” Western Review 16 (Winter 1952), 101–14. Martin notes that American writers almost invariably are concerned with the problem of voice, of “man-talking-to-you.” He calls this “a literature of direct address,” but attributes the phenomenon wholly to the artist's democratic concern with the interaction between art and society (p. 101).

  13. Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955); John P. Marquand, Sincerely Willis Wayde (Boston: Little, Brown, 1955); Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963; rpt. New York: Bantam, 1971).

  14. Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, p. 49.

  15. Compare John Cheever's 1958 story, “The Country Husband,” in The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958), pp. 49–84. Similarly, the husband ends in the basement, devoted to his psychiatrically prescribed woodworking therapy as a cure for his unnameable angst.

  16. Cf. Carol and Richard Ohmann, “Reviewers, Critics, and The Catcher in the Rye,Critical Inquiry 3, no. 1 (Autumn 1976): 15–38. The Ohmanns review previous critics to point out how Salinger's precise social criticism has been generalized to deny its topical force. They object to the general critical response that Holden's predicament has been left to him to solve, as a problem of more love, the search for identity, and so forth. Instead, the Ohmanns stress specific bourgeois capitalist relations, hypocrisies of class and exploitation to which they find Holden responding. While the Ohmanns rightly, I believe, assert that “the novel draws readers into a powerful longing for what-could-be, and at the same time interposes what-is as an unchanging and immovable reality,” they readily attribute to Salinger a political aim (“these values cannot be realized within extant social forms” [p. 35]) that is really their own. The critics who have read Holden's problem as his alone may indeed have missed a good deal of Salinger's social criticism, but, as I have tried to show, Salinger creates the ambiguity. In the end, the book offers ample warrant for just this kind of individualistic interpretation.

  17. René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966), pp. 271, 308.

Peter Shaw (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Love and Death in The Catcher in the Rye,” in New Essays on The Catcher in the Rye, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 97-114.

[In the following essay, Shaw offers a psychoanalytic interpretation of Holden's social observations and mental state in The Catcher in the Rye, placing his actions and emotions in the context of “the peculiar patterns of adolescent crisis.”]

By the time The Catcher in the Rye appeared in 1951, the theme of the sensitive youth beleaguered by society was well established in the American novel. Reviewing Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1948, Diana Trilling complained about the tendency of contemporary novelists to employ a “deterministic principle” in which the youth was repeatedly presented as a “passive victim.” Also well established by 1951 was the link between neurosis, self-destructive behavior, and social maladaptation on the one hand, and artistic sensibility and special insight on the other. Not surprisingly, Holden Caulfield was regarded as yet another fictional example of the sensitive, outcast character vouchsafed a superior insight by a touch of mental disturbance.

Holden's disturbance was taken to be both his unique, personal gift and the fault of a hypocritical, uncaring society, one particularly indifferent to its more sensitive souls. Holden's insight into the adult world's hypocrisies, moreover, appeared to derive precisely from his being its casualty. Given the deplorable world in which he lived, if by the end of his adventures Holden seemed ready to effect some kind of accommodation with society, this struck readers as inevitable, if regrettable.

It is certainly true that like other of Salinger's youths, Holden properly belongs to the contemporary American novel's procession of sensitive, psychologically crippled but superior characters. Nevertheless, he is not simply a product of the deterministic principle observed by Trilling and endorsed by the commentators of the fifties. If Holden is a casualty of society, he is also a psychological case in his own right. Moreover, he is presented in a somewhat different manner than are the sentimentalized young people in other novels of his period. In the first place his critique of society is by no means entirely endorsed, and in the second his eventual accommodation to society is by no means presented as a capitulation.

It has not gone unnoticed that Holden is virtually a case study. He writes his account from a mental institution, has a morbid preoccupation with death, and comes perilously close to a nervous breakdown while walking up Fifth Avenue. In the intellectual climate of the 1950s, these circumstances hardly told against a fictional character. As Mrs. Trilling had put it a few years earlier, “a considerable section of our literary culture” held the view that “madness is a normal, even a better than normal, way of life.”1 In the same spirit, the first full-scale and still probably the most widely accepted academic essay on The Catcher in the Rye, written in the mid-1950s, concluded:

It is not Holden who should be examined for a sickness of the mind, but the world in which he has sojourned and found himself an alien. To “cure” Holden, he must be given the contagious, almost universal disease of phony adultism.2

The word cure in quotation marks expresses the view that mental health and illness are misleading terms that should, if anything, be reversed. On the other hand, the expression “phony adultism” indicates that rather than being an endorsement of true madness, this typical fifties defense of Holden amounts to little more than a way of stigmatizing American society for its stuffiness and insensitivity to exceptional spirits. Not until the 1960s, with R. D. Laing's elevation of the clinical schizophrenic to prophetic status, would actual madness come to be endorsed as superior to normality.

Not surprisingly, one early review of The Catcher in the Rye characterized Holden's alienation and obsessions as examples of the routine and familiar difficulties of adolescence: they added up to “a case history of all of us.”3 The implication was that as adolescents “all of us,” disturbed by the insensitivities and vulgarities of contemporary life, have felt that we were going crazy. Other critics soon went so far as to endorse Holden in whatever degree of mental disturbance he might be said to suffer. Yet in the cultural atmosphere of the 1950s, the feeling that Holden was ultimately normal coexisted comfortably with the idea of his being psychologically disturbed.

It was not until the 1970s and 1980s, in two essays, that any attempt was made to account for Holden in primarily psychological terms. E. H. Miller wrote in 1982 that “most critics have tended to accept Holden's evaluation of the world as phony, when in fact his attitudes are symptomatic of a serious psychological problem.” Miller, “instead of treating the novel as a commentary by an innocent young man rebelling against an insensitive world or as a study of a youth's moral growth,” tries to show that Holden's “rebelliousness is his only means of dealing with his inability to come to terms with the death of his brother.” In contrast, the other psychoanalytic critic, James Bryan—who theorizes that Holden is ruled by a suppressed incest wish directed toward his ten-year-old sister, Phoebe—does not conclude that Holden's insights are undermined by his having psychological difficulties.4

The psychological approach, then, though it insists on a fairly serious diagnosis of Holden, does not definitively establish the grounds either for dismissal or endorsement of his social critique. What it does establish is that Holden's observations and his mental state are manifestly related to one another. The question is, how?

Holden's psychologically disturbed state has been advanced as the source both of his insight and of his lack of insight. The lines have been sharply drawn between Holden as an insightful social critic and as a mistaken projector of his own frailties onto society. Since evidence can be found to support each of these analyses, it might follow that Holden is an inconsistently drawn character. Yet he has never struck readers this way. How, then, can the opposite impressions of consistency and inconsistency in his character be reconciled?

The answer to this question, I wish to argue, lies in the peculiar dynamics of adolescent psychology. The teenage years stand out as life's most complicated and tortured period. It has been said that teenage behavior, with its swings into and out of rationality, actually resembles schizophrenia. Certainly, this is the one period of life in which abnormal behavior is common rather than exceptional. It is no wonder, then, that young readers and professional critics alike have been able to regard Holden as normal despite his own conviction that he is not—or that other readers have been able to regard him primarily as a disturbed youth even though he often talks sense.5

Failing to take into account the normality of abnormality in adolescence, the psychoanalytic critics in particular have taken a too purely clinical approach to Holden. E. H. Miller's positing of a life crisis dominated by mourning and guilt over the death of Allie, for example, seems too comprehensive and too definitive. For although Allie's death might be cited to account for much of Holden's behavior, no single act or expression of his stands out as inexplicable without reference to Allie. His brother's death exacerbates rather than constitutes Holden's adolescent crisis.

The psychoanalytic essays rest narrowly on single explanations, and disagree with one another. Nevertheless, their notation of classical symptoms in Holden should make it impossible for critics any longer to ignore the importance of psychological processes in both Holden's behavior and his ideas. Miller, for example, is able to call attention to at least fifty mentions by Holden of being depressed, repeated references on his part to himself and others as “crazy,” and “his repeated use of variations on the phrase ‘that killed me.’” One can add that Holden's disturbed condition is also evoked by a pattern of verbal slips, double entendres, errors, forgetting, accidents, and fallings down. The most striking of his double entendres, redolent both of guilt over Allie's death and an attempt to fob off that guilt on someone else, is a remark about his sister Phoebe containing the words, “she killed Allie, too.” Of course he means by “killed” that she amused Allie. But his unconscious understanding is that Phoebe (like himself) is somehow responsible for Allie's death. Holden reveals that this actual death lies behind his casual use of the word “killed” when he goes on to mention next, apparently irrelevantly, that Phoebe is ten years old. For this is the age at which Allie died.

It can also be added that Holden uses the word “crazy” and its variants mad, madman, and insane over fifty times—and pretends that he is suffering from a brain tumor. (He actually uses his famous term “phony” less often—approximately forty times.) Such signals of mental distress, it is worth noticing, were even more prominent in a version of the book's opening scene, a story entitled “I'm Crazy,” published by Salinger in Collier's magazine in 1945. There Holden explains his being out in the cold without coat or gloves: “Only a crazy guy would have stood there. That's me. Crazy. No kidding, I have a screw loose.”6

As with the rest of his behavior, Holden's self-punishments have some reference to guilt over Allie's death, as well as having a source in adolescent psychology. “The adolescent,” writes Peter Blos in On Adolescence: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation, “incurs a real loss in the renunciation of his oedipal parents, and he experiences the inner emptiness, grief, and sadness which is part of all mourning.” The adolescent also mourns for his own earlier childhood. If The Catcher in the Rye is, as E. H. Miller argues, about Holden's need “to bury Allie before he can make the transition to adulthood,” it is also about Holden's need to bury and mourn other elements of his past. The elements link up with memories of Allie, pushing Holden toward breakdown yet always rendering his experience recognizable.

But mourning is only one of the two main psychological experiences typical of Holden's stage of adolescence. The other is “being in love.” If Holden is unable to move on from mourning, he is equally unable to commence the being-in-love portion of his maturation process. He is suffering through what Erik Erikson calls “the prime danger of this age”: an excessively prolonged “moratorium” on growing up. (such prolongation can also be referred to as a “moratorium of illness.”)7

Holden expresses his need for moratoriums on both death and love in his two museum visits. The first visit is to the Museum of Natural History, whose dioramas of American Indian life convey an image of time suspended. The Indian who is fishing and the squaw who is weaving will never change, he muses, and he goes on to fantasize returning to the dioramas, without growing older, and finding the figures always exactly the same. Their perfection stands against the disturbing implications of a different couple—Holden's parents. He imagines himself making one of his trips to view the museum figures after hearing his “mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom.” The mature life of couples, in other words, presents a threatening prospect relieved by contemplating the Indian mother and father in the museum. Their serene sameness evokes an imagined, permanent moratorium on love and its consequences.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Holden leads two little boys to the reconstructed pharaonic tomb and its collection of mummies. When the boys run away in fright at his account of mummification (characteristically the only information about Ancient Egypt he could recall for his history examination), he finds that he “liked it” in the tomb: “it was so nice and peaceful.” Here is a place in which he can finally rest in untroubled communion with eternal death: he is alongside mummies preserved as he wishes Allie could be preserved, and symbolizing his own wish to be preserved from change. Very soon, though, like his other moments of suspension, this one is rudely interrupted. He is driven from the tomb when a scrawled “Fuck you” graffito catches his eye. Not for the first time the insistent reminder of sex drives him reluctantly back into life—this time to the bathroom where he faints in a purgative ritual that marks his first emergence from his moratorium.8

Holden's clinging to the part of his moratorium that concerns sex is expressed in his curious fondness for his friend Jane Gallagher's keeping her kings in the back row when playing checkers. Jane is the girl he has kissed on only one occasion, but whose date with his roommate makes him frantic, and whom he cannot quite bring himself to phone after he runs away from school. Critics have interpreted Holden's repeated mentions of the kings in the back row as expressions of his own “fear,” or as representing “a holding back of one's aggressive powers and an unwillingness to enter the competitive game and use them against other people,” or else as an attempt on Holden's part to warn Jane against the sexual intentions of his roommate, Stradlater.9

All of these speculations are compatible with the psychology of the moratorium. But at a still deeper level, Jane's withholding her kings may be said to symbolize the suspension of maturation typical of this adolescent period—even as it typifies the static, sexually unthreatening relationship Holden has had with her. For, like young people, the pieces on a checkerboard must keep moving forward. Or, as the game's technical term has it, they must keep “developing.” On reaching the back row they have in effect achieved maturity, and are accordingly “kinged.” By not moving her kings out of the back row, Jane solves the problem presented by this unavoidable process of maturation. She has made it one of arrested development. Understandably, this is particularly attractive to Holden.

Holden's catcher in the rye fantasy is usually understood to contain a kind of moratorium idea. The children falling off the cliff are said to symbolize a fall into adulthood, from which Holden imagines himself sparing them even as he would spare himself. But it is possible to be more specific: in psychological terms the “catcher” passage combines the elements both of falling in love and of mourning. To see how this is so, it is important to notice the source of the fantasy—Holden's watching a couple and their child—in order to track the unconscious allusive trail leading to love and death. Holden recalls walking along Fifth Avenue one day and observing with pleasure and empathy a couple and their playful child. To begin with, the family is not well off, Holden observes. This connects its members to the series of underdogs Holden has been attracted to, starting with fellow students at Pencey Prep, and extending to characters in movies and books. Furthermore, the child, at the moment he is observed, is a kind of outcast in the family itself—“walking alone” while the parents “were just walking along, talking, not paying any attention to their kid.”

The child is also in danger. He is walking in the roadway, albeit “right next to the curb.” Perilously, “cars zoomed by, brakes screeched all over the place, his parents paid no attention to him, and he kept on walking next to the curb.” Clearly, the child's danger prompts the fantasy of rescue in the rye that soon comes into Holden's thoughts. “If a body catch a body coming through the rye,” he hears the boy singing, and he begins to imagine himself catching the bodies of children in another kind of danger.

Viewing the catcher fantasy psychologically, E. H. Miller puts it that “Holden has the ‘crazy’ idea that he should have saved Allie.” But psychoanalytically speaking, the process leading to the fantasy of rescue would have to be described as somewhat more complicated. The child whose sibling dies commonly suffers not so much the guilt of having failed to effect a rescue as that of having at some time harbored the wish that the sibling might die. (When Allie died, Holden's immediate reaction had been to punish himself by slamming his fist through the garage windows, prompting his parents to think of having him psychoanalyzed.) The actual death, no matter what its cause (Allie had died of leukemia), can lead to a reaction formation, that is, to the creation of an opposite wish. The wish to kill, for example, can be replaced by a wish to rescue. Allie is the source of the rescue fantasy, then, but not its object.

In Holden's case the reaction formation manifested in the catcher fantasy is combined with another kind of guilt that may follow the death of a sibling, that felt by virtue of being a survivor. Such guilt often leads to an avoidance of success—as when Holden repeatedly fails out of schools—or else to imagining oneself incapable of success at an ordinary vocation. Being a catcher in the rye, no ordinary vocation, provides a bridge from guilty failure to success of a psychologically acceptable kind.

The being-in-love aspect of the catcher passage emerges from the prominent but neglected circumstance of its connection with the series of errors and slips revealing of Holden's unconscious. As Phoebe points out to him just before he recounts the fantasy, he has misheard the little boy sing “if a body catch a body”:

“It's ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” old Phoebe said. “It's a poem. By Robert Burns.

Holden answers: “I know it's a poem by Robert Burns.” He knows the words, as would anyone his age at the time The Catcher in the Rye takes place. The song and its words were a standard tune of the day—of the sort sung around the piano at home. One understands that its words would come easily, and correctly, to the lips even of the little boy whom Holden mishears.

What, then, is the significance of Holden's error? The phrase “meet a body” conjures up not only a meeting between a lad and a lass, but because of the suggestiveness of “body” when detached from its Scottish meaning of “person,” the phrase implies the coming together of male and female bodies. The next line of the song—“If a body kiss a body, need a body cry”—makes explicit the romantic/sexual context of the first. This is why Holden catches only the one line, and that one imperfectly. Unconsciously suppressing the word “meet,” he avoids the very matter of his relations with girls, which he has been unable to resolve. “Meet” acts as another reminder, like the “Fuck you” graffiti that keep confronting him, of the disturbing sexual basis of love. Each time, Holden experiences a need to “erase” the reminder. And each time his need has reference to young people. The first graffito, after all, appears on a wall at his sister's school, and it is to protect youngsters that he is moved to erase it. His fantasy of rescue in the rye comes out of the same impulse to protect youngsters (and the youngster in himself) from vulgarized sexual knowledge.

Earlier, Holden has confronted the vulgarized kind of knowledge in his roommate Stradlater, who seems to have kissed a body: Jane Gallagher. To the question “if a body kiss a body need a body cry?” the answer, one may say, is “yes.” For when Holden imagines not just a kiss but Stradlater and Jane having sex, he does end up “practically bawling” (after maneuvering Stradlater into beating him up). Once again he himself, having had a relationship with Jane that only once reached the stage of (chaste) kissing, is frozen at a painful stage of development. In contrast, Stradlater has, to Holden's dismay, broken through this stage. Accordingly, when Stradlater hints at having had sex with Jane, Holden takes a swing at him: “I told him he didn't even care if a girl kept all her kings in the back row or not.”

Holden has idealized Jane in a typical adolescent way, for “to adolescence proper belongs that unique experience, tender love,” writes Peter Blos. But the adolescent boy must progress from an early “state of infatuation toward the fusion of tender and sexual love.”10 Having participated in Stradlater's splitting off of tender love from his sexual intentions toward Jane, Holden has maneuvered Stradlater into hitting him in order to be punished for this violation of Jane. The fusion of tender and sexual love remains difficult for Holden. It represents a vertiginous, dangerous kind of falling for him: the extreme of the suggestion contained in the words “falling in love.”

The theme of falling extends from the catcher fantasy, to being knocked down by Stradlater, to the threat of falling off the curb while walking up Fifth Avenue (with the related threat of falling out of sanity and consciousness), to a series of trippings and pratfalls suffered by Holden in the course of his adventures. These falls convey adolescent sexual awkwardness—almost explicitly so when Holden trips over his suitcase on the way to letting a prostitute into his hotel room. Among 1940s romantic movie comedies, The Lady Eve makes explicit the pratfall's association with sexual awkwardness and excitation. In this movie, as Henry Fonda keeps falling in the presence of Barbara Stanwyck, it grows evident that his pratfalls anticipate his falling in love. That consummation is perhaps always a fall out of experience and control, and so always carries with it some of the fear of falling that troubles Holden.

Holden not only falls inadvertently in minor ways; he is repeatedly drawn toward catastrophic forms of falling. Each time, he is searching out self-punishment for his unconscious guilt over Allie's death. The wish to be punished by death accounts for his apparently illogical response to Phoebe's accusation that he doesn't like “anything that's happening.” “I do!” he insists. But she challenges him to “name one thing.” He has trouble “concentrating” on an answer, but then James Castle pops into his mind: this is a fellow student who leaped to his death. Clearly, Holden is half in love with easeful death.

At the same time, of course, he half hopes to be saved. On sneaking out of his parents' apartment after talking to Phoebe, he admits that “for some reason,” at this point “I didn't give a damn any more if they caught me.” Then, fixing on the word he has uttered, he adds: “I figured if they caught me, they caught me. I almost wished they did, in a way.” As much as he needs to fall, in other words, Holden needs to be caught. (Horsing around at school, he has expressed the same need. Pulling his cap down over his eyes, “I started groping around in front of me, like a blind guy. … I kept saying, ‘Mother darling, why won't you give me your hand?’”)

Besides rescuing children from maturation, Holden may be said to be rescuing others in one further sense deriving from young love. “The sensitive adolescent who cannot yet fall in love with a specific person on a realistic basis,” writes Theodore Lidz,

… can experience a more diffuse love of nature or of mankind in which there is a vague seeking for expression and fulfillment of the feelings that are surging within him. He feels that he must lose himself in nature or find ways of giving himself in the service of mankind.11

The desire to serve mankind can lead to messianism, perhaps in the form of joining a cult or fringe political organization, or else it can eventuate in fantasies of service. In its negative form the same displacement of love leads to delinquency or running away from school. Holden moves in each of the negative directions, both running away and fantasizing himself a rescuer.

The phenomenon of adolescent messianism stands out as the single analytical conception actually referred to in The Catcher in the Rye. It is, in fact, the centerpiece of the one, serious, considered evaluation of Holden by another character—his former teacher, Antolini. In the course of an analysis of Holden that includes an emphasis on the imminence of his suffering some kind of “fall” (a usage that alerts the reader to a wide-ranging play on the meanings of this word), Antolini writes out for him some words “written by a psychoanalyst named Wilhelm Stekel”: “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.” The words capture the perfectionist urge in Holden, yet misrepresent him as leaning toward a messianism of action when actually his tendency is toward fantasies of rescue quite divorced from any social idea or cause.

The same distinction between action and fantasy applies to Holden's critique of society, which is sometimes taken to represent a reformist impulse, a wish for a better world. A careful scrutiny of Holden's dislikes, complaints, observations, and especially his generalizations about the world, however, reveals many of them to be personal. This is another way of saying that Holden is a first-person narrator of a particular kind. In novels with first-person narrators the common disparity is between the narrator's reports of what he observes (which are dependable) and his opinions (which are undependable). With Holden, there is additionally a range of reliability among his opinions depending on who and what he is evaluating.

Some of Holden's opinions prove to be merely selfish. Salinger exposes them by having Holden contradict himself through his own behavior. For example, he complains about his roommates and others only to repeat their annoying habits, like standing in the light.12 Some of his complaints and generalizations—“people never give your message to anybody”—betray a failure to notice that he is being patronized on account of his erratic behavior. Others are those of a spoiled prep school kid:

I always get those vomity kind of cabs if I go anywhere late at night.

I hate living in New York and all. Taxicabs, and Madison Avenue buses, with the drivers and all always yelling at you to get out at the rear door, and being introduced to phony guys that call the Lunts angels, and going up and down in elevators when you just want to go outside, and guys fitting your pants all the time at Brooks, and people always …

It is difficult to be sympathetic toward the frustrations of a youth who is privileged to ride in cabs and go to the theater. The act of exiting from the rear door of the bus to accommodate others hardly qualifies as a discontent of civilization. And if Holden expresses a boy's understandable uneasiness at being touched during a fitting, the fact that he is getting his clothes at Brooks Brothers undercuts sympathy with his complaint. In such passages even Holden's justly famous instinct for exposing phoniness appears personal and self-involved rather than socially oriented.

On the other hand, his observation of a woman who weeps over the sentimentalities of a movie while irritably refusing to take her child to the bathroom sharply exposes the contradiction in her behavior. This is the kind of feeling insight Holden is justly famous for. Projecting his own anxieties onto the child, as with the boy who inspired the catcher fantasy, his sensitivity to parental indifference here affords a sharp insight into the behavior of the mother.

Holden is insightful, it seems, where children are concerned, but less so with adults, especially parents (except when they are with their children). Similarly, he feels sympathy for the outcasts of life and literature—Hamlet, for example—but lacks sympathy for anyone who does not display a psychological disturbance—Romeo, for example. Thus Holden's own grappling with death gives him a certain insight into Romeo and Juliet. He speaks for many of those who have experienced the play, especially younger readers, when he picks Mercutio as his favorite character and expresses both disappointment and resentment at his being removed from the action so early.

Premature death has been Allie's fate as well, of course, and Holden understandably reacts with special urgency to any situation in which life goes on despite death. But Holden is less reliable when, again projecting his own guilt, he searches for scapegoats, as when he concludes that “it was Romeo's fault” that Mercutio died. He takes back the accusation, but then, yet again using the word “crazy,” accounts for his response to the play in a passage that is really about Allie:

The trouble is, it drives me crazy if somebody gets killed—especially somebody very smart and entertaining and all—and it's somebody else's fault.

Like Romeo, Holden is guilty because he has gone on living after Allie's death, and like Romeo he cannot really be accused of being at fault.

An examination of Holden's critique of society, then, shows him to be by turns merely irritable and positively insightful. Just as with the question of his sanity, there is evidence both for those who find him an admirable social critic and for those who do not. And once again the variability in question turns out to involve adolescent psychology—if not exclusively the realm of the adolescent moratorium. Taken as a whole, Holden's critique can be seen to relate to the sexually repressive component of his extended moratorium. His repression is manifested not only in his chaste relationship with Jane but also in his wish to become a monk, his preference for the two (nonsexual) nuns he meets over the other women, and his dismissal of the prostitute sent to his hotel room. As it happens, adolescent repression of sexuality, especially when tinged with an attraction to the ascetic, often produces exactly what Holden is known for: a tendency to deliver “negative judgments” on the world.13

If it has to be said that Holden's vision is often linked to personal and psychological sources, the feeling of most readers that he is somehow right about things in general cannot altogether be dismissed. Salinger himself has conveyed an impression of Holden's being right, possibly because he shifted in the course of writing from a noncommittal authorial distance to a perilously close identification with his protagonist. This shift can be observed when Holden's former teacher, Antolini, after somewhat inappropriately applying Wilhelm Stekel on messianism to Holden, goes on to employ a more persuasive formula: “You'll find,” he tells him, “that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior.” The presumption expressed here that Holden is suffering from a kind of angst coincides with the attitude toward society usually taken by the critics who endorse Holden's vision.

Yet as his use of Stekel reveals, Antolini has only a general idea of what ails Holden. He has had a talk with Holden's father, but there is nothing to suggest that he has learned from it any more than that Holden has been flunking courses and seems disturbed. In the interview Antolini limits himself to discussing Holden's schoolwork. Inasmuch as he therefore has no way of knowing how the world impinges on Holden's consciousness, his explanations of Holden's behavior take on the aspect of authorial interpolations.

Salinger's attitude toward Antolini has always troubled readers. Antolini himself is eventually discredited. But his speech of analysis and advice—unlike that of the history teacher, Spencer, who also admonishes Holden to apply himself to his schoolwork—apparently is not discredited. On the other hand, his pronouncing Holden to have been “sickened by human behavior” and to be carrying an urge to reform society is certainly not accurate, however well it may describe the psychology of those readers who think they are see in reflection of themselves, or their former selves, in The Catcher in the Rye. It seems, therefore, that as Salinger approached the end of his novel he began to draw uncritically close to his protagonist, and to betray that process through Antolini's philosophizing.

Salinger's slippage away from authorial distance starts at the beginning of the Antolini visit. Early in the conversation with his former teacher Holden gives a typically sensitive account of another outcast: the misfit fellow student who has been rebuked for repeatedly digressing when he delivers talks in Oral Expression. Holden likes digression, though, and regrets Mr. Vinson's giving the boy an F for his talk about the farm his father bought in Vermont—“because he hadn't told what kind of animals and vegetables and stuff grew on the farm and all.” Holden is attracted to the idea that someone could “start out telling you about their father's farm and then all of a sudden get more interested in their uncle.” He is always attracted to defiance of fathers. But this is the once time when his critique, though spurred by personal identification, is in no way colored by its psychological source. His defense of digression has to be pronounced artistically sound. And the teacher who give the F, unlike the other teachers in the book, is not technically right while being emotionally obtuse, but rather both wrong and obtuse. In contrast with everything that has gone before, then, Holden on digression is wholly justified in his rejection of the dogma of authority.

In the course of the Antolini scene, then, Salinger slides into becoming Holden advocate and justifier, and a sentimentalized light is temporarily cast over Holden. One may speculate that the flaws join this much-analyzed scene are precisely the source of critical readings that lose their objectivity toward Holden. One may further speculate that Salinger sensed something wrong with the scene, and tried to correct it by later undercutting Antolini. But evidently because he was patching things up rather that writing out of a more purely creative impulse, he did so rather crudely by discrediting Antolini as a homosexual.

Except for this lapse, The Catcher in the Rye presents society and its figures of authority as both right and wrong. They are right that Holden extended adolescent moratorium must come to an end, but surely wrong to dismiss him as a merely confused adolescent. For he is undergoing a special combination of kinds of mourning—for his brother Allie, for his own earlier childhood self, and for his parents as the revered figures of his youth—and his mourning has acted on his sensibility in strikingly creative ways. Such creativity, too, is a normal—if rare—accompaniment of adolescence.

As for Holden himself, he too is both right and wrong. He sometimes has exceptional insight into his world, and he sometimes suffers from skewed judgment. In turn, critics of The Catcher in the Rye, very much like the teachers and other figures of authority in the book, have also been both right and wrong. They have tended to overvalue Holden's insights, but have perhaps been right, after all, to treat his psychological disturbance as more normal that abnormal. The extreme verge of adolescent disturbance, after all, can be said both to approximate what would have to be diagnosed as psychosis in an adult, and to be a phase that can end in normalcy. Holden represents an extreme, but readers have sensed that he nevertheless connects with common experience.

Critics, common readers, the author of The Catcher in the Rye himself—all have found themselves drawn toward Holden. Some have reasoned that their attraction could be accounted for by the universality of his case, which they have taken to be essentially that of a normal teenager. Others have reasoned that, on the contrary, he is a special case: attractive precisely to the extent that his experience is not normal. But whether one is assessing Holden's sanity or his status as a social critic, the foregoing sketch of his psychology suggests that whoever wishes to hold an informed view of Holden Caulfield needs to take into account the peculiar patterns of adolescent crisis.


  1. Diana Trilling, Reviewing the Forties (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), pp. 232, 218. See also “Growing Up in America: the 1940s and After, : in Frederick R. Karl, American Fictions 1940/1980 (New York: Harper & Row, 1983). On the weighing of critical opinion toward sympathy with Holden see James Bryan, “The Psychological Structure of The Catcher in the RyePMLA 89 (1974): p. 1066.

  2. Arthur Heiseman and James E. Miller, Jr., “J. D. Salinger: Some Crazy Cliff,” Western Humanities Review (1956), reprinted in If You Really Want to Know: A “Catcher” Casebook, ed. Malcolm M. Marsden (Chicago: Scott, Foresman, 1963), p. 22.

  3. Ernest Jones, review in The Nation, September 1, 1951, reprinted in “Catcher” Casebook, p. 9. An exception is a 1959 study in which Holden is flatly pronounced “sick”: Robert G. Jacobs, “J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye: Holden Caulfield's ‘Goddam Autobiography’,” “Catcher” Casebook, p. 62. See June Edwards, “Censorship in the Schools: What's Moral about The Catcher in the Rye?”English Journal 72 (April 1983): 39–42, for how Holden is still represented as a normally mixed-up teenager in high school classrooms.

  4. E. H. Miller, “In Memoriam: Allie Cau[l]field in The Catcher in the Rye,Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisclipinary Study of Literature 15 (Winter 1989): 129. See also Bryan, “The Psychological Structure.”

  5. This account of adolescence follows Anna Freud, as well as others cited below. More recent studies, without denying their account, “emphasize adaptive strengths and coping skills,” and argue that the turmoil is less often the norm than is usually supposed. See Mark J. Blotcky and John G. Looney, “Normal Female and Male Adolescent Psychological Development: An Overview of Theory and Research,” Adolescent Psychiatry 8 (1980): 196.

  6. Holden also remarks that his grandmother “doesn't have all her marbles any more,” and fixes on the song “It was Just One of Those Things,” the next line of which is “just one of those crazy things.” On the forty uses of “phony” see Robert A. Draffan, “Novel Approaches: Teaching The Catcher in the Rye,The Use of English 24 (Spring 1973): 203. The quotation from “I'm Crazy” is from Collier's (December 22, 1949): 36. The quotation from the novel (“she killed Allie, too”) is from J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (New York: New American Library, Signet ed., 1963), p. 64. All subsequent page references, appearing in parentheses in text, are to this edition.

  7. Peter Blos, On Adolescence: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation (New York: The Free Press, 1962), p. 100; E. H. Miller, “In Memoriam,” p. 129; Erik Erikson, “Youth: Fidelity and Diversity,” in The Challenge of Youth, ed. Erik Erikson (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1965 [rpt. of vol. of 1963], pp. 13, 18.

  8. On the tomb passage and purgation see Miller, “In Memoriam,” 183–4. The range of ritual interpretations that have been proposed may be sampled in Gerald Rosen, “A Retrospective Look at The Catcher in the Rye,American Quarterly 29 (Winter 1977): 562, which concentrates on Holden in the rain after Phoebe's carousel ride; and in Carl F. Strauch, “Kings in the Back Row: Meaning through Structure—A Reading of Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye,Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 2 (Winter 1961), in “Catcher” Casebook, p. 109, where “Central Park represents Holden's Dark Tower, Dark Night of the Soul, and Wasteland.”

  9. See Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner, The Fiction of J. D. Salinger (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962), p. 30, cited by Bernard S. Oldsey, “The Movies in the Rye” (1961), in “Catcher” Casebook, p. 126; Rosen, “ A Retrospective Look,” p. 556; Strauch, “Kings in the Back Row,” “Catcher” Casebook, p. 104. By getting Stradlater to mention the Kings, it is suggested, Holden is sending Jane a warning to beware of Stradlater.

  10. Blos, Adolescence, p. 101, 102.

  11. Theodore Lidz, The Person: His Development Throughout the Life Cycle (New York: Basic Books, 1968), p. 340.

  12. Peter J. Seng, “The Fallen Idol: The Immature World of Holden Caulfield” (1961), in “Catcher” Casebook, p. 76.

  13. Blos, Adolescence, p. 111.

Pamela Steinle (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “‘If a Body Catch a Body’: The Catcher in the Rye Censorship Debate as Expression of Nuclear Culture,” in Popular Culture and Political Change in Modern America, edited by Ronald Edsforth and Larry Bennett, State University of New York Press, 1991, pp. 127-36.

[In the following essay, Steinle examines the censorship debate surrounding The Catcher in the Rye and the novel's portrayal of American ideals and postwar social reality. Steinle writes, “It is this fear of nuclear holocaust, not the fear of four-letter words, that I believe is at the heart of the Catcher debate.”]

In 1951, the American public was introduced to 16-year-old Holden Caulfield, the narrator and central character of J. D. Salinger's first and only novel, The Catcher in the Rye. Described in early reviews as “an unusually sensitive and intelligent boy” and as “unbalanced as a rooster on a tightrope,”1 Holden was and has remained a figure of varied interpretation and much controversy. As recently as 1981, Catcher has the dubious distinction of being at once the most frequently censored book across the nation and the second-most frequently taught novel in public high schools.2 Except for a brief respite in the early 1970s, Catcher has been the focal point of literary censorship for the past 35 years—a focus exhibited not only in its premier status on book-banning lists but through repeated references in popular literature and television.3

From its initial reception to the present, The Catcher in the Rye has been identified as a favorite and formative novel by adolescent and college-level readers alike.4 In 1961, Catcher made its second appearance on the paperback bestseller list of the New York Times Book Review, causing Times critic Robert Gutwillig to comment that while use in college classes explained some of its high sales figures, “the appeal of The Catcher in the Rye extends also to the younger brothers and sisters of the college crowd.”5 At the same time, Edward Corbett reviewed Catcher for America, and noted that “I have never witnessed on our campus [a Midwestern Jesuit college] as much eager discussion about a book as there was about The Catcher in the Rye.6 Twenty-five years later, critic Sanford Pinsker argued for Catcher's formative value and described himself as “one who fell in love with The Catcher in the Rye early, and who has been trying to figure out what that has meant ever since.”7 Richard Stayton took the same approach in a 1985 review, concluding that “Salinger's spiritual odyssey had reached out beyond two decades to teach me a new perspective on myself.”8 Finally, in a bizarre demonstration of Catcher's uneasy grip upon the imagination, assassin Mark David Chapman offered The Catcher in the Rye as intended justification for the murder of ex-Beatle John Lennon in 1980. Chapman read silently from the novel as he was arrested and, at his sentencing, read aloud the passage which gives Catcher its title:

Anyway, I keep picturing these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all.9

Simply told, The Catcher in the Rye is the tale of 16-year-old Holden Caulfield, who is flunking out of his third prep school and suffers a breakdown of sorts when he leaves school to spend three days on his own in New York City. Holden is the idealistic narrator of the story, which he tells in retrospect from a sanitarium in California. With meticulous adherence to contemporary teenage vernacular, the text is peppered with mild obscenities as Holden condemns much of the postwar adult world. Salinger depicts American society as largely “phony”—a term Holden applies to various definitions of contemporary success: corporate achievement, paradigmatic marriage, physical attractiveness, movies, athletics, and “belonging” via conformity. The “craziness” of Holden's perspective is suggested by the fact that he is well on the way to such success himself if only he would accept it. The novel ends as it begins: with Holden in the sanitarium, expecting to return to “normal life” in the near future, yet with little indication as to how he will do so.

On the surface, then, Catcher in the Rye is a rather mundane novel—it is not immediately clear why it has gained the lasting affection and engendered the vehement hostility of so many participants in lengthy and heated public controversies across America. Beyond the opening arguments over whether the novel is “American” or “un-American,” the debate over Catcher's value and appropriate readership is a Geertzian “note in a bottle.” Laden with value judgments and assumptions, the debate is essentially a discourse on the constitution and possibility of moral values and ethical conduct in mid-twentieth-century America. That this discourse is at least in part an expression of the impact of America's development and first use of the atomic bomb upon the American cultural imagination is the thesis of this chapter.

To decipher the dialogue of the Catcher debate, I examined the national discourse on Catcher from 1953 to 1983, as it appeared in newspaper and magazine accounts, editorials, letters to the editor, and school board minutes. I reviewed the English Journal, PTA Magazine, the American Library Association's Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, and numerous religious publications throughout this period to understand the role definitions and views of censorship that participants brought to the debate. Finally, I conducted open-ended interviews with past and present participants in the debate in suburban Alabama, California, New Mexico, and Virginia.10

The Catcher censorship debate reflects common experiences and expression across the thirty-five years of localized controversy—a commonality often explicitly recognized by participants. One such common element was the complaint about offensive language—by one parent's count, 237 “goddams,” 58 “bastards,” 32 “chrissakes,” and one “fart”11—which frequently initiated local controversies. This is curious since Holden himself repeatedly tries to erase obscenities written by others. In fact, the initial focus on language was not the actual center of the debate; rather, language use was a relatively easy issue for controversy participants to address. Instead, the crux of the Catcher debate was whether or not adolescents should read a novel that effectively portrays postwar America as a society characterized by social pretense, injustice, inequality, and—above all—alienation. Even as the vast majority of participants, including those against Catcher, explicitly agreed with Salinger's depiction, the question of whether it was appropriate reading for adolescents dominated the dialogue as the controversies reached full steam at school board meetings and in exchanges of letters to the editor in local newspapers.

Yet locating the center of the debate does not explain its longevity or the peculiar angst which characterized both the dialogue and the participant interviews and recollections. Many participants were aware of Catcher's controversial history, yet teachers continued to assign it as “necessary” reading, and people who had never before been involved in censorship actions sought to ban it—and, on both sides, often at considerable personal cost to their local reputation, marriage and family relationships, and physical and emotional health.12 While local controversies were frequently resolved by Catcher's retention as reading on reserve, requiring parental approval, the most valuable outcome for many was a renewal of belief in the democratic process as a consequence of first-hand confrontation with the meaning of tolerance and responsibility in the pursuit of individual freedom.

Consider the interview statement of a postman and school board member in the Alabama controversy:

Personally, if it was my decision and it was going to be a final decision, I'd have a bonfire. But, you know, I know, I don't have a final decision and I've got to use some reason too, and a parent wants their children to read things I consider vulgary or trash, that's the parent that'll have to answer, that'll have to watch that child.

The Constitution gives certain rights and you can't just sweep those things under the mat. That's why I said, you know, if I had to be objective I'd get rid of 'em: if I had the final say, they wouldn't be here. But I know that's not the final say and I don't say it, that's not the way it's going to be. So, the only solution I know is what we did. It's, ah, they're still available. The parent wants to do it, go read 'em.13

Such democratic resolution of the local controversies often led to a good deal of back-patting and good-spirited handshaking among participants, and indeed might be further applauded by Robert Bellah (et al.) who, in Habits of the Heart,14 decried as well as documented the lack of sincere, local, democratic participation in postwar American society. However, the value of the form of resolution directs attention away from the unresolved question of exactly what it is that is at stake in an adolescent's reading of The Catcher in the Rye. In the course of the debate what is claimed to be at stake is the “character” of American adolescents. On one side, the reading of novels critical of American experience is deemed necessary to prepare adolescents for responsible adult-hood. A parent in one of the 1960 controversies lauded the efforts of other pro-Catcher participants “who wish their children to be free, and they take the position that the freedom to read, training to read, training of critical thinking is invaluable.”15 An educator writing for PTA Magazine in 1963 linked this position with his interpretation of Catcher:

We should judge books not so much on the basis of the world they portray as by the judgments they make on that world. What kind of life are they asking for? The Catcher in the Rye … is calling for a good world in which people can connect. …16

In opposition, protesting participants believe that reading Catcher will “weaken the moral fiber of the students,” by serving as “a teenage primer to debauchery.”17 In the same 1960 controversy, another parent compared adolescents' reading of Catcher to the training of dogs by “rubbing their noses in filth,”

destroying their desire and will to be good citizens or their faith in principles and the good character of others. … To shock a young person who is passing through the most sensitive and idealistic years of his or her life into insensitiveness only defeats constructive ends.18

The division, then, is over whether to prepare adolescents for or to protect them from adult disillusionment, and it is a split I believe indicates a contemporary crisis in the process of middle class enculturation. In modern middle class American parenting, as in expressive forms of culture such as the novel, adolescence has served as a complex symbol of cultural innocence and hope for the future. While the sheer pace of social change and the factor of individual mobility have long made it difficult to prepare an American child for an adulthood of uncertain circumstances, it has been assumed that whatever that adulthood might encompass, it would take place in an ever-brighter future. In the postwar period, however, recognition of the increasing dissonance between American ideals and the realities of social experience has become unavoidable, and it is precisely this cultural dissonance that is highlighted by Salinger's novel.

The widely shared critical interpretation of the title passage is that Holden sees his own late adolescence as a precipitous jump or fall from the cherished ideals and innocence of childhood to the inauthentic and cynical social reality of adulthood.19 As “the catcher in the rye,” Holden, like those who seek to censor the novel, seeks to “catch” children before they can fall over the “crazy cliff.” Furthermore, a crucial fact about Catcher—as opposed to interpretive readings of it—is that Holden does not reject the historically central values of individualism, family, democracy, and equality: He criticizes their faulty enactment in American society and lambasts the tautological replacement of morality with normality, and its corollary value of conformity. In this sense, Catcher is indeed a very American novel, as Salinger's carefully drawn characterization of Holden is the very embodiment of the American Adam, and his eloquent critique of contemporary society is recognizable as part of the long-standing “determining debate” given coherent definition by R. W. B. Lewis.20

However, Holden is situated in a context in which hopefulness and belief in the endless availability of new beginnings—so characteristic of the American Adam—are no longer credible. When Huck Finn as the prototypical adolescent Adam “lights out for the territories,” he is not only moving forward in time and space but in the hopeful pursuit of ideals that have been strengthened from being tested by the challenge of experience. In marked contrast, when Holden confronts his own morality, any perception of hope for individual distinctiveness is dashed by his recognition of contemporary chaos and anonymity:

That's the whole trouble. You can't ever find a place that's nice and peaceful, because there isn't any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you're not looking, somebody'll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it'll say “Holden Caulfield” on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it'll say “Fuck you.” I'm positive, in fact.21

Even more jarring is the replacement of the image of Huck on a raft with the image of Holden astride a nuclear warhead. Where Huck's escape route portends the sense of adventure inherent in a new beginning, Holden's fantasied “escape” is consciously suicidal and prescient of Dr. Strangelove:

Anyway, I'm sort of glad they've got the atomic bomb invented. If there's ever another war, I'm going to sit right the hell on top of it. I'll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will.22

Hence, where Catcher emphasizes the increasing difficulty adolescents face attempting to bridge the chasm between the worlds of childhood and adult experience, the very sense of the future itself is here called into question. Indeed, the metaphorical “ghost at the banquet”—or in this case at the debate—whose presence explains the angst and extraordinary personal investment of participants in local controversies, is the specter of nuclear annihilation. Just as Holden, wishing to refuse the “killing adjustments” required by his impending participation in adult society, finds he cannot return to the innocence of childhood, America, with the development and use of the Bomb—however necessary or justifiable—reached a state of maturity that rendered the ideology of American innocence finally untenable. Catcher in the Rye appeals to contemporary readers through their familiarity with its Adamic narrator; the lack of resolution in the novel speaks not only to the futility of contemporary experience but to the frightening absence of a future of any certainty.

In fact, debate participants shared a vague yet pervasive fearfulness of a present and future over which they have little, if any, control. Fearfulness was the common denominator and often the dominant characteristic of every interview I conducted. When asked what he thought was at the root of a 1960-61 California controversy, a local high school principal repeated the response of many participants: “I think it just stems from fear.”23 Also typical was his inability to expand upon or articulate the actual nature or source of this fear: Instead, he fell into a meditative silence for a few minutes and then abruptly began to speak of how the specific issue of Catcher's status was resolved—“controlled”—by the school board.

While statements by many participants suggested they were more comfortable speaking of ways they managed their uneasiness about the fate of American society rather than the source of that uneasiness, a few participants either directly specified or alluded to the threat of nuclear annihilation—often in seemingly incongruous contexts. A pro-Catcher parent in Alabama stated that there are “so many other areas of concern, that censorship is just a small part of it, because there is the nuclear, the school prayer [long pause], all that goes together.”24 Another pro-Catcher parent argued:

In these perilous times, it is not just a case of war and peace but a question of the survival of mankind and our ideals. We have to educate our children to become responsible citizens.25

A 1981 essay, suggestively titled “The Censorship War: Librarians at the Battlefront,” was more specific about the peril. Encouraging the fight against censorship of novels such as Catcher, librarian Charles Park wrote:

The freedom to learn, to have access to information, is being threatened today. The stakes are higher, higher than ever before, for we are all very much in the shadow of a mushroom cloud.26

Critic Marcus Klein included Catcher among significant mid-century American fiction and emphasized the nuclear context in which to understand it. Here, Klein's interpretation is typical of references to nuclearism in the works of many literary critics and historians:

The terror beyond evil is the murder that occurred in the Second World War together with the prospect become familiar of entire and utter annihilation. We are all half-dead of it already. …27

Adolescent readers also placed Catcher in this context. A sixteen-year-old female high school student who wrote “I accept The Catcher in the Rye as part of myself,” argued that “Holden's perambulating thoughts and abusive language help paint the picture of bitter confusion which surrounds this boy as he gropes about for stable bearings, wondering if there are any.” “The bitterness,” she further explained,

is derived in part from the uncertainty of the future. It is the fear that you are looking forward to something that won't exist that makes you acrid and spiteful. Maybe the future will consist of rehashed memories; you are only closer to dying each day as you wallow in your rut remembering how you and the gang played kick-the-can when you were twelve.28

That the “uncertainty of the future” is an allusion to the threat of nuclear annihilation is clarified not only by her fear that the future “won't exist” but by the congruence of her statement with those of adolescents writing on nuclearism. In a 1978-1980 study, Cambridge psychiatrist John Mack asked 10th to 12th grade students, “Have nuclear advances affected your way of thinking about the future, your view of the world, and time?” Typical student responses were:

(A) I think that, unless we do something about nuclear weapons the world and the human race may not have much time left (corny, huh?).

(B) It gives me a pretty dim view of the world and mankind but it hasn't really influenced me.

(C) Everything has to be looked at on two levels: the world with the threat of ending soon, and life with future, etc. The former has to be blocked out for everyday functioning because very few people can find justification for living otherwise. But [it] is always there—on a much larger scale than possibilities of individual deaths, car accidents, etc.—even though the result to me personally would be the same.29

Adolescent reliance on denial as a method of psychic survival is at least in part a learned response. As Mack concluded:

The experience of powerlessness of children and adolescents, the sense that they have that matters are out of control, is not different from the way most adults feel in relation to the nuclear arms race. Little can be done to help our young people unless adults address the apathy and helplessness that we experience in relation to the arms race and the threat of nuclear war.30

Indeed, even as Americans “profess not to be troubled,” a 1983 Harris poll found that “two-thirds of America expected a nuclear war sometime in the next twenty years.”31 The increasing frequency and lowering age of clinical depression as well as escalating adolescent suicide32 further suggest that America is failing to provide its youth with a sense of a viable future.

Correspondingly, in 1987 Phyllis La Farge documented responses of alternating fearful awareness and concerted denial in the drawings and written work of children from kindergarten to high school. One response pointed out the apparent irrelevance of education in light of the nuclear threat:

I'm angry because I feel I won't have a future like most people and I ask myself, why do I take classes I hate, such as science and math when maybe I won't live to use my knowledge from those classes in college. I feel helpless. I keep trying to kid myself and forget about any possibilities of a nuclear war.33

Furthermore, children recognize the paralysis and helplessness of adults in the face of the nuclear threat. For example, a grammar school student wrote:

Dear President Reagan,

I am sure that my parents don't like knowing that I may never reach 21 or even 12 since I'm only 11. You may not be causing it but you can control it in the U.S.34

This child recognizes parental powerlessness but believes that the power to insure the future lies within Presidential authority. As children mature, recognition of adult powerlessness becomes less manageable, and adolescent suspicions that it is not powerlessness as much as complicity evoke their anger. One high school student, sounding very much like Holden Caulfield, wrote:

It [nuclear advances] has shown me how stupid some adults can be. If they know it could easily kill them I have no idea why they support it. Once in a while it makes me start to think that the end of my life might not be as far off as I would like it to be.35

It is this fear of nuclear holocaust, not the fear of four-letter words, that I believe is at the heart of the Catcher debate. The lack of faith in the American character expressed in the Catcher controversies is rooted not in doubts about the strength of adolescent Americans' character but in recognition of the powerlessness of American adults—as parents, professionals and community leaders—to provide a genuine sense of the future for the adolescents in their charge. The Catcher in the Rye is an indictment of adult apathy and complicity in the construction of a social reality in which the American character cannot develop in any meaningful sense beyond adolescence.

And it is an indictment that, however accurate, many adults wish their children to avoid as long as possible. Phyllis La Farge concluded from her work that, “never losing hope is what all parents fervently want for their children,” which leads them to “try to encourage hopefulness by keeping silent about the nuclear weapons, the arms race, and other issues.”36The Catcher in the Rye confronts adults with not only the impossibilities of this wishful protection but with its dysfunctional consequences: In its “very American” embrace of the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, and in the embodiment of the American Adam in the radical idealism of Holden Caulfield, it is mature American society that is “un-American” in its apathy, denial, and pursuit of superficial comforts in the shadow of nuclear annihilation.


  1. Respectively: Harrison Smith, “Manhattan Ulysses, Junior,” The Saturday Review of Literature 34, July 14, 1951, 12; T. Morris Longstreth, “Review of The Catcher in the Rye,The Christian Science Monitor, July 19, 1951, 7.

  2. Adam Moss, “Catcher Comes of Age,” Esquire 96 (Dec. 1981), 56. See also “Footnotes” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 29, 1982, 21 for a summary of two studies (California, 1962, and national, 1982) in which American Literature professors were asked which American novels published after 1941 should be considered “classics” and which novels should be taught to college students. Catcher was the number one response to both questions in 1962 and number three in 1982. Catcher was further identified as the foremost novel on the censor's list in Tracy Metz, “The New Crusader's of the USA,” Index on Censorship, Jan. 1982, 20, and in the editorial essay, “Survey Reports Rise in School Library Censorship,” Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, 32, no. 1 (Jan. 1983), 1, 18.

  3. Catcher is referred to, for example, in Eric Segal's Oliver's Story (New York 1977) and W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe (Boston 1982). Television references to Catcher range from the CBS Sixty Minutes (Nov. 1, 1981) and Archie Bunker's Place (Feb. 21, 1982) to the ABC game show, Family Feud (Oct. 19, 1983).

  4. For extended discussion of reader loyalty, see Edward Corbett, “Raise High the Barriers, Censors,” America 104, Jan. 7, 1961, 441; Joan Didion, “Finally (Fashionably) Spurious,” National Review 11, Nov. 18, 1961, 341; Robert Gutwillig, “Everybody's Caught The Catcher in the Rye,New York Times Book Review: Paperback Section, Jan. 15, 1961, 38–39; Granville Hicks, “J. D. Salinger: Search for Wisdom,” Saturday Review 42, July 25, 1959, 13; Marvin Laser and Norman Fruman, Studies in J. D. Salinger (New York 1963): Arthur Mizener, “The Love Song of J. D. Salinger,” Harper's Magazine 218, Feb. 1959, 83; Sanford Pinsker, “The Catcher in the Rye and All; Is the Age of Formative Books Over?”, Georgia Review 40 (Spring 1986) 953–967; Richard Stayton, “Required Reading:” Why Holden Caulfield Still Catches You,” Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Oct. 12, 1985, 35.

  5. Gutwillig, 38.

  6. Corbett, 441.

  7. Pinsker, 953.

  8. Stayton.

  9. J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (New York, Bantam Books ed. 1964 [1951], 173.

  10. I first reviewed the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, which in each issue identifies censorship controversies across the nation (initially erratic in its publication, it has been published monthly since 1965). I then followed all controversies identified as continuing for three months or longer and/or involving fifty or more participants as they appeared in local and national newspapers. Interviews were conducted in 1983 in four states. The communities and the year of controversy were: Calhoun County, Alabama (1982); Marin County, California (1960–61); Albuquerque, New Mexico (1968); and Hanover County, Virginia (1963). These four communities were selected on the basis of a fairly-high level of participation in both number of participants and length of controversy, with an attempt to provide regional and time frame variation.

  11. “Issaquah, Washington,” Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom 27, no. 6 (Nov. 1978), 138.

  12. In the 1960–61 California controversy, the school district Director of Instruction suffered his first heart attack: His participation in the controversy was believed to be the precipitating strain; however, he continued to participate even while recovering in the hospital. Another school board member felt his personal reputation in the same community suffered due to his support of the book and he recounted neighborhood gossip as evidence. Similarly, a minister in the Albuquerque controversy felt the reputation of his high-school-age daughter suffered, as well as his won, for his criticism of Catcher, and an Alabama mother provided documentation of her elementary-school-age son's harassment by teachers and administrators, which she believed was in response to her pro-Catcher stance. Finally, as columnist Dorothy Simpers closed her “I-J Reporter's Notebook” in the San Rafael Independent Journal (Dec. 29, 1960, 1c.) in regard to the California controversy: “The book controversy apparently produced its share of family squabbles too. The board received two letters on the subject from a man and wife. One was for banning the books; the other was opposing.”

  13. Interview Aug. 19, 1983, Anniston, Ala.

  14. Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, An Swidler, Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1986).

  15. Interview Apr. 28, 1983, San Rafael, Calif.

  16. Edward Gordon, “Freedom to Teach and to Learn,” PTA Magazine 58, no. 2 (Oct. 1963), 5.

  17. As quoted in Dorothy Simpers, “Tam Trustees Again Refuse to Ban Books,” San Rafael Independent Journal, Jan. 10, 1961, 4A.

  18. Letter to the Board of Trustees of Tamalpais Unified High School District, Dec. 16, 1960, 1–2.

  19. See particularly Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner, The Fiction of J. D. Salinger (Pittsburgh 1958); Warren French, J. D. Salinger (Boston 1963); Marvin Laaser and Norman Fruman, Studies in J. D. Salinger (New York 1963); James Lundquist, J. D. Salinger (New York 1979).

  20. The archetypal character isolated by R. W. B. Lewis in his review of nineteenth-century American Literature was “the image of a radically new personality, the hero of the new adventure: an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry … an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources” where society is deemed “the element which provides experience.” The American Adam (Chicago 1955), 111.

  21. Salinger, 204.

  22. Salinger, 141.

  23. Interview Apr. 28, 1983, San Rafael, Calif.

  24. Interview Aug. 18, 1983, Anniston, Ala.

  25. Board of Trustees Meeting Minutes, Tamalpais Union High School District, Marin County, Calif., Feb. 6, 1961.

  26. Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom 30, no. 6 (Nov. 1981), 150.

  27. Marcus Klein, After Alienation: American Novels in Mid-Century (Cleveland 1965), 295. See also Ihab Hassan, Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (Princeton 1961).

  28. Sandra Christenson, “On The Catcher in the Rye,” student essay published in Fred B. Myers, ed., The Range of Literature: Nonfiction Prose (Boston 1969), 37–39.

  29. John E. Mack, “Psychosocial Trauma,” In Ruth Adams and Susan Cullen, eds. The Final Epidemic: Physicians and Social Scientists on Nuclear War (Chicago: Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, 1981), 21.

  30. Mack, 26.

  31. Peter Goldman, “Living with the Bomb: The First Generation of the Atomic Age,” Newsweek, July 29, 1985, 28.

  32. See “Depression,” Newsweek, May 4, 1987, 48, which documents the drop in the age of onset of clinical depression from late middle age (50s) to mid-20s and early 30s in the Post-World War II Period. Several sources document the rise in adolescent suicide. I found Herbert Hendin's Suicide in America (New York 1984) particulary accessible.

  33. Phyllis La Farge, “Learning to Live with the Bomb,” Parent's Magazine, March, 1987, 125.

  34. La Farge, 125.

  35. Mack, 25.

  36. La Farge, 125.

Susan K. Mitchell (essay date December 1992)

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