Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2842
Salinger, J(erome) D(avid) 1919–
Salinger, American novelist and short story writer, created in Holden Caulfield a character who became the prototype of alienated adolescence for an entire generation of Americans. His best-known works are The Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Salinger sees the world in terms of allies and enemies. He has a good deal of natural style, a cruel ear, a dislike of ideas (the enemy's intelligence system), and a ventriloquist's knack of disguising his voice. The artless dialect written by Holden is an artful ventriloquial trick of Salinger's, like the deliberate, halting English of Hemingway's waiters, fishermen, and peasants—anyone who speaks it is a good guy, a friend of the author's, to be trusted….
The world of insiders, it would appear, has grown infinitely larger and more accommodating as Salinger has "matured." Where Holden Caulfield's club excluded just about everybody but his kid sister, Zooey's and Franny's secret society includes just about everybody but creative types and students and professors. Here exception is made, obviously, for the Glass family: Seymour, the poet and thinker, Buddy, the writer, and so on. They all have college degrees; the family bookshelves indicate a wide, democratic culture….
To be confronted with the seven faces of Salinger [the seven Glass children], all wise and lovable and simple, is to gaze into a terrifying narcissus pool. Salinger's world contains nothing but Salinger, his teachers, and his tolerantly cherished audience—humanity. Outside are the phonies vainly signaling to be let in. They do not have the key….
Mary McCarthy, "J. D. Salinger's Closed Circuit" (© 1962 by Mary McCarthy; reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.), in her The Writing on the Wall and Other Literary Essays, Harcourt, 1970, pp. 35-41.
I think that Jerome David Salinger is the most talented fiction writer in America. The progress of his Glass series in a little more than a decade from one of the finest short stories of our time, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," to one of the most boring ever written, "Seymour: an Introduction," is appalling. One can understand Salinger's rebellion as another example of the impatience of the ablest New Yorker writers with the form of the well-made story they have so fully mastered (one sees the same impatience with form in the recent stories of John Updike). But a writer breaks through limiting forms into fuller and deeper forms, such as those of Moby-Dick or Ulysses, not into anarchy and incoherence.
Salinger has a marvelous sensitivity to the young, to the language, to the fraudulence of contemporary America, to the Zeitgeist. He can bring characters wonderfully to life even in unsuccessful wholes: the Matron of Honor cursing Seymour in "Raise High," Bessie clanking with hardware in "Zooey," Waker giving away his bicycle in "Seymour." Life called Salinger the most influential man of letters in the United States today, and I am sure that he is and will continue to be even after this new book [Seymour: An Introduction]. But his highway has turned into a dirt road, then into wagon ruts, finally into a squirrel track and climbed a tree. Salinger must come down and get about his business.
Stanley Edgar Hyman, "J. D. Salinger's House of Glass," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 123-27.
Salinger sensed even earlier than the young men in England a rebellion against opportunity. He became the first to find a scene, language, and action for impatience with the more rigorous adolescence which postwar hopes demanded. The first drive in The Catcher in the Rye is the hero's to achieve at once adulthood as he imagines it to be. He does not want to spend years learning how to write English, get along with girls, or be liked by his associates, but his only answer comes from an inherited idea of adult play, followed by retreat to a childhood ideal of it. The response of wounded idealism is American Standard with a twist….
Holden actually experiences a how with some tradition and hope behind it. He sets out to oppose complete play to what he thinks of as complete coercion—either/or. His start looks 1920–ish, but the young in the twenties could join a party of party-going to outrage the stuffy. Holden knows of no such group; so his rebellious play must be solitary. In an irony that Salinger understands well, Holden becomes the greatest phony of them all. By trying at sixteen to act like a midwestern businessman on a binge—renting a hotel room, ordering drinks, getting a call girl, spending to impress the bellhop—he distorts his real self far more than the school means to.
His next move, the retreat toward childhood, intends both to intensify play and purify it. "Phony" means to him doing things he cannot believe in and thinks that others cannot. But Old Phoebe going round and round on that carousel is real—and the favorite scene in the book for Salinger enthusiasts. The ideal figure of Catcher in the Rye wants to protect children so cheerful at play that they are likely to fall over cliffs. A similarly clean, intense pleasure comes from the ice skating. Holden does not, of course, and does not want to wholly escape sex and the equivocal. In courting his sister, he finds a safe situation which happily suggests a telling violation of the mores. His demand, though, that play be innocent is exactly what was to be proved—that school is not virtue and play not guilt. However, his ultimate rationale for his hopes and behavior is highly traditional. The lessons which the school offers are perhaps civilizing, but certainly man-made, and his justification for his distaste invokes the natural—in his case, the childlike.
Salinger leaves it at almost that, but not quite. The framework of illness puts a different perspective, regretful but realistic, on the soft interior of the novel. Salinger knows that to act so radically on an ideal of childhood play in the 1950's is to be judged ill—in fact, to be ill—and this sickness of the sensitive becomes the subject of his later work. In his novel, society does not create the disease, at most it aggravates it. We do not see enough of society to establish an adequate cause.
James Hall, "Play, The Fractured Self, and American Angry Comedy: From Faulkner to Salinger," in his The Lunatic Giant in the Drawing Room: The British and American Novel Since 1930, Indiana University Press, 1968, pp. 75-7.
Few heroes of contemporary literature have aroused so much devotion, imitation, or controversy as J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, the disaffiliated adolescent whose lost weekend in New York is chronicled in The Catcher in the Rye. As an impressionable adolescent making his first tentative movements into an adult world, Holden becomes a sensitive register by which the values of that world can be judged. From the opening pages of this novel the world is seen to be fragmentary, distorted, and absurd—in Holden's own special vernacular, "phony." It is an environment in which real communication on a sensitive level is impossible, and when Holden unsuccessfully tries to explain his spiritual pain to Sally Hayes, there is certainly more than a coincidental suggestion of Eliot's "J. Alfred Prufrock" in the frustrated cry, "'You don't see what I meant at all'."…
Holden does not refuse to grow up so much as he agonizes over the state of being grown up. The innocent world of childhood is amply represented in The Catcher in the Rye, but Holden, as a frustrated, disillusioned, anxious hero, stands for modern man rather than merely for the modern adolescent. He is self-conscious and often ridiculous, but he is also an anguished human being of special sensitivity. Even though he is often childishly ingenuous, and his language is frequently comic, Holden must be seen as both a representative and a critic of the modern environment, as the highly subjective tone of the novel suggests….
The Catcher in the Rye is an important articulation of one of the possible responses which man may make to an essentially destructive life experience. Since, Holden reasons, there is no fulfillment in the adult world, since all it can offer man is frustration or corruption, the only worthwhile task to which he can devote himself is that of the protector who stops children before they enter the world of destruction and phoniness and keeps them in a state of arrested innocence…. What Salinger leaves us with in this novel is an often biting image of the absurd contemporary milieu. The idea of perpetuating the innocence of childhood is a philosophically untenable position, and the only other unrejected proposals in the novel are so vague that their full importance can be seen only in Salinger's later work….
Like efforts to recapture the innocence of childhood, mysticism (which Salinger usually considers in terms of Zen Buddhism) is finally seen as an evasion and contradiction of Western man's spiritual quest. In Zen Buddhism, the life of the mystic is only temporarily one of isolation, for after the achievement of satori, the state of total enlightenment and consciousness that is the goal of Zen Buddhism, the enlightened man re-enters the world to perform good works. Thus, Salinger's rejection of the transitory, unearned mystical experience is understandable in terms of its failure to provide a program which the individual can follow in order to give his life meaning, but his rejection of mysticism itself is more difficult to understand—especially in light of his own involvement with Zen Buddhism. Mysticism is treated as a "fever" in Salinger's writings, an isolating and therefore unfruitful discipline that inevitably leads Western man away from the paths of significant human involvement. Furthermore, while satori may eventually guide the Buddhist back into his world, the good works which he is prepared to perform are not necessarily those works which a spiritually enlightened Westerner should be prepared to perform. It is not through mysticism but through love that the Salinger hero at last re-enters the world….
To act with morality and love in a universe in which God is dead (or, at least, in which historical preconceptions of God frequently seem invalid) is perhaps the most acute problem of our age. Salinger's intense consideration of that problem in large part accounts for the fact that, while he is one of the least prolific authors writing today, he is the most popular. The progression from early stories in which the misfit hero can find genuine love only in children to the later stories in which mysticism is rejected in favor of an absurd love stance is a progression whose scope is perhaps not fully measured in the stories which Salinger has written, but more specifically in the personal struggle he has undergone in arriving at this philosophical position. There is no question that the author loves Seymour, and it is with an uneasy feeling that the reader is compelled to reject this Christ-like man. Salinger began the Glass saga with Seymour's suicide, and since that time has been writing his way around and back to that day in 1945 in order to show where Seymour failed. Seymour is at least partly exonerated for making "freaks" of Franny and Zooey when we note that it was his death (and its admission of failure) which saved the youngest Glass children; in a metaphorical sense in no way foreign to Salinger's intention, Seymour (who could, in fact, see more than his contemporaries) died that Franny and Zooey might live, and it is in this sense of his almost ritualistic death, rather than in the deluding mysticism of his life, that one seizes on the essence of this character's saintliness. Through Seymour's death, Zooey learns that the Fat Lady, the eternal vulgarian, must not be passed over for any mystical discipline.
David D. Galloway, "The Love Ethic," in his The Absurd Hero in American Fiction, revised edition, University of Texas Press, 1970, pp. 140-69.
We now tend to ignore J. D. Salinger, though there was a time when each new story bearing his name was regarded as a public event. Beginning with "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters," the later works puzzle the critics; they are relieved, therefore, that Salinger writes no more. Ungainly, prolix, allusive, convoluted, tolerant of chance, whimsy, and disorder, these narratives define a kind of anti-form. Their impertinent exhortations of reader and writer undercut the authority of the artistic act. Yet the impulse behind them is less parodic than religious. It is appropriate that Seymour Glass, the central character of this unfinished sequence, should be an absent mukta, a dead seer. It is also right that his author should explore, in the spirit of Zen, alternatives to speech.
Ihab Hassan, in his The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature (copyright © 1971 by Ihab Hassan; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1971, p. 251.
Salinger's extraordinary stories—extraordinary in their residual pain and obsession, extraordinary as fiction—are dominated by the idea of the Glass family as exceptional beings. In a world too plainly made "absurd" by our inability to love it, the Glasses are loved by their relative and creator, J. D. Salinger, on every inexhaustible cherished inch of their lives. His microscopic love for them compels them into our field of vision; we see them through the absoluteness of Salinger's love and grief. And non-Glasses are spiritual trash. One recognizes in Salinger's stories a disturbing death wish, a sympathy with extinction, the final silence tempting to absolutists of feeling. This pertained so long to the unworthy non-Glass world that it may have turned on Salinger himself.
Yet for all this eerie devaluation of everyone outside the Glass family, the whole charm of Salinger's fiction lies in his gift for comedy, his ability to represent society as it is, for telltale gestures and social manners. In what is probably his best story, "Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters"—the beautifully spun-out account of what happened among the wedding guests when the bridegroom failed to show up, the meticulous telling of every detail, the light ironic allusions to the contrasts of the shifting social groupings, in the obviously but not explicitly Jewish bourgeoisie, are somehow held together by the intense self-consciousness of brother Buddy Glass the narrator. In the heat of the midsummer afternoon, in a bedraggled uniform, and barely over an attack of pleurisy, he somehow manages to describe completely the external human performance of every guest at this fiasco of a wedding.
Salinger's great gift was always comic, Chaplinesque, in his ability to project a world of social types from a fumbling, theatrically awkward observer and narrator, Buddy Glass the English instructor and as yet unpublished writer, who is confessedly a failure and somehow ridiculous in his excessive feelings of alienation. Buddy's special thing was to create sympathy for his pratfalls and fumbling, for his own unachieved gestures, that then lighted up other people's gestures and fumbling as a way of life. No American fiction writer in recent memory has given so much value, by way of his hypnotized attention, to the little things that light up character in every social exchange. Salinger has been the great pantomimist in our contemporary fiction….
Salinger has a genius for capturing the emotional giveaway. Love is isolating. The fact that his love necessitates so much disdain shows how much social comedy springs from coldness toward the world. Salinger gives his hypnotized attention to every "enemy" gesture as well as to Seymour's saintly touch, which leaves stigmata. "I have scars on my hands from touching certain people," Seymour modestly confesses in his diary. This attentiveness, charging the front line of Salinger's fiction, is the beleaguered animal's need to know the ways of the hunter. The whole scheme of values in Salinger's fiction is to give the highest marks to the individual made exceptional by a sensitivity to society that is fear of it. Holden Caulfield endeared himself to the antisocializers of all ages because he went right into the lion's cage—all those phonies!—without liking anything of what he relentlessly described….
Salinger is an oddity, an obsessive, who commands respect because certain of his characters are so important to him. The Glass stories are not another family chronicle; Salinger's emotions are too selective and even arbitrary. But they do display, to the point of anguish, a sense that some people are more important than anything else in the world. So much regard for individual personality (incestuous as the particular case may be) makes Salinger's Holy Family stand out from the great mass of unvalued, unregarded and undescribed individuals in contemporary fiction. His people will last.
Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 115-19.