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J(erome) D(avid) Salinger 1919–
American novelist and short story writer. Salinger is recognized by critics and readers alike as one of the most popular and influential of contemporary writers. His only novel, The Catcher in the Rye, drew such great attention during the fifties and early sixties that those years have been called "the age of Holden Caulfield." The novel, in Ernest Jones's words, records "what every sensitive 16-year-old since Rousseau has felt." It has been banned even recently from a few libraries, schools, and bookstores for the starkness of its language and attitudes and the realism of some of its settings. Although Salinger has fallen out of critical favor of late because of his sentimentality, it is generally agreed that Catcher has yet to be surpassed in its portrayal of the pains and pleasures of a youth searching for love and direction. In all of his work Salinger draws upon the experience of his own life. For instance, his parents shared the same backgrounds as do those of his fictive Glass family. An undistinguished student, Salinger flunked out of private high school. His family sent him to Valley Forge Military Academy, the model for Catcher's Pencey Prep. Later, in a short story class at Columbia University, Salinger made a poor first impression on his instructor, Whit Burnett; however, at the end of the first semester he turned in his first manuscript, which was so polished that Burnett published it without changes in his Story magazine. While Salinger was in the Army, Ernest Hemingway once visited his unit and looked at some of his written work. When asked about its quality, Hemingway replied, "He's got a hell of a talent." In 1946 Collier's magazine published "I'm Crazy," which marked the literary debut of Holden Caulfield. Salinger became one of the major contributors of short stories to The New Yorker, which has since premiered all of his later works. After Catcher's popularity, Salinger withdrew from his audience. One reason given is that he has become a Zen Buddhist, since the precepts of that religion permeate so much of his fiction. Whatever the cause, his personal inscrutability has served to further popularize him among his admirers, creating a legendary aura around his name. To his series of young adult readers, Salinger's identification with and understanding of their situation has kept him relevant and appreciated for almost 30 years. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
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It is clear that J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye belongs to an ancient and honorable narrative tradition, perhaps the most profound in western fiction. The tradition is the central pattern of the epic and has been enriched by every tongue; for not only is it in itself exciting but also it provides the artist a framework upon which he may hang almost any fabric of events and characters.
It is, of course, the tradition of the Quest. (p. 129)
There are at least two sorts of quests, depending upon the object sought. [James Joyce's] Stephen Dedalus sought a reality uncontaminated by home, country, church; for … he knew that social institutions tend to force what is ingenious in a man into their own channels. He sought the opposite of security, for security was a cataract of the eye. Bloom [also in Joyce's Ulysses], on the other hand, was already an outcast and sought acceptance by an Ithaca and a Penelope which despised him. And, tragically enough, he also sought an Icarian son who had fled the very maze which he, Bloom, desired to enter. So the two kinds of quests, the one seeking acceptance and stability, the other precisely the opposite, differ significantly, and can cross only briefly to the drunken wonder of both heroes. (pp. 129-30)
American literature seems fascinated with the outcast, the person who defies traditions in order to arrive at some pristine knowledge, some personal integrity. (p. 130)
All the virtues of these American heroes are personal ones: They most often, as a matter of fact, are in conflict with home, family, church. The typical American hero must flee these institutions, become a tramp in the earth, cut himself off from Chicago, Winesburg, Hannibal, Cooperstown, New York, Asheville, Minneapolis. For only by flight can he find knowledge of what is real. And if he does not flee, he at least defies.
The protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield, is one of these American heroes, but with a significant difference. He seems to be engaged in both sorts of quests at once; he needs to go home and he needs to leave it. Unlike the other American knight errants, Holden seeks Virtue second to Love. He wants to be good. When the little children are playing in the rye-field on the clifftop, Holden wants to be the one who catches them before they fall off the cliff…. But like these American heroes, Holden is a wanderer, for in order to be good he has to be more of a bad boy than the puritanical Huck could have imagined. Holden has had enough of both Hannibal, Missouri, and the Mississippi; and his tragedy is that when he starts back up the river, he has no place to go—save, of course, a California psychiatrist's couch.
So Salinger translates the old tradition into contemporary terms. The phoniness of society forces Holden Caulfield to leave it, but he is seeking nothing less than stability and love. He would like nothing better than a home, a life embosomed upon what is known and can be trusted; he is a very wise sheep forced into lone wolf's clothing; he is Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom rolled into one crazy kid. And here is the point; for poor Holden, there is no Ithaca. Ithaca has not merely been defiled by a horde of suitors: it has sunk beneath waves of phoniness. He does, of course, have a Penelope who is still intact. She is his little sister Phoebe whom he must protect at all costs from the phantoms of lust, hypocrisy, conceit and fear—all of the attributes which Holden sees in society and which Huck Finn saw on the banks of the Mississippi and Dedalus saw in Dublin. So at the end, like the hero of [Aldous Huxley's] Antic Hay, Holden delights in circles—a comforting, bounded figure which yet connotes hopelessness. He breaks down as he watches his beloved little Phoebe going round and round on a carousel; she is so damned happy. From that lunatic delight in a circle, he is shipped off to the psychiatrist. For Holden loves the world more than the world can bear.
Holden's Quest takes him outside society; yet the grail he seeks is the world and the grail is full of love. To be a catcher in the rye in this world is possible only at the price of leaving it. To be good is to be a "case," a "bad boy" who confounds the society of men. So Holden seeks the one role which would allow him to be a catcher, and that role is the role of the child. As a child, he would be condoned, for a child is a sort of savage and a pariah because he is innocent and good. But it is Holden's tragedy that he is sixteen, and like Wordsworth he can never be less. In childhood he had what he is now seeking—non-phoniness, truth, innocence. He can find it now only in Phoebe and in his dead brother Allie's baseball mitt, in a red hunting cap and the tender little nuns. Still, unlike all of us, Holden refuses to compromise with adulthood and its necessary adulteries; and his heroism drives him berserk. Huck Finn had the Mississippi and at the end of the Mississippi he had the wild west beyond Arkansas. The hero of The Waste Land had Shantih, the peace which passes human understanding. Bloom had Molly and his own ignorance; Dedalus had Paris and Zurick. But for Holden, there is no place to go.
The central theme of Salinger's work is stated explicitly in one of his best short stories, "For Esme—with love and Squalor." Salinger quotes a passage from Dostoevski: "Fathers and teachers, I ponder 'What is Hell?' I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love." (pp. 130-32)
Salinger thus diagnoses the neurosis and fatigue of the world in one simple way: if we cannot love, we cannot live. (p. 132)
The flight out of the world, out of the ordinary, and into an Eden of innocence or childhood is a common flight indeed, and it is one which Salinger's heroes are constantly attempting. But Salinger's childism is consubstantial with his concern for love and neurosis. Adultism is precisely "the suffering of being unable to love," and it is that which produces neurosis. Everyone able to love in Salinger's stories is either a child or a man influenced by a child. All the adults not informed by love and innocence are by definition phonies and prostitutes. (p. 133)
[The] final note of irony in the book [is] that that frontier west which represented escape from "sivilization" for Huck Finn has ended by becoming the symbol for depravity and phoniness in our national shrine at Hollywood. (p. 134)
[Poignance] characterizes all of Salinger's humor, [a] catch in the throat that accompanies all of the laughs. Holden Caulfield is no clown nor is he a tragic hero; he is a sixteen-year-old lad whose vivid encounter with everyday life is tragically humorous—or humorously tragic. At the end of the novel, as we leave Holden in the psychiatric ward of the California hospital, we come to the realization that the abundant and richly varied humor of the novel has reenforced the serious intensity of Holden's frantic flight from Adultism and his frenzied search for the genuine in a terrifyingly phony world. (pp. 134-35)
Holden does not suffer from the inability to love, but he does despair of finding a place to bestow his love. The depth of Holden's capacity for love is revealed in his final words, as he sits in the psychiatric ward musing over his nightmarish adventures: "If you want to know the truth, I don't know what I think about it. I'm sorry I told so many people about it. About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that goddam Maurice. It's funny. Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody." We agree with Holden that it is funny, but it is funny in a pathetic kind of way. As we leave Holden alone in his room in the psychiatric ward, we are aware of the book's last ironic incongruity. 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; he must be pushed over that "crazy cliff." (p. 137)
Arthur Heiserman and James E. Miller, Jr., "J. D. Salinger: Some Crazy Cliff," in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1956, University of Utah), Spring, 1956, pp. 129-37.
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What meaning, if any, can one attach to the expression 'a key book of the present decade'? It is used as a blurb in a … reprint of [The Catcher in the Rye]…. Whoever remembers the book will suppose that this is a serious claim, implying perhaps that The Catcher, as well as being extremely successful, is a work of art existing in some more or less profound relationship with the 'spirit of the age.' It is, anyway, quite different from saying that No Orchids for Miss Blandish is a key book. On the other hand, there is an equally clear distinction between this book and such key novels as Ulysses or A Passage to India. For it is elementary that, although these books have been read by very large numbers of people, one may reasonably distinguish between a smaller, 'true' audience and bigger audiences which read them quite differently, and were formerly a fortuitous addition to the "highbrow' public. But although Salinger is certainly a 'highbrow' novelist, it would be unreal to speak of his audience, large though it is, as divided in this way. What we now have is a new reader who is not only common but pretty sharp. This new reader is also a pampered consumer, so that the goods supplied him rapidly grow obsolete: which may explain why I found The Catcher somewhat less enchanting on a second reading.
It is, of course, a book of extraordinary accomplishment; I don't know how one reviewer came to call it 'untidy.' Nothing inept, nothing that does not look good and work well as long at it is needed, will satisfy this new public. Structural virtuosity is now taken for granted, particularly in American novels. This one is designed for readers who can see a wood, and paths in a wood, as well as sturdy, primitive trees—a large, roughly calculable audience: fit audience though many.
At the level of its untidy story, the book is about an adolescent crisis…. Repetitive, indecent, often very funny, it is wonderfully sustained by the author, who achieves all those ancient effects to be got from a hero who is in some ways inferior, and in others superior, to the reader….
[The story] you get from listening to the boy, and it sounds untidy. What Mr. Salinger adds is design. Holden is betrayed at the outset by a schoolmaster (phoney-crumby) and at the end by another (phoney-perverted). The only time his parents come into the story, he has to remain motionless in the dark with his sister. The boy's slang is used to suggest patterns he cannot be aware of: whatever pleases him 'kills' him, sends him off to join his dead brother; almost everybody, even the disappointed whore, is 'old so-and-so,' and 'old' suggests the past and stability. More important, the book has its big, focal passages, wonderfully contrived. Holden hears a little neglected boy singing. 'If a body catch a body, etc.' This kills him. Then he helps a little girl in Central Park to fasten her skates. Next he walks to the Museum of Natural History, which he loved as a child; it seemed 'the only nice, dry cosy place in the world.' Nothing changed there among the stuffed Indians and Eskimos; except you. You changed every time you went in. The thought that his little sister must also feel that whenever she went in depresses him; so he tries to help some kids on a see-saw, but they don't want him around. When he reaches the museum he won't go in. This is a beautiful little parable, and part of my point is that nobody will miss it….
Why, then, with all this to admire, do I find something phoney in the book itself? Not because there is 'faking,' as Mr. [E. M.] Forster calls it. In his sense, 'faking' doesn't lead one directly to some prefabricated attitude, and this does happen in The Catcher. The mixed-up kid totters on the brink of a society which is corrupt in a conventional way: its evils are fashionably known to be such, and don't have to be proved, made valid in the book. Similarly, the adult view of adolescence, insinuated by skilful faking, is agreeable to predictable public taste. Again, we like to look at the book and see the Libido having a bad time while the Death Wish does well, as in the museum scenes: but I don't feel that this situation occurs in the book as it were by natural growth, any more than sub-threshold advertising grows on film. The Catcher has a built-in death wish; it is what the consumer needs, just as he might ask that a tooth-paste taste good and contain a smart prophylactic against pyorrhoea. The predictable consumer-reaction is a double one: how good! and how clever! The boy's attitudes to religion, authority, art, sex and so on are what smart people would like other people to have, but cannot have themselves because of their superior understanding. They hold together in a single thought purity and mess, and feel good. The author's success springs from his having, with perfect understanding, supplied their demand for this kind of satisfaction. (p. 705)
Frank Kermode, "Fit Audience," in The Spectator (© 1958 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), May 30, 1958, pp. 705-06.
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No writer of recent years has captured the New Yorker market of Connecticut emigres the way J. D. Salinger has. From the defiant Holden Caulfield to the stoic Mrs. Glass all of his characters are strictly the contented-tormented people who inhabit New York City and its suburbs. But Salinger's importance in the school of younger writers comes from a moral awareness as well as a social perception. The hero in every Salinger story becomes a reflection of a moral code arising out of a cult of innocence, love, alienation, and finally redemption. These heroes form a particularly adolescent troupe of spiritual non-conformists, tough-minded and fragile, humorous and heartbreaking.
The basic predicament in Salinger's stories is that of a moral hero forced to compromise his integrity with a pragmatic society. What disaffiliates the hero is his peculiar off-center vision which sensitizes and distorts his sense of truth in a false world. As Salinger's talent develops, his hero's vision becomes his trademark, flowering in the extraordinary Glass family of Salinger's latest New Yorker stories. Moreover, the hero's misfitness in the modern world resolves as a moral problem rather than as the bitter fruit of a social injustice. If the significance of Salinger's emphasis on the moral right is kept in mind, then his recent embracing of Christian principles becomes less than surprising; if we are aware of them, there are indications all along the way.
In his second published story Salinger constructs the predicament that all his heroes will subsequently face: a young soldier marches out of step with the rest of his battalion in "Hang of It."… In "Varioni Brothers" Salinger, for the first time portrays his hero as an artist. The story stands as a transition between the hero who is a misfit and the misfit who is a hero. In the character of Joe Varioni, the writer-artist, Salinger crystallizes the character who will dominate his later fiction—the misfit hero. Unlike his predecessors, Joe is talented, kind, and sensitive; yet he stands apart from his society because he is docile as well as brilliant. Unequipped for the tough world around him, Joe's submissiveness leads to his downfall. (pp. 92-3)
Just as "Varioni Brothers" created the image of the misfit hero, so every succeeding story developed the hero's alienation from, and defeat by, society. All of Salinger's wartime stories accentuated the hero's isolation from the good past and the corrupt world. In "This Sandwich Has No Mayonaise" the hero, Vincent Caulfield, is separated from his family and removed from his brother, Holden, who is "missing in action." Cut off from love, alienated from the other soldiers by his thoughts, Vincent is "drenched to the bone, the bone of loneliness, the bone of silence." The soldier's initiation into the terrors of war parallels the child's initiation into the sordidness of the adult world. What is so horrifying is neither war's physical brutality nor society's overt prejudices but rather the subtle dehumanization, the insidious loneliness, and the paralyzing lovelessness. Thus each character becomes a war casualty just as the earlier characters were casualties of society. (p. 93)
Salinger's early vision—the vision of something so terrible that it cannot be communicated or forgotten which plagued the young soldier—is culminated in the post-war world of "The Inverted Forest" … in which an innocent and talented poet destroys himself. Raymond Ford, the talented poet, is Salinger's misfit hero, built from Joe Varioni's image, later to be developed into Seymour Glass…. What makes him a misfit in society—the fact that "his equipment differed from that of other men"—cannot be compromised.
The fate of Raymond's vision symbolizes the outcome of his life: real sight and metaphorical sight are one. In his adolescence he read poetry twenty hours a day, badly damaging his eyes. Finally, his impaired vision required him to wear two pair of glasses—one for reading and one for everyday use. In an attempt to reconcile these two worlds—the aesthetic and the real one—Ford ruined himself…. The point for Raymond—as for Holden and Seymour—is that he is a misfit and can never be accepted by, or accept, society. His vision—like his unimpaired sense of taste—renders his problem insoluble. With it he cannot live in society; without it he cannot live with himself. (pp. 93-4)
The off-center vision of "The Inverted Forest" is further developed in the first Salinger story to gain any attention, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish."… In it, the Glass family is born when Seymour Glass, the eldest son in the family, commits suicide at the age of twenty-five. Developing from the mold of Joe Varioni, Vincent Caulfield, and Raymond Ford, Seymour becomes the prototype for the whole Glass family: sensitive, intelligent, imaginative, loving, combining a whimsical sense of humor and an overbearing sense of his own misfitness in the modern world. Like Holden Caulfield, he is too full of love, with no worthy object on which to bestow it. Salinger juxtaposes the delightful conversation Seymour has with the little girl on the beach with his complete inability to communicate with any of the adults around him. Seymour's tragic obsession with his own inability to communicate with the outside world and live with it on its own terms is what kills him and plagues the rest of the Glass Family. (p. 94)
"Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters" … delves into the pre-suicidal days of Seymour Glass. That Salinger should resurrect Seymour is important not only because it sheds light on the earlier story, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," but because it holds the key to the future evolution of the misfit hero. The problem becomes no longer one of merely co-existing with society but rather of living the good life. Indeed, this sprawling story—formless in contrast to earlier works like "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" or "Down at the Dinghy"—contains the element found in all of Salinger's stories. Present are the distraught misfit hero, unable to reconcile his Zen Buddhism with his society's Pragmatism; the mundane, misguided girl who cannot share her fiance's extraordinary world; the vulgar antagonist, insensitive and sophisticated enough to be harmful, insinuating that there is something homosexual about Seymour because he is too happy to show up for his own wedding; the narrator who tries to appear detached but obviously has a personal stake in Seymour's life; and the stifling environment in which love, communication and decent values have been lost.
Seymour says: "The human voice conspires to desecrate everything on earth." Indeed, all through Salinger's writing there is distrust of the spoken word…. At the same time, Salinger has made the written word the mode of communication for his hero. Joe Varioni is a writer; Raymond Ford a poet; and Teddy and Seymour keep diaries…. More lasting than speech, writing symbolizes both the honesty and the creativity of the artist. Like Stephen Dedalus and Tonio Kruger, but perhaps more like Kafka's Hunger Artist, Salinger's misfit hero is the artist, trying to reconcile his art to his soul.
If the artist communicates by writing, then the religious man communicates by silence: this is the paradox of Zen. Zen Buddhism places its prime burden on the relationship between man and nature, between the "I" of Martin Buber and any object outside the "I"—the "Thou." Without this essential relationship there can be no communication. Thus the "sound of two hands clapping" is the sound of the relationship. Without either partner—call them subject and object if you like—there can be no sound. The search for "the sound of one hand clapping" comes to an end in the spiritual life. Thus art is the way of the imagination and Zen is the way of the soul. Salinger is primarily interested in the souls of his characters.
However, it is one thing to espouse the way of the soul and quite another thing actually to follow it. In choosing the private world over the public the hero has compromised the basic Western principle of social responsibility. Salinger's heroes attempt not to compromise between the pure spiritual world and the corrupted mundane world but rather to disaffiliate themselves from the public world and flee to the private because they have confused the private world with the soul…. The way of the holy man is, truly, a difficult way, too difficult for either Holden or Seymour. In this sense, Salinger's misfit who is a hero is really a hero who is a misfit: a misfit in society because he refuses to adjust and a misfit in the private world because he cannot pass through its "dark night of the soul." Too much a product of his Western culture to follow Zen, the misfit hero makes the grave error of assuming that there are only these two alternatives and that one of them is unthinkable.
Salinger's choice for his hero is essentially a religious problem, that is, the problem of finding moral integrity, love, and redemption in an immoral world. We can illuminate the meaningfulness of this interpretation by comparing Salinger's last story, "Zooey" …, to T. S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party for the two works are much closer than one would suspect. In setting up their respective situations both Salinger and Eliot have used essentially the same pattern and relationships between their characters. In the play, Celia, a sensitive young woman concerned with the futility of the meaningless relationships she has established, is faced with the possibilities of her salvation. Similarly, in "Zooey," we pick up Franny where we last left her, still sick of her college environment, now at home, trying to decide whether to return to school or become a nun. (pp. 95-7)
Both Franny and Celia suffer from the same symptoms: frustration in love, loneliness and alienation, emptiness and failure. Celia says she feels she must "atone" for her failure while Franny actively does this by murmuring her prayer over and over in an attempt to regain what she feels she has lost. The two women are also presented with the same alternatives. (p. 97)
Like Eliot, Salinger finds that the path through the world reaches salvation as quickly as the way to the frontier. However, whereas Celia chooses the frontier, Franny chooses the world. In the respective choices lies the difference between the Anglican and American tempers. While William Wiegand points out in the Chicago Review … that Franny's embracing of "Christian love" is a reconciliation of the misfit hero, alias bananafish, to the world, it seems more likely that Franny's defection from the trail to the nunnery indicates a repudiation of the image of the misfit hero. Zooey tells her: "We're freaks, that's all. Those two bastards [Seymour and his twin brother, Buddy, the story's narrator] got us nice and early and made us into freaks with freakish standards, that's all. We're the Tattooed Lady, and we're never going to have a minute's peace, the rest of our lives, till everybody else is tattooed, too." The thing that counts in the religious life is "detachment" but the misfit hero has made the mistake of using his ego as the yardstick of holiness, replacing it with a holier-than-thouness. He has forgotten that "this is God's universe, buddy, not yours, and He has the final say about what's ego and what isn't." Like Job, the misfit hero is guilty of the deepest sin, spiritual pride: he has missed the distinction between being religious and being pious, between God's world and his personal world. Thus Franny is so busy searching her spiritual navel that she cannot recognize that her mother's bowl of chicken broth is "consecrated."
But a world of difference separates Franny from the earlier misfit heroes. Whereas Holden Caulfield runs away when he is in trouble, Franny goes home…. In a vast world full of misunderstanding and estrangement, the sensitive innocent must turn in towards the family to find the intimate love and communication that is so lacking in the outside world. It is through the family that he retains his equilibrium, balancing his moral integrity against the social pressures of the outside world. Thus the family becomes the place where self and society meet, where the moral and ethical realms are reconciled. The Glass family is a striking affirmation in an era dominated by the disintegrating families of O'Neill and Wolfe. The affirmation of the family and of the concept of social responsibility is traditionally moral in the sense that it is traditionally Judeo-Christian.
Not only are The Cocktail Party and "Zooey" essentially Christian, they are both concerned with the family unit. Arthur Miller has pointed out that the basic weakness of The Cocktail Party is that its poetic diction is unsuited to its familial subject matter. Likewise, the form of Salinger's latest stories may weaken their effectiveness. For while the stories retain the semblance of the realism of "Uncle Wiggily …" and "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," they blur the distance between the author and his subject matter. This lack of aesthetic distance creates a personal interplay between author and character rather than between character and character. The stories hold the reader's attention not through the revelation of character but through revelation of author, reducing Salinger's audience to his afficianados and troubled adolescents in general. His audience becomes cultish, his predicament personal, his characters begin "to give off a little stink of piousness," and the meaningfulness of the problem and solution appears both too pat and even ludicrous in its juxtaposition to the facts that he gives. (pp. 98-9)
Paul Levine, "J. D. Salinger: The Development of the Misfit Hero," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1958, Hofstra University Press), October, 1958, pp. 92-9.
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It has only been in the past few years … that professional literary critics have taken Salinger under their microscopes for examination. Even this belated inspection has been not so much out of interest in his search as it has in him as a species held in high regard by "The Young Generation." Surely this is of interest, but to make it the most important thing in considering Salinger is to distort the meaning of his work.
Out of my own personal experience, which is that of a student of Columbia College in the early fifties who has spent the last several years in New York, I know that Salinger is indeed regarded highly by many young people. I have heard his work discussed among my friends and acquaintances more than any other contemporary author, and I have heard enough speculation about Salinger himself to feel that there is indeed a "Salinger Myth," as there was in the twenties, though in a different way, a "Fitzgerald Myth." Certainly any myth alive in our fact-smothered era is of interest, and this one perhaps especially since its nature is so extremely different from the twenties myth. The Fitzgerald myth had its hero in Gatsby-like parties and dunkings in the fountain at Union Square; the Salinger myth has its hero living in a cabin in the woods or going to Japan to study Zen. But in both cases the work of the man is of far more importance than the myth. Limiting Salinger's work to its interest as some kind of "document" that appeals only to people of a certain age and social background is as sensible and rewarding as considering The Great Gatsby as a sociological monograph once enjoyed by a now extinct species known as "Flaming Youth."
And yet it seems to follow in the eyes of some older observers that if Salinger is indeed a myth and mentor of many young people, interest in his work is restricted to young people and that this is symptomatic of the fact that it is really childish, sentimental, adolescent, and irrelevant. (pp. 78-9)
Moral senility can come at any age, or need not come at all, and we have recently borne painful witness through the Howls of the writers of the "Beat Generation" that moral senility can afflict quite young men and women. This group dismisses the search of Salinger on the grounds that he is "slick" (he writes for The New Yorker, and as any sensitive person can tell, it is printed on a slick type of paper). But now that the roar from the motorcycles of Jack Kerouac's imagination has begun to subside, we find that the highly advertised search of the Beat has ended, at least literarily, not with love but with heroin. (pp. 80-1)
Holden, through the course of his search, is repulsed and frightened, not by what people do to him … but rather by what people do to each other, and to themselves. (p. 81)
Dan Wakefield, "Salinger and the Search for Love," in New World Writing No. 14 (copyright © 1958 by Dan Wakefield: reprinted by permission of the author and The Helen Brann Agency, Inc.), 1958 (and 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, Odyssey Press, 1963, pp. 77-84.
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The essential reality for [Salinger] subsists in personal relations, when people, however agonizingly, love one another. "I say," remarks Buddy Glass as he begins to tell us the story "Zooey," "that my current offering isn't a mystical story, or a religiously mystifying story, at all. I say it is a compound, or multiple, love story, pure and complicated."
This is true of all Salinger's mature stories. Their subject is the power to love, pure and—in children and the childlike—simple, but in aware people, pure and complicated. Salinger's constant allusions to the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Ramakrishna, Chuang-tzu, and the rest are only efforts to find alternative ways of expressing what his stories are about. This power to love can be realized—and represented—most fully in complicated personal relations like those of the Glasses.
Salinger's conception of these relations is an impressive—and certainly unconscious—evidence of the way he fits into a major tradition of American literature, what might be called the effort to define The Good American. For this tradition, American experience creates a dilemma by encouraging the individual man to cultivate his perception to the limit according to his own lights and at the same time committing him to a society on which the majority has firmly imposed a well-meaning but imperceptive and uniform attitude. (p. 87)
The Glass children stand in this way at the center of our dilemma as, with less clarity of perception and less intensity of feeling, large numbers of Americans do. Like Thoreau and Henry Adams, Huck Finn and Ike McCaslin, Ishmael and Jay Gatsby, the Glass children are well aware of where they stand—committed, involved, torn.
"I'd enjoy [doing a movie in France], yes," says Zooey. "God, yes. But I'd hate like hell to leave New York. If you must know, I hate any kind of so-called creative type who gets on any kind of ship. I don't give a goddam what his reasons are. I was born here. I went to school here. I've been run over here—twice, and on the same damned street. I have no business acting in Europe, for God's sake."
This sounds like the speaker in Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead," except that the voice is wholly Northern and urban and is—for all its desperateness—less despairing. (pp. 87-8)
It is the effort to convey their full sense of this situation that leads the Glass children to talk the way they do. For this extra dimension of understanding they use the everyday urban speech Salinger has been listening to all his life. The Glass children must speak the language of the place where they were born, went to school, were run over; it is their native language, the only one wholly theirs, just as the place itself is. But they need to express in this language an understanding of their experience which, if possessed to some degree by many Americans, is wholly clear to only a few of them.
An effort to resolve a similar conflict of feelings affects most of the writers of this tradition, with the result that they too develop odd, brilliant styles. Salinger's style most obviously resembles those of Mark Twain, Lardner, and Hemingway, who prided themselves on using homely American speech with great accuracy, but were saying things with it that few homely Americans are wholly conscious of.
Like Twain and Lardner, Salinger depends more than most prose writers on the fine shading of his style to convey his meaning. That is why he is at his best when one of his characters is speaking. When Buddy Glass writes his brother Zooey about Zooey's unprofitable love of Greek, he says, "Of course, you can go to Athens. Sunny old Athens." When Zooey wants to get out of the bathtub, he says to his mother, "I'm getting out of here in about three seconds, Bessie! I'm giving you fair warning. Let's not wear out our welcome, buddy." Each of these clichés is made absurd by the special quality of the Glass child's feeling, but it is at the same time what holds him, for all his special insight, in contact with the perception of ordinary people. (p. 88)
It is [a] delicately balanced perception that gives the Glass children their special quality.
But if it makes them remarkable, it is also a quite terrible burden. "Smart men," as Dick Diver said a long time ago about Abe North in Tender Is the Night, "play close to the line because they have to—some of them can't stand it, so they quit." Like Abe North, Seymour, the most gifted of the Glass children, kills himself. He knows that, in spite of—because of—the unusual depth and intensity of his perception of experience, he needs to be a part of the daily life of the ordinary world. He tries, by psychoanalysis and marriage, to become part of Muriel Fedder's world. This commitment is not merely an intellectual need; it is a desperate emotional necessity for him: "How I love and need her undiscriminating heart," he says of Muriel. But Seymour finds it impossible to live simultaneously the life of his own discriminating heart and Muriel's life, with its "primal urge to play house permanently—to go up to the desk clerk in some very posh hotel and ask if her Husband has picked up the mail yet,… to shop for maternity clothes,… [to have] her own Christmas-tree ornaments to unbox annually." He is torn apart by two incompatible worlds of feeling.
This, then, is the hard thing—not to find out "what it [is] all about," which the Glass children have known from very early, but "how to live it." Knowing what it is all about, in fact, is the burden.
"Those two bastards," says Zooey of Seymour and Buddy, who had taught Franny and him what wisdom is, "got us nice and early and made us into freaks with freakish standards, that's all. We're the Tattooed Lady, and we're never going to have a minute's peace, the rest of our lives, till everybody else is tattooed, too…. The minute I'm in a room with somebody who has the usual number of ears, I either turn into a goddam seer or a human hatpin. The Prince of Bores."
This, Zooey knows, is not a failure of love—he would not be concerned with his own freakishness if love failed—but a distortion of it. As his mother says to him:
"If you [take to somebody] then you do all the talking and nobody can even get a word in edgewise. If you don't like somebody—which is most of the time—then you just sit around like death itself and let the person talk themselves into a hole. I've seen you do it…. You do," she said, without accusation in her voice. "Neither you nor Buddy knows how to talk to people you don't like." She thought it over, "Don't love, really," she amended.
"Which is most of the time" because, apart from children and the occasionally simple adult, the world is made up of people who are innocently imperceptive and emotionally dead. (pp. 89-90)
Nevertheless the power to love can exist in unimaginative people, and when it does, as the Glass children know they ought to know, nothing else really counts. Bessie Glass "often seem[s] to be an impenetrable mass of prejudices, clichés, and bromides"; these are a continual irritation to her children: Franny is driven nearly frantic by Bessie's insistence on nice cups of chicken soup when Franny is suffering something like a crisis of the soul. But Zooey is right when he points out to her that she is "missing out on every single goddam religious action that's going on around this house. You don't have sense enough to drink when somebody brings you a cup of consecrated chicken soup—which is the only kind of chicken soup Bessie ever brings anybody around this madhouse."
Even if the acts of such people are not consecrated by love, they must not be hated. "What I don't like," Zooey says to Franny, "… is the way you talk about all these people. I mean you don't just despise what they represent—you despise them. It's too damned personal, Franny."
What Zooey knows he must learn to do in order to survive is to love even what he calls the "fishy" people—because they are all the Fat Lady for whom Seymour told him to shine his shoes before going on the air, even though the audience could not see his feet.
"This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind," he tells Franny. "I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast from morning till night. I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer and—I don't know. Anyway, it seemed goddam clear why Seymour wanted me to shine my shoes when I went on the air. It made sense."
It makes sense because the highest standard of performance a man's own understanding can set for him must ultimately be embodied—however mystically—in the ordinary, suffering members of the community of his fellows. Otherwise there can be no solution to the dilemma the Glass children are caught in. Zooey puts this conviction in the highest possible terms:
I'll tell you a terrible secret … [he says to Franny]. Are you listening to me? There isn't anyone out there who isn't Seymour's Fat Lady…. Don't you know that? Don't you know that goddam secret yet? And don't you know—listen to me, now—don't you know who that Fat Lady really is?… Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It's Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.
What Salinger has seen in American life is the extraordinary tension it sets up between our passion to understand and evaluate our experience for ourselves, and our need to belong to a community that is unusually energetic in imposing its understanding and values on its individual members. Whatever one may think of Salinger's answer to the problem, this view of American life is important; it has a long and distinguished history. But Salinger's achievement is not that he has grasped an abstract idea of American experience, important as that idea may be in itself; it is that he has seen this idea working in the actual life of our times, in our habitual activities, in the very turns of our speech, and has found a way to make us see it there, too. (p. 90)
Arthur Mizener, "The Love Song of J. D. Salinger," in Harper's (copyright © 1959 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; excerpted from the February, 1959 issue by special permission), February, 1959, pp. 83-90.
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Last spring I taught a course in contemporary fiction at New York University. When I was drawing up the reading list, a veteran teacher whom I consulted mildly questioned the inclusion of J. D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye." "It's the one book," he said "that every undergraduate in America has read." I think he was pretty nearly right about that, but, for my own sake, I'm glad I decided to teach the book. To most of my students, I discovered, Holden Caulfield meant more than Jake Barnes or Jay Gatsby or Augie March or any other character we encountered in the course, and in the discussion of the novel there was a sense of direct involvement such as I felt on no other occasion.
For the college generations of the Fifties, Salinger has the kind of importance that Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway had for the young people of the Twenties. He is not a public figure as they were; on the contrary, his zeal for privacy is phenomenal; but he is felt nevertheless as a presence, a significant and congenial presence. There are, I am convinced, millions of young Americans who feel closer to Salinger than to any other writer.
In the first place, he speaks their language. He not only speaks it; he shapes it, just as Hemingway influenced the speech of countless Americans in the Twenties. The talk of his characters is, so to speak, righter than right. The voice of Holden Caulfield is a voice we instantly recognize, and yet there is just that twist of stylistic intensification that always distinguishes good dialogue.
In the second place, he expresses their rebellion. Most of my undergraduates, so far as I could tell, were as nonpolitical as Holden Caulfield…. Yet they were far from complacency, and they delighted in Holden's attacks on meanness, stupidity, and especially phoniness. They admired his intransigence, too, which he often refers to as his craziness, and rejoiced in his gestures of defiance.
But Holden is not merely a rebel, and this also my students understood. What is strongest in him, as is indicated by the passage that gives the book its title, is compassion….
I have been talking seriously about a book that on page after page is wildly funny, but it is fundamentally a serious book, as its younger readers know. Holden Caulfield is torn, and nearly destroyed, by the conflict between integrity and love. He is driven by the need not to be less than himself, not to accept what he knows to be base. On the other hand, he is capable of understanding and loving the persons to whom his integrity places him in opposition. The problem of values with which Salinger so persuasively confronts his sixteen-year-old is not exclusively a problem of adolescence. (p. 13)
There are many things to say about "Seymour," but I want to concentrate on two. The story is told in the first person by Buddy, the second oldest of the Glass children, and Salinger has chosen to identify himself completely with Buddy: for instance, Buddy describes three stories he has written, and they are three stories written and signed by J. D. Salinger. This does not entitle us to assume that Salinger had four brothers and two sisters or appeared on a quiz show or teaches in a women's college, but we cannot avoid the conclusion that when Buddy speaks on literary matters he speaks for Salinger. What we discover is that Salinger is acutely self-conscious, about his writing, about his philosophy, about his reputation. (Buddy alludes to "the bogus information that I spend six months of the year in a Buddhist monastery and the other six in a mental institution.") Indeed, self-consciousness gives the story its peculiar quality, and although the tone is beautifully sustained, as always in Salinger's later work, the self is exceedingly obtrusive. Buddy was prominent in "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters," but he wasn't constantly talking about himself as a writer, and I think that was a better story than this. (So was "Zooey," if only by virtue of the wonderful bathroom conversation between Zooey and his mother, which "Seymour" has nothing to equal.)
On the other hand, as a piece of stylistic virtuosity, the story does make the reader's hair stand on end, and, what is more, the reader begins to see Seymour as Salinger wants us to see him. He was interesting and likeable in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," but no more than that. In "Raise High the Room Beam, Carpenters" and "Zooey" we felt that he was a man of unusual powers, but we saw him only from a distance. Now, in brief glimpses, but in the most concrete way, Salinger makes us feel Seymour's brilliance, his high poetic gifts, and above all his capacity for love. "What was he, anyway?" Buddy asks. "A saint? Thankfully, it isn't my responsibility to answer that one." But that is exactly what Salinger is trying to create—a contemporary saint—and in the end he convinces me. (pp. 13, 30)
When we were discussing "The Catcher in the Rye" in class, there was one dissenting voice, one student who felt that Holden Caulfield's rebellion was too immature and ineffectual to be worth serious consideration. Most of the students loudly disagreed, and I went along with the majority. Holden is not rejecting maturity but is looking for a better model than his elders by and large present. Like the Glasses, though in a less ostentatious way, he is a seeker after wisdom. That Salinger can make the search for wisdom seem important to large numbers of young people is not exactly cause for alarm. (p. 30)
Granille Hicks, "J. D. Salinger: Search for Wisdom," in The Saturday Review (Entire issue copyright 1959 by Saturday Review Associates, Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 25, 1959, pp. 13, 30.
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Young people today have no spokesmen. (p. 156)
Ideology, heroism, success: none of these seems sufficiently compelling. For the young today, the importance and excitement of the adult world have become somewhat problematic. On the one hand this can lead to that odd combination of indifference and professionalism which one sometimes encounters in college students. On the other hand, it produces an earnest confusion, less often critical than nostalgic, which contemplates without enthusiasm or alternatives its possible maturity.
Some sense of this confusion and of the painful sincerity that goes with it is necessary in order to understand the phenomenon of J. D. Salinger, the writer most admired and read by many young people today. In one sense, Salinger represents the indulgence of a mood; but he is also the confidant of those who indulge the mood. Affectionate and tender, he speaks to the adolescent soul with urgent but reassuring intimacy. Yet he is also full of advice. He understands the ways in which growing up is a misfortune, a process of compromise and surrender. Reconciliation, however, and not resistance is his eventual concern: he is whimsical, all right, but not absurd. His opening theme is childhood lost, his conclusion is a half-mystic, half-sentimental resignation—with an ultimate glimpse of childhood regained. Finally, he is successful, appealing and comforting because he suggests a kind of reconciliation with the adult world which is at the same time an evasion of worldliness.
It is in grateful recognition of this evasion that many young people have accepted Salinger's characters, Holden Caulfield as a brother and Seymour Glass as a private and sainted memory. Holden, it should be remembered, had his last fling at sixteen; Seymour committed suicide at thirty-one. The two events have the very moderate virtues of aimlessness and failure—we don't after all want moral lessons—but in their retelling, Salinger slips into sentimentality, contrived whimsy and a cagey, esoteric piety. So the academic critics, committed as they are to the surface seriousness of things, call Holden a pilgrim, and undoubtedly one of them will shortly grasp the somber truth that Seymour is a martyr and a saint.
This portentousness is Salinger's own fault—perhaps his intention—and it surely misrepresents the young; it even misrepresents Holden and Seymour. For precocious piety and innocent goodness are not yet wisdom, resourcefulness, or moral conduct; they cannot motivate martyrdom or, by themselves, make pilgrimage significant. They are qualities which remain to be tested, to be embodied and sharpened by worldly encounter. Salinger, however, turns them into the standardized equipment of a cautious, wistful rebel. When the earnest and uncertain young men identify with Holden Caulfield, they are expressing a deeply felt discontent. But it is a discontent devoid of all appetite for adult satisfaction. It seems on the one hand to lack purpose and on the other to be free from all anxiety about purposelessness. It lacks, above all, just that moral irascibility which was once thought the truest sign of youth. This vague rebelliousness is Salinger's material—what he both truly expresses and exploits. He cultivates a sense for its style, and he adds to its gentle ineptitude an engaging piety, at once sentimental and exotic. He does not, of course, suggest any actual confrontation between the discontented and the world of their discontent.
Salinger's characters are not heroic in part because they are members of the family. They are members, almost, of a Victorian clan—the patriarch vague or missing, the clan more of a fraternal coterie—and it is familial feeling which provides the background for the affection, honesty, and love which he seeks to describe. (pp. 156-57)
Salinger's artfulness is best revealed in his ability to reconstruct the circumstances and sentiments of teenage revelation: sit down a minute, I want to tell you everything. He tirelessly reads us his family mail, prints fragments from the diaries of the dead Seymour, relates the unassorted jottings of his brothers and sisters: He gathers his stories through a presumably random (but he assures us, total) recall, and pays a public price for the remembering. He drags us into his living room for "home movies"—I think of Salinger as the only modern writer with a living room—and there we sit, silent members. He is insistently intimate, urgently garrulous, wordily familiar. For Salinger this familiarity has a moral (as well as a literary) motive, and that motive is affection. He seeks to draw us into the clan, to bind us by the somewhat tendentious (not to say, onesided) heatedness of his intimate, utterly candid communications. There is not a drop of cold blood in his veins. Outside the family "people never believe you," as Holden says. He means adults and he is right enough; adults are suspicious, and children, if they have a native honesty, have also a native gullibility…. [Today], Salinger seems to say, the only contrast to the innocence and fervor of the child is the affectation, the cruel conventionality, the phoniness of the adult world. The adult is not "real"; he lives amidst sham.
But not sham at all: that is what one would like, for it is at least the proper opposite of innocence and sincerity. If children are candid, then let adults be hypocrites and the war of generations rage. But neither Holden's complaint, nor that of Franny Glass, is about hypocrisy; they are not really concerned with the lie, nor with actual cruelty. It requires something like moral firmness to resent hypocrisy, and though Holden has, as do all of Salinger's children and, I would guess, many of his readers, a natural sense of the sweet and the good, Holden is no moralist. His true concern is with foible, affectation, minor pomposity, casual carelessness—all of which combine to make this a jungle of fallible (but ferocious) animals. The jungle itself, however, is no part of Holden's experience. Nor of Franny's; and when her brother tells her that every fat woman is Jesus Christ (and hence not to be resented), it is a counsel of imperfection which bears little relationship to the real imperfections of the world. Love, he tells her, can transcend foible and fatness alike: it certainly had better.
So the professor who goes into the men's room to muss up his hair before class is after all no villain. Nor is the Ivy Leaguer in the theater lobby who "said the play itself was no masterpiece, but the Lunts, of course, were absolute angels." With them, one can make emotional peace. But surely the hypocrite and the moralist have another difficulty, and a fairly simple one: they are permanently at odds, irreconcilable. This occurs to none of Salinger's characters, and for that reason I don't believe it is fair to say that they are simply unspoiled; I think they are untouched. At the same time as the child approaches the adult world, he escapes into fantasy. Holden's fantasies are relatively modest, though they bear a close relationship to the religious aspirations of Salinger's later characters: Holden dreams of being a "catcher in the rye," the defender of children at play, or a gas station attendant in the west, deaf, dumb and solitary…. What is disturbing, however, is that his dreams do not lead him to any kind of adventure, not to anything at all but casual encounter and sensitive recoil. As Seymour's mother-in-law says, he doesn't relate. Salinger's characters can't like or even know anyone they don't love—who isn't in the family, for chrissake.
If this is really true, then why doesn't Holden set out for that gas station in the west? He might be a beat traveller. That, I suppose, is the real alternative and it is not especially interesting. Holden, instead, goes home to his ten year old sister; he doesn't want adventure, any more than do most of Salinger's readers; he wants affection. He will become an adult gently, carrying with him in the phony world only a single moral image, the image of childlike simplicity. (pp. 157-59)
Since Holden's last fling, Salinger has written almost entirely of the Glass family, a clan of seven precocious children, of Irish-Jewish stock and distinctly Buddhist tendencies. The main theme of these stories has been love. Love is the bond which holds the seven children together—and love, along with a touch of friendly condescension, is what binds them even to their parents. The family here is a mythical gang, truly fraternal, truly affectionate; it is as if, remembering Holden's loneliness, Salinger is determined never again to permit one of his characters to be alone.
The precocity of Salinger's children takes many forms…. But the most important form is an extraordinary religious and mystical insight. I think it fair to say that love for Salinger is either familial or Christlike; it is the love of brothers and sisters—or of brethren. The last of these is obviously the more difficult, and Salinger sensibly recommends but does not describe it. He writes of erotic love not at all, and it is worth at least entertaining the idea—though it contradicts many of the operative assumptions of our culture—that his young readers are really not interested in it, that they are entirely satisfied with the love of Holden and his sister or of Zooey and Franny. (pp. 159-60)
Love at a distance, whimsical appreciation ("the terrible Miss Zabel"), manages to combine commitment and withdrawal; I would guess that it makes both marriage and suicide unnecessary, But what does it do to the quality of love? In Salinger's stories love, familial and Christlike together, is primarily the habit and the wisdom of precocious children. It is almost inevitably, given Salinger's style and his subject matter, a bit precious. It is also indiscriminate and uninvolved. (p. 161)
Whimsy and religion are Salinger's ploys. He does not mean them to indicate willfulness, that is too harsh, nor mere childishness, that is too unimportant; nor morality, that is too difficult, and not pure contemplation, that would be farfetched. He means them to indicate superiority. Whimsy is the caprice of the precocious; religion, their secret insight. For such people does Salinger write: gentle, unconventional people, who find themselves behaving exactly like everyone else, but who know that they are different, if only because they remember that once they were young. But is that really such a precious or exclusive memory? Perhaps it is, and perhaps that moment of uncertainty before a young man surrenders himself to higher education and total organization is as important as Salinger's prose suggests. But I doubt that the moment is adequately represented by whimsy, or that it can survive in reminiscence, or be resurrected in esoteric piety.
The numerous silent members of the Glass family, Salinger's ardent readers, share a kind of emotional superiority, which, one must admit, has little that is worldly in it. They pursue their careers with a sense of grace, that is, with an assurance of style. They are reckless, but only in imagination; after all, they were rebels once. They are painfully sincere, which is to say, loquacious; and—their truest mark—they are whimsically discontented, that is, they complain only about unimportant things.
Membership in this fervent household, however, is for the good alone. And here I think Salinger and his admirers must be taken seriously. Goodness for many of us has always implied activity, vigor, commitment. Good men—let me put it strongly—are energizing centers of ethical action. This is simply not so for Salinger, and presumably it is not so for most of his readers. Goodness for them seems rather a matter of personal style and impulse; its quality is unpretentious, naive (indeed, willfully so), sincere, whimsical. It imitates the child because he presumably has these qualities naturally and indulges them freely; he represents the absence of convention and corruption. That is not, of course, because he is corruptible. But what is for him a merely temporary conditon can easily become a permanent posture. The posture is not entirely incompatible with world activity, but questions of ambition, work and conflict evaded; the engaging precocity of the wunderkind makes them all seem irrelevant.
Salinger's idea of goodness is another version of disaffiliation, but it is the happiest version, and the easiest, because it makes disaffiliation a secret. Who, indeed, would guess that S. never moves his kings out of the back row? So far as society is concerned, the earnest, uncertain young man goes underground. But not to cultivate the resources of the rebel, not to test his capacity for silence or for patience. The underground is his irregular home, a unique realm of security and affection, sharply contrasted with the worlds of Hollywood, advertising, the organization. Up above, the young man may lie, it is a bit of whimsy; he may prove querulous, it is an indulgence; he may be a success, it doesn't matter; but he will not be active, involved, driving, lustful. He is the first among the disaffiliated to give up cult of experience, and therefore he is permanently untried. But for his readers, perhaps, that is Salinger's greatest appeal. I said above that he is seemingly incapable of cold-bloodedness; surely his readers understand this and appreciate it. Their lack of ambition is also an absence of taste for danger, even for the simple dangers of everyday human encounter. But what will their love come to, and what their goodness, if they do not calculate and take risks? (pp. 161-62)
Michael Walzer, "In Place of a Hero," in Dissent (reprinted by permission of Dissent), Spring, 1960, pp. 156-62.
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[In The Catcher in the Rye,] Salinger sharply accentuates the portrayal of Holden with a symbolic structure of language, motif, episode, and character; and when the complex patterns are discovered, the effect is to concentrate our scrutiny on a masterpiece that moves effortlessly on the colloquial surface and at the same time uncovers, with hypnotic compulsion, a psychological drama of unrelenting terror and final beauty. (p. 6)
Salinger has employed neurotic deterioration, symbolical death, spiritual awakening, and psychological self-cure as the inspiration and burden of an elaborate pattern—verbal, thematic, and episodic, that yields the meaning as the discursive examination of Holden's character and problem out of metaphoric context can never do. Structure is meaning.
As a start, the readiest way of understanding The Catcher lies in an awareness of the dualism or ambivalence of language, for Holden employs both the slob and the literate idiom…. Holden's slob speech is obviously justified as a realistic narrative device, since it is the idiom of the American male; yet from the psychological point of view, it becomes the boy's self-protective, verbalized acceptance of the slob values of his prep school contemporaries. He thus may justify himself in his overt being and may hope to secure immunity from attack and rationalize his "belonging"; slob language, therefore, hits off two important social themes—security and status. But the psychological intent becomes symbolical portent when we see that the mass idiom emphasizes a significant distinction between two worlds—the phony world of corrupt materialism and Holden's private world of innocence…. For his private world Holden uses a literate and expressive English, and so the profounder psychological and symbolical purposes of slob language may be detected only as that idiom functions in polarized relationship with the other. We need not labor the point that the full range of Salinger's portrayal would never be disclosed without an awareness of the ambivalence of language. (pp. 7-8)
Once we have recognized the ambivalence of language we are prepared to discover Salinger's elaborate use of several kinds of pattern that support and help to develop the narrative. The first verbal pattern to be examined stands in an ironic and mutually illuminating relationship with the image of the secret goldfish at the head of the narrative symbolizing Holden and his secret world. In D. B.'s short story "The Secret Goldfish" the boy would not let others see the goldfish "because he'd bought it with his own money." Holden likewise was to pay in far more than money for his secret world; and as a further parallel, nobody ever saw (or cared to see) this secret world, although Holden invites inspection in the confessional mode, "if you really want to hear about it." This mode is maintained throughout with frequent interpolations of "if you want to know the truth" or "if you really want to know." As the story uncovers more and more of Holden's dilemma, these phrasings, although employed in the most casual manner, transcend their merely conversational usage and become psychologically portentous. The inference is that society, including his own parents, has no desire to recognize the truth about Holden or its own obsessions. In the middle of the tale Holden learns from the psychoanalytical snob, Carl Luce, that his father had helped him to "adjust"; and the blunted resolution of the narrative on the Freudian couch represents society's final humiliating indifference to truth. Recognition of the truth would embrace the love and compassion that it has no time for but that Holden himself not only lavishes on his secret world but extends to the public world in episodes and reflections rounded off with a minor verbal pattern, "You felt sorry for her" or "I felt sorry as hell for him." The confessional mode embraces still another verbal pattern put variously, "People never notice anything," "He wasn't even listening," "People never believe you," and morons "never want to discuss anything." The failure in communication could not be more bleakly confirmed; and there is an immense irony in the contrast between Holden's telling the truth and the indifference surrounding him. Note, then, that the confessional mode, developed by several verbal patterns, provides a beautifully formulated enclosing structure for the tale—with the symbolic image of the secret goldfish at the start and at the end of the equally symbolic talking couch.
Two other patterns ironically reenforce the confessional mode. At Pencey Dr. Thurmer had talked to Holden "about Life being a game," and Mr. Spencer added for the truant's benefit, "Life is a game that one plays according to the rules." Toward the end Mr. Antolini sustained the cliché in his overblown rhetoric. Considering Holden's own honesty and the indifference of his seniors, "playing the game" becomes a grisly farce; and there is further irony in the fact that Holden is himself fervently devoted to the concept, first in his treasuring Allie's baseball mitt and then in his confiding in Phoebe that he would like to be a catcher in the rye to save children from falling off "some crazy cliff." And does he not wear his red hunting hat backwards like a catcher? Mr. Antolini, who speaks to Holden from a sophisticated height and warns him of a "terrible, terrible fall," a "special kind of fall," is capable, in these psychological terms, of no more than talk, for he arrived too late to catch young Castle, who jumped out the window to escape the persecution of his contemporaries. The second pattern furnishes an ironical grace note or two. At the beginning of the tale Holden thought that Mr. Spencer yelled "Good luck!" at him, and toward the close a teacher in Phoebe's school wished him "good luck." Unrelenting in its vision of the double-dealing of society, The Catcher portrays teachers as sentimentalists and guardians of an exploded ethic; and one of them, Antolini, is a linguistic phony. In these closing patterns, then, the reverberations of irony appear to be endless, and the structure of language and motif is all the more impressive because everything is presented in such an artless and colloquial fashion.
If the design thus far disclosed may be construed as the motif of unsportsmanlike sportsmanship and if the social corollary is that by playing the game (but what are the rules?) one may achieve security and status, it remains to be said that society reduces Holden to an ambivalence of acceptance and rejection, of boastful claims and humiliating admissions that are, in effect, destructive of the integrity of his personality. Holden seeks status with his contemporaries by talking slob language, but he shows the same impulse with his elders in more subtle fashion. (pp. 9-11)
If society were no worse than a somewhat difficult but rational enough arrangement for status-seeking and if a person had merely to pay a stiff psychological price in adjustment for the rewards, Holden's frequent charge of "phony" might be dismissed. But the matter goes far deeper than that: society, in the repulsive form of Stradlater, subjects Holden to humiliations that pass beyond the legitimacies of playing the game. Holden's career discloses intensified patterns of ambivalence—withdrawal and aggression, guilt feelings, fantasies of mutilation, the death-wish; and the reason lies almost as much in the social encounter as in the death of his brother Allie. A society that ignores or rejects his gesture for understanding, that preempts his possessions, body, and mind, that invades and violates his inner being—such a society is not only status-seeking; it is actively and crudely anthropophagus and psychophagus. The vision of ugliness in The Catcher challenges anything else in the same genre. (p. 11)
The somewhat less than twenty pages of chapters four and six, the Stradlater episode, provide a brilliant instance of Salinger's technical virtuosity. Here we have convincing evidence that this completely selfish and indifferent young animal did push Holden, in his already neurotic state, down the nightmarish incline toward the psychoanalytical couch…. Since it is the despoiling and humiliation of Holden Caulfield, the cynically indifferent invasion and stripping bare of his person, property, and secret imaginative world that is the burden of this episode, we note with fascinated attention how Stradlater possesses himself of all things that are Holden's, one after another. He uses Holden's Vitalis on his "gorgeous locks," he borrows Holden's hounds-tooth jacket for his date, and yawning all the while, he expects Holden to write his theme for him. A sovereign indifference to all about him is Stradlater's salient characteristic. He could not be bothered to get Jane Gallagher's first name right; he called her Jean. When Holden, with his studious care for the other person, asked whether Jane had enjoyed the game, Stradlater didn't know. A bitter humiliation for Holden is that he must ask this gorgeous phony, who has made a theme-slave of him, not to tell Jane that he is being expelled from Pencey; most galling for the reader is Holden's admission that Stradlater probably won't tell "mostly … because he wasn't too interested."
It is, however, the imminently dangerous quality of sex that is frightening. In chapter four when Holden heard that Stradlater was to have a date with Jane Gallagher, he "nearly dropped dead" and "nearly went crazy," and in chapter six, through all the mounting ordeal, he "went right on smoking like a madman." The psychological significance of these verbalisms is unmistakable, for Stradlater has invaded Holden's secret world and violated a symbol of innocence and respect. Indeed, in the elaborate pattern of this episode, Stradlater, the "secret slob," matched Holden's secret world with his own, for when Holden was driven to ask the crude but important question, he announced with all the taunting impudence of his kind, "That's a professional secret, buddy."
When Holden recalls for this "sexy bastard" how he had met Jane and goes on to say that he used to play checkers with her, Stradlater's contemptuous comment is "Checkers, for Chrissake!" This girl, who had had a "lousy childhood" with a booze hound for a stepfather running "around the goddam house naked," always kept her kings in the back row. As Holden put it, "She just liked the way they looked when they were all in the back row." Half earnestly, half facetiously, he requests Stradlater to ask Jane whether she still keeps her kings in the back row; the symbolism of this imagery, portraying defense against sexual attack, is the central motif of the episode. Stradlater cannot, of course, know what a shocking and menacing figure he has become, for on the simple realistic level the request is merely casual reminiscence; but in the psychological context danger signals have begun fluttering in Holden's mind. If the request may be construed as Holden's desire to send Jane a secret warning against the slob who would himself be the bearer of the message, this defensive gesture, nevertheless, cannot issue in decisive action, and it remains no less symbolical than Holden's wearing his red hunting hat "with the peak around to the back and all." But these gestures indicate, so early in the narrative, that Holden is unconsciously preparing for his subsequent role as a catcher in the rye. In chapter six the futile best that he can do is to invite a beating at Stradlater's hands, and after the struggle he cannot, for a while, find the hat. All the protective gestures have dissolved in impotence, and with his nose "bleeding all over the place" Holden has had a thorough lesson in the game of life.
This lesson is all the more pathetic because in chapter five we have the first full glimpse of Holden's secret world and hence some indication of how, given a chance, Holden would play the game. The subject of his theme is his dead brother Allie's outfielder's mitt that has "poems written all over the fingers and pocket and everywhere." The mitt symbolically indicates that Holden would like to play the game with sensitivity and imagination, and Stradlater's crude rejection of the theme is itself a symbolic gesture, and a final one, shutting off all hope of communication. Holden tears the theme into pieces. But it should be added that, like Jane's kings in the back row, Holden's private world is impotent, and the effort at self-revelation in the theme is of a piece with this futility. His rapidly worsening neurotic condition has frozen him in this posture of feebleness, and indeed Holden must take Antolini's "special kind of fall" and disappear into the museum room where the mummies are and thus symbolically encounter death before he may be reborn to an active defense of his world. (pp. 12-14)
Holden's fantasy begins at the obvious and apparently extroverted level of "horsing around." With Ackley Holden pretends to be a "blind guy," saying, "Mother darling, give me your hand. Why won't you give me your hand?" Considering the view we get later of parental care in absentia or by remote control, and considering, furthermore, what has already been disclosed of the highly wrought design of The Catcher, we should not fail to note, so early in the novel, the motif of mutilation and the implied charge that a mother has not provided guidance and owes her son the hand that he has broken; with Holden the extroverted simply does not exist. Ackley's response is, "You're nuts, I swear to God." Ackley calls Holden's hat a "deer shooting hat," and Holden facetiously retorts, "I shoot people in this hat"; and once again, in the sequel, the facetious may be seen to envelop aggressive tendencies. The hat, indeed, is the central symbol of Holden's fantasy and so of the book—not only, as here, for aggression, but later for his humanitarian role, faintly foreshadowed, as we have already noted, in the Stradlater episode; and a third symbolic function of the hat is to hit off Holden's quest, which is in a large measure hysterical flight, as he rushes about New York before he comes home to Phoebe. Aggression and withdrawal follow each other rapidly in the opening scenes, the first with Stradlater when Holden leaps on him "like a goddam panther," and the second when he wakes up Ackley and asks about joining a monastery.
In his hotel room, after "old Sunny," the prostitute, has gone, he talks "sort of out loud" to Allie and expresses guilt feelings about his having refused to take Allie with him and a friend on a luncheon bike-trip because Allie was just a child. Since Allie's death, whenever Holden becomes depressed, he tries to make up for this past cruelty by saying that he may go along. Here, then, in his guilt feelings we have an explanation of why Holden broke his hand against the garage windows, and we may trace all the elements of his fantasying to this psychological cause. Mutilation is itself the physical symbol of a psychological state of self-accusation and self-laceration. Hence, when Holden, after discovering that he cannot pray, reflects that next to Jesus the character in the Bible that he likes best is the lunatic that lived in the tombs and cut himself with stones, we observe a consistent psychological development of the motif of mutilation and, linked to it, the death-wish; and … we note further Holden identifies himself with a madman. In Mark, V:1-20, we are told of the lunatic that broke all chains and fetters, for no man could tame him. Jesus drove the spirits that possessed him into the swine and told him to go home to his friends. If we are to comprehend what really happens in The Catcher we must attribute prime importance to this little scene of about two pages at the head of chapter fourteen; for Holden will subsequently break his morbid psychological fetters, he will go home to Phoebe, and, in a manner of speaking, he will be able to pray. (pp. 16-17)
The visit to Central Park and then home to Phoebe must be regarded as the two halves of a single, unfolding psychological experience; they provide the hinge on which The Catcher moves. Holden had started thinking about the ducks during his talk with "old" Spencer; and in New York he asked two cab drivers about what the ducks did in such wintry weather. Holden knew the park "like the back of [his] hand," for as a child he had roller-skated and ridden his bike there. But now, searching for the lagoon, he is lost, and, as he says, "it kept getting darker and darker and spookier and spookier." The park has become terra incognita. When at last he finds the lagoon there are no ducks. (pp. 18-19)
The psychological and thematic components of this little scene are profoundly rich and yet beautifully simple. Central Park represents Holden's Dark Tower, Dark Night of the Soul, and Wasteland; the paradise of his childhood is bleak, and the ducks that, in his fantasy, he has substituted for the human, have vanished. In effect, Holden is finished with childhood and is prepared for the burdens of maturity. But all the same he gathers up the pieces to be treasured, and in a final act of childhood profligacy—skipping coins over the lagoon—he symbolically rejects the materialism of the adult world that he is about to enter.
The apartment episode with Phoebe is so brilliant and so densely packed that we must examine it in two stages, here largely from Holden's point of view and later from Phoebe's. The meeting between brother and sister is presented as a conspiracy, for Holden enters the building under false pretenses and slips into his own apartment "quiet as hell." "I really should've been a crook." The anti-social bond is confirmed when Phoebe tells Holden that she has the part of Benedict Arnold in a Christmas play and when he gives her his symbolical hunting hat. They are rebels and seekers both.
Almost the first thing that Holden notices in D. B.'s room where Phoebe usually sleeps when D. B. is away is her fantasying with her middle name, which she changes frequently, the present one being "Weatherfield." The various kinds of fantasy have an important role in The Catcher and, in alliance with other motifs, hint at the philosophical question of the narrative: "What is the nature of reality?" From this point onward the novel converges upon the answer. Meanwhile, Phoebe's fantasying "killed" Holden; and in this and later scenes with children his mood is good humored, indulgent, and parental. The word "kill" is used throughout the novel in colloquial fashion, as here; but presently it reflects a rising hysteria when Phoebe exclaims again and again about Holden's leaving school, "Daddy'll kill you." Paradoxically, the terror exists not for Holden but for Phoebe, and the boy who had been fleeing from one physical and psychological terror after another now finds himself in the role of the elder who must reassure his young sister that nobody is going to kill him.
The spotlight is, furthermore, powerfully focused upon Holden's problem when Phoebe acts out a killing. She had seen a movie about a mercy killing; a doctor compassionately put a crippled child (on his way to the apartment Holden, continuing his mutilation fantasy, had been "limping like a bastard") out of its misery by smothering it with a blanket. In symbolic mimicry Phoebe places her pillow over her head and resists Holden's plea to come out from under. Here, indeed, is killing—"mercy" killing, and assuredly one way of dealing with children. But it would be a "mercy" also to save children, to catch them as they are about to fall off "some crazy cliff," and this is the humanitarian solution that Holden expresses to Phoebe. The antisocial conspiracy has blossomed into a benevolent and protective order. Antolini's thesis, coming belatedly as it does, merely renders conceptually the courage and maturity that Holden, with his imaginative heart, had discovered in the stolen moments of domestic affection and security with Phoebe. Salinger is intimating that for the imaginatively endowed the living experience may become the source of precept and rule. The point is that Holden is way ahead of his elders. (pp. 18-20)
From the start Holden is convinced that by either standard—society's or his own, he is a coward…. The [museum episode], unmistakably illuminating the climax of the book, shows that he is not a coward and that, in effect, he essentially has business to transact only with himself, and he must therefore stop running. In the museum of art when Holden walks down "this very narrow sort of hall" leading to the room containing the mummies, one of the two boys with him bolts and runs, the other says, "He's got a yella streak a mile wide," and he also flees. Not Holden but society is yellow.
Since Holden's neurosis includes feelings of insecurity stemming from Allie's death and from Jan Gallagher's "lousy childhood" (like his own) and since both Allie and Jane have become inextricably bound together in his mind, Holden conquers the two-fold hysteria at one and the same moment. There is sexual imagery in "this very narrow sort of hall" and the room containing the mummies, especially since the obscene word is written "with a red crayon … right under the glass part of the wall." Once again as in Phoebe's school he reacts with weariness over the corruption of this world and solemnly reflects that if he ever dies and is buried, his tombstone will bear the ugly legend. Here, at last, the identity of the fear of death and the fear of sex is made clear, and these fears are to be seen, actually, as a pervasive fear of violence to body or spirit and the ensuing mutilation. If in the Stradlater episode and throughout the rest of the novel Holden is an innocent, he is so, not so much in terms of our popular literary tradition, but rather in a classical, Christian, or psychoanalytical schema. His very fears yield proof that his innocence represents a harmony of attributes and drives—intellectual, emotional, and physical, so that in the proper regulation of them harm will result neither for the person nor for others. Holden's obsession about faces indicates this fastidious care; the Egyptians tried to conquer the final violence of death by mummification so that, as Holden says, the face "would not rot." In Holden's encounter it is important that the spirit should not rot.
For insight into the psychologically symbolic meaning of the museum episode we turn once again to the structure of the novel. Allie's death has been such a traumatic experience that all Holden knows is death, for when "old" Spencer, who makes him "sound dead," confronts him with the unsatisfactory results of the history examination, it is clear that his historical knowledge is limited to the subject of mummification. It is to this knowledge, at the close of the book that he returns with a sense of how "nice and peaceful" it all is. The psychological journey from the fear of death to a calm acceptance of it is further highlighted at the beginning when we learn that Mr. Ossenburger, the mortician, has donated the dormitory wing named for him in which Holden has his room.
Holden's victorious encounter with death reveals psychological maturity, spiritual mastery, and the animal faith and resiliency of youth. The charmingly offhand and rather awesome conditional statement, "If I ever die" reminds the reader that in the last quarter of the book it is so difficult for Holden to think of Allie as dead that Phoebe must underscore the fact, "Allie's dead." Yet although Holden masters his neurosis he also falls victim to society, for in alternating stress the novel continuously presents two mingled actions—his own inner dealings with himself and society's brutal effect upon him. After his visit to the mummies Holden goes to the lavatory and proceeds to faint, i.e., symbolically dies; and his comment is that he was lucky in falling as he did because he "could've killed" himself. The parallelism with the earlier Stradlater episode leaps instantly to the mind, for then, as we recall, Holden "nearly dropped dead"; and that scene also took place in a lavatory—a fit symbol, in both instances, for a scatalogical society. Significantly, he feels better immediately after; and he is reborn into a new world of secure feelings and emotions, with himself fulfilling the office of catcher in his mature view of Phoebe. Thereafter the psychoanalytical couch can mean little to him, far less than Antolini's couch, to which it is thematically related.
The dense contrapuntal effect of the verbal patterns is, finally, enhanced by one that keeps a persistent drum beat in the background until the full thematic range of The Catcher is disclosed. If Holden symbolically and psychologically dies only to be reborn into the world of Phoebe's innocence and love, he has all through the novel been announcing the theme of regeneration in the "wake up" pattern. After the Stradlater episode Holden wakes up Ackley, then another schoolmate Woodruff (to sell him a typewriter), and as a derisive parting shot, "every bastard on the whole floor" with his yell, "Sleep tight, ya morons!"… [The] thematic implication of the pattern transcends both the episodes and the characters involved; in moral as well as psychological terms Salinger is suggesting that a brutalized society requires regeneration and must arouse itself from its mechanistic sloth.
In a development that parallels the "wake up" pattern Salinger shows that Holden, of course, must wake up in his own way; and it has been the thesis of this reading of The Catcher that he does effect his own psychological regeneration…. Holden's secret world fails the boy not only outwardly in the encounter with society, but also inwardly in his retreat from circumstance, for it is effectively sealed off, so that, as with the outside world, there is here likewise no communication. The pattern that discloses this aspect of Holden's isolation is "giving old Jane a buzz." Early in the novel Holden thinks of phoning Jane's mother; twice thereafter he thinks of phoning Jane, but instead phones Sally. On two separate occasions phoning Jane is part of his fantasy. Toward the close of the novel he thinks of phoning her before going out west, but this bit of fantasy does not reveal a need for her, since, as we have observed, Holden's mood has become rational and volitional. But in the violent Hollywood fantasy earlier in the middle of the book, Holden does phone Jane, and she does come to succor him; any comfort, however, that the boy might derive from Jane, who is one of the two nodal images in his private world (the other being Allie), is immediately destroyed by the ersatz sentimental form of the fantasy. Equally significant for Salinger's purpose in underscoring the psychological remoteness of the image of Jane is the one time when Holden does actually phone her: there is no answer. His own world fails to respond. Thereafter come the visit to Central Park, the return home to Phoebe, and a concomitant spiritual recovery. (pp. 21-5)
Although the humanitarian role of saviour that Holden assigns himself stands in the foreground, we must nevertheless not fail to see that Phoebe is the essential source; and if Holden, on the path up out of spiritual dilemma and crisis, must find the verbal and conceptual means of expressing his innermost needs, Phoebe, as easily as she wakes up, expresses an even more fundamental insight through symbolic gesture. The charm of the scene, when fully comprehended from this point of view, lies in the mingling of the naive and childlike with the spiritually occult, in the immense discrepancy between means (a child) and ends (spiritual insight); for adults it is a rather puzzling and even terrifying charm, when they acknowledge it, discoverable in fairy tales and some of the teachings of Jesus. (p. 26)
In Holden's maturing there is no repudiation of childhood or even of the secret world. In the organic processes of life the continuity between childhood and maturity, need not, must not, be severed. If the child is father of the man, as Wordsworth said, assuredly society at large and parents in particular have scarcely encouraged this teenaged boy, well over six feet, with a crippled right hand and the right side of his head full of "millions of gray hairs," to think of his days in Wordsworthian fashion as "bound each to each by natural piety." For that reason his secret world, when released from the death-like enchantment of neurosis, may well have been, ultimately, the real source of his salvation. Certainly in the daylight return to Central Park with Phoebe Holden experienced the natural piety that Wordsworth celebrated, being at once child and parent with her, both in the zoo (he need no longer search for the ducks) and at the carrousel, watching Phoebe go round and round, another symbol for the circular activity of life. Here the sense of continuity that Holden demands in his surroundings … receives a living affirmation when he comments with so much satisfaction that the carrousel "played that same song about fifty years ago when I was a little kid." When, to the adult reader's further amusement, Holden, like any apprehensive parent, says that Phoebe will have to take her chances with falling off the horse when reaching for the ring, the boy has added a cubit to his psychological stature.
The short concluding chapter, far from being the lame and defective appendage to a charming book that some think it, is like so much else in The Catcher, a triumph of technical virtuosity. In this reading of the novel the conclusion is blunted, and interestingly so, only because we cannot say what society will do to impose adjustment upon a boy who has effected his own secret cure; and we therefore close the narrative not with psychoanalytical questions, but ethical. In rejecting the formalism of psychoanalytical technique for the spontaneous personality Salinger follows D. H. Lawrence; and in boldly proposing that the resources of personality are sufficient for self-recovery and discovery, his book will stand comparison with Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf, whose protagonist, Harry Haller, rises above his own neurosis in a discovery, based on Buddhistic thought, that the potentialities of the soul are limitless. Altogether, in this reading the answer to the question, "What is the nature of reality?" is both complex and simple, residing in the living, organic relation between childhood and maturity, continuity and change, the contemplative and the active, the external world and the inner spirit. This reality is not a philosophical abstraction, but an existentialist datum of physical and emotional experience. (pp. 26-8)
Once again there is an immense discrepancy between means (a child) and ends (spiritual insight). When the psychoanalyst (in the role of disciple) asks Holden (the master) whether he intends to apply himself at school, and Holden replies that he doesn't know because you don't know "what you're going to do till you do it," the surface impression is that of a typically unsatisfactory answer from a teenager. When D. B. asks him what he thinks about "all this stuff [he] just finished telling … about" and Holden replies that he does not know what to think, the surface impression is the same. Finally, Holden proposes a riddle. He says that he misses everybody, even Stradlater, Ackley, and "that goddam Maurice." "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody." Here is a shock to the conceptualizing, precept-laden intelligence, a puzzle or paradox that will not yield to logical analysis but that, on the contrary, sends the mind back over the experience recorded, even into the depths of the unconscious where both the malady and the cure lay. In the large, Whitmanesque acceptance of evil there is affirmation of the life-process as the personality "lets go"; and such Zen riddling is easily translatable into existentialist understanding.
In its emphasis on the conflict between the organic and the mechanistic, the secret and the public, reality and appearance, awakening and death, The Catcher hits off the strongest Romantic affirmations from Goethe and Wordsworth down to Lawrence, Joyce, and Hesse. Whether at Walden Pond, at Weissnichtwo, or in New York hot spots, the problem of personality remains; one surmises that, after a century and more, as A Portrait of the Artist and Steppenwolf likewise indicate, the struggle has become intensified. At the close of The Catcher the gap between society and the individual has widened perceptibly; and far from repudiating Holden's secret world, Salinger has added a secret of psychological depth. A mechanistic society, represented just as much by Antolini as by the psychoanalyst, may with the glib teacher continue to ignore the boy and talk of "what kind of thoughts your particular size mind should be wearing"; we may all comfort ourselves with the reflection that, after all, Holden is another bothersome case of arrested development, albeit rather charming in a pathetic and oafish manner.
No doubt Salinger has overdrawn the portrayal, but a work of literature is not a statistic, it is a special vision. In its pathetic and sentimental tone The Catcher faithfully reflects the surface of American life, and insofar, therefore, as it lacks intellectual substance and a valid universality based on a cultural heritage, it falls far below the Romantic masterpieces to which I have made passing reference. But as I have tried to make clear, The Catcher is strongest where these are strongest. Whatever the dreadful odds, the human spirit, though slain, refuses to stay dead; it is forever hearing the cock crow, forever responding to the Everlasting Yea. So in The Catcher; and the blunted, ambiguous ending mingles with this affirmation the doubt whether now at last, in the long travail of the spirit, the odds have not become too dreadful. If, as this reading interprets the book, the scales tip in favor of the affirmation, it is so because the history of youth is almost always hopeful. (pp. 28-9)
Carl F. Strauch, "Kings in the Back Row: Meaning through Structure—A Reading of Salinger's 'The Catcher in the Rye'," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature (© 1961, Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature), Winter, 1961, pp. 5-30.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1342
Salinger's story, "For Esmé—with Love and Squalor," has been anthologized, selected as his best story, and in general accorded the high point of his as yet beginning career. And the attention that has been given to Esmé is warranted, for it juxtaposes in one story two of Salinger's major theses, love and squalor, in one of his favorite subjects, children: Esmé, the distillation of squalor, of people who are, according to the choir director in the story, "silly-billy parrots" if they sing without knowing the meaning of the words; and Charles, Esmé's five year old brother, the epitome of love. Not all critics agree, but I should like to suggest, contrary to some recent interpretations, that it is Charles, rather than Esmé, who is the key to the story. It is his riddle of what one wall says to another: "Meetcha at the corner," which is the nexus between Sergeant X and the world, and it is Charles's final, spontaneous, and insistent Hello, Hello, Hello, Hello, Hello, affixed to the end of Esmé's letter, that brings Sergeant X's F-A-C-U-L-T-I-E-S back together.
The contrast between Charles and Esmé is the burden of the first half of the story. The second half, in which the I point-of-view is shifted to Sergeant X "so cunningly that even the cleverest reader will fail to recognize me," is the squalid or moving part of the story, and shows a projection of Esmé's squalor (lack of compassion, of affection) in Corporal Clay, his girl friend, Loretta in the States, her psychology professor, Sergeant X's older brother—the same squalor, magnified further, which war itself shows in the punishment of a German girl who has been a minor Nazi official. It is the extension of this squalor, that war engenders, that has driven Sergeant X to the brink of disintegration, of faculties shattered. Esmé's letter, with Charles's P.S. at the end, brings the worlds of I and Sergeant X together at the conclusion of the story.
In the first half, the character of the narrator has been well established by the time he meets Esmé, Charles, and their governess, Miss Megley, in a tea-room in England during the war. (pp. 262-63)
Except for the two introductory paragraphs, the tone [of this half] has been wry, jocular—a man making fun not only of the army but of himself.
[Wandering] the streets in the rain, he hears children singing in church and enters. They are practicing. One of the singers is a young girl "whose eyes seemed to be counting the house." Even in a church. It is the first intimation we have of Esmé's character, and it is given by the narrator half in admiration, half in amazement.
After the practice, they meet by accident again at a nearby tea-room, where Esmé comes with Charles and their governess. Before the narrator quite realizes how, Esmé is standing with "enviable poise" beside his table. Invited, she sits down, a "truth lover or a statistics lover" of thirteen. He is the eleventh American she has met. She sits beautifully straight on her chair so that he too must come out of his army slouch. Her conversation with the narrator is that of a census taker—"Are you deeply in love with your wife?" "How were you employed before entering the army?"—or has the tone of an almanac dispensing facts—"To be quite candid Father really needed more of an intellectual companion than Mother was" (her parents become case histories in psychology); her wet hair, now straight, is when dry "not actually curly but quite wavy" (she is meticulously exact even in a situation in which a young girl might normally be tempted to alter truth a trifle, claiming curls rather than waves).
She finally asks the narrator, even though she is somewhat disappointed that he is not a published writer, to write her a story about squalor. "About what?" he says, incredulous, for he is confronted with a girl who believes everything can be learned by statistics, by so many notes taken, by so many Americans kept count of, by so many figures put together. "Silly-billy parrots" the choir director had said of those who mouth words without knowing their meanings. She is talking about Esmés.
In contrast is Charles, disdainful of appearances like wet hair, of the facts that his sister cherishes ("He certainly has green eyes. Haven't you, Charles?" the narrator asks him. "They're orange," Charles says); enjoying his game of riddles; arching his back across the chair in contrast to Esmé's perfectly achieved poise; covering up his face with his napkin; giving a Bronx cheer at one point of the conversation between his sister and the narrator; engulfed with laughter at his own jokes; and furiously disappointed when the Sergeant tells him the answer to the riddle when asked the second time. He is everything his sister is not (She takes his wet cap from his head when they enter the tearoom "by lifting it off his head with two fingers, as if it were a laboratory specimen"). The last image that we have of the two of them in this part of the story is the picture that remains: Charles, blushing but determined, comes back to kiss the Sergeant good-bye. Asked the answer to the riddle, his face lights up. He shrieks: "Meet you at the corner," (and he does at the end of the story, saying at the corner of sanity and insanity to the Sergeant, Hello, Hello, Hello) and races out of the room "possibly in hysterics." Esmé leaves too, "slowly, reflectively, testing the ends of her hair for dryness"; one risking embarrassment to show his friendship; the other, worried about her own appearance.
The second, or squalid part of the story, extends Esmé's attitude to other people, etching the dilettantism into callousness, into stupidity, into destruction. For what does it mean to know squalor without love? It means a Corporal Clay who uses Sergeant X to write letters home to impress his girl, Loretta. It means a Loretta who uses the war experiences of men overseas as case histories in her psychology class (Esmé's treatment of her father and mother's relationship)…. It means finally the last protest of Sergeant X, scribbled almost illegibly underneath: "Fathers and teachers, I ponder 'What is hell?' I maintain it is the suffering of being unable to love," which are the words of Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov. (Esmé: "My Aunt says that I'm a terribly cold person." "I am training myself to be more compassionate.") And Sergeant X's faculties under these pressures begin to disintegrate.
On his desk is a pile of packages, letters, books, that he has left unopened for days. He pushes them aside to use his typewriter to write a letter connecting him to someone, somewhere. But he cannot. He collapses on the typewriter. When he opens his eyes again, he sees a green package ("He certainly has green eyes, haven't you, Charles?" "They're orange," Charles says). Unconsciously Sergeant X moves to open the package.
It is a present and a note from Esmé—her father's watch (broken), and the notation that it was an extremely pleasant afternoon that they had spent "in each other's company on April 30, 1944, between 3:45 and 4:15 P.M. in case it slipped your mind."
But appended to the note is a message from Charles, of one wall saying to another, without thought, without knowledge, without statistics, but with compassion and affection: Hello Hello Hello Hello Hello. And Sergeant X's F-A-C-U-L-T-I-E-S disintegrating under squalor gradually come back together again. Much as we like Esmé's intelligence, poise, and breath-taking levelheadedness, it is her brother Charles, with the orange eyes and the arching back and the smacking kiss, who knows without counting the house, without 3:45 and 4:15 P.M.'s, the riddles of the heart. (pp. 263-64)
John Hermann, "J. D. Salinger: Hello Hello Hello," in College English (copyright © 1961 by the National Council of Teachers of English), January, 1961, pp. 262-64.
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I'm for critical ingenuity and latitude of interpretation and all, but there is some stuff up with which I will not put. Like Mr. John Hermann's view of Salinger's Esmé [see excerpt above] as a symbol of squalor, of lack of compassion and affection. Mr. Hermann gets facts wrong, as when he says that Charles, "blushing but determined … risking embarrassment to show his friendship," comes back into the tearoom to kiss Sergeant X good-bye. In context it is obvious that Esmé has to "drag" and "push" Charles to get him to kiss the sergeant.
But more important, Mr. Hermann has committed two basic errors. One is to read the story in the light of a rather romantic preconception, the other is to neglect the role of the narrator. The romantic preconception is that love of truth, including statistics, makes one unable to love people. Since Esmé is a statistic-lover, she must be unable to love people…. But Esmé's love of truth is simply part of her admirable integrity. She is still child enough not to have lost wonder and curiosity; her intelligence has not been corrupted by wishful thinking (her cool appraisal of her mother, her refusal, which Mr. Hermann thinks abnormal, to pretend that her hair is curly when it's only wavy). True enough, her literalness is a trifle comic, but it is not morally disabling, as it might be in an adult.
In the tearoom Esmé approached X in part because her aunt had told her she was "terribly cold," and she was "training herself to be more compassionate." Despite Mr. Hermann, this passage does not put her in Dostoevsky's hell of being unable to love; on the contrary, her willingness to try is enough to save her. Esmé's fidelity to truth and her acute though unseasoned intelligence do not prevent her from loving people; on the contrary they cause her to bestow her love fully on adults who, she perceives, have somehow escaped the general corruption: her father and X, whose "extremely sensitive face" attracted her in church. Though Mr. Hermann found her inattention in church objectionable, she wasn't simply counting the house, she was making an acute judgment of X, and ultimately the right response to him. For aren't we too meant to like him, and to think him worthy of love? If Esmé doesn't love him, why in the world does she write him and send him her dearest possession, the watch?
Of course her love of people, like her love of truth, has its comic side. The nervous concern about her hair, the question about X's love for his wife, the fear of seeming either too childish or too forward, these all indicate a schoolgirl's crush on a soldier. But it seems unfortunately necessary to insist on the obvious: Esmé is comic as well as admirable…. Throughout the story there is nothing in X's tone, explicit or implicit, which modifies the admiration for Esmé he so frequently exhibits: for her forehead, voice, smile, dress, posture, feet and ankles.
And how authoritative a narrator is X? By Mr. Hermann's own account of the preliminary section, he is wry and jocular. This sophisticated, ironic person is the most intelligent and mature observer in the story. Without discussing X's views, Mr. Hermann accepts the position of the aunt and of the choir coach with the dissonant voice, who sees Esmé and her choirmates as "silly-billy parrots." (The choir coach gets the treatment she deserves from the children, "a steady, opaque look.") When Esmé asks X if he, like her aunt, finds her terribly cold, the reply of this ordinarily reserved man is "absolutely not—very much to the contrary, in fact." I will back him against the aunt, the choir coach, and Mr. Hermann. (pp. 584-85)
Robert M. Browne, "In Defense of Esmé," in College English (copyright © 1961 by the National Council of Teachers of English), May, 1961, pp. 584-85.
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Among the reasonably literate young and young in heart, [J. D. Salinger] is surely the most read and reread writer in America today, exerting a power over his readers which is in some ways extraliterary. Those readers expect him to teach them something, something that has nothing at all to do with fiction. Not only have his vague metaphysical hints been committed to rote by New Yorker readers from here to Dubuque, but his imaginary playmates, the Glass family, have achieved a kind of independent existence; I rather imagine that Salinger readers wish secretly that they could write letters to Franny and Zooey and their brother Buddy, and maybe even to Waker (who is a Jesuit and apparently less disturbed than his kin), much as people of less invincible urbanity write letters to the characters in As the World Turns and The Brighter Day.
What actually happens in Franny and Zooey … is really nothing much. (p. 233)
To anyone who has ever felt over-exposed to the world, to anyone who has ever harbored hatred in his or her heart toward droppers of names, writers of papers on Flaubert, toward eaters of frogs' legs, [Franny and Zooey] has a certain seductive lure; there is a kind of lulling charm in being assured in that dazzling Salinger prose, that one's raw nerves, one's urban hangover, one's very horridness, is really not horridness at all but instead a kind of dark night of the soul….
However brilliantly rendered (and it is), however hauntingly right in the rhythm of its dialogue (and it is), Franny and Zooey is finally spurious, and what makes it spurious is Salinger's tendency to flatter the essential triviality within each of his readers, his predilection for giving instructions for living. What gives the book its extremely potent appeal is precisely that it is self-help copy: it emerges finally as Positive Thinking for the upper middle classes, as Double Your Energy and Live Without Fatigue for Sarah Lawrence girls. (p. 234)
Joan Didion, "Finally (Fashionably) Spurious," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1961: 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), November 18, 1961 (and 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, Odyssey Press, 1963, pp. 232-34).
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I am not sure why I have liked so much less this time through a story which moved me so deeply when I first read it in The New Yorker four or five years ago. I mean, of course, "Zooey," to which "Franny" is finally an appendage, like the long explanatory footnote on pages 52 and 53, the author's apologetic statement on the jacket, the pretentiously modest dedication: all the gimmicks, in short, which conceal neither from him nor from us the fact that he has not yet made of essentially novelistic material the novel it wants to become.
It was, I guess, the novel which "Zooey," along with a handful of earlier stories, seemed to promise to which I responded with initial enthusiasm: the fat chronicle of the Glass family which might have caught once and for all the pathos and silliness of middle-class, middle-brow intellectual aspiration—the sad and foolish dream that certain families, largely Jewish, dreamed for their children listening to the Quiz Kids perform on the radio two long decades ago. For the sake of that novel, Salinger seemed at the point of making a new start…. Certainly in "Zooey" Salinger had begun untypically to specify the times and circumstances of his characters: to furnish patiently the rooms through which they moved; to eschew slickness and sentimentality and easy jokes in favor of a style almost inept enough to guarantee honesty; to venture beyond an evocation of adolescent self-pity and adolescent concern with sex titillating chiefly to adolescents themselves.
But there is, as yet, no novel—only "Zooey," well-leaded and in hard-covers, flanked by apologies and new promises, but still unfulfilled: and it is this, I suppose, which has left me baffled and a little disappointed. In a magazine, Salinger's documentation seemed not quite so irrelevant, his furnishings not quite so disproportionate to the events they frame, the awkwardness of his writing not quite so much a tic of embarrassment or a posture of false modesty.
"Franny" itself, which I had not read before, seems to me an eminently satisfactory piece of reportage, turned in as evidence (at the demonstration trial of the generations, in which it is not clear who is the plaintiff, who the defendant) by a middle-aged eavesdropper on station-platforms and at restaurants where the Ivy League young ritually prepare for watching games and getting laid. It is, at least, scarcely ever cute, like much of "Zooey" and all of the mere apparatus which with it ekes out a book; and it ends ambiguously before its author, whose resolutions are often disasters, can manage to be either sentimental or sage. In "Franny" for once Salinger demonstrates that he can write of adolescence without disappearing into it; but "Franny," alas, is completed by "Zooey," which itself completes nothing. (pp. 235-36)
[Salinger] speaks for the cleanest, politest, best-dressed, best-fed and best-read among the disaffected (and who is not disaffected?) young; not junkies or faggots, not even upper-bohemians, his protagonists travel a road bounded on one end by school and on the other by home. They have families and teachers rather than lovers or friends; and their crises are likely to be defined in terms of whether or not to go back for the second semester to Vassar or Princeton, to Dana Hall or St. Mark's. Their angst is improbably cued by such questions as: "Does my date for the Harvard Weekend really understand what poetry is?" or "Is it possible that my English instructor hates literature after all?"
I do not mean by reduction to mock the concerns of Salinger's characters; they cannot, in any case, be reduced, and I should mock myself making fun of them. For better or for worse, a significant number of sensitive young Americans live in a world in which the classroom and the football game provide customary arenas for anguish and joy, love and death; and to that world, Salinger has been more faithful than it perhaps deserves. Which is why in the end he is a comic novelist or nothing. If the Temple Drake of Faulkner's Sanctuary stands as the classic portrait of a co-ed in the 'twenties, the Franny of Salinger's Glass stories bids to become her equivalent for the 'fifties, and the decline in terror and intensity from one to the other, the descent toward middlebrow bathos is the fault not of Salinger but of the times. Temple's revolt was against vestigial Puritanism and obsolescent chivalry and her weapons were booze and sex; Franny's is against literature and the New Criticism and her weapon is the "Jesus Prayer."
Certainly, this is fair enough; for, in the thirty years that separate the two refugees from college, the Culture Religion of Western Europe has replaced Christianity as the orthodox faith for middle-class urban Americans; and the Pastors to whom our hungry sheep look up in vain are Ph.D.'s in Literature and the "section men" who are their acolytes.
Before the present volume, Salinger had always presented madness as a special temptation of males; perhaps because, in the myth he was elaborating, it is a female image of innocence that, at the last moment, lures his almost-lost protagonists back from the brink of insanity: a little girl typically, pre-pubescent and therefore immune to the world's evil, which, in his work, fully nubile women tend to embody. (p. 238)
In "Zooey," where the brother saves, the sister is redeemed and neither is a child, the myth struggles back toward the tragic dimension; and it is for this, too, perhaps, that I responded so strongly at first to the story, to its implicit declaration of Salinger's resolve to escape what had become for him a trap. (p. 239)
But "Zooey" is, at last, a fable of reconciliation as well as of salvation; for the saved Franny, we are left to believe, will return perhaps to school, certainly to "acting," as her brothers recommend, not so much for her own sake as for the sake of what Seymour had been accustomed to call, in their Quiz Kid days, the Fat Lady, i.e., the audience out front. But the Fat Lady, Zooey announces as his story ends, is Christ; the mass audience is Christ. It is an appropriate enough theophany for a popular entertainer, for Salinger as well as Zooey, and the cue for a truce with all the world, with bad teachers, mad television producers, bad psychoanalysts, bad everyone.
Finally, like his characters, Salinger is reconciled with everything but sex. The single voice in his novella which advocates marriage is the voice of Bessie Glass, a stage-Irish comic mother married to an off-stage comic Jew; but she raises it in vain in a fictional world where apparently only women marry and where certainly no father appears on the scene. It is to Zooey she speaks, the one son of hers not already killed by marriage like Seymour, or safe in monastic retirement, secular like Buddy's or ecclesiastical like his Jesuit brother Waker's. Zooey, who fears his own body and his mother's touch on it, turns her aside with a quip; though he might well have repeated what he had cried earlier in deep contempt, "That's just sex talking, buddy … I know that voice." These words, too, he had addressed to her; since for him men and women alike are "buddy," as if unlike the actual Buddy, he needed no little girl to remind him of what Seymour had once tried to teach them all: that "all legitimate religious study must lead to unlearning … the illusory differences between boys and girls …"
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, Quiz Kids who never made the mistake of growing up, and whose most glorious hours were spent before the microphones on a nation-wide radio program called "It's a Wise Child." The notion of the Quiz Kids, with their forced precocity, their meaningless answers to pointless questions faked by station employes as heroes, sages, secret saints of our time is palpably absurd. But Salinger himself ironically qualifies what he seems naively to offer by the unfinished quotation he uses to give his only half-mythical program its name. It is with his collaboration, we remind ourselves, that we are able to say of his hidden saints, when they become insufferably cute or clever or smug, "The little bastards!" Surely, this is Salinger's joke, not just one on him and on his world. (pp. 239-40)
Leslie Fiedler, "Up from Adolescence," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1962 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Winter, 1962 (and 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, Odyssey Press, 1963, pp. 235-40).
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Salinger's conviction that our inner lives greatly matter peculiarly qualifies him to sing of an America where, for most of us, there seems little to do but to feel. Introversion, perhaps, has been forced upon history; an age of nuance, of ambiguous gestures and psychological jockeying on a national and private scale, is upon us, and Salinger's intense attention to gesture and intonation help make him, among the contemporaries, a uniquely pertinent literary artist. As Hemingway sought the words for things in motion, Salinger seeks the words for things transmuted into human subjectivity. His fiction, in its rather grim bravado, its humor, its morbidity, its wry but persistent hopefulness, matches the shape and tint of present American life. It pays the price, however, of becoming dangerously convoluted and static. A sense of composition is not among Salinger's strengths…. (pp. 53-4)
The Franny of "Franny" and the Franny of "Zooey" are not the same person. The heroine of "Franny" is a pretty college girl passing though a plausible moment of disgust….
The Franny of "Zooey," on the other hand, is Franny Glass, the youngest of the seven famous Glass children, all of whom have been in turn wondrously brilliant performers on a radio quiz program, "It's a Wise Child." (p. 54)
One wonders how a girl raised in a home where Buddhism and crisis theology were table talk could have postponed her own crisis so long and, when it came, be so disarmed by it. (pp. 54-5)
The more Salinger writes about them, the more the seven Glass children melt indistinguishably together in an impossible radiance of personal beauty and intelligence….
In "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" (the best of the Glass pieces: a magic and hilarious prose-poem with an enchanting end effect of mysterious clarity), Seymour defines sentimentality as giving "to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it." This seems to me the nub of the trouble: Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. Their invention has become a hermitage for him. He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation. "Zooey" is just too long; there are too many cigarettes, too many goddams, too much verbal ado about not quite enough.
The author never rests from circling his creations, patting them fondly, slyly applauding. He robs the reader of the initiative upon which love must be given. Even in "Franny," which is, strictly, pre-Glass, the writer seems less an unimpassioned observer than a spying beau…. (p. 55)
"Franny," nevertheless, takes place in what is recognizably our world; in "Zooey" we move into a dream world whose zealously animated details only emphasize an essential unreality…. Not the least dismaying development of the Glass stories is the vehement editorializing on the obvious—television scripts are not generally good, not all section men are geniuses. Of course, the Glasses condemn the world only to condescend to it, to forgive it, in the end. Yet the pettishness of the condemnation diminishes the gallantry of the condescension.
Perhaps these are hard words; they are made hard to write by the extravagant self-consciousness of Salinger's later prose, wherein most of the objections one might raise are already raised. On the flap of this book jacket, he confesses, "… there is a real-enough danger, I suppose, that sooner or later I'll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods, locutions, and mannerisms. On the whole, though, I'm very hopeful." Let me say, I am glad he is hopeful. I am one of those—to do some confessing of my own—for whom Salinger's work dawned as something of a revelation. I expect that further revelations are to come.
The Glass saga, as he has sketched it out, potentially contains great fiction. When all reservations have been entered, in the correctly unctuous and apprehensive tone, about the direction he has taken, it remains to acknowledge that it is a direction, and that the refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one's obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all. (pp. 55-6)
John Updike, "'Franny and Zooey'" (originally published in The New York Times Book Review, September 17, 1961), in his Assorted Prose (copyright © 1961 by John Updike; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1965, pp. 234-39.
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[Can] a decade be labeled with the name of one writer? During the 1950s, Jerome David Salinger published his single novel to date, The Catcher in the Rye, and eight rather long stories—all but one of them connected at least thematically with the saga of a family named Glass…. This small body of work enjoyed a popularity unparalleled during the decade. (p. 23)
Salinger's significant writing was almost entirely confined to the 50s. (p. 24)
Certainly no writer has won a remotely similar place in American affections during the 60s; nor did any single writer so largely monopolize readers during any earlier decade. Because of the singular relationship between Salinger and the years of the "silent generation," it would seem that we might learn something about the feelings of the inarticulate youth of the period by examining the assumptions underlying the fiction of the writer that most attracted them.
First, though, we must bear in mind that Salinger was not universally acclaimed during the 50s. His works have always polarized opinion. The Catcher in the Rye was widely denounced and rejected. Older critics dismissed it impatiently; school boards and self-appointed professional moralists objected to its colloquial style and obscene language. Although some older readers had the perceptiveness to admire Salinger, his novel appealed principally to high school and college students; and he is important—among other things—as one of the earliest chroniclers of the now formidable "generation gap."
The first and last of Salinger's stories to attract widespread attention concerned the same event—the suicide of Seymour Glass in a Miami Beach hotel. Indeed "The Age of Salinger" can be precisely designated as extending from January, 1948, when "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" introduced readers of the New Yorker to the extraordinary Glass family to June, 1959, when the far longer and more garrulous "Seymour: An Introduction" appeared in the same magazine and cleared up the most important chapter in this family chronicle. These dates are important in discussing the rage for Salinger, because not since the enthusiasm during the early Romantic period for Goethe's young Werther had fictional characters so completely dominated the imaginative fancies of a decade as Seymour Glass and Holden Caulfield dominated the dim, defensive 50s. When in the 60s John F. Kennedy helped inspire a new dynamic activism among American youth, interest in Salinger and his creations began to dwindle.
With a decade's perspective on the body of Salinger's major work, we can see that Holden and Seymour are actually polar opposites and that from the contrast between them we can achieve a sharply black-and-white outline of the hopes, fears, and convictions of the sensitive young people growing up during the 50s. Both Seymour and Holden are, paradoxically, triumphant and defeated figures, depending upon the code of values of the perceiver. For those who believe in the sacredness of the life force, who feel that survival even at the expense of repression is the highest value, Holden Caulfield is a hero of his time and Seymour Glass is anomic, the personification of neurotic self-righteousness. For those who believe that the maintenance of principle is worth any sacrifice ("Better dead than red," as some shouted during the 50s), who find their highest values in personal integrity even at the sacrifice of their lives, Seymour Glass is not just a hero, but a saint—a spiritual exemplar to less noble and dedicated men, and Holden Caulfield is a "cop-out," a man who demeans himself by compromising in the interest of self-preservation. (pp. 24-6)
If we can correctly assume that Salinger's values are representative of those of a sizeable and influential segment of the youth of the 50s (and this argument remains hypothetical because the 50s are still close enough to remain an exasperating puzzle), it is clear that a principal conviction of this witch-hunting era was that a man could not retain his integrity and stay alive. (p. 26)
"If you want to stay alive," Holden observes, "you have to say that stuff," like "Glad to've met you" to people you're not at all glad to meet.
Holden surely spoke for many of his contemporaries even if they didn't always recognize his message. The 50s were a period of supreme disillusionment. (pp. 27-8)
Most people of the 50s resembled Holden Caulfield. When he says, "If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff," he speaks for his readers. Extraordinarily for a book that has been so frequently and intensively read, The Catcher in the Rye has often been completely misinterpreted. Both youthful partisans and older fault-finders have viewed the novel as an account of a callow rebellion against pompous propriety. On the contrary, the book preaches not rebellion, but resignation. More than that, it is not even romantic in its approach…. The clearest indication of the intention of The Catcher in the Rye is found in Holden's remark after spending a night in the waiting room at Grand Central Station, "It wasn't too nice. Don't ever try it. I mean it. It'll depress you." Even at the climax of the novel, though Holden realizes that kids can't be protected from falling over "some crazy cliff," he continues to tell the reader what to do, "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." Holden is not a Romantic urging his readers—like the later Beatniks—to go "on the road" and discover life for themselves…. Far from encouraging rebellion and flight, Salinger attempts to make The Catcher in the Rye a surrogate for them, so that the reader by vicariously sharing Holden's depressing experiences need not himself undergo a parallel ordeal.
Although few young readers could probably have articulated their response to the book and although few of them probably even tried to analyze this response (as Holden said of Jesus, "He didn't have time to go around analyzing everybody"), many of them probably were provided by the novel with the vicarious experience that enabled them to compromise with their own private, impractical dreams—the aesthetic resolution of their frustrations. In the many battles that have raged over The Catcher in the Rye, few have noted that the novel is a virtually flawless fictional embodiment of the traumatic experience of accepting the destruction of one's illusions as the price for moving from childhood to manhood. (pp. 28-9)
Seymour Glass is the necessary complement to Holden Caulfield. We can, in fact, only fully grasp the significance of Holden by contemplating his polar alternative. Holden's old teacher Antolini urges upon Holden a quotation from 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.'" Whether Antolini is good angel or devil's advocate (and I doubt that Salinger accepts the idea that to die nobly for a cause is a mark of immaturity), the statement that he treasures does express what Salinger conceives to be the only alternatives open to people. Either one lives humbly (as Holden will if he continues to accept suffering) for a cause or one dies nobly for it. Salinger seems to reject the Socratic possibility of leading the truly "examined life" (like Jesus, one doesn't have time to go around "analyzing everybody"), but so probably did most of his contemporaries, too caught up in the "rat race" to have the leisure or even the inclination to scrutinize their own and other's behavior.
Seymour Glass embodies the possibility of dying nobly (and the danger of viewing the talkative Antolini as Salinger's spokesman is shown by the tenderness with which the author presents a character for whom Holden's teacher would have to feel great distaste). The motive behind Seymour's suicide remains enigmatic in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." The only clue to his behavior is found in his earlier explanation of the bananafish to a little girl Sybil (who calls him "Seemore Glass"):
"Well, they swim into a hole where there's a lot of bananas. They're very ordinary-looking fish when they swim in. But once they get in, they behave like pigs…. Naturally, after that they're so fat they can't get out of the hole again. Can't fit through the door…. They die…. They get banana fever. It's a terrible disease."
A possible interpretation of this fable is that Seymour sees himself as a bananafish, doomed by his addiction to material things; but this explanation scarcely holds water because Seymour kills himself quite deliberately, whereas the bananafish enter blithely upon their doomed course without understanding the consequences. They behave just like the little kids in The Catcher in the Rye grabbing for the gold ring. It is more likely that the other characters are the bananafish. Seymour's wife Muriel and her mother, for example, are clearly obsessed with material things, so that their doom is certain. Seymour finds the only escape from their vulgar obsession with "things" (Salinger could scarcely have set the story in a more appropriate place than Miami Beach, which must be the most garishly vulgar place in the world) in the childlike innocence of Sybil; but when Sybil says that she sees the bananafish, Seymour recognizes that she is going to go the way that Muriel has gone—that he can't prevent her falling any more than Holden can prevent the kids in the field of rye from doing so and that, therefore, there is literally nothing that he can do to save this world while he remains alive. (pp. 30-2)
Salinger returned to the problem of Seymour's suicide at the end of his great decade…. In "Seymour: An Introduction," Buddy Glass is quite explicit about Seymour's reasons for taking his life: "I say 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."
I don't think that it matters whether or not Salinger actually had this clearly articulated concept in mind when he wrote the first story about Seymour. The important thing is that although there are differences between the early and the late Seymour Glass, both manifestations of the character are incapable of "adjusting" to the "phony" world. That Seymour is not intimidated as Holden is by the knowledge that "If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff" is evident from his conversations about an imaginary tattoo and his remark to a woman whom he accuses of looking at his feet. In both stories, he will not compromise with squalor; and this refusal makes it impossible for him to continue to live in a squalid world.
Salinger's other major stories are principally reinforcements or elaborations of the principles laid down in his portraits of Holden and Seymour. (pp. 32-3)
The range of ideas in Salinger's work is extremely narrow. He is like a searchlight exploring a small area intensely rather than like a sun illuminating a landscape. (The simile is doubly appropriate because his vision is nocturnal. Most of the action in his stories takes place at night, and the characters tend to spend their days largely in dim apartments or darkened theatres.) He sees the material world as absolutely corrupt (once more he recalls Eliot, whose "Gerontion" observes "… what is kept must be adulterated"). One can save one's self only by limiting one's criticism to one's self and resisting the temptation for public acclaim. The man whose vision is too clear to enable him to close his eyes to this world cannot hope to communicate with it. He can hope to make a spectacular exit that may keep alive some glimmering memory of the "niceness" we can know only momentarily.
It is easy to see that these ideas had enormous appeal to young people of the 50s. The continued cold War, the venal leadership of the "industrial-military" complex, the "crewcut" mentality that denounced any deviation as heresy made the world seem squalid indeed. One could enjoy his vision only—like the poet in "The Inverted Forest"—by throwing away his glasses so that he could not see the "phony" world and keeping quiet about the world inside his head. Survival demanded either a debasing acceptance of the acclaim of an "unskilled" public or else an undiscriminating acceptance of all men and things. (Significantly, Eisenhower, the most appropriate figurehead the age could have found, had a reputation based on his being undiscriminatingly "liked" by everyone on the basis of a vacuous smile that served to hide any ideas or visions he might have had.) The man who would not compromise his vision was either literally driven to his death (like French film director Max Ophuls or Czech leader Jan Masaryk) or into long seclusion (like Charles DeGaulle or Boris Pasternak). The direction of society was left in the grasping hands of insensitive egotists like Lane Coutell.
Since the end of the 50s Salinger's works—though still widely read and admired—have declined in popularity. Sensitive youth has turned activist in the 60s, and Salinger does not speak as clearly to a dynamic generation as he did to a passive one. The shortcoming of the quite justified attitude of withdrawal from the world held by sensitive people of the 50s is that it is self-indulgent. By assuming that any effort to improve conditions is going to be defeated and will probably simply get one into trouble, one can rationalize a failure even to make any effort. Celebrity is undoubtedly accompanied by formidable problems; but Salinger's characters—and Salinger himself—never tried to surmount these problems. (pp. 37-8)
"The Age of Salinger" provides compelling reasons for describing as sentimental and decadent an "either/or" vision which perceives defeat or death as the only alternatives in the struggle between the affectionate individual and squalid society. None of Salinger's characters ever expresses the attitude championed by Marlow in Conrad's Heart of Darkness that "for good or evil mine is the speech that cannot be silenced."
What a writer has his characters say is, of course, as much his own business as his attitude toward the world. What matters is not that a defeatist attitude underlies Salinger's work, but that works embodying such an attitude were extremely popular during the 50s. Salinger's writings have sometimes been called "decadent" for the wrong reasons by unthinking people reacting automatically to words or incidents in the stories. Perhaps in the long run the most important contribution made by The Catcher in the Rye to the development of American literature was the novel's providing the perennially necessary refurbishing of the colloquial idiom; and Salinger needed to "invent" very few of the things that happen to Holden. As the poet in "The Inverted Forest" insisted one should, the novelist "found" his material by observing the world around him. (pp. 38-9)
Warren French, "The Age of Salinger," in The Fifties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by Warren French (copyright © 1970 by Warren French), Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1970, pp. 1-39.
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Holden's sensitivity is the heart of [The Catcher in the Rye]; that which animates the story and makes it compelling. Events are laden with affect for Holden. He cannot speak of an experience for long in a neutral way, apart from judgment and feeling. And of course those judgments and feelings are largely negative. Not so entirely negative as Phoebe says—"You don't like anything that's happening"—but this novel is first the story of a young man so displeased with himself and with much of the world around him that his strongest impulse is to leave, break loose, move on. From his pain follows rejection and retreat.
But what exactly is it that puts Holden out of sorts with his life? What does he reject? The critics answer [with] phrases that universalize: an immoral world, the inhumanity of the world, the adult world, the predicament of modern life, the human condition, the facts of life, evil. As we see it, the leap is too quick and too long. Holden lives in a time and place, and these provide the material against which his particular adolescent sensibility reacts.
Holden has many ways of condemning, and an ample lexicon to render his judgments. Some people are bastards, others jerks. The way they act makes you want to puke. What they do and say, can be—in Holden's favorite adjectives—depressing, corny, dopey, crumby, screwed-up, boring, phony. "Phony" is probably Holden's most frequent term of abuse, definitely his strongest and most ethically weighted. For that reason his application of the word is a good index to what he finds most intolerable in his life. And Holden is quite consistent in what he calls phony. (pp. 27-8)
[Twin] themes run through the book. When a situation or act seems phony to Holden, it evidences bad class relationships, or public ritual, or both. The first theme is foregrounded when Holden stigmatizes the word "grand," or the phrase "marvelous to see you"; the second when he notes the hollow formality of "glad to've met you." (pp. 29-30)
Holden rounds on mores and conventions that are a badge of class. He also revolts against convention itself. We would remark here that although these two feelings often blend, they have quite different origins. Society is imaginable without privilege, snobbery, unequal wealth. To banish all convention would be to end society itself. (p. 30)
Any society provides identities for its members to step into; Holden's is no exception. We can hardly consider his quest for identity apart, for instance, from the fact that his father is a corporation lawyer ("Those boys really haul it in") on the edge of the ruling class, who has tried, however fruitlessly, to open for Holden the way to a similar identity by apprenticing him in a series of private schools. For Holden, such an identity is imaginatively real, and coercive…. Holden understands well enough that such an identity is incompatible with the spontaneous feeling and relatedness he wishes for.
But what vision can he entertain of some alternate self? Here imagination darkens. Holden has no idea of changing society, and within the present one he can see forward only to the bourgeois identity that waits for him. So he fantasizes another identity which fulfills desire by escaping society almost entirely. (pp. 32-3)
Here is the main equivocation of the book, and it seems to be both Holden's and Salinger's…. [The] force of Holden's severest judgment is divided. "Phony" stigmatizes both the manners and culture of a dominant bourgeoisie—class society—and ceremonies and institutions themselves—any society. As long as we listen to the critical themes of the novel, the equivocation doesn't matter much: after all, the only society around is bourgeois society. But when we listen to those hints in the novel of something better, of alternative futures, of reconstruction, it makes a great deal of difference. Given Salinger's perception of what's wrong, there are three possible responses: do the best you can with this society: work for a better one; flee society altogether. Only the second answers to the critical feeling that dominates the book, but Salinger omits precisely that response when he shows Holden turning from that which his heart rejects to that which has value, commands allegiance, and invites living into the future without despair. So, when Holden imagines an adult self he can think only of the Madison Avenue executive or the deaf-mute, this society or no society.
And what does he like in the present?… For Holden, images of the valuable are generally images of people with-drawn from convention—people who are private, whimsical, losers, saints, dead. Holden's imagination cannot join the social and the desirable. At the beginning and again at the end of the novel he has the illusion of diappearing, losing his identity altogether—both times when he is crossing that most social of artifacts, a street.
So long as the choice is between this society and no society, Holden's imagination has no place to go. He wants love and a relatedness among equals. These do not thrive in the institutions that surround him, but they cannot exist at all without institutions, which shape human feeling and give life social form. When Phoebe retrieves Holden from nothingness and despair she draws him, inevitably, toward institutions: the family, school, the Christmas play, the zoo in the park, the carrousel where "they always play the same songs." In short, toward the same society he has fled, and toward some of its innocent social forms, this time magically redeemed by love.
Holden returns to society, the only one available. It is unchanged; he has changed somewhat, in the direction of acceptance. To go the rest of the way back, he requires the help of another institution, and a psychoanalyst. Society has classified him as neurotic—a fitting response, apparently, to his having wanted from it a more hospitable human climate than it could offer. He will change more. Society will not. But that's all right, in the end: the very act of telling his story has overlaid it with nostalgia, and he misses everybody he has told about…. In a word, Art forms the needed bridge between the desirable and the actual, provides the mediation by which social experience, rendered through much of the story as oppressive, can be embraced.
The Catcher in the Rye is among other things a serious critical mimesis of bourgeois life in the Eastern United States, ca. 1950—of snobbery, privilege, class injury, culture as badge of superiority, sexual exploitation, education subordinated to status, warped social feeling, competitiveness, stunted human possibility, the list could go on. Salinger is astute in imaging these hurtful things, though not in explaining them. Connections exist between Holden's ordeal and the events reported on the front page of the Times, and we think that those connections are necessary to complete Salinger's understanding of social reality. (pp. 33-5)
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. (p. 35)
In short, the esthetic force of the novel is quite precisely located in its rendering a contradiction of a particular society, as expressed through an adolescent sensibility that feels, though it cannot comprehend, this contradiction. Short of comprehension, both Holden and Salinger are driven to a false equation—to reject this society is to reject society itself—and a false choice—accept this society or defect from society altogether.
It is here that the novel most invites criticism, informed by history and politics. But the critics have instead, with few exceptions, followed Salinger's own lead and deepened the confusion of the novel with the help of mystifications like "the adult world," "the human condition," and so on. Pressing for such formulations, they have left history and the novel behind. They have failed both to understand its very large achievement—for we consider it a marvelous book—and to identify the shortcomings of its awareness and its art. And in this way they have certified it as a timeless classic. (pp. 35-6)
Carol and Richard Ohmann, "Reviewers, Critics, and 'The Catcher in the Rye'," in Critical Inquiry (copyright © 1976 by The University of Chicago), Vol. 3, No. 1. Autumn, 1976, pp. 15-37.
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[One] can say, in dubious celebration of Salinger, that The Catcher in the Rye is the one book that the adolescent novel comes from. It is a difficult, deceptive heritage; satirical and ostensibly designed to offer a clearer mode of life and thought than that which the heroes witness. But certainly in Salinger's case …, there really are no alternatives. One's only salvation is to remain a child.
Even in his works about the Glass Family, where he has turned to the adult world, Salinger is still celebrating childhood. While the Glass family can get quickly under one's skin, the books ultimately do not satisfy because the characters never quite get past what Zooey himself termed their "tenth-rate nervous breakdowns," never accepting or confronting the ills of the adult world that so oppress them. They remain Salinger's children, sanctified and damaged by their sensibilities.
In all of Salinger's work, children alone offer solace to his tormented characters: twelve-year-old Esme is the only one of the narrator/Sergeant X's correspondents who can help him; Seymour Glass, the oldest of the Glass family children, now unhappily married, has a sad tryst in the ocean at Miami Beach with a little girl named Sybil before he blows his brains out. The family reminisces about Franny sitting in the kitchen as a child, having a small glass of milk with Jesus. And of course there is Holden's younger sister Phoebe, dressed in her pajamas with the elephants on the collar, urging Holden to face his parents—if not his problems. These are the ideal characters in Salinger's world, and adults are appealing insofar as they share the qualities and voice of childhood. Franny and Zooey, for all their sophistication, are still pained children. Zooey's small, beautiful back—observed mostly by his mother who sits talking to him as he takes a bath—suggests a child's; Franny recovers from her depression by listening, openmouthed, on the phone to her brother Zooey, who disguises his voice as their brother Buddy's and tells her the old adage of their brother Seymour that she should live for the fat lady, because the fat lady is Christ. Seized and calmed by the truth of that simple notion, Franny climbs into her father's empty bed and goes beatifically to sleep. How comfortably, innocently incestuous they all are. "It's a Wise Child," the radio program on which each of the Glass family in turn spouted their wisdom, might be the name of any of Salinger's works.
The casual reader might be beguiled into the belief that Salinger's nay-saying characters are simply confused and shortsighted and that the author is implying they can mature and change. Zooey's pep talks with his sister—self-mocking, ironic, good humored—sound optimistic. But Salinger's humor comes more from desperation than distance. The unhappiness Holden feels because of his intolerance for compromise and his discomfort with sexuality cannot easily be helped. There is no successful model for him. One either compromises or goes under. And none of the Glass family is doing much better. Their fat lady—in the prophetic Seymour's extended description—has cancer and sits on her porch listening to the radio. In the face of this dismal vision, the Glass family must simply bear up under their crown of thorns.
In terms of what he finds acceptable, Salinger is not, in fact, very far from Lewis Carroll. He has much more sympathy for the compromises of the common man, but no more hope. Yet, like Carroll, he is authentic. He may have descended from Twain, but he is not an imitator. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of his descendants. The idiosyncracies—not to say excesses—of his style, along with his simplifications and his celebration of innocence have been adopted by a host of followers. The fat lady has been succeeded by M. E. Kerr's Miss Blue [of Is That You, Miss Blue?], who hangs pictures of Jesus in the dormitory bathroom, and Paul Zindel's invalid Irene [of I Never Loved Your Mind], who spits into a sputum cup all day, and writes doggerel verse which she sends to The London Observer. Almost all the adolescent novels use the familiar and by now too predictable first person narrator whose alienated-innocent voice confines, constricts, and dominates the work. They are all sanctified, all wise children. Salinger's gimmicks appear everywhere: in the lists, like the contents of Bessie Glass's medicine cabinet; the footnotes, that "aesthetic evil" for which Buddy Glass asks indulgence; the physical grotesques and caricatures, like Old Spencer, surreptitiously picking his nose, or Mr. Antolini, ambiguously stroking Holden's hair. (pp. 89-91)
Geraldine De Luca, in The Lion and the Unicorn (copyright © 1978 The Lion and the Unicorn), Fall, 1978.
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This is 1979, and it has been twenty-eight years since Holden Caulfield dragged his deer-hunting cap and his prep-school heart through Manhattan. But J. D. Salinger's ideas on the true and the false in American culture, his religious solutions to the crises of alienation and isolation, and his overriding sentimentality may have had more impact on the American brainscape than anyone yet has taken into account. Since the publication of a long story, "Hapworth 16, 1924," in The New Yorker in 1965, Salinger has maintained a silence that has turned him into the Howard Hughes of American literature. But Salinger's lasting significance has not declined. The startling thing for many of us to realize is that the confidential ravings of Holden Caulfield, the enigma of Seymour Glass's suicide, and the pathetic pragmatism of the Jesus Prayer embraced by Franny Glass, remain part of our consciousness—and it is not just simply nostalgia for that time in the 1950s and early 1960s when Salinger's characters provided just about the only voices that did not sound phony. As a whole new generation of readers indicates, the appeal of his work is enduring. His influence remains, and we cannot get around it, perhaps cannot get over it. (p. 1)
Looking back, one can now discern at least four phases in Salinger's career. His early stories generally portray characters who feel estranged and marooned because of World War II. His second phase is represented by The Catcher in the Rye, and Salinger's attempt in that book to deal with estrangement and isolation through a Zen-inspired awakening and lonely benevolence. The third phase, seen in Nine Stories, involves bringing together the principles of Zen art and the tradition of the short story. The fourth phase is one in which Salinger's work becomes more and more experimental, resulting in the philosophical mood of his last two books, Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction. These four phases indicate that Salinger should be read as a writer who is seeking solutions, as a writer who is trying to give direction to his thought based on an initial disturbing event. And that event is World War II.
This is not to say that Salinger should be considered a war novelist in at all the same way that one has to think about Mailer or James Jones. Nor is Salinger's relationship to the war at all as direct as that of Kurt Vonnegut, whose life and thought, as Vonnegut has admitted himself many times, revolves around the firebombing of Dresden. Unlike Vonnegut, Salinger apparently did not go through a single, harrowing experience that stayed with him from that point on. Rather it was a mood that seemed to have influenced him, a mood of loneliness, isolation, ineffectuality, and a sense of being a misfit in an unfit society. (pp. 2-3)
Many of Salinger's early stories do not deal directly with the war … but a war atmosphere permeates them—and it is not one of patriotism, nor is it representative of the kind of thought found in so much writing to come out of the war … that suggests war might be hell, but at least it can make a man out of you…. Instead, there is a sense that whatever the ideological banner, the state inevitably becomes omnivorous and omnipotent and the individual is helpless against it. The question, unstated, but there nonetheless in Salinger's earliest work, is this: What can one think and do when all possible beliefs are gone? (pp. 3-4)
Salinger has been charged, because of his essential optimism, because of his refusal to be as grimly existential as Sartre or as bleak as Beckett (if Salinger had written Waiting for Godot. Godot—or at least a near relative—would have shown up to drink milk in the kitchen), of retreating into mysticism. Yet in reality, the movement of his stories suggests a kind of pilgrim's progress, a journey from the melancholia of the war stories, through the trauma of The Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories, to the moments of revelation in the later dialogues. Again and again he writes on the relationship of man to God—or, to state it more subtly and accurately, man's relationship to the lack of God and how that sense of emptiness may be treated and perhaps alleviated. At the same time, Salinger's humor, often wry, often understated, but never bitter, is there…. [The] humor directs us away from the tragic and toward the comic; poignancy turns into hopefulness, and the objective is enlightenment, not despair. (pp. 4-5)
The Catcher in the Rye appeared in a sober and realistic time, a period when (by comparison with the 1960s, at any rate) there was a general disenchantment with ideologies, with schemes for the salvation of the world. Salinger's novel, like the decade for which it has become emblematic, begins with the words, "If you really want to hear about it," words that imply a full, sickening realization that something has happened that perhaps most readers would not want to know about. What we find out about directly in the novel is, of course, what has happened to Salinger's hero-narrator, Holden Caulfield; but we also find out what has happened generally to human ideas on some simple and ultimate questions in the years following World War II. Is it still possible to reconcile self and society? Is it any longer possible to separate the authentic from the phony? What beliefs are essential for survival? What is the role of language in understanding the nature of our reality? Is it possible to create value and endow the universe with meaning? That Salinger deals with these questions in one way or another points to a problem with The Catcher in the Rye that has often been ignored or simply not taken seriously—that the climate of ideas surrounding the novel is dense, and that the book is not just the extended and anguished cries of a wise-guy adolescent whose main trouble is that he does not want to grow up. (p. 37)
In describing Holden's predicament, one cannot avoid using existential platitudes, for Holden is, undoubtedly, in the midst of an existential crisis. Yet for all his despair, Holden is not a character who adequately illustrates the bitter pessimism and seriousness of a character out of the writings of Sartre, nor does he convey the simple message of popular existentialism as suggested by Camus—choose a path, commit yourself, be yourself, realize your own dignity. Salinger conceives of character much the same way Sartre and Camus do, but his use of language, his humor, and his ultimate willingness to look elsewhere for his answers make him a far different writer, even though he begins at the same point: The world with all its obscenities.
The way Holden Caulfield sees the world is stated in the novel's most famous line: "If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn't rub out even half the 'Fuck you' signs in the world."… It is ironic that this sentence is the one that is most responsible for the various bannings of the novel in the years following its appearance…. [The] controversial line, instead of being obscene itself, is directed, as almost all of Salinger's fiction is, against obscenity. Holden tries to explain to us not only what is offensive, disgusting, and repulsive to him in human behavior, but also what goes against prevailing notions of modesty and decency. "The things that Holden finds so deeply repulsive are things he calls 'phony,'" writes Dan Wakefield, "and the 'phoniness' in every instance is the absence of love, and, often, the substitution of pretense for love" [see excerpt above]. Holden is a rebel, but he is hardly a rebel without a cause: He begins in a screaming rage against a society of convention, immorality, and the patently false, but he ends by establishing love and acceptance as a saving grace. (pp. 38-9)
The influence of Holden's example on an entire generation of readers is impossible to measure, but it is difficult to ignore in considering the development of the "counterculture" of white American youth in the 1960s. The conventional virtues they rejected—competitive masculinity, military supremacy, and the emphasis on self discipline in order to channel energy into economic achievement—are all virtues rejected by Holden. And the belief that non-Western thought could provide humanizing answers that centuries of Christianity and European philosophy had not is as much a part of Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye as it is of the Beat movement. Like Gary Snyder, Salinger suggests the use of Zen Buddhism as a means of discipline necessary to cleanse the mind of certain untruths promoted by mass culture in America. Holden Caulfield's long digression is a pilgrimage to find meaning, one he has doubtless encouraged others to follow on the path back to a revitalized sense of inner direction.
But however extensive the influence of Salinger's most notorious character, he is a major reason for Salinger's fame and popularity. In the real and relevant idiom of Holden, Salinger caught and dissected modern society through a symbolic structure of language, motif, and episode that is as masterful as anything in contemporary literature. The Catcher in the Rye is a novel that fights obscenity with an amazing and divine mixture of vulgarity and existential anguish, and it does this through a style that moves the narrative effortlessly along on a colloquial surface that suddenly parts to reveal the terror and beauty of the spiritual drama that Holden enacts. It may be Salinger's only novel, but it is still one of the best we have. (pp. 67-8)
The secret of balancing form with emptiness and in knowing when one has said enough is behind the art of the modern short story. This secret is also behind the art forms of Zen Buddhism with its emphasis on an idea that must be at the center of every good short story: One showing is worth a hundred sayings. The short-story writer and the Zen artist must work to convey the impression of unhesitating spontaneity, realizing that a single stroke is enough to give away character, and avoiding filling in the essential empty spaces with explanation, second thoughts, and intellectual commentary. These principles are brought together in Salinger's Nine Stories, a collection of his finest work and a startling blend of West and East in its aesthetic assumptions. (p. 69)
What happens in the short stories of Chekhov or Joyce also happens in the short stories of Salinger—character is revealed through a series of actions under stress, and the purpose of the story is reached at the moment of "epiphany," when the reader comes to know the true nature of a character or situation. Looked at from a distance and in light of the development of the short story, Salinger's stories are rather conventional. But when looked at from another way, the way suggested by the Zen koan that prefaces the collection, they become calligraphic paintings, reach their artistic high point in a tea ceremony, and have the arrangement of a Japanese garden.
Such a view of Nine Stories is not suggested as simply a critical metaphor or yet another way of getting at the problem of "pattern" that has bothered so many readers of the book. It is an acknowledgement that in these stories, Zen attitudes toward art and human experience are consciously being used by Salinger in dealing with and expressing such major themes as the survival of the despairing individual in a mass society, the redeeming possibilities in a lonely benevolent, intuitive kind of love, and the necessity of overcoming the pervasive obscenity of life by passing through the boundaries of personality to enlightenment, liberation, or satori. (p. 70)
It is in Nine Stories … that Zen is most pointedly being used as a conceptualizing force for Salinger's fiction, and the puzzle that we are presented with before we can even start reading the stories is this one:
We know the sound of two hands clapping.
But what is the sound of one hand clapping?
This, of course, is one of the most famous Zen koan, originated by Hakuin …, generally acknowledged as the greatest of the Zen masters. The word Zen means thinking, meditation, to see, to contemplate, and the koan is central to the Zen process. (p. 74)
[What] is the point of the "one-hand" koan? It leads us through a series of questions. Can you hear something that is not making any noise? Can you get any sound out of a hand that has nothing to hit against? Can you obtain any knowledge of your own real nature—can the mind hit against itself? It is this final question that Salinger comes down to in his stories as he presents characters who achieve or fail to achieve satori, who either do or do not achieve a sudden and intuitive way of seeing into themselves. And for those who do solve the koan that is crucial to their awakening, what happens is described by Dumoulin this way: "He who lifts one hand and while listening quietly can hear a sound which no ears hear, can surpass all conscious knowledge. He can leave the world of distinctions behind him; he may cross the ocean of the karma of rebirths, and he may break through the darkness of ignorance. In the enlightenment he attains to unlimited freedom."
To the western mind, this unlimited freedom is most easily symbolized in children, and this, of course, is why Salinger relies on the child as symbol so often in Nine Stories. (p. 78)
Because of the Zen emphasis on "indirectness," on signs and symbols in expressing the nature of reality, art forms, particularly painting and poetry, are especially important in Zen. Salinger's awareness of Zen art is apparent in his stories. Two examples that spring immediately to mind are M. Yoshoto's painting of the white goose in the pale blue sky and Teddy's recitation of two Japanese poems (the only kind of poetry he can stand): "Nothing in the voice of the cicada intimates how soon it will die" and "Along this road goes no one, this autumn eve."… And the impression left by each of his stories is similar to the feeling left by the calligraphic style of painting done with black ink on paper or silk that was practiced by Chinese artists as early as the eighth century, a form of painting in which the objective, as in a Salinger story, is unhesitating spontaneity, and where a single stroke is often enough to give away one's character, the picture itself designed to bring about satori. (pp. 110-11)
The most obvious relationship between Zen art and Salinger's writing is, of course, between the "wordless" poetry of the haiku and the careful use of language in the stories. The haiku, which reached its fullest form in the seventeenth century, consists of just seventeen syllables, and tries, through a single image, to convey the same effect as Zen painting does through its use of empty space…. The same effect is achieved by many of Salinger's stories. It is the silence we feel as much as anything at the end of "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," "The Laughing Man," and "Teddy," a silence that is the sound of one hand clapping.
Given the direct reference to Zen painting and poetry in Nine Stories, it is not surprising that the Zen practice that has evoked the most curiosity in the Western world, the tea ceremony, should figure in what most critics agree is the best-written story in the collection, "For Esmé—With Love and Squalor." In Buddhism, tea has nearly the same sacramental function as wine does in Christianity. Its slightly bitter yet clarifying taste is said to suggest the same taste as Buddhist awakening itself, and it has long been used by Zen monks as a stimulant for meditation…. Included in the ceremony, which is frankly accepted as an escape from the concerns of business and worldly competition, is non-argumentative discussion of philosophical matters. In Salinger's story there is no attempt at direct representation of the tea ceremony, but the Sergeant has entered the tearoom as an escape (both from the rain and the barracks), the experience does figure in his awakening, and he and Esmé do carry on a non-argumentative discussion that ultimately turns on the philosophical meaning of squalor—the very thing the tea ceremony enables one to escape.
If the tea ceremony is central to one of the most memorable stories of the book, perhaps it is not pushing the metaphor of Zen art and its influence on Nine Stories too far to point out that the overall arrangement is much like that found in a Japanese garden, where the attempt, as in the stories, is not to make a strictly realistic illusion of a miniature landscape, "but simply to suggest the general atmosphere of 'mountain and water' in a small space, so arranging the design of the garden that it seems to have been helped rather than governed by the hand of man" [from Alan W. Watts, The Way of Zen]. The arrangement of Salinger's stories in the literal sense of the order in which they appear in the book seems to follow this principle. They give the impression of pattern and structure to the collection, yet the order is simply the order of magazine publication. They are arranged but they are not arranged. Another similarity between the stories and Zen gardening is in bonseki, the art of "discovering" rocks along the seashore and mountains that have been shaped by wind and water into living contours and then positioning them in the garden so that they look as if they have "grown" there. Salinger does much the same thing in his use of otherwise insignificant objects (a chicken sandwich, a red piece of waste paper, a watch) as beatific signs. And just as the Zen gardeners, Salinger is always sparing and reserved in his use of color.
Zen art requires incredible care and by its very nature cannot be prolific—something that must be taken into consideration in any discussion of Salinger's relatively "slight" output. Once a writer accepts the Zen principles of art, as Salinger's Nine Stories indicates he has, he becomes like the Zen gardener who can never cease to weed, prune, and train his plants, and who must do so with the realization that he is part of the garden himself, not some sort of controlling agent standing outside. This is what Salinger accomplishes in Nine Stories; he is so much inside the stories that they become an interior monologue in which we can perceive the writer's own movement toward satori as he faces the essential Zen fact of all that side of life completely beyond the control of logic. And how has he done this? Perhaps through gaining the same insight as the Zen master teaches in Eugene Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery: "What is true of archery and swordsmanship also applies to all the other arts. Thus, mastery in ink-painting is only attained when the hand, exercising perfect control over technique, executes what hovers before the mind's eye at the same moment when the mind begins to form it, without there being a hair's breadth between. Painting then becomes spontaneous calligraphy. Here again the painter's instructions might be: spend ten years observing bamboos, become a bamboo yourself, then forget everything and—paint." (pp. 110-14)
[Franny and Zooey] actually consists of two long stories put together into what almost, but not quite, becomes a novel. An abrupt shift in narrative technique from omniscient point of view in the first story … to having Buddy serve as the narrator in the second … gives the book an awkward structure. But despite the narrative shift, the two stories are best considered as one unit, not only because the second story serves to resolve the first, but also because the two of them taken together mark an essential change in Salinger's fiction. Through his use of the Glass family as an organizing concept for his vision, and through his increased reliance on Buddy as the narrator in that portrayal, Salinger attempts to more firmly capture the paradoxical splendor and squalor of life, while concurrently presenting a vision of twentieth-century America that is ultimately positive. The source of that vision is something that comes as a relief after the occasional overemphasis on the efficacy of Oriental thought in Nine Stories, and Holden Caulfield's apparent attainment of Buddhahood at the end of The Catcher in the Rye. What we perceive through Salinger's ventriloquial act … is a deeper awareness engendered by the paradox itself—that there are no pat answers to the problems of existence—not even Zen—and that the paradox of splendor and squalor, or of the nice and the phony, can be resolved only through character and being. Franny and Zooey thus places emphasis on character rather than action, and clearly shows Salinger moving from the well-made structures of his early stories to the discursive narrative insights of Buddy Glass working from his position within the conceptual and focusing frame of the family. (pp. 120-21)
[The volume containing Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and "Seymour: An Introduction"] is somewhat similar in structure to Franny and Zooey. The first section consists of a story … complete with plot and even something of a resolution, and the second section … is a dialogue of sorts between Buddy and Seymour (or rather, Seymour's ghost) that serves peripherally as a commentary on the first story, provides us, as the title indicates, with more information on Seymour, and finally comes down to a discussion of the nature of art, the crucial differences between poetry and prose, and the predicament of the artist. But even though both sections are this time narrated by Buddy, the two parts of the book do not fit together tightly, and "Seymour: An Introduction" comes about as close to being an essay as a piece of fiction can. However, the overall effect is one of intended delight. As in Franny and Zooey, Salinger is clearly writing about characters for whom he feels great affection because of the way they provide him with a means of centralizing his vision. (p. 136)
Salinger's later work should be seen … as part of a general development in American fiction that has been going on since World War II when the conservative stability of form that had long dominated American writing was challenged by a growing awareness of the work, not only of Joyce and Kafka (remember that Salinger uses a Kafka quotation as an epigraph at the start of "Seymour: An Introduction"), but also of more exotic talents such as Hesse, Robbe-Grillet, Cortazar, and Borges. It should also be seen as part of a different reaction that involved a certain public distrust of what fiction can do…. (p. 153)
Another important point is that Salinger's development is not unlike that of Kurt Vonnegut and other writers of his generation. He moves steadily away from old-fashioned stories of the sort that lead us to believe that life has leading characters and minor characters, important details and unimportant details, beginnings, middles, ends—"Fundamentally, my mind has always balked at any kind of ending," Buddy confesses at the conclusion of "Seymour: An Introduction." Like Vonnegut by the time he gets to Breakfast of Champions, Salinger seems to have resolved to avoid storytelling in favor of a kind of writing that, through its observations on the process by which it was created, and through the conceptualizing frame of the Glass family, shows us one way of combatting the obscenity of modern life and adapting to a chaotic, but ultimately benign, universe.
All phases of Salinger's career must be taken into account in assessing his importance, and few readers would argue with the view that The Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories remain Salinger's most satisfying work. In his only novel, he lays claim to a few years that, without much exaggeration, could be called "The Age of Salinger" because of his (sometimes schoolroom-enforced) influence on a generation of readers. With Nine Stories, he establishes a reputation as a short-story writer that puts him in the class of [Ring] Lardner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway (as well as that of [John] Cheever, [John] Updike, Flannery O'Connor, and James Purdy). And despite his long silence, Salinger's work shows a surprising growth and increasing sophistication of technique. It is a long way from "The Young Folks" to "Seymour: An Introduction." In the process of change, Salinger has become, at points in his performance, a stylist whose comic mastery of language approaches that of Mark Twain, and a writer of considerable religious vision whose books themselves remain in the mind as incarnations of spirit long after they are put down. (pp. 153-54)
James Lundquist, in his J. D. Salinger (copyright © 1979 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Frederick Ungar, 1979.
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