J. D. Salinger Salinger, J(erome) D(avid) (Vol. 12) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Frank Kermode

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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….


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Paul Levine

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dan Wakefield

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Arthur Mizener

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Granville Hicks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Walzer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2264 words.)

Carl F. Strauch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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John Hermann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert M. Browne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Joan Didion

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Leslie Fiedler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Warren French

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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?...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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James Lundquist

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4162 words.)