Justice to J.D. Salinger

When J.D. Salinger’s “Hapworth 16, 1924″—a very long and very strange story in the form of a letter from camp written by Seymour Glass when he was seven—appeared in The New Yorker in June 1965, it was greeted with unhappy, even embarrassed silence. It seemed to confirm the growing critical consensus that Salinger was going to hell in a handbasket. By the late Fifties, when the stories “Franny” and “Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters” were coming out in the magazine, Salinger was no longer the universally beloved author of The Catcher in the Rye; he was now the seriously annoying creator of the Glass family.

When “Franny” and “Zooey” appeared in book form in 1961, a flood of pent-up resentment was released. The critical reception—by, among others, Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion, and John Updike—was more like a public birching than an ordinary occasion of failure to please. “Zooey” had already been pronounced “an interminable, an appallingly bad story,” by Maxwell Geismar1 and “a piece of shapeless self-indulgence” by George Steiner.2 Now Alfred Kazin, in an essay sardonically entitled “J.D. Salinger: ‘Everybody’s Favorite,'” set forth the terms on which Salinger would be relegated to the margins of literature for doting on the “horribly precocious” Glasses. “I am sorry to have to use the word ‘cute’ in respect to Salinger,” Kazin wrote, “but there is absolutely no other word that for me so accurately typifies the self-conscious charm and prankishness of his own writing and his extraordinary cherishing of his favorite Glass characters.”3 McCarthy peevishly wrote: “Again the theme is the good people against the stupid phonies, and the good is still all in the family, like a family-owned ‘closed’ corporation…. Outside are the phonies, vainly signaling to be let in.” And: “Why did [Seymour] kill himself? Because he had married a phony, whom he worshiped for her ‘simplicity, her terrible honesty’?… Or because he had been lying, his author had been lying, and it was all terrible, and he was a fake?”

Didion dismissed Franny and Zooey as “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.”5 Even kindly John Updike’s sadism was aroused. He mocked Salinger for his rendering of a character who is “just one of the remote millions coarse and foolish enough to be born outside the Glass family,” and charged Salinger with portraying the Glasses “not to particularize imaginary people but to instill in the reader a mood of blind worship, tinged with envy.” “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.”

Today “Zooey” does not seem too long, and is arguably Salinger’s masterpiece. Rereading it and its companion piece “Franny” is no less rewarding than rereading The Great Gatsby. It remains brilliant and is in no essential sense dated. It is the contemporary criticism that has dated. Like the contemporary criticism of Olympia, for example, which jeered at Manet for his crude indecency, or that of War and Peace, which condescended to Tolstoy for the inept “shapelessness” of the novel, it now seems magnificently misguided. However—as T.J. Clark and Gary Saul Morson have shown in their respective exemplary studies of Manet and Tolstoy7—negative contemporary criticism of a masterpiece can be helpful to later critics, acting as a kind of radar that picks up the ping of the work’s originality. The “mistakes” and “excesses” that early critics complain of are often precisely the innovations that have given the work its power.

In the case of Salinger’s critics, it is their extraordinary rage against the Glasses that points us toward Salinger’s innovations. I don’t know of any other case where literary characters have aroused such animosity, and where a writer of fiction has been so severely censured for failing to understand the offensiveness of his creations. In fact, Salinger understood the offensiveness of his creations perfectly well. “Zooey”‘s narrator, Buddy Glass, wryly cites the view of some of the listeners to the quiz show It’s a Wise Child, on which all the Glass children had appeared in turn, “that the Glasses were a bunch of insufferably ‘superior’ little bastards that should have been drowned or gassed at birth.” The seven-year-old letter-writer in “Hapworth” reports that “I have been trying like hell since our arrival to leave a wide margin for human ill-will, fear, jealousy, and gnawing dislike of the uncommonplace.” Throughout the Glass stories—as well as in Catcher—Salinger presents his abnormal heroes in the context of the normal world’s dislike and fear of them. These works are fables of otherness—versions of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” However, Salinger’s design is not as easy to make out as Kafka’s. His Gregor Samsas are not overtly disgusting and threatening; they have retained their human shape and speech and are even, in the case of Franny and Zooey, preternaturally good-looking. Nor is his vision unrelentingly tragic; it characteristically oscillates between the tragic and the comic. But with the possible exception of the older daughter, Boo Boo, who grew up to become a suburban wife and mother, none of the Glass children is able to live comfortably in the world. They are out of place. They might as well be large insects. The critics’ aversion points us toward their underlying freakishness, and toward Salinger’s own literary deviance and irony.

Ten years before the “interminable” and “shapeless” “Zooey” appeared in The New Yorker, a very short and well-made story called “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” appeared there, and traced the last few hours in the life of a young man who kills himself in the story’s last sentence by putting a revolver to his temple. At the time, readers had no inkling that Seymour Glass—as the young man was called—would become a famous literary character, and that this was anything but a self-contained story about a suicidal depressive and his staggeringly shallow and unhelpful wife, Muriel. It is only in retrospect that we can see that the story is a kind of miniature and somewhat oversharp version of the allegory that the Glass family stories would enact.

The story, which takes place at a Florida resort, where the husband and wife are vacationing, is divided into two sections. In the first we overhear a telephone conversation between the wife and her mother in New York, which mordantly renders the bourgeois world of received ideas and relentless department-store shopping in which the women are comfortably and obliviously ensconced. The second section takes place on the beach where the despairing Seymour is conversing with a little girl named Sybil Carpenter, whose mother has told her to “run and play” while she goes to the hotel to have a martini with a friend. Seymour is revealed as a man who is wonderful with children, not talking down to them but, rather, past them, as thus:
“My daddy’s coming tomorrow on a nairiplane,” Sybil said, kicking sand.
“Not in my face, baby,” the young man said, putting his hand on Sybil’s ankle. “Well, it’s about time he got here, your daddy. I’ve been expecting him hourly. Hourly.”
“Where’s the lady?” Sybil said.
“The lady?” The young man brushed some sand out of his thin hair. “That’s hard to say, Sybil. She may be in any one of a thousand places. At the hairdresser’s. Having her hair dyed mink. Or making dolls for poor children, in her room.”
Seymour is the Myshkin-like figure whose death inhabits the Glass family stories. But as he appears in “Bananafish,” he isn’t quite right for the role. He is too witty and too crazy. (When he leaves the beach and goes back to the hotel to kill himself, his behavior in the elevator is that of a bellicose maniac.) Salinger takes care of the problem by disclaiming authorship of “Bananafish.” In “Seymour: An Introduction,” he allows Buddy Glass, the second-oldest brother and the story’s narrator, to claim authorship of “Bananafish” (as well as of Catcher and the story “Teddy”), and then to admit that his portrait of Seymour is wrong—is really a self-portrait. This is the sort of “prankishness” one imagines Kazin to have been complaining about and that no longer—after fifty years of postmodern experimentation (and five Zuckerman books by Philip Roth)—sticks in our craw. If our authors want to confess to the precariousness and handmade-ness of their enterprise, who are we to protest? Salinger would also considerably amplify and complicate the simple harsh sketch of the regular world that “Bananafish” renders. But he would permanently retain the dualism of “Bananafish,” the view of the world as a battleground between the normal and the abnormal, the ordinary and the extraordinary, the talentless and the gifted, the well and the sick.

In “Zooey” we find the two youngest Glass children, Franny and Zooey, in their parents’ large apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Salinger’s use of recognizable places in New York and his ear for colloquial speech give the work a deceptive surface realism that obscures its fundamental fantastic character. The Glass family apartment is at once a faithfully, almost tenderly, rendered, cluttered, shabby, middle-class New York apartment and a kind of lair, a mountain fastness, to which Salinger’s strange creations retreat, to be with their own kind. Twenty-year-old Franny, who is brilliant and kind, as well as exceptionally pretty, has come home from college after suffering a nervous collapse during a football weekend. In the shorter story “Franny,” which serves as a kind of prologue to “Zooey,” we have already seen her in the alien outer world, vainly struggling against her antipathy to her boyfriend, Lane Coutell. If the mother and daughter in “Bananafish” represented the least admirable features of mid-century female bourgeois culture, so Lane is an almost equally unprepossessing manifestation of Fifties male culture. He is a smug and pretentious and condescending young man. Over lunch in a fancy restaurant, the conversation between Franny and Lane grows ever more unpleasant as he obliviously boasts about his paper on Flaubert’s mot juste for which he received an A and she tries less and less hard to hide her impatient disdain.

Lane is not alone as an object of Franny’s jaundiced scrutiny. “Everything everybody does is so—I don’t know—not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and—sad making,” she tells him. The one thing she finds meaningful is a little book she carries around with her called The Way of the Pilgrim, which proposes that the incessant repetition of the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” will bring about mystical experience. Lane is as unimpressed with the “Jesus Prayer” as Franny is with his Flaubert paper. As the breach between the pair widens, another agon is played out, that of food. Lane orders a large meal of snails, frogs’ legs, and salad, which he eats with gusto, and Franny (to his irritation) orders a glass of milk, from which she takes a few tiny sips, and a chicken sandwich, which she leaves untouched.

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