Perfection on his own terms: Salinger's silence

J.D. Salinger died on the 27th of January, 2010. James Warner paints a portrait of the American writer's work - loved by the public but attacked by some critics - and his solitary life
James Warner
1 February 2010

James Wood writes in How Fiction Works of the “distinction to be made between novelists... who are rich in 'negative capability,' who seem unself-consciously to create galleries of various people who are nothing like them, and those writers either less interested in, or perhaps less naturally gifted at this faculty, but who nevertheless have a great deal of interest in the self...”

J.D. Salinger was the latter kind of writer. Holden Caulfield and the Glass siblings speak with Salinger's own voice, as snarky, well-to-do Manhattanites – which does not prevent readers from widely different backgrounds experiencing an intense communion with them.

The young Salinger was a prolific writer of short stories – many of which, at his own insistence, remained uncollected in book form. Some reportedly have even been ripped out of library copies of the magazines they appeared in. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a notable early influence, as were Sherwood Anderson, Ring Lardner, and William Saroyan.

Salinger's first story featuring a character named Holden Caulfield had the telling title “Slight Rebellion Off Madison.” Written in 1941, it was scheduled for publication by the New Yorker later that year. Then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. According to Paul Alexander's Salinger: A Biography “the editors of the New Yorker did not feel it was appropriate to publish – so soon after Pearl Harbor – a story about a neurotic teenage boy whose 'slight rebellion' is prompted by the fact that he has become disenchanted with the life he leads as the son in a wealthy family in New York.”

The New Yorker did not publish the story until 1946. By then Salinger had taken part, as a counterintelligence officer, in the Normandy landings, the liberation of Paris, and the battles of the Hürtgen Forest and the Bulge. He'd seen the liberation of a concentration camp, experienced a mental breakdown, and was now studying eastern religions in Greenwich Village. His classic story “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor,” contrasts his state of mind in England in 1944 with the condition he was in by 1945 in Germany. In the story he shows all the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a syndrome which may help explain some of his later aberrations.

The first Holden Caulfield story to appear in print was "I'm Crazy" in 1945. Both “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” and I'm Crazy contain passages which eventually made it into The Catcher in the Rye, the novella Salinger worked on for the rest of the decade.

Published in 1951, the book made Salinger's reputation. What makes the book is Holden's voice – he is the stranger who barges into your dorm room, ranting affably about everything that's on his mind, and quickly becomes your friend.

“I don't even like old cars. I mean they don't even interest me. I'd rather have a goddam horse. A horse is at least human, for God's sake.”

Holden is the archetype of the sixteen-year-old male. Moody and maladroit, distrustful of anyone who doesn't share his own aesthetic preferences, Holden contradicts himself constantly in a tone of unassuming outrage. Salinger captured the vernacular of the teenagers of the time, then still in the process of becoming a sought-after marketing niche. The Catcher in the Rye still sells a quarter million copies every year.

Subsequently Salinger mostly wrote about the seven Glass siblings. The eldest is the suicidal Seymour, around whom Salinger sought to construct a cult of personality. Zooey and Franny are the youngest. You love the Glasses or you hate them. Panning Salinger in the National Review in 1961, Joan Didion wrote, “I rather imagine that Salinger readers secretly wish that they could write letters to Franny and Zooey...”

Although she meant this as a criticism, she hit on one of Salinger's key strengths. There are certain fictional characters – not necessarily the most well-rounded or best-drawn or intrinsically sympathetic characters – who readers relate to obsessively. Just as there are people who want to study at Oxford because of Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, there are people who want to go to East Coast prep schools because of Holden Caulfield. Franny and Zooey was first urged on me long ago by a friend who claimed – although I could see no points of resemblance at all – that she had always desired to be Franny.

Part of the explanation is that Salinger's characters tend, like Sebastian Flyte, to be at an age where they are not yet socially formed. Snobby, spiritual, and usually doomed, the common denominator of such characters is their failure to find a rite of passage leading out of adolescence – a problem millions can identify with, retrospectively or otherwise.

The conversational immediacy of Salinger's writing makes it easy to bond with his characters. This is Franny speaking –

“I know this much, is all. If you're a poet, you do something beautiful. I mean you're suppose to leave something beautiful after you get off the page and everything.”

Such dialog reminds us pleasurably of intense undergraduate conversations. Salinger's characters care about truth and beauty. He's always contrasting the idiocy of adult life with the wisdom of youth. In a 1963 interview, Saul Bellow harshly accused Salinger of making up “a Rousseauian critique of society which comes from the vatic judgment of the immature,” but if so, the times were ripe for such a critique.

Salinger also benefited from the rising popularity of East Asian religious traditions. His prose sometimes reads like New Yorker house style that's been infused with Zen. Attacks on Salinger from the 1950s and 1960s often conflate his style with that of the New Yorker generally, and as late as the story “Seymour – an Introduction” he was capable of a parenthesis like this.

“I don't suppose a writing man ever really gets rid of his old crocus-yellow neckties. Sooner or later, I think, they show up in his prose, and there isn't a hell of a lot he can do about it.”

The surprising thing about these lines is that they could about as easily have been written by S. J. Perelman or E. B. White, James Thurber or Peter de Vries. But in Salinger's case these notes of rueful insider complacency go hand in hand with a belief in writing as a quest for enlightenment. Holden's inquiry as to where the ducks in Central Park go in the winter might easily be the topic of a “Talk of the Town” feature, yet in Salinger's hands it becomes unobtrusively koan-like.

Sadly, Salinger had the same problem Seymour is diagnosed with in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” – a “perfection complex.” An early short story of his was made into a bad movie, so he refused to allow anything else he wrote to be made into a movie. Because one of his books was given a garish cover, he insisted on designing all the rest of his covers himself.

Eventually the imperfections of the publishing industry led to him refusing to publish at all.

Zooey tells Franny,

"An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's"

The refusal to compromise is, of course, itself a youthful characteristic, and some have theorized that the traumas of Salinger's time in wartime France and Germany arrested his emotional development.

In any case, for forty-five years Salinger avoided his fans and lived as a shut-in, in his home in New Hampshire. In 1986, he was asked in a court case what he'd been working on and replied, “Just a work of fiction. That's all. That's the only description I can really give it... It's almost impossible to define. I work with characters, and as they develop, I just go on from there.”

In 1996, Salinger came close to releasing his 1965 New Yorker story “Hepworth 16, 1924” featuring a seven-year-old Seymour, as a small-press book obtainable through Amazon. But he abandoned this project after Michiko Katukani published an article calling the Glass stories solpisistic, rarefied, and self-enclosed.

Sticking it out as a hermit for as long as Salinger did is an unparalleled achievement, at least in Western literary history – perhaps one could find a comparable case if one went back to the Sung Dynasty.

At the time of his death, there are whole genres – the young adult book, the memoir, the voice-driven short story – where his influence remains strong. And now there's the hope of finding out what he was working on for all those years.

Reportedly there are manuscripts hidden in safes. Perhaps one of these is the great Zen American novel.

And if it turns out there are no manuscripts, that could be kind of Zen too.

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