J.D. Salinger. How do I even begin? The man. The myth. The legend. We’ve spent the past weeks getting to know each other and now it seems now that we have a full-fledged relationship. I’m going out a limb here, but odds are this post will rival my last in terms of length (#sorrynotsorry). There’s something about Salinger that just gets me. Following reading one of his “musings”, I have to pause and reflect. It’s a charming sort of ‘what the hell just happened’ feeling. In this respect, he’s got a certain O’Henry vibe to him (and if you have never read O’Henry then take some time and go do so, my personal favorites by him are Springtime a la Carte, The Enchanted Kiss, and, of course the classic, The Last Leaf). If you desire the quick ditch version of O’Henry I even blogged about him sophomore year–please forgive the quality of the posts, I must admit that they leave something to be desired.
Our love affair is four books deep. I began with Catcher in the Rye, as ever the naive Salinger reader begins, and I didn’t love it. It was an easy read, but I just didn’t get it. It seemed like half the novel was Salinger trying to find the plot. I assumed because everyone around me loved it, that I must be doing something wrong. I would call myself a relatively persistent reader, which was lucky in this situation because if I wrote off Salinger at Catcher in the Rye I would’ve never had the opportunity to love Franny and Zooey. Anyone who has read Catcher knows how unorthodox the story is. The language can’t be described as anything other than conversational. School doesn’t equip students to consume books like Salinger’s. After you get used to the copious amounts of swearing, self-loathing, and general complaining, you almost begin to like it. I’m not going to lie, it’s going to be hard to adjust back to the likes of more textbook-type of authors.
After sucking it up and trudging through The Catcher in the Rye, I got into the good stuff. Franny and Zooey (pronounce zoo-y I believe, I know you’re wondering because I was) is a set of two short stories that were originally published in The New Yorker. It chronicles Franny Glass’ breakdown following her rediscovery of a book titled The Way of a Pilgrim. This leads up to a pep talk from her brother Buddy, but she discovers it isn’t even Buddy, but actually just Zooey. I’ve flown through all of Salinger’s titles, so this post is an amalgamation of my thoughts on four books. That being said, instead of summarizing and analyzing–which I will be doing in another post–I’m just going to share the parts I found most poignant in each.
To me, Franny and Zooey, is representative of Salinger at his prime. The two stories fit seamlessly together. Despite the unconventionality of Franny’s break down, it very much reminded me of Esther’s break down in The Bell Jar. Both ladies have some indescribable relatability, at least for me, despite their erm unique circumstances. It’s interesting, as a reader, to transition from Faulkner to Salinger. Faulkner’s descriptions of scenery is what made his characterization bearable, but with Salinger it’s the exact opposite. His descriptive characterization of the Glass Family, make his chronic, casual quips made directly to the reader tolerable. Here’s how he describes Zooey in the beginning of Zooey.
“I submit that Zooey’s face was close to being a wholly beautiful face. As such, it was of course vulnerable to the same variety of glibly undaunted and usually specious evaluations that any less legitimate art object is. I think it remains to be said that any one of a hundred everyday menaces–a car accident, a head cold, a lie before breakfast–could have disfigured or coarsened his bounteous good looks in a day or a second” (52)
If that passage doesn’t bring you even just a small percentage of the joy that it brings me, then you must be a chronically unhappy person–close to the degree of unhappiness experienced by Ester and Franny, I’d imagine. Writing like this makes me want to spend a lifetime fine tuning my own writing prowess, widening my vocabulary, simultaneously complexifying and simplifying my syntax, just to attempt to replicate a passage like this one. Bear in mind, on precisely the same page, there is a thirteen (yes, you read that correctly thirteen) sentence footnote chronicling, not-quite-so briefly, the history of the Glass Family. It’s descriptions, like the one of Zooey, that gave me the stamina needed to get through monstrous footnotes and seemingly endless tangents peppered throughout the works of J.D. Salinger.
I find at the core of Salinger’s writing there are two things: religion/philosophy (Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, you name it) and the idea of being an intellectual (of the genuine, non-phony variety of course). Both of these things, fit into a sort of battle being fought between societal expectation and moral obligation. Someone with more credibility than I commented that it was “a battle between Eastern and Western spirituality”. I think also, and maybe even more profoundly, J.D. Salinger was grappling with love and everything that comes with it. Through his characters he worked through his personal dilemmas, and for someone so private that some even call him a recluse, he sure shared a lot in his writing.
After reading parts of a well-read, over-highlighted, dog-bitten copy of James Lundquist’s J.D. Salinger, not only did I began to appreciate A Catcher in the Rye much more, but I was enlightened to much of the deeper meaning in Franny and Zooey. To me, there are few things as gratifying as picking out a symbol, like Salinger’s usage of blue and yellow, only to be later confirmed by an expert. There’s no reading Salinger without reading criticism, but I won’t continue on this topic because I’m going to go more in-depth on criticism in another post.
My relationship with Salinger–maybe more aptly put as an addiction to him–intensified after watching the documentary Salinger. This film is a must watch for anyone who is a fan of J.D. Salinger. There’s no separating the man from his work; without the context of his life, his work loses meaning. Turns out that J.D., Jerome, Jerry, was quite the womanizer… but not in the traditional sense. He, much like Holden and Seymour, was adverse to anything physical in his relations with women. After reading A Perfect Day for Bananafish–which upon reflection, in the efforts of maintaining total honesty, I don’t fully understand the significance; alas there’s more criticism to be read–I gained a deeper understanding of Salinger, because Seymour’s draw to innocence is much like his own. There’s a lot of symbolism in the story so, in order to fully comprehend it, it’s necessary to do a lot of reading between the lines, which includes looking at Salinger’s life (Sounds like something a biographical critic would do, am I right?).
A Perfect Day for Bananafish is among eight other stories in a compilation entitled Nine Stories. Hailed by many as Salinger’s greatest ‘book’, in my opinion Nine Stories is second to Franny and Zooey. The top three stories out of the nine are For Esme–With Love, Squalor and De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period, and previously mentioned A Perfect Day for Bananafish. From the documentary and from the criticism I had read prior to reading Nine Stories, I knew that I should look forward to reading For Esme, but honestly it’s one of the cutest (and I mean that endearingly) stories I have ever read. Essentially, this story is another story of a man’s correspondence with a young woman. In the end, I think that, despite her lack of life experience, Esme teaches Sergeant X something meaningful about love. In De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period, which I was initially drawn to because of the reference to the color blue in the title, was an interesting story about a teaching artist’s, John Smith’s, run in with a talented nun which ends in capital E, experience. Last, but certainly not least, A Perfect Day for Bananafish is about the unforgettable Seymour Glass’ relationship with a young girl while on his honeymoon in Florida. All three of these stories touch on love (Esme loving Sergeant X, the artist loving the nun, and Seymour loving the little girl) and innocence (a nun and two girls being the objects of affection).
I’ve touched on three of Salinger’s books, which are composed of eleven stories (not counting A Catcher in the Rye), so far in the blog post and I was just about to round the corner to the closing–even I, after 1440 words, am getting tired of my own thoughts on Salinger–when I remembered Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. Needless to say I had to go fish out my book which was God-knows were, ostensibly buried in the piles of books scattered around my room, only to find it and to realize that out of all my Salinger books, it easily wins the award for most dog-eared pages. This isn’t good for you or for me.
I’d say it’s about a 50/50 split on the meaning of dog-eared pages; either it’s a reference to poetry, which runs throughout both stories, or it’s marking some striking passage in terms of content, structure, or all of the above. What I love about Salinger–and if you haven’t gathered that I love the man you must’ve dozed off, back up a few paragraphs–is that he talks nonsense approximately 70% of the time, but when he says somethings profound you sure as hell know it. Instead of analyzing the poetry that runs through Seymour or the interest dynamic between Muriel and Seymour in Roof Beam (which spoiler alert ends in suicide, just not in this story), I’m going to compile my favorite Salinger quotes–more for me than for you–which will be at the end of this post. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m dying to analyze the usage of blue and yellow, the significance of Seymour’s poetry and his favorite librarian, and Salinger’s obsession with tangerines, but I’ve decided this medium doesn’t provide to me the ample space for that sort of drowning on)
Prior to the beginning of December, I had never had an urge to pick up any of J.D. Salinger’s work, but I can say, upon reflection, that I feel very lucky to have been prompted to do so. Many people have shared with me that his work loses its magic with age, so I’m happy to have gotten to experience him before his power dulled. While his style is unorthodox, many of the things that he has to say about life are valid. He’s challenges my beliefs by encouraging me to look into Buddhism.He’s shaped my perception of what love is. He’s taught me that I can italicize and Capitalize whatever I please. All that being said, I must end with a thank you. To all my teachers, parents, and friends who not only tolerated, but encouraged me along my Salinger journey thank you. For the past weeks, he’s all I ever talked about so thank you for entertaining my endless facts, conversations, and contemplations about Salinger.
Favorite Quotes (and believe me, I limited myself)
“[…] don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? … Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.” – Franny and Zooey
I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It’s disgusting. – Franny and Zooey
I don’t think it would have all got me quite so down if just once in a while—just once in a while—there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom, and that if it doesn’t, it’s just a disgusting waste of time! But there never is! You never even hear any hints dropped on a campus that wisdom is supposed to be the goal of knowledge. You hardly ever even hear the word ‘wisdom’ mentioned! – Franny and Zooey
If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself. I won’t even underline that. It’s too important to be underlined. – Seymour: An introduction
Do you know what I was smiling at? You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. – Seymour: An Introduction
The connection was so bad, and I couldn’t talk at all during most of the call. How terrible it is when you say I love you and the person at the other end shouts back ‘What? – Seymour: An Introduction
I asked him what, if anything, got him down about teaching. He said he didn’t think that anything about it got him exactly down, but there was one thing, he thought, that frightened him: reading the pencilled notations in the margins of books in the college library – Seymour An Introduction
“‘Well, wudga marry him for, then?’ Mary Jane said. ‘Oh, God! I don’t know. He told me he loved Jane Austen… I found out after we were married that he hadn’t even read one of her books.'” – Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut
“Listen, if you’re not going to be a nun or something, you might as well laugh” – Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut
“The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is happiness is a solid and joy is a liquid” – De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period
Poets are always taking the weather so personally. They’re always sticking their emotions in things that have no emotions – Teddy
Here’s a little fun fact for the end–I can’t stop myself so I apologize. While doing research for this post I uncovered a letter written by Salinger (below) that is in reply to another letter asking what his favorite book is. Turns out it’s a title called The Landsmen, if you were curious.