If originality is, as Vladimir Nabokov suggests, the true measure of greatness in an artist, then the argument can be made that J.D. Salinger towers over most American writers of the past half-century. Few writers anywhere have ever been more widely or more passionately read. Fewer still have so fiercely resisted the temptations of fame, while creating readily accessible work that can hold its own, syllable for syllable, with the surprise-filled precision of not only Nabokov, but Chekhov and Tolstoy.
Salinger’s exceptional popularity derives from his subject — youth — and his literary voice, which is unique and yet universally potent. Whether he is operating through the slangy, sarcastic mask of teenager Holden Caulfield, who narrates TheCatcher in the Rye,or weaving the complex but uncannily sturdy arias that comprise the discourse of Buddy Glass, who narrates the body of work as a whole, Salinger’s gift is hypnotic and beautiful, yet never flashy, never avant-garde in any overt, fashionable way. Instead, he comes to the party dressed in the conservative suit and tie of a social observer, an heir of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“She stared back at me, with those house-counting eyes of hers,” writes Sergeant X of Esme, a 13-year-old girl he encounters in an English tea shop, two months before D-Day. The story is For Esme, With Love & Squalor:
“You seem quite intelligent for an American,” [she] mused.
I told her that was a pretty snobbish thing to say, if you thought about it at all, and that I hoped it was unworthy of her.
She blushed — automatically conferring on me the social poise I’d been missing. “Well. Most of the Americans I’ve seen act like animals. They’re forever punching one another about, and insulting everyone, and — you know what one of them did?”
I shook my head.
“One of them threw an empty whiskey bottle through my aunt’s window. Fortunately, the window was open. But does that sound very intelligent to you?”
My own passion for Salinger’s work begins with this story, which I first read at age 22. I’d read and loved Catcher while still in my teens, but went out of my way to reject it, out of a refusal to be influenced. Salinger had so caught the voice of American adolescence, just as Mark Twain had a century earlier in Huckleberry Finn, that I was damned if I was going to write my teenage opus in the first person. (Updike’s infectious use of the present tense in Rabbit Run was another temptation to be hotly avoided, on the same grounds.) I chanced across Esme in a short-story anthology, where Salinger’s light, exquisite mimicry of a British teen and his (seemingly) much breezier, (definitely) more elastic use of the first person to create Sergeant X made me see his achievement with Holden in a stronger light. Remove one word of narration from the above, and there is measurable loss of life. Add a word, and there is loss of energy. The same is just as true of The Catcher in the Rye; that book, which looks so juicily chaotic and intuitive on its surface, is as impeccably constructed, phrase by phrase, as a haiku.
The four books Salinger published between 1951 and 1963 — The Catcher in the Rye; Nine Stories; Franny and Zooey; Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction — can be freely enjoyed as independent entities. Yet taken together, as I later discovered when I reread them all in a marathon sitting, they also interlock as a single narrative, a rich assortment of stories within stories. Most of which center on a brilliant family spawned by two vaudeville entertainers, Les Glass and Bessie Gallagher, yet even The Catcher in the Rye operates as part of this unified field.
Much as neither Holden, his kid sister Phoebe nor any of Catcher’s many other characters — a dead older brother, Allie, and a surviving brother, a writer named D.B. — ever show up again by name in Salinger’s later fiction, they are (so to speak) reincarnated as the Glass family. Buddy (“D.B.” backward?) is also a writer. His kid brother Zachary, aka Zooey, is (like Holden) a sarcastic rebel whose closest confidant is his kid sister Franny. All of the Glasses share, and bear, the burdensome memory of their tragic older brother Seymour, a holy man of Buddha-like dimension who didn’t quite die in the war, but committed suicide in response to it.
When Buddy tells us in Seymour, an Introduction that he’s the author of a novel whose young hero speaks “fluent Manhattanese,” Catcher is not only incorporated into the Glass saga as a specimen of Buddy’s literary talent; it is given a deeper reality. You are free to see Zooey Glass as the “real-life” model for Holden Caulfield, and thus Holden’s story continues beyond the parameters of his native book, but in such a mysterious state of metamorphosis that the original integrity of that book is never violated.
The transformations of a given character from one story to the next can be shocking. Seymour, who begins as a flinty, oddly menacing beach goer in the story A Perfect Day for Bananafish, reappears in much more complex form in Raise High the Roof Beam, as a runaway bridegroom of saintly character: “Oh God,” he confides to his diary, “If I’m anything by a clinical name, I’m a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.” These juxtapositions interact so powerfully with the imagination of an individual reader that in the end it’s the reader who shapes the work as a whole.
Salinger is never less than in full command of events and their details, but his trust in a stranger’s ability to inhabit his world and invent connections, given the freedom, reflects a spirit that is deeply antitotalitarian. This is unmistakably a response to World War II, which Salinger not only fought in, but experienced the worst of. He was one of the first ashore on D-Day, at Utah Beach; two thirds of his unit died, were killed either during the landing or in the ensuing push into France. Fluent in several languages, he served as a sergeant in army intelligence, interrogating captured Nazi officers. He was present at the liberation of at least one death camp, and as he later told his daughter Margaret, “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live.”
The rupture such experience provoked in his psyche, and his society’s, is dramatized by the bold silence at the center of For Esme, With Love and Squalor. After so much bright, spontaneous chitchat over tea with Esme (whose brightness is tinged with stoic melancholy because she and her little brother have been orphaned by the war), it comes as an unforgettable shock when the scene shifts, in less than a paragraph, to Bavaria at war’s end — where the cheery, anonymous “I” who has narrated up to this point proves to be so badly traumatized that he must refer to himself in the third person, as Sergeant X.
“He had been chain-smoking for weeks. His gums bled at the slightest pressure of the tip of his tongue, and he seldom stopped experimenting; it was a little game he played, sometimes by the hour. He sat for a moment smoking and experimenting. Then, abruptly, familiarly, and, as usual, with no warning, he thought he felt his mind dislodge itself and teeter, like insecure luggage on an overhead rack.”
Whatever horror X has witnessed is left to the reader’s imagination. The unspeakable is acknowledged by remaining unspoken, save for moments of involuntary compassion:
He reached behind the debris and picked out a book that stood against the wall. It was a book by Goebbels, entitled, Die Zeit Ohne Beispiel. It belonged to the 38-year-old, unmarried daughter of the family that, up to a few weeks earlier, had been living in the house. She had been a low official in the Nazi party, but high enough, by Army Regulations standards, to fall into an automatic-arrest category. X himself had arrested her. Now, for the third time since he had returned from the hospital that day, he opened the woman’s book and read the brief inscription on the flyleaf. Written in ink, in German, in a small, hopelessly sincere handwriting, were the words “Dear God, Life is hell.”
Salinger himself, who by all accounts had been a highly sociable, gregarious and outgoing person prior to the war — he once wrote in fleeting hero-worship to Ernest Hemingway that he planned to try his luck as an actor — found himself so altered, after, that this transformation, with its embattled push toward Inner Truth, became his great subject. He emerged from the war committed in his belief that the self — the soul — is fragile, ever-evolving, and private by definition. “Everybody is a nun,” he wrote in his story De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period — a deliberate echo of Buddha’s discovery that we must each work out our own salvation. His faith that the truth can only be glimpsed in isolation, in hard-won fragments, fires the heart of his work, and dictates the fierce reclusivity with which he has conducted his public life.
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The two warts-and-all portraits of him that emerged in 1999 and 2000 — At Home in the World, by his ex-lover Joyce Maynard, and Dreamcatcher, by his estranged daughter, Margaret A. Salinger — make painful reading to anyone who likes to imagine (or naively hope) that a great writer will always, by force of natural law, turn out to be both a great lover and a great parent. Yet what is yielded in Salinger’s fiction is, to paraphrase Pascal, not its author’s riches — but ours.
The ability to say “our” riches — our adolescence, our thoughts of suicide, our searches for wisdom — in relation to his made-up people is the true measure of his genius, and its lasting value. The most positive fact to emerge from those grim memoirs was the hard confirmation that he has never stopped writing: Maynard claims that when she lived with Salinger in 1972 he had several finished but unpublished books locked in a vault at his house. His daughter Margaret, given an in-depth tour of this archive at a much later date, counted three large vaults.
Something to look forward to! What must they be like? Easy to imagine that many of his better uncollected stories, published in Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post of the 1940s, have been reworked into the Glass saga. (Several of them have already been radically reworked into Catcher.)Or, consider the possibility that the wild, Zen-Buddha-happy, high-risk direction suggested by his last (1965) published piece, Hapworth 16, 1924, has been pursued to a fare-thee-well. The result could either be sublime revelation or an unreadable Zennigan’s Wake.One can only look forward to the fistfights with fellow critics.
According to Buddy Glass, “Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next. Is he never wrong?” That hope is what Salinger’s work provides, finished or unfinished, time and again.