Saturday January 30, 2010
Three Stories with J.D. Salinger — Part III
Part III: Seymour: An Erasure
During my year in Taiwan, British author Ian Hamilton published a thin biography called In Search of J.D. Salinger. It was thin because Salinger wasn’t talking, and neither were his friends, and neither, it turns out, were the letters Salinger had written to those friends in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, which Hamilton found in library collections at Harvard, Princeton and the University of Texas. They weren’t talking because it was ruled, in Salinger v. Random House, Inc., that while the letters themselves were public, Salinger still owned the words in those letters, and those words couldn’t be reprinted without his permission. Which, of course, he refused to give.
In Newsweek magazine, whose international edition I read in the Tien Mu library on the outskirts of Taipei, Walter Clemons took it upon himself to review not only Hamilton’s bio but Salinger’s oeuvre and his then-23-year silence. The review bothered me enough to write a letter to the editor. Here’s how it appeared, the second of three letters under the heading “In Defense of the Author”:
Walter Clemons writes of J.D. Salinger: “His work went to hell as he withdrew into solitude ... The sad fact is that one can’t hope that the work he’s done in his jealously defended privacy is likely to be very interesting.” No, one can still hope, Walter, despite your sad “fact.”
It was Clemons’ language that pissed me off—his confusion of facts and hopes—but I didn’t agree with his opinion, either. I was still dazzled by Salinger; I hadn’t seen the pattern.
The best criticism I’ve read of Salinger is a cautionary review of Franny and Zooey by John Updike in 1962. Updike notes that in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”...
...Seymour defines sentimentality as giving “to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.” This seems to me the nub of the trouble: Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them.
In this same review, Updike writes that the Franny of “Franny” and the Franny of “Zooey” are not the same person. The former is a simple college girl going through a spiritual crisis because she found a book, The Way of the Pilgrim, in her college library. The latter is a savant, the youngest of the seven Glass children—each of whom appeared on the radio show, “It’s a Wise Child”—who got The Way of the Pilgrim, not out of her college library, but out of older brother Seymour’s bedroom. When Zooey admonishes his mother for not realizing where Franny gets her books (“You’re so stupid, Bessie”), it’s as if he’s admonishing Salinger himself, who got it wrong the first time.
All true. But it’s nothing compared to how Salinger kept changing his second-most-famous character.
When we first see Seymour Glass sitting on a beach in 1948’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” he’s a classic Salinger hero: skinny, pale, good with kids, a bit crazy. He could be Holden as an adult. Then he returns to his hotel room, lays down next to his wife and blows his brains out.
We don’t see Seymour again until “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” published in November 1955. In the interim, Salinger published The Catcher in the Rye and nine short stories (the other eight stories of Nine Stories and “Franny”), but it’s not until “Raise High” that we find out that some of the characters in these stories—Seymour in “Bananafish,” Walt in “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” Boo Boo in “Down at the Dinghy,” and Franny in “Franny”—are actually part of the same family. The Glass family.
“Raise High” is about Seymour’s wedding, and his disappearance from same, in 1942, but Seymour himself is never shown. We only encounter him through the thoughts of the hapless Buddy, the second-oldest Glass child, and through excerpts in Seymour’s journal, which Buddy reads on the edge of his bathtub.
By this time, the quirky young man of “Bananafish” has become, in Buddy’s words, “A poet, for God’s sake. And I mean a poet. If he never wrote a line of poetry, he could still flash what he had at you with the back of his ear if he wanted to.” He’s a man conflicted between acceptance of everything and discrimination of, say, the best way to live, or the best poetry, and he bridges this gap with a kind of condescension. He writes of his future mother-in-law: “She might as well be dead, and yet she goes on living. ... I find her unimaginably brave.” We find out that when was young he threw a rock at a beautiful girl because she was so beautiful. He claims to have scars on his hands from touching people he loves. He’s either a crazy man or a holy man—or both crazy man and holy man—and Salinger hasn't showing his cards in the matter yet. We still have that tension. It’s part of why the story works.
“Raise High” is, in fact, one of the best pure stories I’ve ever read. It’s both rooted in the everyday and mystical. Its ending is so understated it doesn’t seem to end but continues to glide along into the unknown. He does this in 89 pages. In “Zooey,” published a year and a half later, a boy takes a bath and talks to his mother and sister. It’s 150 pages. The indulgence has begun.
“Zooey” is set in 1955, and, though Seymour’s been dead for seven years, he continues to grow. We find out he got his Ph.D. at 18. We get a glimpse of his poetry (“The little girl on the plane/ Who turned her doll’s head around/ To look at me”). The beaverboard in his old room is full of quotes from wise men and wise texts: Tolstoy, Epictetus, De Caussade, Ring Lardner, Mu-Mon Kwan, and The Bhagavad Gita. The tension between crazy man and holy man is dissolving, and, with it, story.
It’s in the next one, though, published more than two years later, that Salinger, the master storyteller, gives up on story altogether. It’s called “Seymour: An Introduction” but it might as well be called “Seymour: An Erasure.” Remember that poem about the girl on the plane? That’s actually Buddy’s translation of Seymour’s haiku, which was written in Japanese, one of dozens of languages Seymour knew. Remember the Seymour of “Bananafish”? That’s actually Buddy’s interpretation of Seymour, which he now admits was a little too much (“alley oop, I’m afraid”) like himself. By this time Seymour is no longer a crazy young man (“Bananafish”), or a poet, for God’s sake (“Raise High”); he’s one of the greatest poets in the history of the English language. And how could one of the greatest poets in the history of the English language write that crap poem about the girl on the plane? He couldn’t. Buddy did. Or Salinger did. But who’s Salinger? A hack compared to Seymour. The creation has outgrown his creator. Seymour has become too powerful to write about.
In order to even capture Seymour in “Hapworth 16, 1924,” published six long years later, Salinger has to shrink him back to the age of 8; and even here, pintsized, he’s so powerful Salinger can barely keep him on the page. Seymour may be a kid writing a letter home from summer camp, but the letter is over 100 pages long and includes sentences of Jamesian complexity. Story? Gone. Epiphany? What’s the point? Seymour is a reincarnated wise man now, increasingly aware of past, present and future. He accurately prophesies his own death. He talks about the other lives, or appearances, he’s lived, and the appearances of everyone else at the camp. So what can he realize that he doesn’t already know? How can he journey to a place he doesn’t already see? You understand why it’s the last thing Salinger ever published. He’s left himself, and his creation, nowhere to go.
Anyway that’s the story the fuss was all about.
Tomorrow: The Fat Lady Sings