The Sentimental Misanthrope
Why J.D. Salinger Can't Write
11:00 PM, Feb 21, 1999 • By DAVID SKINNER
J.D. Salinger's cultural significance seems beyond dispute. The Catcher in the Rye is a book read even by those who don't read much. When Mark David Chapman assassinated John Lennon in 1980, he said the reason could be found in the novel's pages. When John "Goumba" Sialiano spoke in 1999 of his role in the "Scores" nightclub case against John Gotti Jr., he explained, "I'm the Holden Caulfield of Scores. I'm Goumba in the Rye." In such books as Don DeLillo's Mao II, such movies as Field of Dreams and Jerry Maguire, Salinger has become a stand-in -- our living metaphor, holed up in the New Hampshire woods -- for the innocence that needs protection from the outside world. A bestselling author from Catcher in the Rye in 1951 to Franny and Zooey in 1961, Salinger hasn't published since 1965, but he remains as famous as ever -- more famous than ever as each year of silence goes by.
Joyce Maynard's At Home in the World, published last year, is only the most recent episode in the search for America's best-known hermit. It describes in detail a nine-month affair she had in 1972 with the sometimes sentimental and sometimes misanthropic writer. Salinger was then fifty-three, while Maynard was eighteen; he was a famous author, while she was a precocious and ambitious girl with a New York Times Magazine cover story to her credit. Their affair started with a fan letter from Salinger, peaked with Maynard's quitting school to move in with him, and ended in the middle of a trip to Florida -- when Salinger told her to pack up and go home.
A few of Maynard's reviewers celebrated her revelations about the reclusive author: She "surpasses [Salinger] in depth of feeling," according to the San Francisco Chronicle; a "literary pioneer," agreed the Washington Post. But most reviewers recognized that disliking Salinger's behavior didn't necessitate liking the now-forty-five-year-old Maynard, while others seemed to want to believe in the essential goodness of the man whose Catcher in the Rye is every adolescent's favorite novel. "To read At Home in the World doesn't require a suspension of disbelief," Katherine Wolff snarled in Salon, "but it does require the suspension of literary standards." In the New Yorker -- the first publisher of much of Salinger's fiction -- Daphne Merkin added, "There is something of the stalker in Maynard, the oxygen-eater."
Whatever its faults, Maynard's book contained the first glimpse into Salinger's life in ten years. Since the troubled publication of Ian Hamilton's In Search of J.D. Salinger in 1988, no one has added to the few facts available. Hamilton had found in library collections some letters the novelist had written over the years, but Salinger promptly sued to stop their quotation. (The lawsuit did force Hamilton to rewrite his biography, but, ironically, it also put the letters into the court record -- where they could be quoted in hundreds of newspaper accounts of the trial.) During depositions, it became clear that Salinger couldn't remember what was in the letters, didn't know which ones were being quoted, and hadn't checked Hamilton's last-minute paraphrasings. He just objected -- to all of it: the biography, the letters, the interest Hamilton was generating, the whole idea of exposure.
Salinger's obsession has continued. In 1997, his agent threatened to sue a young fan whose website provided quotations from Catcher in the Rye whenever a visitor clicked a red-hunting-cap icon. In November 1998, Salinger stopped Lincoln Center from showing Pari, and Iranian film loosely based on Franny and Zooey. In a world where recycling Salinger's work is outlawed, only outlaws do it. An "anarchist publishing collective," for instance, has recently printed Twenty-Two Stories, a collection of early fiction. Copies are few and distributed only "on a personal level."
Joyce Maynard explains, in her introduction to At Home in the World, why she decided to violate Salinger's desire for privacy -- and the passage is a fair measure of her silliness, her conventionality, and her prose: "I pray what my children take away from this story is freedom from the kind of shame I experienced as a young person, and the lesson that every child, woman, and man should possess license to speak or sing in his or her true voice." Over the years, Maynard has made herself into a sort of low-rent anti-Salinger. She is public in every way and publishes as often as she can. In newspaper articles, her Web site, and her newsletter, she writes about her children, divorce, baking tips, alcoholic father, troubled relations with her sister. Hers is a life without curtains, and everybody is supposed to want to peek in.
It's enough to make one wonder what Salinger ever saw in her. This is, after all, the man who, by Maynard's account, thinks the vast majority of human beings are phonies and fools. In one poignant scene, Salinger tells her to change her miniskirt: She looks ridiculous, he says -- but "don't take it personally, . . . it's a common failing of mankind."
How such a misanthrope could stand someone who later prays for the "true voice" of "every child, woman, and man" is a mystery -- until one sees the darling, pixilated, New York Times Magazine photograph of the anorexic young Joyce Maynard, the girl whose eyes are too old for her years. She is Phoebe, the sister Holden Caulfield wants to protect in Catcher in the Rye. She is the girl in the red tam playing with her dog who makes Zooey Glass realize that there is good in the world in Franny and Zooey. She is the child on the beach whose foot Seymour Glass kisses before he walks off to kill himself. She is the Wise Child.
How such a girl could turn into the author of At Home in the World is also a mystery -- until one sees the dust-jacket photograph of Maynard today. She has a stretched sort of quality, the half-mad appearance of having desperately held on to something for too many years. The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur once distinguished children from saints, the first innocence we are born with from the second innocence we must strive for. Once upon a time, Joyce Maynard was a J.D. Salinger character -- and, like all his characters, there was nowhere for her to go as an adult. Shining through the photograph of the grown-up Maynard is the look of first innocence self-consciously cultivated for so long it has grown into something very much like guilt.
Salinger's desire for solitude is perhaps the most famous of its kind. It has inspired half-baked theories about his identity, pilgrimages to his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, and even trickery to make him come outside and greet his cultist visitors. In a 1997 story in Esquire, Ron Rosenbaum wrote of a group of boys who dumped one of their party, soaked in ketchup and screaming as though in pain, onto the street in front of Salinger's house. It didn't work. Salinger's seclusion inspired Rosenbaum to argue that silence is the only eloquence in a media-saturated age.
But, in fact, Rosenbaum and Maynard and the ketchup-boy and Hamilton and all the rest of those in search of J.D. Salinger have it wrong. The reason for his silence is not found in his life, but in his fiction -- the work that captured perfectly the adolescent who has discovered the world is corrupt. Salinger's compounding of misanthropy and sentimentality was always smart. He knew that the problem is not children but adults, just as he knew that the solution involves God somehow. That's why his late stories filled up with saints and seers and sages and holy fools. But he never quite figured out how it worked, and his stabs at second innocence kept falling back into first innocence. In raising his children too high -- in making childhood not just innocent but wise -- Salinger damned his adults forever and ever.
The one who came closest to catching this is Mary McCarthy. In 1961, Time magazine published a fawning cover-story canonizing Salinger, and McCarthy responded in a scathing essay in Harper's. The charm of Salinger's characters, she argued, derives from the intimacy of a small inside group closed to outsiders. Exclusivity is the pre-condition of a sentimental self-love that sensationalizes the insiders' prosaic life. But to perform this, McCarthy claimed, the author must reject the rest of mankind -- which is why Salinger, the biggest phony of all, must put in each of his books an extended attack on phonies.
McCarthy, however, underestimated her argument. The sentimentalizing of life and the attack on phonies aren't just explanations of why Salinger did fail; they point to why he had to fail -- why he has been unable to publish since his last short story, "Hapworth 16, 1924," appeared in the New Yorker in June 1965. Salinger's world has a built-in doomsday, a point beyond which it can no longer be a part of the world of other people.
The first part of Salinger's brief career consists of the 1951 Catcher in the Rye, five of the 1953 Nine Stories, and various magazine stories from the 1940s, some available only in bootleg editions. The second part of his career tells the saga of the Glass family. It begins with four tales in Nine Stories, runs through the 1961 Franny and Zooey and the 1963 pair of stories, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour -- An Introduction, and ends with "Hapworth 16, 1924," unavailable except in pirated collections.
As cynical as it is sentimental, Catcher in the Rye is easily Salinger's best work. In the novel, only children escape being phonies, but that doesn't save them. To describe the actual dying of a child -- as, say, the fearless Charles Dickens would have done -- is impossible in the cynical, naive, confused, and knowing voice Salinger developed for his hero. But the reader eventually discovers that not one but two young sensitives have died before the story opens.
The younger brother of the narrator Holden Caulfield "was terrifically intelligent," but he died of leukemia. Just before the expelled Holden leaves school for the wanderings around New York that form the bulk of the book, he writes a descriptive essay for his roommate, using as the subject his dead brother's left-handed outfielder's glove -- on which the boy had copied poems in green ink so he would have something to read while waiting for pop flies.
Later, when the hungover Holden is drifting aimlessly through Grand Central Station, he can't stop thinking about a classmate, "old James Castle," a "skinny, weak-looking guy with wrists about as big as pencils." Physical weakness turns out to be proof of goodness: After telling a conceited boy that he is, in fact, conceited, Castle jumped from a dorm window rather than take it back.
About an adult pianist he admires, Holden says, "If you do something too good, then, after a while, if you don't watch it, you start showing off." But children in Catcher in the Rye are never conscious of their own goodness. That's exactly what makes them vulnerable to cruelty. At his sister's school, Holden notices an obscenity scrawled on the wall. He can't help picturing his sister and the other innocents, and how they probably don't know the word. But soon enough some jerk will explain it. And then the children will start worrying. Holden imagines smashing the head of whoever wrote it.
The perfection under siege in Catcher in the Rye belongs only to children, and it inspires Holden to imagine a playground in a ryefield perilously close to a cliff: He would stand by the cliff, basking in the innocence of the children at play and make sure they didn't fall off -- the catcher in the rye.
The thing that allows Holden to recognize the innocence of children -- his knowledge of the existence of phonies -- is also what sets him against adults. In the end, though, he pays for passing judgment on others, even when they deserve it. Salinger is at his best in Catcher in the Rye because the narrator lives out the consequences of being a sensitive, unstable teenager. What few graces the world has for Holden -- time spent with his sister Phoebe, his brother's baseball mitt -- do not protect him from having to face the reality of other people. The adult world may be filled with horrible people, but Holden Caulfield is no angel either. And in the novel's beautifully ironic ending, the people who burdened him most become, when they are no longer around, the objects of his affection.
Of the five tales in Nine Stories from the time of Catcher in the Rye, three are mild, anecdotal studies of young, upper-class Manhattanites. In them, however, the victims of life's misfortune are, like Holden Caulfield, also perpetrators of misfortune. Holden is partly to blame for ending up in a psychiatric ward. So the naive husband in "Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes" is partly to blame for his wife's cheating. So the hero of "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period" discovers that the art school he has joined as a teacher is a fraud, after he had lied his way into the faculty.
The other tales in Nine Stories concern the Glass family -- who go on to fill the rest of Salinger's fiction. The Glasses consist of seven precocious geniuses and their parents, two retired vaudevillians. All the children appeared at various points on "It's A Wise Child," a national radio quiz show for pre-teens. The two eldest, Seymour and Buddy (who narrates most of the stories) oversaw the education of the others and taught them the important lessons of life. Interestingly, the story of Seymour's suicide at age thirty-one is the earliest of the stories, while the last, "Hapworth 16, 1924," shows Seymour at his youngest, age seven. This arch from an unbearable adulthood back to an exhilarated childhood represents a journey into perfection, from the world of other people into the utopia of Salinger's Glassland.
Simpletons and phonies surround the Glasses, but in the case of Seymour's bride, Muriel, simplicity is proof of goodness. In a diary entry in "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters," Seymour describes the thrill he receives from Muriel's lack of self-consciousness: "She has a primal urge to play house permanently." She's not a genius and may not even be particularly bright, but
how I worship her simplicity, her terrible honesty. How I rely on it. . . . A person deprived, for life, of any understanding or taste for the main current of poetry. . . . She may as well be dead. . . . I find her unimaginably brave.
Muriel's stupid opinions, including her undying respect for her annoying mother's even more stupid opinions, the middlebrow novels she reads nightly, the analyst she sees regularly, her wish to say and do exactly what other married couples do -- it's all proof of the innocence that Seymour, like his siblings, needs to find in the world.
Usually, they don't find it. When the Glasses take their chances in the subpar world of other people, the characteristics they most prize within the family -- endless curiosity, a poetic appreciation for the funny details of life, the innocence of children -- are measured by more fickle standards. The pretentious boyfriend of Franny Glass in Franny and Zooey, Lane Coutell, for example, is a bright, Ivy League, literature student who worships false gods like the poets who teach at Columbia where Franny is a student. She tries to correct him: "They're just people that write poems that get published and anthologized all over the place, but they're not poets." Anyway, college, Franny says, is "the most incredible farce."
Franny is headed toward a nervous breakdown -- precipitated in part by an attempt to pray without ceasing, as described in a book she found on the dead Seymour's bookshelf, The Way of a Pilgrim, written in the nineteenth century by a Russian peasant with a withered arm. Just as her quest is beginning, however, Franny goes on a date with Lane, who explains to her over frog legs his discovery that the novelist Flaubert lacked "testicularity." The contrast between Lane's pretentiousness and the Russian peasant's simplicity is Salinger's standard divide between other people and Glassland, but Lane was doomed from the start. As Franny's train arrives at the beginning of Franny and Zooey, Lane "emptied his face of all expression that might quite simply, perhaps even beautifully, reveal how he felt about the arriving person." Such fakers hide the innocence and love Franny needs in abundance to go on with life, and Salinger puts the burden on the world to prove it can live up to the standards raised by the Glasses.
In "Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters," the foil is Muriel's matron of honor, Edie Burwick. Her false god is Muriel's mother, who pronounces her son-in-law a "latent homosexual" and a "schizoid personality." Says Edie, "I honestly think she's one of the few really brilliant people I've ever met in my entire life." She doesn't think, she honestly thinks; it's not just ever or in her life, but ever in her entire life. Poor, pretentious Edie can't even begin to see that in meeting Seymour she has met a true genius, "a true poet," as Buddy describes him.
After "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters," Salinger never published a story with a non-Glass character. The second segment of Franny and Zooey doesn't even leave the Glass home, a rambling Manhattan apartment described in endless detail. Even the living room is evidence of the simple-hearted geniuses who lived there: Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase atop Fear and Trembling on the bookcase. The Glasses' cozy clutter is detailed in Salinger's listing of fifty items in the bathroom medicine cabinet. As Mary McCarthy put it, "Every single object possessed by the Glass communal ego is bent on lovably expressing the Glass personality -- eccentric, homey, good-hearted."
The climax of Franny and Zooey comes in the sweetly theatrical spiritual counsel Zooey offers his sister. "I remember about the fifth time I ever went on [the radio program 'It's A Wise Child'], . . . Seymour'd told me to shine my shoes just as I was going out the door. . . . He said to shine them for the Fat Lady . . . He never did tell me who the Fat Lady was." After many entertaining pages of the bitter sibling squabbling, it comes to this: The Fat Lady, Zooey tells his sister, is everywhere and everyone. In the world of other people, every annoying, everyday person is the Fat Lady. And the Fat Lady, he tells her, is Christ: "Christ himself, buddy." It is a terrific speech, earnest and funny, but also very thin. The enormous intellectual power stacked to the ceiling in the Glass apartment turns cute on a dime.
That speech at the end of Franny and Zooey, however, is as close as Salinger gets to escaping the corner into which he painted himself. The Glasses' religious instincts often seem drawn from a freshman survey course in world religions. Zooey does accuse Franny, with her "bide-a-wee-home heart," of thinking that Jesus has to be somebody really nice like St. Francis of Assisi or Heidi's grandfather. But throughout the novel, the Bhagavad Gita, the Islamic mystics, Plato, and the Victorian clergyman Kilvert are all rolled into one uniform collection of sage sayings from indistinguishable seers and holy men.
Throughout the novel, that is, until the end, when Zooey speaks the word "Christ." Every previous mention (Salinger's special interjection "Chrissakes" aside) had only been of "Jesus" -- another edifying world-religion character, another seer, holy man, and honorary family member: Franny, for instance, recounts the story that Jesus visited the Glass kitchen one night to ask the very young Zooey for a small glass of ginger ale. Then, suddenly, for a brief moment at the novel's conclusion, Jesus is Christ, the Anointed One, God Himself in Whose image were formed even fat ladies listening all day to the radio, even phonies like Lane Coutell, even precocious little brats like Franny and Zooey.
If there was a chance for Salinger to break free from first innocence, to climb out of the well of sentimental misanthropy into which he had fallen, it surely involved something like this. But he couldn't maintain it, or he wouldn't seize it, and his remaining two stories narrow even his Glass world down to an unbearable point.
"Seymour -- An Introduction" gives few details that can't be discovered in the earlier stories. What it adds is merely praise, a sweeping of Seymour up into high, holy company. "He was all real things to us," Buddy writes, speaking for the whole family, "our blue-striped unicorn, our double-lensed burning glass, our consultant genius, our portable conscience, our superego, and our one full poet." Catcher in the Rye is written as though Holden were sharing confidential information with the reader; "Seymour: An Introduction" as though such sharing is impossible. One digressive sentence contains a hundred and eighty-three words and says nothing except that Seymour was half-Jewish and had unusually intimate relations with his hands.
Last year, a small press in Virginia announced an authorized book publication of "Hapworth 16, 1924," the final Glass story. But Salinger pulled back again, and the publisher now says the book is "indefinitely delayed." "Hapworth" consists entirely of a letter from the seven-year-old Seymour, describing his impressions of summer camp and requesting books for Buddy and himself: Conversational Italian, the complete works of Leo Tolstoy, the Gayatri Prayer, Don Quixote, Raja-Yoga and Bhakti-Yoga, "George Eliot, not in her entirety," "Charles Dickens, either in blessed entirety or in any touching shape or form. My God, I salute you, Charles Dickens!" -- and so on and on through dozens of authors, subjects, and titles.
There's deliberate comedy in this erudite list, but there's another point as well, for it places Seymour firmly among the poets and other holy men, and far beyond our ken. Other characters are simply dismissed: "Few of these magnificent, healthy, sometimes remarkably handsome boys will mature. The majority, I give you my heartbreaking opinion, will merely senesce." And so, at last, are we dismissed: Even Salinger's readers are exiled finally to the unnecessary, unpleasant, phony, non-Glass world of other people.
From this deep, solipsistic well, there truly is no escape for Salinger. To write a new story would require leaving the Glass family, and to publish it would require joining again the world of Edie Burwick and Lane Coutell -- and Joyce Maynard and Ian Hamilton and the ketchup-boy and the Fat Lady. It would mean forgetting the wise child's sentimental misanthropy and the precocious adolescent's division of humanity into the wonderful and the horrible. It would mean joining the painful search that actual adults must all undertake for the second, and real, innocence.
David Skinner is associate editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.