The Blog

The Sentimental Misanthrope

Why J.D. Salinger Can't Write

11:00 PM, Feb 21, 1999 • By DAVID SKINNER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.