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The Sentimental Misanthrope

Why J.D. Salinger Can't Write

11:00 PM, Feb 21, 1999 • By DAVID SKINNER
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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.