Saints, Pilgrims & Artists

The wounded souls of J. D. Salinger's stories

This essay appeared in the October 25, 1957, issue of Commonweal.

Breaking, sick with revulsion, a combat soldier reads a letter from his little sister, overcomes despair, and falls asleep. A boy of sixteen, flunking out of prep school, runs gently amuck in Manhattan, talks to his little sister, and ends in a sanitarium. A staff-sergeant on occupation duty in Germany, just released from a neuropsychiatric ward, is shaking in black isolation in his billet, finds a letter from a little English girl who has befriended him, and falls into a quiet sleep. A pretty college girl lunching with her date on a football weekend suddenly loses control, and after a sweating attempt to explain a religious book she has read, faints and lies ejaculating silently, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy,” over and over.

Those who regard stories as symptoms will find a whole syndrome in the works of Jerome David Salinger. He is preoccupied with collapses of nerve, with the cracking laugh of the outraged, with terrifying feelings of loneliness and alienation. He seems to correspond peculiarly to the psychological aura of our moment of history. And since he appears chiefly in a slick magazine written for the urban upper and would-be-upper middle classes, it seems easy to find in his tormented souls the insulted psyche of the “other-directed man” of Professor Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd. A recent article in the Nation was hopefully titled, “J. D. Salinger: Mirror of Crisis.”

But this is wrong. First, Salinger, though he served an apprenticeship in the Saturday Evening Post and writes for the New Yorker, is an artist and art is not for diagnosis—not until we are through with it as art. Once we have made it a source of data, we cannot treat it as a source of wisdom. Second, Salinger does not write about the Lonely Crowd, the man made in the image of B.B.D. and O., the Great American Oral Type, the consumer of love and rauwolfia. He writes about saints, pilgrims, and artists.

Salinger’s career divides, with a little help, into three phases: from 1941 to 1945, when he appeared in Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post; from December, 1945 to 1951, when he published The Catcher in the Rye and the six classical New Yorker stories on which his reputation still rests; and from 1953 to now, when in the Glass family stories he has seemed to struggle with something that so far is too high, or too vague, or perhaps too definite.

Salinger’s first published work was a sketch in Story of a girl trying too hard at a party, done in the slice-of-life fashion, its very point lying in its seeming pointlessness. It is witty and concentrated, but it was followed by stories of Army life in Collier’s which are coy, maladroit, patriotic lies. The stories which appeared while Salinger himself was in training are different. Only thinly falsified, they show his special emphasis, the disclosure of character—not public character in its social relations or in questions of right conduct, but private character. The personality is always at grips with a problem which is almost too strong for it. The problem is always love. (By always, I mean, of course, usually. By love, I mean the willing exposure of the soul to pain, not the appetite.) They also show an ear trained to everyday speech and thought, preparing for the great bravura of The Catcher in the Rye.

About the spring of 1944, apparently, Salinger was shipped overseas. The next stories center on a sergeant named “Babe” Gladwaller, taking him from his last furlough in the States, to a slit-trench in France, to his estranged return. They are unhappy; they have a slow turbulence, as if some inner difficulty had been brought up into the working area of Salinger’s imagination. But if he no longer offered bargains in happiness, perhaps he was still ready to offer bargains in sadness. He seemed to have the feeling of “I, a stranger and afraid in a world I never made.”

Then appeared, in 1951, the novel which was to make him famous and which is the perfect result of his discipline, The Catcher in the Rye. Few novels have been written throughout in so strongly marked an idiom, for that is essentially a short-story device. Yet through 75,000 words it does not pall; and for two reasons.

First, there is no insinuated laughter at Holden Caulfield’s idiom, though it is very funny. This sort of narration is almost never intended to get an effect of ultimate dignity. Ring Lardner mixes parody with very little pathos. “Is this a human being?” we say. “Well, well, it takes all kinds.” Nelson Algren, while he wishes us to feel the bitter pathos of freakishness, must also invite us to feel guiltily superior to it. “Is this a human being?” we say. “It is the tragic price of the System that supports me.” But of Holden Caulfield we say, “This is a human being.” He is troubled, lost, but in the image of God.

Second, Salinger has an ear not only for idiosyncrasies of diction and syntax, but for mental processes. Holden Caulfield’s phrase is “and all”—”She looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around in her blue coat and all”—as if each experience wore a halo. His fallacy is ab uno disce omnes; he abstracts and generalizes wildly, and his closing words are, “It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” Each experience fills the whole universe for a moment.

Let us put down some statements about Holden Caulfield. His terrible word of condemnation is “phony.” He is kept celibate by compassion. (“I thought of her going in a store and buying [the dress] and nobody in the store knowing she was a prostitute and all… It made me feel sad as hell—I don’t know why exactly.”) Even his anger is a twisted compassion. (To the pimp who beats him up he cries, “You’re a stupid chiseling moron, and in about two years you’ll be one of those scraggy guys that come up to you on the street and ask for a dime for coffee. You’ll have snot all over your dirty, filthy overcoat, and you’ll be…”) He feels the injustices done others as done to himself. What he wants to be is “the catcher in the rye,” the only big person in a field of playing children, with the job of catching them, keeping them from falling off “some crazy cliff.” He wakes up a schoolmate to ask, “What’s the routine on joining a monastery?”

Holden Caulfield is not a finished saint, but the Beatitudes apply to him better than Professor Riesman’s valuable book does.

Some graduate-student girl in flats and a grown-out Napoleon cut, schlepping her Finnegans Wake, loose-leaf notebook with colored tabs and Reporter magazine around Columbia, could do a good master’s essay on the sources of the New Yorker tradition in the short story. She would have chapters, of course, on Chekhov and Maupassant (ordinariness, and the unresolved cadence at the end); Joyce (the story turning on an “epiphany,” a moment of awareness when some incident brings the inner meaning of experiences into clarity) with a welt-hedged comparison to Zen Buddhism (enlightenment coming from sudden flashes of perception rather than from thought); Henry James (compassion, sensitivity and taste making their possessors terribly vulnerable to the world); Somerset Maugham and Aldous Huxley (neutrality towards passion, and the punishment of the characters’ hybris or pride by the author’s observation); and the immediate founders like Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Thurber, E. B. White, Perelman (variously: unmuscular agnosticism, fullback-hating, hatred of whimsy, laughing in a relieved way at one’s lack of porter, the use of pregnant trivialities, admiring people who have faith as if they were gamblers who had won, and measuring oneself ruefully against the literature of competence and strength that flourished in the boyhood of the world before Word War I).

It is during this last chapter that our girl would begin to have trouble with Salinger, for even when he wrote his classically New Yorker stories, he did not conform wholly to a certain sickish ethos which runs in the magazine’s tradition, and which happens to be what Holden Caulfield’s teacher describes as the “terrible, terrible fall” that awaits the merely sensitive, “where at the age of thirty, you sit in some bar hating everybody who comes in looking as if he might have played football in college.” Our graduate student could state the difference in terms of poems. For the magazine’s ethos, she will, of course, turn to her well-loved Collected Poems of T. S. Eliot, to the overheard voices of the Waste Land, and to Prufrock, with his social obligations, his hospital metaphor to describe the world he lives in and his mermaid metaphor to describe the world he cannot live in, his “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.” For Salinger’s ethos, I would suggest the poem by Shaemas O’Sheel that begins, “They went forth to battle but they always fell,” especially the lines from “It was a secret music that they heard,” down to

“Ah, they by some strange troubling doubt were stirred,
And died for hearing what no foeman heard.”

I have been moving by heavy hints and preparations to a theological conclusion. In Salinger’s early stories, a growing sense of a man’s estrangement from his world and his kind, of his being marooned on the island of himself, is attributed to the war. Babe Gladwaller feels that those who have not shared his experience cannot really understand his mind. In the second phase, the Veteran gives place to the Lover: Holden Caulfield loves; Seymour Glass loves; the husband of the wanton girl loves; Sergeant X loves. Some love a single object, and it is inaccessible through coldness or coarseness or circumstance. Others love the whole world, and it is busy. A few are content in their lonely benevolence; but most suffer from the feeling that they have failed at loving.

Sergeant X in his German billet finds a book left by a Nazi woman who has been interned. She has written in it: “Dear God, life is hell.” He writes a quotation from Dostoyevsky underneath: “Fathers and teachers, I ponder ‘What is hell?’ I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”

Most of Salinger’s work, therefore, is about those who think they are in hell, a place where the soul suffers according to its qualities, and without escape.

Ordinarily, we all are interested in hell. Ten people have read and enjoyed the Inferno for every one who has read the Purgatorio or the Paradiso. It is fun; like looking at real estate, it gives us a sense of our own possibilities. But Salinger’s hell is different. It is hell for the good, who can feel pain, who really love or hope to love. On the gate of this hell we do not read the words, “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.” Hope is not abandoned here—hope is the implement of torture, hope deferred. We identify ourselves both with the victims and the devils. And it is not strange real estate. It is home.

To the Christian hell is in the after-life; to the atheist it is in this life; but to both hell is eternal, because it lasts as long as the soul does. But to the Mahayana Buddhist, for example, hell is not eternal. He does not admit the three laws of thought, that whatever is, is; that no thing both is and is not; and that a thing is or is not. In his Nirvana, the soul both is and is not; it exists egolessly. It has given up living and dying. What the body is doing meanwhile, I am not sure. Nirvana may be an oblivious after-life, or a state of miraculous unconcern in the midst of this world. In any ease, this—and not surprisingly, when we recall the stories in which sleep is the end of suffering—is the exit of hell which Salinger now sought.

In January, 1953, after a year and a half of literary fame and literary silence, Salinger published in the New Yorker a story called “Teddy,” which began his latest phase. It reads methodically, as if the impulse had first been to write something that was not a story. It has dialogue of a kind then new to his work but now his standard: no longer seducing our belief and lighting up characters with things we had heard but not listened to, but expounding an ordered set of ideas as plainly as can be done without actually destroying the characters into whose mouths they are put. The ideas are mostly Zen. The direct, mystical glimpsing of God behind the identities of this world is the way. An unsentimental and unpossessive love is the practical result. But the God—one feels this—is not our God, only divinity in the abstract. The love—one could not prove it—is no longer our love, only benignity.

In the stories Salinger has published since then, “Franny,” “Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters,” and “Zooey”—poignant, beautifully managed philosophic dialogues, really—the doctrine is developed sometimes in the language of Christian mysticism (after Meister Eckhart) and sometimes as a rather high-flying syncretism. This mysticism aims not at a rejection of the world, a flight from life, but an affirmative feeling for life that transforms it to the terms of its essential godhead, and gives peace. It is the triumph of Salinger’s third phase that he elevates almost into a bodhisattva, a Buddhist saint, the young man Seymour Glass, who nine years before had been given to us as a critically wounded soul.

What is definite in doctrine and what is definite in fiction are virtually opposite. Salinger’s prose has not improved as he carries his answers to these many decimal places. No longer are the trivialities pregnant; they are delivered by Caesarian. When Buddy Glass overhears a lady say, “…and the next morning, mind you, they took a pint of pus out of that lovely young body of hers,” the incident is worked up into a regular symbol. His characterizations are less telling. The Veteran became the Lover; now the Lover has become the Perfectionist.

Salinger’s kind of mystic is a spiritual perfectionist, and the members of the Glass family who carry on his recent, immensely long dialogues are artist-perfectionists as well. Their standards are their author’s, just as their learning is their author’s. It is not a humble attitude. For no one was ever ashamed to admit that-he was a perfectionist. As a self-accusation, it has everything; it diagnoses one’s neurotic ailments, wraps one in a small but fetching mantle of mystery, implies great refinement and intense suffering, and even threatens one’s audience a bit. For we all can love a little, but none of us is perfect.

Yet Salinger remains one of the most powerful talents now practicing the short story. For the many who are involved in an effort like his, his struggles are more meaningful than other men’s successes.


Related: Donald P. Costello, Salinger & His Critics

Donald Barr was a professor of English at Columbia University and a well-known critic of contemporary literature.

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