Salinger & His Critics
Donald P. Costello January 29, 2010 - 5:40pm
This essay appeared in the October 25, 1963, issue of Commonweal.
As Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour—An Introduction slips off the best-seller lists, the critics continue to snap at the heels of J. D. Salinger. The great disenchantment has set in among those whom Buddy Glass, the “alter-ego and collaborator” of J. D. Salinger, has called “camp followers of the arts.” It is, I suppose, natural that the long-standing (since 1951) great love affair among Salinger, the public, and the critics could not continue at the same fever pitch of passion. The statistics of the love affair are phenomenal. Some two million copies of The Catcher in the Rye have been sold in the United States alone; at last count the novel was required reading at 275 American colleges, enshrined not only in Bennett Cerf’s Modern Library, but also in paperback editions by Signet and soon by Bantam. Recently a travelling critic has discovered that the book is a great commercial and critical success in Finland, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Israel, Great Britain, Czechoslovakia, with many more translations now coming out. (How would “…all that David Copperfield kind of crap” sound in Czech?) Much more room is occupied on my bookshelf by collections of criticism of J. D. Salinger than by his collected works. Every time a Salinger story is published in The New Yorker, that issue of the magazine sells out in one day; and after the stories are clapped together into hard covers they have stayed on the best-seller lists for months upon months. Salinger himself has been canonized by a Time cover story, and by a Life feature, the whole point of which was that Mr. Luce’s reporter couldn’t get an interview.
But one look at the reviews of the latest of the Salinger hard-cover collections will show that the critics are beginning to jilt J. D. Salinger, no matter how faithful the public remains. I’m certainly not sure of all the reasons for the disenchantment of the last year or so. Perhaps it is partly because a critic finds it as much fun to destroy a reputation as to mold one. Perhaps it is also because such popularity as Salinger has enjoyed is taken as a sure sign of selling out. But I’m quite sure that the major reason is a misunderstanding of Salinger’s attempt: he is simply not trying to be Ernest Hemingway. At any rate, for the past year, the cooling-off has been glacial.
Most critics are polite in their new disdain, some are sad, or merely tired. And then there is Mary McCarthy, thumbing her nose in a kind of bitchy pique. (She has seen to it that, lord knows, no reader would want to call her up.) In last year’s Harper’s article about Salinger’s “closed circuit,” Mary McCarthy asked, almost incidentally, “Who is to inherit the mantle of Papa Hemingway?” And with scorn she replied, “Who if not J. D. Salinger.” She is, of course, right in spite of herself. Some years ago now Granville Hicks pointed out that for college generations of the fifties and the sixties, Salinger has had precisely the kind of importance that Hemingway had for the young people of the twenties. But it is, I think, precisely the difference between what Hemingway created in fiction and what Salinger is in the process of creating which is the key to the current critical assault on Salinger. To Miss McCarthy’s Hemingway-fed generation, Salinger is a bad writer because he is the opposite of Hemingway.
Hemingway was the author of exile, the spokesman for a generation of expatriates. Withdrawal into self—to eat, to drink, to sleep with Catherine—was the answer for an age which saw man as so many ants on a log waiting to be roasted or steamed to death. In a world of Nada, a world which “kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially,” a man could only—sad as it might be—face death bravely. So Hemingway invented a new manner—a style which for forty years has been the most influential style in literature. The Hemingway style, of course, mirrored the theme: withdrawn, cold, matter-of-fact, brisk, the person of the author totally uninvolved, dealing with surfaces and the senses: “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.… After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.” Hemingway carried through the Joycean attempt (after Henry James and Joseph Conrad) to refine the story-teller “out of existence.” This Hemingway detachment was of course a pose, for no great author can be detached. Mary McCarthy is probably right in contending that “in Hemingway’s work there was never anybody but Hemingway in a series of disguises.” J. D. Salinger’s purpose is exactly to drop the disguise, to bring the author, frankly and obtrusively and lovingly, back into the fiction. For J. D. Salinger is the opposite of Hemingway both in theme and in manner.
Hemingway’s solution was Holden’s disease—and Franny’s, and probably Seymour’s. Holden could not face a world of age, death, sickness, ugliness, sex and perversion, poverty, custom, and cant. He found phonies because that is all he looked for. And so he ran away, he withdrew. Franny, too, was “sick of pedants and conceited little tearer-downers,” sick of “ego, ego, ego.” Because she couldn’t meet anybody she could respect, because “everything everybody does is so—I don’t know—not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and—sad-making,” she, too, withdrew—into a false use of the mysticism of the Jesus Prayer. But Zooey, like Mr. Antolini, preaches a cure to this disease, a solution to the old problem of existence in an ugly world, a solution which is the opposite of withdrawal. The solution is not withdrawal or exile, but encounter. Mr. Antolini’s message to Holden is to accept the world, to “live.” Zooey’s solution, in the “love story, pure and complicated” called “Zooey” (the solution which Franny discovers contains “all of what little or much wisdom there is in the world”), is also to live, not for self, but for others, out of love—even to eat Bessie’s consecrated chicken soup. The Salinger solution is to live out of love for everyone, for “there isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady.” There isn’t anyone who isn’t, that is, “Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.” Buddy Glass gives us the same solution as Zooey, at the end of “Seymour—An Introduction.” He tells us that “there is no single thing I do that is more important than going into that awful Room 307,” because “all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next.”
It is, of course, dangerous to give answers in modern fiction. After the questionings of The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger has given some answers; and that doesn’t set well with The Group, or with the Partisan Review–Harper’s crowd. It is particularly dangerous if the answers, as Buddy Glass puts it, make any professional use of the word “God,” except as a familiar, healthy American expletive. Salinger uses not only “God” but the love that dwells there. That’s the trouble with the Glasses, says Mary McCarthy: “They are all good guys: they love each other and their parents and their cat and their gold-fish.” John Updike complains that “Salinger seems to love his characters more than God loves them.” And, indeed, at the beginning of “Seymour—An Introduction,” the narrator admits—along with Kafka—that he writes of his characters “with steadfast love.” I don’t know how Updike knows how much God loves the Glasses; but he clearly doesn’t like Salinger’s loving them. Updike is certainly right: Salinger does love the Glasses, and asks us to love them. It is an accurate description, but a very bad complaint.
To preach his doctrine of loving encounter, of acceptance of the world as Holy Ground, rather than of withdrawal from Nada, Salinger has progressively developed a manner which does it, a manner which fits, and is therefore artistic, no matter how different it may be from Hemingway’s artistic manner. To express an opposite theme, Salinger invents and develops an opposite style: personal, intimate, the narrator completely present, always in the mind of the reader in the person of the clever, self-conscious, idiosyncratic, even cute, Buddy Glass.
The germ of the purposeful, effective, developing Salinger style, which reaches its idiosyncratic peak in “Seymour—An Introduction,” was noticeable even at the beginning, in The Catcher in the Rye, In 1953, a critic in The Hudson Review remarked: “Salinger has a quick ear and a fine talent…, but to a certain extent he lacks detachment and disinterestedness. One has sometimes an oppressive and uncomfortable awareness of the author’s nervous involvement in the hurt of his sensitive, witty, suicidal heroes.” (Again, an accurate description, but a bad complaint.) And this new attached and interested style is, it seems, fast becoming as influential on the new generation as Hemingway’s was on the old. Prophetically, The Commonweal’s review of The Catcher in the Rye remarked that Salinger’s idiom and style were a “tour de force the American fiction writer will probably find himself increasingly doomed to attempt.” Read any undergraduate short story these days and decide whether that was right.
Of all people aware of this new Salinger style, conscious of its difference from the detached Hemingway ideal of the past, none is more aware than Salinger himself. He admits everything that the critics could complain about in his style. In his dedication to Franny and Zooey, Salinger calls himself “hopelessly flamboyant,” and in his introduction to “Zooey,” Buddy Glass calls his style “excruciatingly personal.” In “Seymour—An Introduction” Buddy tells us that he is “an ecstatically happy prose writer” who, therefore, “can’t be moderate or temperate or brief.” He tells us, indeed, that he “can’t be detached.” Buddy’s very existence—as a brother to the family at hand—allows Salinger to increase his “nervous involvement.” More and more Salinger has identified Buddy Glass with himself: on the dust jacket to Franny and Zooey, Salinger first calls Buddy Glass his “alter-ego and collaborator.” In “Seymour—An Introduction” we learn that Buddy was born in 1919, the same year as J. D. Salinger; and Buddy describes his past books, which are clearly J. D. Salinger’s past books; and even mentions the rumor that he spends “six months of the year in a Buddhist monastery and the other six in a mental institution.” By the time of this most recent Salinger story, so successful has the informality and the Salinger-Buddy personal involvement become that Buddy writes, “It seems to me that this composition has never been in more danger than right now of taking on precisely the informality of underwear.”
So personal a style will of course have “flaws” if one is expecting an opposite style. If the style is to communicate the love of a totally involved human being, it will not be neat or tidy or economical or cold or crisp: the letter in “Zooey,” Buddy admits, was “virtually endless in length, over-written, teaching, repetitious, opinionated, remonstrative, condescending, embarrassing and filled, to a surfeit, with affection.” If the person writing is to be himself always present, is to be communicated as clever and self-conscious, the style will be rather obtrusively clever: “Cleverness,” Seymour complains of Buddy’s style, is his “permanent affliction,” his “‘wooden leg.” That is the cleverness we see throughout the later Salinger: obtrusive, certainly, but that’s the point:
“If, with the right kind of luck, it comes off, it should be comparable in effect to a compulsory guided tour through the engine room, with myself, as guide, leading the way in an old one-piece Jantzen bathing suit…. She was wearing her usual at-home vesture—what her son Buddy (who was a writer, and consequently, as Kafka, no less, has told us, not a nice man) called her prenotification-of-death uniform…. Please accept from me this unpretentious bouquet of very early-blooming parentheses: ( ( ( ( ) ) ) ).”
Along with the self-conscious and involved style, what happens to the structure under this Salinger intent? It becomes not the conventional form of a short story, where we are aware that, chronologically, a story is being unfolded; nor is it a carefully constructed symbolic pattern. The form becomes instead personal, uneconomical, loose, spontaneous (and surprisingly delightful). “What I’m about to offer,” Buddy tells us in “Zooey,” “isn’t really a short story at all but a sort of prose home movie.” And in “Seymour—An Introduction” Buddy admits that he is “a narrator with extremely pressing personal needs.” And that therefore: “I want to introduce, I want to describe, I want to distribute mementos, amulets, I want to break out my wallet and pass around snapshots, I want to follow my nose. In this mood, I don’t dare go anywhere near the short-story form. It eats up fat little undetached writers like me whole.”
The characters are affected, too, by the Salinger intent. Of the people in “Zooey,” Buddy says, “Not one of the three, I might well add, showed any noticeably soaring talent for brevity of detail or compression of incident. A short-coming, I’m afraid, that will be carried over to this, the final, or shooting, version.” We like the casually-revealed Salinger people for themselves, and—when we recognize in astonishing flashes thoughts we thought were our own—we like them for ourselves which we see in them. It’s marvelously pleasant to like Salinger characters—the simply pleasant is rare in modern fiction, perhaps rare enough to account for a good deal of Salinger’s popularity. It’s pleasant to like Salinger characters even when we are embarrassed by them, when, that is, we see that the joke is on us, as, for example, when Lane, in an affected blasé attitude, goes to meet Franny’s train looking like “he has at least three lighted cigarettes in each hand.” Everyone will have his own embarrassing moment of recognition in Salinger. Salinger’s characters come alive astonishingly, “with a stunning and detailed air of presence,” as Henry Anatole Grunwald has put it. And as we savor the people, we savor the present conversational moment which they are engaged in. We savor, in Salinger, what Seymour called “the main current of poetry that flows through things, all things,” that which Salinger reveals to us through his style and structure and character. The result of the whole Salinger manner is a sense of leisure, delight in the moment, in the personality being revealed, in delightful witty people, delight in spontaneity, the delight we feel in even the long list of contents of the Glasses’ bathroom medicine cabinet.
“Salinger is a poet,” Arthur Mizener has pointed out, “in the only sense that he himself would probably take seriously: he’s a man with his own special insight into the meaning of experience.” If Salinger’s critics are abandoning him because it is becoming increasingly clear that he is not Ernest Hemingway, Salinger doesn’t seem to mind. Buddy Glass does seem to know what he is doing, and where he is going. All the personal idiosyncracies of the Salinger manner are there because Salinger has chosen a personal, positive way to say a personal, positive thing, to express his own special insight into the meaning of experience. He knows he is moving along. “I think it’s high time,” Buddy tells us, “that all the elderly boy writers were asked to move along from the ballparks and the bull rings.”
Related: Saints, Pilgrims & Artists, by Donald Barr
About the Author
Donald P. Costello is emeritus professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.