Salinger's suffering "saints" - and his critics

To honor the late J. D. Salinger, we've posted two essays from our archives: The literary critic Donald Barr wrote "Saints, Pilgrims and Artists" for Commonweal more than fifty years ago, in 1957, but its analysis remains sharp and insightful. It helps, of course, that most of Salinger's work was already behind him by that date -- what Barr identified as the "third phase" of Salinger's career proved rather sparse. Here's a taste of Barr's take:

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 Salingers 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 chentrate. Hope is not abandoned herehope 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.

Read the whole thing.

Our second selection was published on the same date five years later: Donald P. Costello's "Salinger & His Critics: Autopsy of a Faded Romance," from 1963. Costello has sharp words for those who criticize Salinger for not being another Hemingway:

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. Thats 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 dont know how Updike knows how much God loves the Glasses; but he clearly doesn't like Salingers 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.

Read that one here.

P.S. If you subscribe to The New Yorker you can read all the stories Salinger published in that magazine on their Web site.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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