Time Warner recently reissued four popular titles as “The J.D. Salinger Collection.” The Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Seymour: An Introduction ($13.95 each) are part of the publisher’s “Teen Reads” division. The rubric calls to mind both Norman Mailer’s famous dismissal of Salinger“the best mind that never got out of prep school”and the strange, unsavory tales of the reclusive author’s fixation with post-pubescent women, most notoriously Joyce Maynard.
In fact, most readers belong to our culture’s “teen division” when we first encounter Salinger. For many of us, the tale of Holden Caulfield’s lost weekend, the saga of the Glass family, and the scenes of besotted Smith alums tearfully recalling glory days at Yale proms prove tiresome and vapid once we’re only a few years out of adolescence; however, some readers return to Salinger’s work again and again over the decades. In another category entirely are the hard-core fans who find secret meanings in the text and who, in some cases, have stalked the elusive, publicity-shy authoror, in the case of Mark David Chapman, ended up trailing (and then murdering) John Lennon. And yet reading the Salinger corpus with the obsessive, hermeneutical attention of a biblical scholar isn’t as farfetched as it might sound, despite the tragic results in Chapman’s case. For Salinger’s best, most poignant theme seems more clearly than ever to be rooted in the Old and New Testaments, especially the chapters concerning Adam and Eve’s shocked loss of innocence, also Cain and Abel’s.
Such losses can force us to see those around us in a different and unflattering light: Former friends suddenly seem gross hypocrites (if not “secret slobs,” one of the gem-like phrases Caulfield bestows on a popular schoolmate); authority figures loom even more two-faced and moronic. Innocence can never be restored completely, as Salinger’s oeuvre makes clear, but it can be renewed, if briefly, by contact with those who have not yet fallen into knowledge. Phoebe, Caulfield’s sister, is the most obvious example here, but perhaps more pertinent, in regard to the biographical data about Salinger that has accumulated in recent years, is the namesake of the beautiful short story “For Esmé, With Love and Squalor.” This tale of a happenstance friendship between a young English war orphan and an American soldier stands as one of the centerpiece works in Nine Stories, if not the entire Salinger corpus.
In fact, the author’s critical supporters would do well to remind Mailer-esque skeptics that this story, along with “Seymour: An Introduction,” has several salient points of connection with works as illustrious as Hemingway’s In Our Time and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, both classic tales of war’s aftershocks. Hemingway’s traumatized protagonist, Nick Adams, focuses on the simple aspects of campingwatching ants, for instancewith such intensity that the prose nearly trembles on the page. Woolf’s Septimus Smith, rendered suicidal after his time in World War I’s trenches, is an even closer prototype for the narrator in “For Esmé”who seems clearly a stand-in for Salinger himself in the period immediately following his World War II service, which was inarguably nightmarish: If the D-Day landing in Normandy on Utah Beach and the battles that followed weren’t a sufficiently horrifying ordeal, Salinger also took part in the liberation of one of the first concentration camps encountered by American GIs. When Salinger’s daughter Margaret, author of the recent and controversial memoir Dream Catcher (Washington Square Press, $27.95), asked her father about his wartime experience, she says he replied with chilling terseness: “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely. No matter how long you live.”
After witnessing such inhuman atrocity, how does one come home and go through the motions of a “normal” daily life? Nick Adams, Septimus Smith, and the narrator of “For Esmé” can’t, or won’t; Salinger’s male protagonist, like the author himself, refuses the temptations of suicide to which the Woolf character succumbs, as does Salinger’s doppelgänger Seymour Glass in the story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Nonetheless, in life the writer gradually made a 24/7 retreat into nature and transcendental studies and thoroughly away from mankindif not womankind. Salinger shared custody of Margaret and her brother, and he had lovers both before and after the 18-year-old Joyce Maynard dropped out of Yale in the early ’70s to live in New Hampshire with the writer, who was then 53. Nearly all of these relationships, according to various sources, involved much younger women and began with exchanges of letters. This maybe shouldn’t be a surprise: The fictional Esmé, said to be “about thirteen,” is by far the most attractive female character in Nine Stories.
But if Salinger is not only a recluse but a quasi pedophile, how has he gained such popular and critical success? First, to make a fetish of adolescent innocence isn’t quite the same thing as eroticizing children, pace Calvin Klein ads and child beauty pageants. Second, though we may not want to admit it, Esmé and Joyce and Phoebe and the young Brooke Shields and JonBenét Ramsey represent different aspects of the very same thing: America’s love of youthful promise, fresh starts, eternal renewal. Salinger’s continued popularity is due in part to the way in which the author reflects that lovewhich, granted, can take unfortunate turns.
Third and most important, Salinger’s artistic gifts are considerable. His deceptively easygoing style melds his country’s innocence-worship with Buddhist concepts of dissolved ego, and he then communicates his message through dialogue as witty and snappy and pitch-perfect as Flannery O’Connor’s. Indeed, the Georgia writer has more in common with Salinger than might first appearespecially in terms of dogmatic spiritualityeven though her stories reveal a pretty thorough detestation of children.
Writers are often far better people on the page than they are in real life. And sure, the remote, hypercritical, and perhaps even misanthropic Salinger hardly seems to have achieved the state of spiritual enlightenment prepared for by his decades-long study of Christian Science, Zen, homeopathy, and macrobiotics. But it’s possible to condemn the damage Salinger may have wreaked on his daughter and on Maynard and simultaneously to consider a previously sublingual aspect of his personality in light of these women’s memoirs. In other words, traumatic war experiences might easily result in an obsessive search for innocence; similarly, the desire for transcendence from the flesh makes a great deal more sense when understood in the context of having the stink of burned bodies in one’s nostrils.
If Salinger the man never reaches beyond self, memory, and desire to arrive at something like universal love, he tells us how to get there. When Seymour’s siblings begin to succeed him on a quiz show called “It’s a Wise Child,” as we’re told in Franny and Zooey, he reminds them to shine their shoes and to be funny “for the Fat Lady.” Even after his suicide, these words limn a duty by which his brothers and sistersand Salinger’s readersmay find a measure of grace. Thus for every Seymour who dies by his own hand, there’s a Salinger who is still aliveand apparently still writingand urging us to remember the Fat Lady in all of her sweaty, varicose-veined, fly-swatting, and ultimately mysterious humanity.
The state of Tennessee
While he won’t be making any in-store appearances, Tennessee Williams is posthumously enjoying a moment of renewed glory and celebrity: the Library of America’s publication of a two-volume set ($40 each) of his complete plays. Most Americans identify Williams as the author of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, two of his earliest works, but he wrote dramas, poems, short stories, and memoirs throughout his long career, waking at dawn and working seven days a week right until he died. That death was one of the most ghastly and ironic of any American writer: Williams, a self-confessed addictive, hypochondriacal mess in the 1980s, choked on a medicine bottle cap in a hotel bedroom. Many of the critics who penned obituaries were still venomously inclined, having been vastly displeased by the playwright’s late experimental plays. But if Small Craft Warnings and Vieux Carré aren’t among Williams’ masterpieces, they illustrate his lifelong devotion to the forms of beauty, however transient, that can slip past the claws of this predatory world.
Williams once told Dick Cavett that Blanche DuBois was his favorite character and the one with whom he had most in common. Her tragic utterance about depending “on the kindness of strangers” tugs at the heart of nearly everyone familiar with Streetcar, but if that tragic tone has also come to be associated with Williams’ often sad life, it’s worth remembering how funny he could also be, both in his work and in person: After all, he clearly regarded humor, like beauty, as a mode of transcendence. During the same 1970s Cavett interview, when the subject of his homosexuality arose, Williams simultaneously demurred and assented with a moue worthy of Blanche, saying, “Well, honey, I don’t want to cause a scandal. But I’ve covered the waterfront.” Not a bad line. Not at all.
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AGGGHHHH that last picture!