J.D. Salinger - Life and works

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J.D. Salinger is one of the most debated writers in recent American literary history. Generally considered a minor writer because of his choice of subject matter and sometimes plotless short stories, he has earned respect from several critics for those same reasons. His most famous book, The Catcher In The Rye, was once banned, though the ban was lifted because it’s significance was finally realized. In The Catcher In The Rye and the rest of his stories, he ties Eastern philosophy and general unrest in the youth of America with a style that touches readers of all ages in ways so few authors have done in recent history. J.D. Salinger has a unique gift for exposing his readers’ deepest thoughts about society and gives them such heroes as Holden Caulfield in The Catcher In The Rye and the Glass siblings in Franny and Zooey who strive to remain pure despite their hopelessly corrupted surroundings.

A Short Biography

Just like his character Holden Caulfield, Jerome David Salinger was born in New York City on January 1, 1919. From 1934 to 1936, he attended the Valley Forge Military Academy. After graduating, he traveled around Europe for about a year, an experience he drew upon later in his short story For Esmé, With Love and Squalor, and upon returning to the states in 1938 he entered Ursinus College. Though the college had a decidedly different flavor than what he was used to, he eventually quit (Weinstein, “Salinger,” 1589).

Soon after returning home, he began to write short stories, which he submitted to literary magazines such as Story and The New Yorker (Weinstein, “Salinger,”1589). His first story, The Young Folks, was published in 1940, appearing in the March/April issue of Story. Shortly afterwards, he served in the Army as a member of the Counter Intelligence Corps from 1942 to 1945 in World War II. During this time he participated in several of the milestones of the war, such as landing on Utah Beach, Normandy on D-Day, seeing the liberation of Paris, and fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. The atrocities he witnessed during the war are reflected in much of his writing, especially that which he wrote in the late 1940’s. Two years after returning home he signed a contract with The New Yorker to write stories (Blackstock 1798-1800).

It was during this time that he began to write his most famous book, The Catcher In The Rye. The publicity that the novel’s publication in 1951 produced bothered Salinger, and he retreated to Europe a third time. When the publicity had died down, he returned to the states, living on the ninety acres of land by the Connecticut River in Cornish, New Hampshire, that he had bought in 1953. In 1955 he married Claire Douglas. It is rumored that he wrote the short story Franny for her as a wedding gift, using her as a model for the title character. Unfortunately, this gesture of love was not representative of their marriage, and the couple divorced in 1967 after having two children (Blackstock 1800).

Two years before his divorce, Salinger published Hapworth 16, 1924 in The New Yorker. This was the final addition to the Glass saga as well as the last piece of writing he ever published, and he said that he wouldn’t allow any further publication of his work. Several years later in 1988, British Literary Critic Ian Hamilton wrote an unauthorized biography of Salinger. Always one who preferred privacy, Salinger sued Hamilton and won. Since then, he has refused all requests for interviews or commentary on his published work. When asked why, he simply responds, “The stuff’s all in the stories; there’s no use talking about it” (Blackstock 1800).

Works - specicially The Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey

Despite his isolationism and his vow never to publish again, many people still enjoy his works, particularly The Catcher In The Rye. Though the novel has often been compared to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as an “American odyssey of initiation” (Harper 68), the story is not the familiar initiation of a youth into life. Rather, it is the “account of an idealistic youth receiving through bored and self-seeking counselors a grim introduction to American life” (French, Revisited, 47). Either way the reader views it, the book is a unique- and sometimes all too accurate- vision of the mind of a sixteen year-old American boy. Just as in the average teenager’s life, the central conflict is one between innocence and experience (Harper 67). Over and over again the main character, Holden Caulfield, praises young children for their innocence but accuses older people of being false and sell-outs. Holden’s three free days in New York give him a new view on life, one where he sees himself as almost a kind of Messiah. He wants so badly to be a “catcher in the rye,” a metaphor where there are children running around in a rye field on a cliff His one dream is to catch the children before they run over the edge. He realizes by the end of the book, however, that he truly cannot do anything to help them, and knows that he must leave everyone to their own devices (Harper 69).

Revelations like this one are common in Franny and Zooey, published first as separate short stories and then together in 1961, and its companion books, Nine Stories (1953) and Raise High The Roof Beam Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1955). The main cast of these books is the Glass family, consisting of Seymour, the oldest who recently committed suicide; Buddy, the narrator of all the stories; Zooey, a young actor; Franny, a college student; and their mother, Bessie Glass. The three other siblings, Boo-Boo, an older sister, and the twins Waker and Walt play a very small part in the books (Galloway 156-158). These seven children were all contestants on a fictional game show called It’s A Wise Child at some time or another during their lives, and Seymour was the one who taught them all they knew. Quite obviously, Seymour’s suicide (chronicled in A Perfect Day For Bananafish (Salinger, Stories, 3-18)) scarred all of his siblings, most deeply Franny and Zooey, the youngest and second youngest respectively. The "Franny" half of the book is centered on the title character and her depression and nervous breakdown, which her boyfriend Lane Coutall dismisses with little thought. Later on, she faints, mumbling a “Jesus Prayer” which she had obsessed herself with since her brother’s death (“Franny and Zooey,” 2767-2768). Zooey tells the tale of Franny’s recovery, most of which comes from a phone call in which Zooey pretends to be Buddy. He talks about theology with his sister, and about her so-called “Jesus Prayer” (Harper 83). In the end, the revelation Franny has is more religious than anything else, a theme that is carried throughout the entire Glass saga (Harper 91).

As different as these two books seem to be, they have several commonalties. They are both about picking apart what the characters believe is wrong with society. One critic puts it this way, “It can be argued that The Catcher In The Rye is as much a critique of society as a revelation of the rebellion and angst of a teenage boy” (Telgen, 127). The Catcher In The Rye is also notorious for asking many questions but never answering them; instead Holden simply consents to the way the world is. The novel also argues against the conformity of academics and society of its time, but it never actually argues for anything (French, Salinger, 104). Another thing that tends to irk critics is the way that Holden talks to his readers throughout the book. He constantly uses “if you really want to know”-like phrases, injecting his opinion into the narration directly. Many say this is a flaw in the book itself; however, those who oppose that opinion believe that Holden’s awareness of the audience he’s speaking to creates a powerful tension in his character, and tenses the book as a whole (Harper 69). Franny and Zooey, according to critics, has deeper flaws than just the stylistic ones of The Catcher In The Rye. Of the two short stories, Franny is considered the better. The author seems to be more in control of his material and presents it logically. In Zooey, Salinger is mainly concerned with the spiritual advancement of both Franny and Zooey. The narrator (Buddy/Salinger) seems to be obsessed with the characters’ problems, an attitude carried throughout the entire Glass family saga. This does make sense, considering that the fictional narrator is their brother, but it narrows the overall vision of the story (“Franny and Zooey,” 2768). Ironically, what is said in Zooey about Buddy’s letter to the title character is true about the short story as well: “The letter itself was virtually endless in length, overwritten, teaching, repetitious, opinionated, remonstrative, condescending, embarrassing-- and filled, to a surfeit, with affection” (Salinger, Zooey, 56). Salinger identified himself personally with his characters and was not afraid to write his love for them all over the pages of his stories.

This over-identification with his characters is considered a weak point of Salinger’s writing, and many consider it a good reason to label him as a “minor writer.” Not all critics agree with this point. Says William Wiegand,

“I prefer to justify Salinger on. . . the coherence of his particular vision of the world. This is essentially the vision of his heroes- of Holden Caulfield, Seymour Glass, Teddy, Franny, Daumier Smith, and the rest. The important question in Salinger is why these intelligent, highly sensitive, affectionate beings fight curious, grueling battles, leaderless and causeless, in a world they never made” (“J.D. Salinger” qtd. in CLC 1:295).

This may be the main reason Salinger’s works have been so loved by most of whom have read them. The characters speak for everyone in one way or another.

Another quality of his work that critics have nit-picked in the past is the techniques he uses. He generally uses the quest plot, one of the oldest kinds. While the plot-type in itself is not a problem, the constant usage implies that he cannot write any other type of book. Others dislike his very style: he relies mostly on language to get characters across to his readers, and often writes long, pointless descriptions, such as a description of the contents of a medicine cabinet in Zooey which adds absolutely nothing to the story (Weinstein, “Catcher” 704). Many of his characterizations rely solely on letters, such as a four page one from Buddy to Zooey in Zooey. Salinger also relies very heavily on his use of dialogue and personal objects to make his characters more real to the reader. These characters are also used in more than one story (hence the Glass saga), making his work tighter (Blackstock, 1801).

Some also say that the basis of his very work was socially irresponsible, that he was obsessed with Eastern philosophy and has a very narrow view on life. Like Zen Buddhism teachers, he constantly uses paradoxes, riddles, and puzzles in his plots. He also frequently alludes to religious teachers and texts to give the reader more insight into a character’s background and persona. Though this may seem to many to be a strength, several critics dislike it and nonetheless consider it an inherent failing in most of Salinger’s writing (Blackstock, 1801). For this reason, he is given the status of a minor writer (Harper 65-66). From the other side of this argument comes the thought that Salinger is “the only new writer to emerge in America since the second world war who is writing on what has been the grandest theme of literature: the relationship of man to God, or the lack of God” (French, Salinger, 102).

This unusual choice of subject matter is one of Salinger’s redeeming qualities. Over and over again in the Glass saga he harps back to his main philosophy: what the role religion should play in a person’s life is. Many of his characters, particularly Franny and Seymour Glass, are pious to the point of obsession. In Franny, we see that the title character has become completely taken over in her pursuit to “pray incessantly” as suggested in her reading material, ‘The Way of The Pilgrim’ (Salinger, Zooey, 33). Throughout all of the books he is featured in, Seymour is portrayed as a very spiritual young man, concerned with Zen Buddhism. Salinger, unlike some writers, does not deny the existence of a spiritual side to life, but rather he constantly asks if it should take precedence over the rest of the believer’s life (Harper 194). The Glass stories can be equated to life in a very interesting way, said by the virtuoso Seymour himself: “All we do our whole life is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next” (Salinger, Seymour, 213). They are, in essence, a religious journey.

This journey is what J.D. Salinger’s writing is all about: the questions he has for both religious leaders and for society. He quietly exerts his opinions through the thoughts of his characters, tying together the unrest of society and Eastern philosophy with their striving for innocence in a cruel, sometimes thoughtless world. He tries to find a logical reason as to why these people suffer, though he often ends up asking the reader what they think about the situation, and what they can do about it. Says Warren French in his book J.D. Salinger, he “speaks for all who have not lost hope- or even if they have lost hope, have not lost interest- in the search for love and morality in the present day world” (102).

Works Cited

(there are more - I'll find them when I can get into my old high school library)

Desperate faith; a study of Bellow, Salinger, Mailer, Baldwin, and Updike [by] Howard M. Harper, Jr. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press [1967]

J.D. Salinger, revisited / by Warren French.
Imprint Boston : Twayne Publishers, c1988.

French, Warren G. J. D. Salinger. New York, Twayne Publishers, [c1963]

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