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Three Stories with J.D. Salinger
The First Story: Hapworthed
In October 1996 I was writing an article for a short-lived Seattle Times weekly about someone named Jeff Bezos who had started something called amazon.com, and, needing to see what a .com was, I biked over to my friend Ciam’s house and went online for the first time.
It would be interesting to see a screenshot of what I saw. I remember Ciam sat down at his desk and tapped on his computer keyboard, until, after some time, and even odder noises, he declared, “Here we are.”
I look over his shoulder and narrowed my eyes. “Is this on your computer?”
His explanations about what the online world was, I’m sure, fell noiselessly into some bottomless pit in my brain labeled “tech crap.” Once things go abstract I don’t quite get them, and if I understand the online world now it’s less because I get its abstractness than because I’ve transported its abstractness into the tangible world. Some part of my brain thinks reading online is as real as reading a newspaper.
“So what kinds of books do these guys have?” I asked.
Ciam shrugged. “Give me an author,” he said. I suggested Norman Mailer. I often went through phases with writers, and I was going through a Mailer phase now—even to the point of trying to read him chronologically—and I was pretty aware of all he had written. Or so I thought. After we typed in his name, some of the titles that came up dumbfounded me. Ciam and I were testing amazon but it felt like I was doing the failing.
So I suggested J.D. Salinger. Just four titles, right? The Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction. Sure enough, we got those four titles in all of their various incarnations. We also got this: Hapworth 16, 1924.
“You’re kidding,” I said, staring at the screen.
“What?” Ciam asked.
“Hapworth. It’s the last story Salinger published—in The New Yorker in 1965—but it’s never been published in book form.” I motioned toward the screen. “Can you find out more about it?”
Ciam clicked on the link—a verb and a noun that hadn’t yet entered my vocabulary. Hapworth was due to be published by an outfit called Orchises Press in January 1997. Three months away.
“Wow,” I said. Initially I was more excited as a reader. Only slowly did I realize I had something of a scoop.
“Does anyone else know about this?” I asked, looking around.
The next time I spoke to my editor at The Seattle Times I mentioned the Hapworth discovery and suggested we do a separate story on it. Or at least a sidebar. The first J.D. Salinger book in 35 years! Think of it!
He didn’t share my enthusiasm. It’s not new? he asked. It’s just a reprint? he asked. “But feel free to put it in the story,” he added helpfully.
There are moments in life when you show what you’re made of, and, unfortunately, this was one such moment for me. I don’t remember my editor’s exact arguments but I accepted them in a defeatist way—as a door closing—rather than as what they were: a door opening. Since I was a freelancer, this editor had basically given me carte blanche to pitch the story to someone higher on the food chain, such as The Washington Post or The New York Times. But taking the individual for the institution, and assuming the institution knew what it was talking about, I folded.
Too bad, I thought. Felt like a story to me.
I did mention Hapworth to my sister. She had just gotten a job as a reporter with the Washington D.C. Business Journal, and, since Orchises Press was located in Virginia, I thought it might make a good local story. She ran with it. A few days after her article appeared, The Washington Post picked it up. A few days after that, The New York Times picked it up. About a week later, in the bookstore warehouse where I worked, National Public Radio, which we listened to all the time, did a feature on the excitement the new edition of Hapworth was engendering. I stood for a while and listened. In Don DeLillo’s Libra, the CIA agent who suggests assassinating JFK is, by the time the assassination goes down, just a guy sitting in his basement going through his wine collection. He’s out of the picture. That’s how I felt—like I was on the wrong end of the radio. I listened for another moment; then I went back to shelving books.
The punchline? Perhaps because of the sudden media attention for Hapworth brought about by my sister’s story, Salinger withdrew permission to publish. Thirteen years later, the story still hasn’t been seen in book form.
* * *
The Second Story: My Summer of Salinger
I first encountered J.D. Salinger the way most of us did—when I was assigned The Catcher in the Rye in high school—but there was a time when I could read no one else. It was the summer of 1987. I’d graduated from the University of Minnesota and I was in love with a girl who was in Maine for the summer while I was about to leave for Taiwan in the fall. It felt like life was flowing in the wrong direction and I could do nothing to stop it. I felt bruised, and other authors kept pressing the bruised spots. Only Salinger consoled. I didn’t re-read Catcher. I re-read Nine Stories and the Glass family stories, and then re-read them again. I read “Hapworth” in an old copy of The New Yorker my father had kept. I was so desperate I read a slim paperback, Salinger, published in 1962, which consisted of cold, critical thoughts on the author, but which contained references to Salinger stories I’d never heard of. “Personal Notes of an Infantryman”? “Slight Rebellion Off Madison”? The titles themselves sounded magical. Turns out that before the nine stories of “Nine Stories,” as far back as 1940, Salinger had published stories, in magazines like Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post, that had never been collected in book form, and I found them at the University of Minnesota library. Throughout that long hot summer, I kept returning to its cool, fluorescent-lit stacks to read about .30s kids at parties (“The Young Folks”) and young married couples with problems (“Both Parties Concerned”).
It was hit or miss stuff. “Hang of It,” from 1941, concerns a screw-up before World War I whose drill sergeant bellows at him—in the restrained language of the time—“Aincha got no brains?!” The narrator seems to side with the drill sergeant over the screw-up, and in the end we find out that the narrator is (“alley oop, I’m afraid,” as Buddy Glass would later write) the screw-up, now a colonel, and forever indebted to his loveable old drill sergeant. Holden Caulfield would’ve torn this thing apart.
War, however, transformed Salinger’s writing. “The Stranger,” from December 1945, is blunt and unsentimental. “Your mind, your soldier’s mind, wanted accuracy above all else,” Babe Gladwaller thinks as he returns to New York to inform Vincent Caulfield’s girlfriend about his death. “So far as details went, you wanted to be the bulls-eye kid: Don’t let any civilians leave you, when the story’s over, with any uncomfortable lies.”
That’s right: Vincent Caulfield. He first shows up in “Last Day of the Last Furlough” from 1945, telling Babe: “My brother Holden is missing [in action].” Holden, not missing at all, not touched by war at all, shows up in two other stories from 1945 and 1946, while his much-imitated way of speaking—that repetitious, inarticulate way of circling closer to the truth, replete with I means and goddamns—shows up even earlier. In “Both Parties Concerned,” Ruthie leaves her husband, Billy, but she can’t abide staying at her mother’s place and returns. “It got me down,” she tells Billy. “I mean when I saw her looking so funny in her hair net again. I knew I wouldn’t be any good at home anymore. I mean not any good at their home.”
So many bells go off reading this stuff. In “The Varioni Bros.,” Joe, the more poetic half of a songwriting duo from the 1920s, dies horribly, tragically young—prefiguring Seymour Glass. In “The Stranger,” Babe’s relationship with his sister, Mattie, is right out of the Holden-Phoebe school. In “A Boy in France,” Mattie’s letter to Babe allows him to fall “crumbly, bent-leggedly, asleep”—as Esme’s letter would for a different soldier in “For Esme—With Love and Squalor.”
Eventually my love and need for Salinger became, like all loves and needs, stifling. I was reading 50-year-old stories that—beyond this epiphany or that moment of grace—didn’t take me anywhere I hadn’t been taken before, and better, by the same author. Occasionally I’d glance through these magazines to stories by the likes of Alice Farnham and Walt Grove. One issue of Story even trumpeted the inclusion of “the 1944 Avery Hopwood prize novella, ‘Mexican Silver’ by Hilda Slautterback.” And it dawned on me—me who had such grand literary ambitions, but who had published exactly nothing—how hard it would be, not to rise and be remembered like Salinger, but to rise and be forgotten like Hilda Slautterback.
It was a Salinger reference that finally kicked me free from Salinger. In “A Girl I Knew,” the narrator mentions Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, and I sought it out. From there I read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and by then I was living in Taiwan and on a new trajectory.
* * *
The Third Story: Seymour: An Erasure
During my year in Taiwan, British author Ian Hamilton published a thin biography called In Search of J.D. Salinger. It was thin because Salinger wasn’t talking, and neither were his friends, and neither, it turns out, were the letters Salinger had written to those friends in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, which Hamilton found in library collections at Harvard, Princeton and the University of Texas. They weren’t talking because it was ruled, in Salinger v. Random House, Inc., that while the letters themselves were public, Salinger still owned the words in those letters, and those words couldn’t be reprinted without his permission. Which, of course, he refused to give.
In Newsweek magazine, whose international edition I read in the Tien Mu library on the outskirts of Taipei, critic Walter Clemons took it upon himself to review not only Hamilton’s bio but Salinger’s oeuvre and his then-23-year silence. The review bothered me enough to write a letter to the editor. Here’s how it appeared, the second of three letters under the heading “In Defense of the Author”:
Walter Clemons writes of J.D. Salinger: “His work went to hell as he withdrew into solitude ... The sad fact is that one can’t hope that the work he’s done in his jealously defended privacy is likely to be very interesting.” No, one can still hope, Walter, despite your sad “fact.”
It was Clemons’ language that pissed me off—his confusion of facts and hopes—but I didn’t agree with his opinion, either. I was still dazzled by Salinger; I hadn’t seen the pattern.
The best criticism I’ve read of Salinger is a cautionary review of Franny and Zooey by John Updike in 1962. Updike notes that in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”...
...Seymour defines sentimentality as giving “to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.” This seems to me the nub of the trouble: Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them.
In this same review, Updike writes that the Franny of “Franny” and the Franny of “Zooey” are not the same person. The former is a simple college girl going through a spiritual crisis because she found a book, The Way of the Pilgrim, in her college library. The latter is a savant, the youngest of the seven Glass children—each of whom appeared on the radio show, “It’s a Wise Child”—who got The Way of the Pilgrim, not out of her college library, but out of older brother Seymour’s bedroom. When Zooey admonishes his mother for not realizing where Franny gets her books (“You’re so stupid, Bessie”), it’s as if he’s admonishing Salinger himself, who got it wrong the first time.
All true. But it’s nothing compared to how Salinger kept changing his second-most-famous character.
When we first see Seymour Glass sitting on a beach in 1948’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” he’s a classic Salinger hero: skinny, pale, good with kids, a bit crazy. He could be Holden as an adult. Then he returns to his hotel room, lays down next to his wife and blows his brains out.
We don’t see Seymour again until “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” published in November 1955. In the interim, Salinger published The Catcher in the Rye and nine stories (the other eight stories of Nine Stories and “Franny”), but it’s not until “Raise High” that we find out that some of the characters in these stories—Seymour in “Bananafish,” Walt in “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” Boo Boo in “Down at the Dinghy,” Franny in “Franny”—are actually part of the same family. The Glass family.
“Raise High” is about Seymour’s wedding, and his disappearance from same, in 1942, but Seymour himself is never shown. We only encounter him through the thoughts of the hapless Buddy, the second-oldest Glass child, and through excerpts in Seymour’s journal, which Buddy reads on the edge of his bathtub.
By this time, the quirky young man of “Bananafish” has become, in Buddy’s words, “A poet, for God’s sake. And I mean a poet. If he never wrote a line of poetry, he could still flash what he had at you with the back of his ear if he wanted to.” He’s a man conflicted between acceptance (of all) and discrimination (of the best way to be, of the best poetry), and he bridges this gap with a kind of condescension. He writes of his future mother-in-law: “She might as well be dead, and yet she goes on living. ... I find her unimaginably brave.” We find out that when was young he threw a rock at a beautiful girl because she was so beautiful. He claims to have scars on his hands from touching people he loves. He’s either a crazy man or a holy man—or both crazy man and holy man—and Salinger isn’t showing his cards in the matter yet. We still have that tension. It’s part of why the story works.
“Raise High” is, in fact, one of the best stories I’ve ever read. It’s both rooted in the everyday and mystical. Its ending is so understated it doesn’t seem to end but continues to glide along into the unknown. He does this in 89 pages. In “Zooey,” published a year and a half later, a boy takes a bath and talks to his mother and sister. It’s 150 pages. The indulgence has begun.
“Zooey” is set in 1955, and, though Seymour’s been dead for seven years, he continues to grow. We find out he got his Ph.D. at 18. We get a glimpse of his poetry (“The little girl on the plane/ Who turned her doll’s head around/ To look at me”). The beaverboard in his old room is full of quotes from wise men and wise texts: Tolstoy, Epictetus, De Caussade, Ring Lardner, Mu-Mon Kwan, and The Bhagavad Gita. The tension between crazy man and holy man is dissolving, and, with it, story.
It’s in the next one, though, published more than two years later, that Salinger, the master storyteller, gives up on story altogether. It’s called “Seymour: An Introduction” but it might as well be called “Seymour: An Erasure.” Remember that poem about the girl on the plane? That’s actually Buddy’s translation of Seymour’s haiku, which was written in Japanese, one of dozens of languages Seymour knew. Remember the Seymour of “Bananafish”? That’s actually Buddy’s interpretation of Seymour, which he now admits was a little too much (“alley oop, I’m afraid”) like himself. By this time Seymour is no longer a crazy young man (“Bananafish”), or a poet, for God’s sake (“Raise High”); he’s one of the greatest poets in the history of the English language. And how could one of the greatest poets in the history of the English language write that crap poem about the girl on the plane? He couldn’t. Buddy did. Or Salinger did. But who’s Salinger? A hack compared to Seymour. The creation has outgrown his creator. Seymour has become too powerful to write about.
In order to even capture Seymour in “Hapworth 16, 1924,” published six long years later, Salinger has to shrink him back to the age of 8; and even here, pintsized, he’s so powerful Salinger can barely keep him on the page. Seymour may be a kid writing a letter home from summer camp, but the letter is over 100 pages long and includes sentences of Jamesian complexity. Story? Gone. Epiphany? What’s the point? Seymour is a reincarnated wise man now, increasingly aware of past, present and future. He accurately prophesies his own death. He talks about the other lives, or appearances, he’s lived, and the appearances of everyone else at the camp. So what can he realize that he doesn’t already know? How can he journey to a place he doesn’t already see? You understand why it’s the last thing Salinger ever published. He’s left himself, and his creation, nowhere to go.
Anyway that’s the story the fuss was all about.
* * *
Epilogue: The Fat Lady Sings
I have many more stories about J.D. Salinger, of course. In Mr. Wolk’s 10th-grade English class, we had to write mini-plays about one of the texts we’d read, and I wrote mine, or ours (it was a group project), about Holden Caulfield riding an elevator up Macy’s Department Store, making it, or trying to make it, all symbolic (a new word), with each floor representing an age of life. It was a disaster. In college I rediscovered the humor of The Catcher in the Rye and delved into the book several times a week. (One of my favorite lines: “I thought the two ugly ones, Marty and Laverne, were sisters, but they got very insulted when I asked them. You could tell neither one of them wanted to look like the other one, and you couldn’t blame them, but it was very amusing anyway.”) I kept having discussions with friends about the best story in Nine Stories. Twenty years ago Pete said “Teddy.” Craig has rarely deviated from “For Esme.” I keep coming back to “The Laughing Man.”
When I interviewed Jeff Bezos in 1996, and he was informing me of the future—the Internet’s 2300 percent growth rate, the sorting capabilities of computers, the 1.5 million English-language books in print—I threw him off slightly by asking about the past, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” a then-31-year-old story that his Web site said was being published as a book in January. Bezos recovered nicely, though. You know how amazon.com makes recommendations based upon what you’ve bought or browsed in the past? He was like that in the interview. I brought up Salinger so he kept bringing up Salinger. When I wondered how they weeded out frivolous customer reviews, for example, he said, “It's an incredibly small number of people who actually do that. We had God review the Bible. We had J.D. Salinger review Catcher in the Rye. It was very funny. The person who did that one actually had a terrific sense of humor.” I got the distinct impression, though, even as he spoke about him, that Bezos thought Salinger was dead.
When most famous authors die, pundits and obituary writers toss around some variation of the phrase, “A great voice has been stilled.” When J.D. Salinger died last week at the age of 91, it was opposite. Now that he’s dead, we hope he’ll talk. Are there stories? Novels? Letters? I can’t pretend I’m not intrigued. I followed him to his beginnings so I’m sure I’ll follow him to his ends. At the same time I know that a week doesn’t go by when he’s not talking with me already.
Here’s to Buddy. Here’s to the Fat Lady. Here’s to moving from one piece of Holy Ground to the next.
—January 30, 2010