Waiting for the Glass Family: A J.D. Salinger Experience on His Double Anniversary Year
It’s the first day of March and I’m at the new hospital lying on a gurney, unsedated and edgy, nothing to do, no TV I can watch old movies on, as was possible at Robert Wood Johnson. Since I’m waiting to be wheeled in for minor surgery (a “procedure,” they call it), I think about the longest wait I’ve ever endured. Before I know it, I’ve disappeared into a prayer disguised as a daydream that begins with the sense of intense, even delirious anticipation I would feel if J.D. Salinger’s heirs finally announced the release of some of the Glass family stories so many of us know, believe, feel in our bones he was working on for four decades up in his Cornish N.H. bunker. My daydream prayer takes the form of a miles-long caravan of school busses heading toward the Salinger enclave. The drivers are all versions of the Chief of the Comanche Club, John Geduski, who drives the bus in “The Laughing Man,” one of my two favorite stories, along with “For Esmé — With Love and Squalor,” from his 1953 collection, Nine Stories. The kids on board are singing old show tunes; we’re all kids in this Salinger fantasy; it’s like the greatest school trip that never happened. Everyone’s punchy because the feeling is that this demonstration may finally do the trick. We’re 20,000 versions of the amateur reader to whom Salinger dedicated the last work he allowed to appear between covers. That was 50 years ago.
Though we’re waving banners and signs, Free Seymour and What Happened After Hapworth? and The Time Is Now, we’re a pretty respectful group, with people from the stories and books on hand to make sure we behave ourselves, like the two nuns from The Catcher in the Rye, the bride’s uncle with the cigar from “Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters,” the brother with the bleeding thumb and the sandwich from “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” Mr. and Mrs. Happy from Camp Hapworth, and even Ramona and her imaginary friend Jimmy Jimmereeno from “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” who came with Phoebe Caulfield and her pal Esmé in her tartan jumper and Esmé’s brother Charles in his brown Shetland shorts and navy blue jersey and maybe (this is a daydream) the dead father whose watch helped Staff Sgt X get through the war with his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.
I’m closing my eyes tight enough now that I can clearly see the sprawling multitude the schoolbuses have released and the hopeful hush aglow above them, yes, it’s a radiant hush, a hush you can actually see, like a happy-kid cloud in a William Steig cartoon hovering over the house on the hill as the door opens and the widow and the son and, yes, the daughter (a good sign) step shyly into view, and they’re smiling (an even better sign) and waving. Matthew, he of the cool lima bean, steps forward. He’s holding a copy of The New Yorker, an issue as yet unpublished. He raises it with both hands above his head while his godfather, the recipient of the lima bean, smiles down on him, a benign William Shawn Sun. This is it! A great swooning sigh passes like a wave over the delirious crowd ….
Oops, the gurney’s moving, voices are asking me inane questions as I try to keep the bubble of the fantasy from breaking; the doctor appears, sticks the plastic mouthpiece in my mouth, as if I were a prize fighter, the sedative kicks in along with a blow smack between the eyes like De Daumier-Smith’s “Experience” when the sun came up and sped toward the bridge of his nose “at the rate of ninety-three million miles a second.” Then, as they say in the movies, “everything went black.”
Yes, three years after Salinger’s death in January 2010 we’re still waiting for the remainder of his life’s work. By now, it seems only fair that we be given at least some definitive statement one way or the other from his heirs. Surely this is something Salinger himself would want them to do. How could this man, praised in Eudora Welty’s review of Nine Stories, for his “loving heart,” approve the punishing of legions of faithful readers with three years of stony silence? Even if the answer that finally comes is the “Nevermore” we all dread, that would be less cruel than this limbo of not-knowing; worse yet, it would lead to exactly the sort of thing Salinger despised, only in this case, instead of noxious reviews, noxious bookchat speculation about the reasons why. What could be worse? Was it madness, all those years of work, Salinger’s version of The Shining, 45 years of writer’s block, all work and no play? Or was it that the work produced was an embarrassment, so far below the standard that it simply wasn’t fit to show? And what editorial authority on earth is qualified to presume to make that judgment? Perhaps the lesser of all these ugly evils is that Salinger decided that it was his fate to sacrifice the work of his long late period in order to live out the greatest Henry James story never written?
This is a double anniversary year for Salinger. April 1953 saw the publication of Nine Stories, the best known and best-selling book of stories by anyone this side of Ernest Hemingway — at least unless you count the last two books, each containing two long Glass family stories, Franny and Zooey (1961) and the one published half a century ago this January, Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, which on this date in 1963 was sitting atop the New York Times best-seller list, where it stayed throughout the month of April. Is there anything else in American literature comparable to this level of popularity for a so-called “serious” author?
The Glass Mystique
Somewhere in the early sixties, at a table in the Indiana University campus hangout the Gables, an extremely intense guy I hardly knew — I’ve long since forgotten his name if I ever knew it — is expounding at great length on the Glass family history. He’s so excited he’s sweating, his hands are trembling. He’s wearing glasses and the lenses are fogging up from the back draft of the wordstream. He’s giving me the complete genealogy, about Walker and Waker, Boo Boo, and the show biz parents, the apartment on West End Avenue, all of it mixed up with Holden’s family, and Salinger’s. Here’s this virtual stranger baring his soul on a subject that simply wouldn’t give him peace. When I can get a word in, I try out my own theory about Seymour Glass, which is that the man who puts a gun to his temple and pulls the trigger at the end of “Perfect Day for Banana Fish,” the piece that opens Nine Stories, doesn’t match up with the Seymour who becomes the abiding subject and central presence in the later Glass stories. He disagrees, insisting that Salinger had the whole Glass concept in his head from day one.
Having just finished rereading “Bananafish” in the copy of the first edition of Nine Stories I found at the recent Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale, I still think, and I’m surely not alone in thinking, that the Seymour of the story first published in the January 31, 1948 New Yorker is not even a rough draft of the later Seymour but a finite creation, an actor enlisted to perform that one role, there and only there, and is at best a onetime fact of fictional life Salinger would develop into the much more ambitious, various, and delightful character essential to the infrastructure of “Franny” and “Zooey” and all the subsequent Glass stories, presumably including the ones we’re waiting for and dying to see before we die.
It still hurts to read Salinger’s final message to his readers, on the jacket copy he wrote for his last book, when he says he wants to get the two stories collected in “something of a hurry” if he means them “to avoid unduly or undesirably close contact with new material in the series.” [The italics are mine] “There is only my word for it, granted,” he continues, “but I have several new Glass stories coming along — waxing, dilating — each in its own way.” He closes out by admitting that “the joys and satisfactions of working on the Glass family peculiarly increase and deepen for me with the years.” Two years later the New Yorker brings out “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which offers joyful and satisfying evidence that Salinger means to keep his word (see “J.D. Salinger’s Letter from Camp Returned to Sender,” Town Topics, Sept. 13, 2006). On top of that, Buddy Glass’s preface to this installment in the series meant to shed some light on “the short, reticulate life and times” of Seymour Glass, “who died, committed suicide, opted to discontinue living, back in 1948,” actually refers to “a long short story about a particular party, a very consequential party,” that he’s been working on “for several months.”
Compare that elaborately worded citing of Seymour’s suicide to the stark reference to the “Ortiges calibre 7.65 automatic” with which he “fired a bullet through his right temple,” thereupon ending “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” with a shocker that left readers buzzing and helped launch an extraordinary literary career.
Salinger and Vedanta
Waking up on the gurney feeling nicely woozy, my prayerful fantasy was long gone, as distant as the memory of morning on the day of long, very long, journey, like the one between Amritsar and Srinagar I recalled a month later, on Easter Sunday, reading my way through the journey of Nine Stories to the passage from “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” that first nailed me, smack between the eyes, in a houseboat called the Little Mona Lisa on Dal Lake in the Vale of Kashmir. The “Experience” with the sun described by the title character was many times more shocking and exciting and real to me than Seymour’s gunshot to the temple after half a year in India, where we’d seen sadhus at Kumbha Mela who could blind you with a look if you got close enough and where our everyday mantra was “Nothing is impossible.” On that note, let’s get those schoolbuses in motion. Time is running out.
News flash: Twenty-eight letters written by Salinger have been given to the Morgan Library & Museum by the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York, a gift commemorating the 150th birthday of Swami Vivekenanda. Salinger’s biographer, Kenneth Slawenski, who, like all of us on those schoolbuses, is waiting for rest of the story, will give a lecture “J.D. Salinger & Vedanta” at the Morgan on Friday, April 12, at 7:30 p.m.