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Vol. LXII, No. 43
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
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Book Review

“Don’t Ever Tell Anybody Anything”: J.D. Salinger Missing in Action

Stuart Mitchner

His tragedy was that when he attempted to enter the human race, there was no human race there.
—William Faulkner on Holden Caulfield

On January 1, 2009, J.D. Salinger will be 90, which means that for almost half his life, he’s been devoutly withdrawn from the world, implacably incommunicado. Call it what you will, his refusal to share his work or his thoughts with the millions of readers who have been waiting for the next installment of the Glass family saga is an extraordinary renunciation. It’s hard to think of any comparable precedent. Even writers who claim not to care what readers say, or who ignore what reviewers write, continue to offer their work to the public. Whatever you think of the notion that the process of making fiction is satisying in itself, worth more than any end result, all writers want readers, and this writer whose readership is beyond counting isn’t giving them anything. No other living author I can think of, including J.K. Rowling, has created so beloved and believed-in a world of fiction. Year after year, people discover Holden Caulfield and the Glass family. Or else they do as I do and reread what’s been made available to them by the author who was once dismissed by Norman Mailer as “everybody’s favorite.”

We know one thing for sure: Salinger loves to write, lives to write (“I write for myself” seems to be his standard answer to the why-not-publish question), which is what he’s been doing in his New Hampshire bunker for the past five decades. Although some have suggested that the reason for his silence is that the well is dry, a more likely negative possibility is that he’s had the misfortune, as he imagines it in the jacket copy for Franny and Zooey (1961), to “bog down” and “perhaps disappear entirely” into his own “methods, locutions, and mannerisms.” Reports from people who have lived with him (specifically his daughter Margaret in her memoir Dream Catcher) say that he has a safe in which he’s stored a number of manuscripts, installments in the Glass saga, some of them marked for publication — who knows when? Maybe never.

In a 1984 interview with David Remnick, Salinger’s son Matthew, who went to Princeton, offers what is surely the authorized explanation, or was at the time: “He wants to write for the page and he wants his characters to be on the page and in the reader’s mind. He thinks it’s bad for him and his work to have a public life.” In fact his most mannered and self-conscious writing — the closest he comes to the cardinal sin of “phoniness” according to the doctrine of Holden Caulfield — is when he and his alter ego Buddy Glass become unhealthily cognizant of the public, or too busy elegantly bowing to the “amateur reader … who just reads and runs” in the dedication of Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour — an Introduction (1963), which, like Franny and Zooey, is made up of two long stories originally published in The New Yorker.

While Salinger clearly cares about the integrity of his contribution to literature, he abhors not only hostile or misguided criticism but its opposite; he seems to find the possibility of even positive attention intrusive and distracting. Like the dedication says, he wants us to “read and run,” and, whatever we do, don’t look too closely, don’t discuss or speculate or ask questions. Someone who visited Salinger and his wife Claire years ago told me that the one ground rule was that absolutely nothing was to be said about his work.

Don’t Look Now

I just googled the formal term for “the fear of being looked at or seen.” It’s scopophobia. Not exactly a friendly or likeable word and not really sufficient to define Salinger’s aversion to attention. If you take this thought into the psyche of his fiction you will come to Seymour Glass’s last human exchange in the elevator on his way to a Florida beachfront hotel room to kill himself in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” He shares the elevator with a woman he twice accuses of staring at his bare feet. As she makes a hasty exit at the next floor, he says, “If you want to look at my feet, say so, but don’t be a God-damned sneak about it.” After uttering his last words, to the effect that he has two “normal feet” and “can’t see the slightest God-damned reason why anybody should stare at them,” he goes into the room where his wife is sleeping, takes out “an Ortgies calibre 7.65 automatic” and fires “a bullet through his right temple.” It’s as if a story begun by Salinger has been ended by Hemingway, and yet out of that unlikely and, for the author, atypically violent finale, the entire Glass family saga has evolved, seemingly conceived to answer the obvious question: why did he do it?

Missing in Action

At the end of The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Holden Caulfield says that he misses “everybody” — an admission reflected in William Faulkner’s observation that Holden wants to enter a human race which isn’t there for him. Except that, like Seymour, Salinger has reversed the idea and chosen not to be there for a human race whose attention he finds oppressive; in removing himself from the world, he’s literally taking his own life. But if you look more closely at Holden’s last words — as memorable and affecting a farewell as any this side of Huckleberry Finn’s “I got to light out for the territory” — the implications are relatively poignant. “Don’t ever tell anybody anything,” Holden writes. “If you do, you start missing everybody.”

One of the most maddening things about Salinger is that he cares. Or, rather, his work projects something caring, humane, and sympathetic. He’s been scolded by John Updike for loving the Glasses “more than God loves them” and for keeping everyone else, including the reader, outside the circle of their awesomeness. The truth is that most readers come to the Glass stories already loving Salinger, not just because they identify with Holden but because they’re responding to the embattled compassion they sense in his creator. Take those last words of Holden’s and apply them to Salinger and it’s as if he’s saying, “Don’t ever write. If you do, you’ll start missing humanity so much you’ll have no sane choice but to turn your back on it and write for the page.”

In the Elevator Again

Now consider what happened in 1997 when it seemed that after 32 years Salinger was about to quietly allow the long story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” to be put between covers and offered to public view by a small press — until he looked around and found that he was sharing the metaphorical elevator with New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani, who did some “sneaky” looking at his last published story, distorting what she saw according to her own ill-natured agenda (the specifics of her attack are reviewed online in my September 13, 2006 column). It’s no coincidence that he stopped the publication of Seymour’s epic letter home from camp soon after that nasty little piece of work by the country’s most influential book reviewer.

If the Glass material stored in Salinger’s safe is half as good or even better than “Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters,” and if any of it is ever published, it will have been well worth the wait for readers who have lived to see the day. Writing in 1961, Updike called this inimitable slice of Manhattan life the “best of the Glass pieces: a magic and hilarious prose-poem with an enchanting end effect of mysterious clarity.” Updike goes on to close out his critique in terms so glowingly right that they undermine his claim that Salinger loves the Glasses “to the detriment of artistic moderation”: “After all the reservations have been entered,” he writes, “it remains to acknowledge that … the refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all.”

As someone who has been hoping for years that a work of literature would someday do justice to New York City, I’d like to think that if and when Salinger chooses to give it to the world, the Glass “adventure” would complete his achievement of, among other things, the Great American Novel of Manhattan, his unique human comedy of New York from the twenties to the sixties, already well underway with The Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories (1953), and the Glass family chronicles.

A Blank Sheet of Paper

Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters takes place on what was to have been Seymour’s wedding day except that he never showed up. His brother Buddy narrates the story, which is dominated by the Matron of Honor, a passionately outspoken young woman who lustily berates Seymour and is living proof that Salinger’s writerly affections are not restricted to the Glasses. He also clearly loves the little man with the cigar (I keep seeing comicstrip Barnaby’s fairy godfather, Mr. O’Malley) with whom Buddy bonds during the sweaty ordeal (the hot Manhattan afternoon recalling another summer afternoon get-together in Salinger’s fellow adventurer F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby). Sure, Buddy’s fairy godfather may be almost too-cute-for-words, but he and his cigar are indispensable to the “enchanting” conclusion cited by Updike. Buddy’s final thought is that the cigar end the little man left behind should be forwarded to Seymour as a wedding present, “in a small, nice box. Possibly with a blank sheet of paper enclosed, by way of explanation.”

That touch, as Holden would say, kills me. But it’s not the typical Salinger trope of the sanctified cigar butt that gets me, it’s the “explanation” offered by a blank sheet of paper. There it is, folks, the author’s answer to us all, a blank sheet of paper that says, or unsays, everything you need to know about the choice Salinger made when he took his own life and gave it to the page.

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