Sunday, January 31, 2010

My J. D. Salinger--Master of the Short Story

Like many others of the pre-baby-boomer generation, I was quite mad for the fiction of J. D. Salinger. I don’t remember how old I was when I first read that Signet paperback with the picture on the cover of the young guy with a suitcase, a long coat, a red scarf, and a red baseball cap, presciently and rebelliously worn backward. The cover claimed: “This unusual book may shock you, will make you laugh, and may break your heart—but you will never forget it.” And of course, I didn’t. I still have my tattered paperback copy of Catcher in the Rye, or rather I did until recently, when I bequeathed it to my daughter who is working on a Ph.D. in English (getting into the family business, as it were) at University of Arizona. The paperback came out in 1953, when I was twelve. I probably read it a few years later at fifteen. During high school, I also read Nine Stories and, like many other “literary types,” was hooked trying to hear the sound of one hand clapping.

When I got to college, I had “graduated,” as it were, to the Glass family-- Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, Walt, Waker, Franny and Zooey. In the short story class I had with the wonderful Kentucky writer James Still, we had to write a long “term” paper—about 20 pages—the longest paper I had ever attempted. Mr. Still did not like Salinger—thought he was too slick, too citified, too much a show-off. But, thanks to Holden, ever the rebel, I decided to do my paper on the short stories of Salinger. I had read his four books, but wanted more. In our modest Appalachian library at Morehead State College, I was able to find fifteen or so Salinger stories in Colliers, Saturday Evening Post, and Story—The late forties and early fifties were good times for short story writers. After the term ended, James Still sent me a brief note, written on stationary from a Louisville hotel, that he liked the paper and was willing to admit that where there was so much literary smoke there had to be some literary fire. I never got the paper back, but I did get an “A” in the course.

When I was in graduate school, the New Yorker published Salilnge's last story (took up almost the whole June 19, 1963 issue) entitled “Hapworth 17, 1924.” Introduced by Buddy, the story is a long, rambling letter from Seymour to his family when he was at Camp Simon Hapworth. Seymour, Buddy reminds us, committed suicide in 1948 when he was thirty-one in that great Bananafish story. As you might expect, it is a very precocious letter for a seven-year-old.

I did not teach many of Salinger’s stories during my forty-year stint at California State University, Long Beach. Salinger did not allow his stories to be anthologized in college texts. The only two that slipped by in trade paperback editions were “For Esme, with Love and Squalor” in Milton Crane’s Fifty Great Short Stories (1952) and “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” in Warren and Erskin’s Short Story Masterpieces (1954), both of which I taught. I remember when I taught “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” I picked up a copy of Howard Garis’ Uncle Wiggly Stories and read some of the to the class (At bedtime, I read them to my kids, who loved Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy, the Police Dog, and the Bad Chaps.” Their favorite bittersweet part came at the end of the stories with teasers like these:

“What happens next will be told in another story, if the star on top of the Christmas tree doesn’t twinkle so brightly that it shines in the face of the clock and stops the hands from playing tag.”
“And another story soon, if the eyes of the Christmas doll don’t wiggle around so fast she can’t see to play the piano.”
“Something is going to happen in the next story, if the egg beater doesn’t take the stopper out of the vinegar cruet and pour the stuff into the milk to make it so sour the goldfish won’t drink it.”

So, it was with a wry sad smile that I picked up the L.A. Times in the driveway this past Friday and read on the front page that J.D. Salinger had died at age 91. Of course, the first thing I did after reading the long obituary that filled almost one and a half pages of the L. A. Times was to go to my book shelf to find Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. And being the literary packrat I am, I searched through my filing cabinet and found the New Yorker copy of “Hapworth 16, 1924,” that, ever the Salinger fan, I rushed out to buy in 1965.

I have just finished reading Nine Stories and am happy to say they brought a gratified smile to my face. I was not startled this time when Seymour went back to his hotel room and blew his brains out, for I knew that he knew there would never be anything better than Sybil’s seeing the bananafish. I sympathized with Eloise’s desire to live in the world of Uncle Wiggly instead of the world of Connecticut. I understood why Billy Walsh cried when the Laughing Man’s last act was to pull off his mask before turning his face to the bloodstained ground. I felt for De Daumier-Smith’s desire to reach out to Sister Irma during his blue period. And I nodded in recognition when I read about Teddy’s first mystical experience, for I had used it many times in my classes as an example of the kind of epiphany the short story often made its own: “It was on a Sunday, I remember,” said Teddy. “My sister was only a very tiny child then, and she was drinking her milk, and all of a sudden I saw that she was God and the milk was God. I mean all she was going was pouring God into God, if you know what I mean.”

Nine Stories has always had a powerful influence on my theories of the short story’s unique thematic obsession. Salinger’s best stories—“A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” For Esme—with Love and Squalor,” and “Teddy”—all deal with the gap between “love”(in the basic religious sense of loving the other to such an extent that there seems no separation between the self and the other)-- and “squalor,” which derives from the Latin word “squalere,” which means “to be dirty from neglect.”

I have referred in an earlier blog to a presentation I made at the International Short Story Conference in June 2008, at Cork, Ireland, in which I argued that the basic theme of the short story as a form was the confrontation between the profane reality of separation and the longing for the sacred reality of union. If you read Salinger’s four greatest stories with this theme in mind, I think you will see where I must have got a significant impetus to my ideas. I quote a few paragraphs from my Cork presentation below:

I believe that the central focus of the short story as a genre is the basic primordial story that constitutes human beings existentially--their basic sense of aloneness. The human yearning that this would be otherwise is best expressed by Martin Buber. "In the beginning," says Buber, "is relation as category of being, readiness, grasping form, mould for the soul; it is the ”a priori of relation, the inborn Thou." Studies in anthropology and child psychology support Buber's assertion that both phylogenetically and ontogenetically the “Thou” relation precedes the “It” perception, but only in a primal undifferentiated universe from which the adult civilized human is excluded except by means of an aesthetic or religious "As if.” Buber describes the event phylogenetically in terms that suggest its metaphysical and moral implications. "This actual event is the separation of the human body, as the bearer of its perceptions, from the world round about it...whenever the sentence `I see the tree' is so uttered that it no longer tells of a relation between the man and the tree, but establishes the perception of the tree as object by the human consciousness, the barrier between subject and object has been set up. The primary word “I-It,” the word of separation, has been spoken." Thus arises, says Buber, the "melancholy of our fate" in the earliest history of the race and the individual.

If the “I-Thou” is inborn, as Buber says, it exists in that realm of the individual and the race that predates consciousness, and therefore can exist for conscious human beings only as an ideal, for which we yearn. Humans are continuously possessed by this desire for unity, which our very reason makes impossible, which is why the romantics, of course, decried the deification of reason in the eighteenth century and wished to substitute imagination in its place, imagination that transcended reason and made strange that which was so seemingly familiar. And since imagination is the leading aesthetic idea of the Romantics, love or sympathy became the leading moral idea—a basic yearning for the underlying unity of all things that springs forth in moments of what Abraham Maslow called peak experience, or what Wordsworth in the Prelude called "spots of time."

The human dilemma is that we are always caught between the demands of our deepest wish and the demands of our social self, which is the battle between the sacred and the profane, between union and separation. The unconscious is where "reality" resides, says Eliade. The human search to know it is equivalent to the desire of the religious man to live in the sacred, which is, "equivalent to his desire to take up his abode in objective reality… to live in a real and effective world, and not in an illusion."

The important distinction that must be made is between narratives that strive to make the realm of value seem temporal and graspable by experience and reason and narratives that strive to transform the temporal into the spiritual. What I wish to suggest is that the novel is a form dominated primarily by the first impulse, whereas the short story is dominated by the second. The first process requires temporal development, a slow process of "as if" lived experience in a world of objects, social relationships, and conceptual frameworks. It must have the bigness of the comprehensive theory of the whole man facing the whole world. The second process, on the other hand, requires only the moment, an instantaneous single experience that in its immediacy challenges social and conceptual frameworks.

There are therefore two basic modes of experience in prose fiction: the one that involves the development and acceptance of the everyday world of phenomenal, sensate, and logical relation--a realm that the novel has always taken for its own--and the other that involves single experiences that challenge reality as simply sensate and reasonable--a realm that has dominated the short story since its beginnings. The novel involves an active search for identity that is actually a reconciliation of the self with the social and experiential world—a reconciliation that is finally conceptually accepted, based on the experience one has undergone. The short story takes a character who has reached, or is in the process of reaching, for such a conceptual identity through reason, experience, or a combination of both, and confronts him or her with the world of yearning, which then challenges his conceptual framework of reason and experience.

All this perhaps explains why Sybil can see the bananafish, why Eloise prefers Uncle Wiggily to Connecticut, how Esme’s letter of love saves Sergeant X from squalor, and what Teddy means by saying you have to vomit up the Edenic apple of logic if you want to see things as they really are. It is what Sergeant X understands when he inscribes the Dostoevsky quotation on the flyleaf of the Goebbels book: “Fathers and Teachers, I ponder, ‘What is hell?’ I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”

J.D. Salinger: January 1, 1919—January 27, 2010-RIP


Anonymous said...

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