Article — From the October 1962 issue

J.D. Salinger’s Closed Circuit

A suggestion that the literary hero of the
Younger Set — the Great Phony-slayer — may, just
possibly, be a bit of a phony himself.

WHO is to inherit the mantle of Papa Hemingway? Who if not J. D. Salinger? Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye has a brother in Hollywood who thinks A Farewell to Arms is terrific. Holden does not see how his brother, who is his favorite writer, can like a phony book like that. But the very image of the hero as pitiless phony-detector comes from Hem­ingway. In Across the River and Into the Trees, the colonel gets a message on his private radar that a pock-marked writer he darkly spies across the room at Harry’s Bar in Venice has “outlived his talents” — apparently some sort of crime. “I think he has the same pits on his heart and in his soul,” confides the heroine, in her careful foreign English. That was Sinclair Lewis.

Like Hemingway, Salinger sees the world in terms of allies and enemies. He has a good deal of natural style, a cruel ear, a dislike of ideas (the enemy’s intelligence system), a toilsome simplic­ity, and a ventriloquist’s knack of disguising his voice. The artless dialect written by Holden is an artful ventriloquial trick of Salinger’s, like the deliberate, halting English of Hemingway’s waiters, fishermen, and peasants — anyone who speaks it is a good guy, a friend of the author’s, to be trusted.

The Catcher in the Rye, like Hemingway’s books, is based on a scheme of exclusiveness. The characters are divided into those who belong to the club and those who don’t — the clean marlin, on the one hand, and the scavenger sharks on the other. Those who don’t belong are “born that way” — headmasters, philanthropists, roommates, teachers of history and English, football coaches, girls who like the Lunts. They cannot help the way they are, the way they talk; they are obeying a law of species — even the pimping elevator oper­ator, the greedy prostitute, the bisexual teacher of English who makes an approach to Holden in the dark.

It is not anybody’s fault if just about every­body is excluded from the club in the long run — everybody but Ring Lardner, Thomas Hardy, Gatsby, Isak Dinesen, and Holden’s little sister Phoebe. In fact it is a pretty sad situation, and there is a real adolescent sadness and lonely des­peration in The Catcher in the Rye; the passages where Holden, drunk and wild with grief, wan­ders like an errant pinball through New York at night are very good.

But did Salinger sympathize with Holden or vice versa? That remained dubious. Stephen Dedalus in a similar situation met Mr. Bloom, but the only “good” person Holden meets is his little sister — himself in miniature or in apotheo­sis, riding a big brown horse on a carousel and reaching for the gold ring. There is something false and sentimental here. Holden is supposed to be an outsider in his school, in the middle-class world, but he is really an insider with the track all to himself.

[*] By J. D. Salinger. Boston, Little, Brown, $4.

And now, ten years after The Catcher in the Rye we have Franny and Zooey.[*] The event was commemorated by a cover story in Time; the book has been a best-seller since before publica­tion.

Again the theme is the good people against the stupid phonies, and the good is still all in the family, like a family-owned “closed” corpora­tion. The heroes are or were seven children (two are dead), the wonderful Glass kids of a radio quiz show called “It’s a Wise Child,” half-Jewish, half Irish, the progeny of a team of vaudevillians. These prodigies, nationally known and the sub­jects of many psychological studies, are now grown up: one is a writer-in-residence in a girls’ junior college; one is a Jesuit priest; one is a housewife; one is a television actor (Zooey); and one is a student (Franny). They are all geniuses, but the greatest genius of them all was Seymour, who committed suicide on vacation in an early story of Salinger’s called “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Unlike the average genius, the Glass kids are good guys; they love each other and their parents and their cat and their goldfish, and they are expert phony-detectors. The dead sage Seymour has initiated them into Zen and other mystical cults.

During the course of the story, Franny has a little nervous breakdown, brought on by reading a small green religious book titled The Way of a Pilgrim, relating the quest for prayer of a simple Russian peasant. She is cured by her brother Zooey in two short séances between his professional television appointments; he recog­nizes the book (it was in Seymour’s library, of course) and, on his own inspiration, without help from their older brother Buddy or from the Jesuit, teaches her that Jesus, whom she has been sweating to find via the Jesus Prayer, is not some fishy guru but just the Fat Lady in the audience, the average ordinary humanity with varicose veins, the you and me the performer has to reach if the show is going to click.

THE ADMISSIONS POLICY

THIS democratic commercial is “sincere” in the style of an advertising man’s necktie. The Jesus Zooey sells his sister is the old Bruce Barton Jesus — the word made flesh, Madison Avenue’s motto. The Fat Lady is not quite every­body, despite Zooey’s fast sales patter. She is the kind of everybody the wonderful Glass kids toler­antly approve of. Jesus may be a television spon­sor or a housewife or a television playwright or your Mother and Dad, but He (he?) cannot be an intellectual like Franny’s horrible boyfriend, Lane, who has written a paper on Flaubert and talks about Flaubert’s “testicularity,” or like his friend Wally, who, as Franny says plaintively, “looks like somebody who spent the summer in Italy or someplace.”

These fakes and phonies are the outsiders who ruin everything. Zooey feels the same way. “I hate any kind of so-called creative type who gets on any kind of ship. I don’t give a goddam what his reasons are.” Zooey likes it here. He likes people, as he says, who wear horrible neckties and funny, padded suits, but he does not mind a man who dresses well and owns a two-cabin cruiser so long as he belongs to the real, native, video-viewing America. The wonderful Glass family have three radios, four portable phono­graphs, and a TV in their wonderful living-room, and their wonderful, awesome medicine cabinet in the bathroom is full of sponsored products all of which have been loved by someone in the family.

The world of insiders, it would appear, has grown infinitely larger and more accommodating as Salinger has “matured.” Where Holden Caulfield’s club excluded just about everybody but his kid sister, Zooey’s and Franny’s secret society in­cludes just about everybody but creative types and students and professors. Here exception is made, obviously, for the Glass family: Seymour, the poet and thinker, Buddy, the writer, and so on. They all have college degrees; the family bookshelves indicate a wide, democratic culture:

Dracula now stood next to Elementary Pali, The Boy Allies at the Somme stood next to Bolts of Melody, The Scarab Murder Case and The Idiot were together, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Stair­case lay on top of Fear and Trembling.

The Glass family librarian does not discrimi­nate, in keeping with the times, and books are en­couraged to “mix.” In Seymour’s old bedroom, however, which is kept as a sort of temple to his memory, quotations, hand-lettered, from a select group of authors are displayed on the door: Marcus Aurelius, Issa, Tolstoy, Ring Lardner, Kafka, St. Francis de Sales, Mu Mon Kwan, etc. This honor roll is extremely institutional.

The broadening of the admissions policy — which is the text of Zooey’s sermon — is more a propaganda aim, though, than an accomplish­ment. No doubt the author and his mouthpiece (who is smoking a panatela) would like to spread a message of charity. “Indiscrimination,” as Seymour says in another Salinger story, “. . . leads to health and a kind of very real, enviable hap­piness.” But this remark itself exhales an in­effable breath of gentle superiority. The club, for all its pep talks, remains a closed corporation, since the function of the Fat Lady, when you come down to it, is to be what? — an audience for the Glass kids, while the function of the Great Teachers is to act as their coaches and prompters. And who are these wonder kids but Salinger him­self, splitting and multiplying like the original amoeba?

BATHROOM WORSHIP

IN Hemingway’s work there was never any­body but Hemingway in a series of disguises, but at least there was only one Papa per book. To be confronted with the seven faces of Salin­ger, all wise and lovable and simple, is to gaze into a terrifying narcissus pool. Salinger’s world contains nothing but Salinger, his teachers, and his tolerantly cherished audience — humanity; outside are the phonies, vainly signaling to be let in, like the kids’ Irish mother, Bessie, a home version of the Fat Lady, who keeps invading the bathroom while her handsome son Zooey is in the tub or shaving.

The use of the bathroom as stage set — sixty-eight pages of “Zooey” are laid there — is all too revealing as a metaphor. The bathroom is the holy-of-holies of family life, the seat of privacy, the center of the cult of self-worship. What me­thodical attention Salinger pays to Zooey’s rou­tines of shaving and bathing and nail cleaning, as though these were rituals performed by a god on himself, priest and deity at the same time! The scene in the bathroom, with the mother seated on the toilet, smoking and talking, while her son behind the figured shower curtain reads, smokes, bathes, answers, is of a peculiar snicker­ing indecency; it is worth noting, too, that this scene matches a shorter one in a public toilet in the story “Franny,” a scene that by its strange suggestiveness misled many New Yorker readers into thinking that Franny was pregnant — that was why, they presumed, such significance was attached to her shutting herself up in a toilet in the ladies’ room, hanging her head and feeling sick.

These readers were not “in” on the fact that Franny was having a mystical experience. Sex is unimportant for Salinger; not the bed but the bathroom is the erotic center of the narcissus ego, and Zooey behind the shower curtain is taboo, even to the mother who bore him — behind the veil. The reader, however, is allowed an ex­tended look.

A great deal of attention is paid, too, to the rituals of cigarette lighting and to the rites of drinking from a glass, as though these oral acts were sacred — epiphanies. In the same way, the family writings are treated by Salinger as sacred scriptures or the droppings of holy birds, to be studied with care by the augurs: letters from Seymour, citations from his diary, a letter from Ruddy, a letter from Franny, a letter from Boo Boo, a note written by Boo Boo in soap on a bathroom mirror (the last two are from another story, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”).

These imprints of the Glass collective person­ality are preserved as though they were Veronica’s veil in a relic case of well-wrought prose. And the eerie thing is, speaking of Veronica’s veil, a popu­lar subject for those paintings in which Christ’s eyes are supposed to follow the spectator with a doubtless reproachful gaze, the reader has the sensation in this latest work of Salinger that the author is sadly watching him or listening to him read. That is, the ordinary relation is reversed, and instead of the reader reading Salinger, Salinger, that Man of Sorrows, is reading the reader.

At the same time, this quasi-religious volume is full of a kind of Broadway humor. The Glass family is like a Jewish family in a radio serial. Everyone is a “character.” Mr. Glass with his tangerine is a character; Mrs. Glass in her hair­net and commodious wrapper with her cups of chicken broth is a character. The shower curtain, scarlet nylon with a design of canary-yellow sharps, clefs, and flats, is a character; the teeming medicine cabinet is a character. Every phono­graph, every chair is a character. The family re­lationship, rough, genial, insulting, is a char­acter.

In short, every single object possessed by the Glass communal ego is bent on lovably expressing the Glass personality — eccentric, homey, good-hearted. Not unlike “Abie’s Irish Rose.” And the family is its own best audience. Like Heming­way stooges, they have the disturbing faculty of laughing delightedly or smiling discreetly at each other’s jokes. Again a closed circuit: the Glass family is the Fat Lady, who is Jesus. The Glass medicine cabinet is Jesus, and Seymour is his prophet.

Yet below this self-loving barbershop harmony a chord of terror is struck from time to time, like a judgment. Seymour’s suicide suggests that Sal­inger guesses intermittently or fears intermit­tently that there may be something wrong some­where. Why did he kill himself? Because he had married a phony, whom he worshiped for her “simplicity, her terrible honesty”? Or because he was so happy and the Fat Lady’s world was so wonderful?

Or because he had been lying, his author had been lying, and it was all terrible, and he was a fake?

Single Page
Share
Mary McCarthy was born in Seattle and educated at Vassar. She writes about Salinger’s strange young characters from Paris, where she now lives. Her novels include The Company She Keeps and The Groves of Academe. In her critical essays, she has dissected such people, institutions, and characters as Vassar girls, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and—in the June 1962 Harper’s—General Macbeth.

More from Mary McCarthy:

Article From the June 1962 issue

General Macbeth

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

  • PlainOldTruth

    TYPO: “Isak Dinesen” bedins with a lower case “L” rather than an upper case “I.”

    • http://harpers.org/ Harper’s Magazine

      Thanks very much for the catch.

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content