The works of J.D. Salinger: a critique

The tone for one of the most famous and successful books of the 20th century is set right from the start, in fact from the very first sentence:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

With its unmistakable brashness, the opening sequence of “The Catcher in the Rye” is an omen for what’s to follow in this groundbreaking book. Fifty-three years after its initial publication, the book continues to sell some 250,000 copies annually. It is widely considered to be one of the most influential books of its time, shaking the 1950s establishment and touching millions around the world for the next half century.

It also established the author J.D. Salinger as a cultural folk hero, a rebel whose myth would only grow larger during his long years of seclusion and through his shunning of the book-writing establishment. Legend has it that Salinger continues to meticulously write fiction daily, with dozens of completed manuscripts that have never seen by others stashed away in his New Hampshire home. He hasn’t a single published work since 1963. Yet, despite the fact that only five publications bear his name, his iconoclastic status remains nearly unchallenged, mostly due to the enduring impact of “The Catcher in the Rye.”

The defiant nature of the epic book is evident in Salinger’s writing style. Right from the start, through the words of Holden Caulfield, he makes it clear that he has no interest in conformity, nor in the reader’s expectations — this is his story and he’s going to do it his way. Perhaps, the secret to the success of the book is in its artful simplicity. Caulfield is 17 years old, and admittedly immature for his age. The book reads that way throughout, bringing his adolescent anguish to life. Despite the book’s deep and controversial social message, it is worded in an immature, almost juvenile manner. The vocabulary is simple. Caulfield’s grammatical errors and his colloquial dialect add authenticity to the prose. Salinger’s choice of words also reflects the hero’s state of mind and his critical view of the establishment, as in the following passage:

“Old Spencer started nodding again. He also started picking his nose. He made out like he was only pinching it, but he was really getting the old thumb right in there. I guess he thought it was all right to do because it was only me that was in the room. I didn’t care, except that it’s pretty disgusting to watch somebody pick their nose.

Then he said ‘I had the privilege of meeting your mother and dad when they had their little chat with Dr. Thurmer some weeks ago. They’re grand people.’

‘Yes, they are. They’re very nice.’

Grand. There’s a word I really hate. It’s a phony. I could puke every time I hear it.”

Salinger’s crusade against the phonies in American high society is a common theme throughout all his works. Each, in its own way, addresses the corruption of the American dream and the shattering of the classic American family. Caulfield, the author’s most famous character, symbolizes the anti-hero to the leading characters of Salinger’s other books — the Glass family. The upper-class, immensely talented, super sophisticated, yet deeply troubled family is at the focal point of all his other literary creations: “Franny and Zooey,” “Nine Stories,” “Hapworth 16, 1924” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Seymour: An Introduction.”

Salinger seems almost obsessed with the Glass family, portraying them as the phonies he so deeply loathes. Not surprisingly, the style and text in these books reflects their highbrow, entitled, charmed existence, a stark contrast to the simple, no-nonsense lingo used by Caulfield.

Just as in “Catcher in the Rye,” the tone in “Franny and Zooey” is set right from the start, with Franny’s convoluted, disturbing and highly abstract conversation with her date, Lane, and the following introduction to the second half of the book by Zooey:

“The facts at hand presumably speak for themselves, but a trifle more vulgarly, I suspect, than facts even usually do. As a counterbalance, then, we begin with that everfresh and exciting odium: the author’s formal introduction. The one I have in mind not only is wordy and earnest beyond my wildest dreams but is, to boot, rather excruciatingly personal. If, with the right kind of luck, it comes off, it should be comparable in effect to a compulsory guided tour through the engine room, with myself, as guide, leading the way in an old one-piece Jantzen bathing suit.”

A far cry, no doubt, from Holden Caulfield and his “David Copperfield crap.” The Glasses’ sense of self-importance is evident through Salinger’s writing technique. While anyone with a rudimentary reading ability is able to appreciate Caulfield’s simplicity, it takes a great mind, like that of one of the Glasses, to totally appreciate the family’s true brilliance. Yet, despite their intellect, each falls victim to his or her own shallowness, a key element in the high society lifestyle Salinger critiques so strongly in his collections of stories.

In “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” the first tale in “Nine Stories,” Seymour, the eldest child, and perhaps the smartest of the pack, magically reveals the secret world of the imaginary Bananafish to a young girl. He then returns to his hotel, accuses a random woman in the elevator of looking at his feet and then continues to his room, where he promptly and casually commits suicide.

Another common thread throughout all of Salinger’s creations is his elaborate emphasis on the art of writing and the role of the writer. It often seems as if Salinger is speaking of himself and his disappointment from his writing colleagues. Yet, even here, Salinger exhibits the gap between the Caulfield approach and the Glass approach.

According to Caulfield:

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”

According to Franny Glass, during her rant to Dale:

“If you’re a poet, you do something beautiful. I mean you are supposed to leave something beautiful after you get off the page and everything. The ones you’re talking about don’t leave a single, solitary thing beautiful. All that maybe the slightly better ones do is sort of get inside your head and leave something there, but just because they do, just because they know how to leave something, it doesn’t have to be a poem, for heaven’s sake. It may just be some kind of terribly fascinating, syntaxy droppings – excuse the expression. Like Manlius and Esposito and all those poor men.”

Either way, whether through Caulfield or through Glass, Salinger succeeds in leaving his mark.