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J.D. Salinger Essay, Research Paper

“Salinger’s Reality”

Being one of the most widely read authors in the English language, J. D. Salinger has successfully kept himself out of the public eye for most of his career (Grodin 1). Growing up during the times of the Great Depression, the 1920’s and 1930’s, Salinger never really felt any direct affects from it. His father was a prosperous Jewish importer, and his mother, a Scots-Irish house wife (DiscAut 1). During his childhood, Salinger’s family was well off, and could afford to send him to several private prep schools. Most of which he was expelled from. He finally graduated from Valley Forge Military Academy in 1936, with ideas for characters that he had found in the people at his school (DiscAut 1). He later attended Columbia University, concentrating mainly on writing. Here he would meet Whit Burnett, the founder of Story and the one who got the ball rolling for Salinger’s short story writing talent. Salinger has developed a writing style in which he uses his characters to explain how people fall victim to society: its pressures and expectations.

Some say that the only true way to discover Salinger’s true self, is to study The Catcher in the Rye. Research shows that Salinger’s values are directly portrayed in Holden’s personality, the main character in his only novel. “Self-critical, curious, and compassionate, Holden is a moral idealist whose attitude is governed by a dogmatic hatred of hypocrisy”(DiscAut 1). In many ways, this is true about Salinger. In his writings, Salinger searches for the meaning of life, and “comments on the flaws and merits of American Society”(DiscAut 1), as does Holden. Holden has been expelled from many prep schools, lives in New York, and is under extreme pressure from his parents who urge his success. Basically, this is Salinger in a nut shell.

One of the driving forces behind Salinger’s ideology of society is that of his experiences in World War II. He views war as the ultimate obscenity of life, of which no one should be exposed to. Loss of Innocence is the most reoccurring theme in Salinger’s writing and is the premise of Catcher. Holden’s dead brother, Allie, serves as the symbol of preserved innocence in that, Allie will never see or understand this hell, we call life (DiscAut 2). He is considered a “virgin to society” and the symbol of unblemished goodness (DiscAut 2). Phoebe, Holden’s sister serves as Allie’s living counterpart and Holden’s salvation (DiscAut 2). She is the innocent child in Holden’s life whom he tries desperately to preserve. Other characters such as; Ackley the tough guy, “He was exactly the kind of guy that wouldn’t get out of your light when you asked him too” (Salinger 21); Stradlater the pig-headed snob, “The reason he fixed himself up to look so good was because he was madly in love with himself” (27); Marsalla, the brainless jock; and Headmaster Thurmer, the pompous schoolmaster all originated from Salinger’s experiences at Valley Forge. There he met the ideal stereotypes that fulfill Catcher’s examples of phonies(DiscAut 2) and Pencey’s motto, “Since 1888, we have been molding boys into splendid, clear-thinking young men” (Salinger 2). Lastly, in the final moments of Catcher, Holden goes to visit his sister Phoebe at her elementary school. He sees vulgarities and other obscenities vandled upon the wall. There he realizes that he has no control over the world and that things do change despite his attempts to preserve them (DiscAut 2). He says, “It’s hopeless, anyway. If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘Fuck You’ signs in the world. It’s impossible” (202). Holden’s ultimate response to this realization is a mental breakdown, while Salinger’s is total seclusion. Clearly, The Catcher in the Rye is an allusion to Salinger’s troubled past and also to his conception of society.

In 1953, Salinger published a collection of short stories, entitled Nine Stories. The encompassing theme in all of these stories is that all of the main characters come to a sudden realization that they either can’t deal with, or take their new found enlightenment and begin the journey of recovery (DiscAut 3). In A Perfect Day for Bananafish, Seymour Glass, a retired war veteran discusses with Sybil (the innocent) the life and nature of a bananafish which Seymour describes as, “they swim into a hole where there’s lots of bananas. They’re very ordinary looking fish when they swim in. But, once they get in, they behave like pigs. Why I’ve known some bananafish to swim into a banana hole and eat as many as 78 bananas. Naturally, that they’re so fat that they can’t get out of the whole again. Can’t get through the door”(Salinger 16). Salinger chooses to use this story as the opening one for Nine Stories. The rest of the stories involve characters who dig themselves into a hole that they can’t escape. It is a repetitive theme. Seymour’s wife plays the na?ve phony whom Seymour pays no attention to. After the conversation with Sybil, Seymour retreats to the confines of his hotel room, where his wife lay asleep, and shoots himself in the head. He has experienced too much already in life, and in the war, that he can’t cope with the thought that someday Sybil might understand what he’s talking about (Grodin 1).

In Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut, Eloise an alcoholic mother believes that her little girl Ramona is in serious trouble. She has a make believe friend named Jimmy who provides her with the entertainment that lacks in her neighborhood. Eloise once loved Walt Glass, who died over seas in an explosion. Seeking a love for replacement, she found Lew whose role in this story is that he once referred to Eloise’s hurt ankle as uncle wiggily. In a drunken rage, Eloise forces her daughter to sleep in the middle of her bed. Ramona claims that there would be no room for Mickey (Jimmy got hit by a car). Eloise pulls Ramona by her ankle and is suddenly reminded of Lew’s phrase, “Poor uncle Wiggily.” She knocks Ramona’s glasses on the floor and picks them up. She looks at her daughter through the extra thick lenses and understands. Just as she replaced Walt with Lew, Ramona replaced Jimmy with Mickey. She realizes that all her years of drinking have gotten her nowhere and that she really does love Lew (Grodin 2-3). After tucking Ramona in, Eloise went down stairs and woke up Maryjane, a childhood friend who was drunk and sleeping on the couch. ” ‘You remember our freshman year, and I had that brown and yellow dress I bought in Boise, and Miriam Ball told me nobody wore those kind of dresses in New York, and I cried all night?’ Eloise shook Mary Jane’s arm. ‘I was a nice girl,’ she pleaded, ‘wasn’t I?’”(Salinger 38). Salinger chooses to write stories like this to show that salvation is possible, and that we are not all condemned to a life of phoniness and disgust.

Just like Wiggily, Just Before the War with the Eskimos deals with the enlightenment of one Ginnie Mannox who with a bite of his sandwich, begins to see life through Frank’s perspective. Frank is gay, he has a bad heart, and served in the war. He thinks Ginnie’s sister is a phony snob, but Ginnie begs to differ. She does not understand the basis Frank has on saying that, and denies everything he says. Frank is in the process of eating his bananas. He lives in filth and is “immersed in the sea of his own pain, grief and suffering” (Grodin 5). Ginnie is very curious and is searching for the roots of his anguish. By understanding Frank’s values, Ginnie can understand her place in a world of mixed conceptions and immorality. She sees her own phoniness in her denial, and realizes that in fact, her sister is a snob. ” She reached into her coat pocket for her purse and found the sandwich half. She took it out and started to bring her arm down, to drop the sandwich into the street, but instead she put it back into her pocket”(Salinger 55). Salinger uses this story to explain how people can be influenced, when exposed to immorality, the moral person changes their views acknowledging reality.

Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes is considered to be rather short, yet filled with twisted fates and says so much about the desires of men and their influential power. The story consists of three characters; Arthur, his wife Joanie, and his employee, Lee. Lee has been working at Arthur’s law firm for many years and has become a trusted friend. One night, Joanie leaves the house and does not return for some time. Looking for any answers, Arthur calls Lee’s house seeking comfort from his worries. As it turns out, Lee has been sleeping with Joanie for quite some time, and continues to lie to Arthur as to her wear-about (Grodin6-7). These three characters can be described as three walls that never meet. It is an ancient Zen philosophy that Salinger touches upon in the story. ” ‘No, I didn’t, Arthur,’ he said, his eyes on the far, dim end of the room, where the wall met the ceiling. ‘Didn’t she leave with you?’”(Salinger 116). Lee can never truly befriend Arthur due to his guilt for his trespass. Joanie and Arthur can never experience true love as husband and wife due to her adulterous acts. One might say that Lee, devouring bananas, is digging himself a whole he soon will not be able to escape.

DeDaumier-Smith’s Blue Period a story about one man’s isolation from his family, and the rest of the world. Smith is an applying at Monsieur L Yoshoto’s art school. Yoshoto is known for his best piece; a white goose flying over a deep blue ocean with a lighter blue sky. Smith so desperately wants to work there that he lies on his application. “I had been painting, I said, since early childhood, but that, following the advice of Pablo Picasso, who was one of the oldest and dearest friends of my parents, I had never exhibited. However, a number of my oil paintings and water colors were now hanging in some of the finest, and by no means nouveau riche, homes in Paris”(Salinger 134). This is the kind of phoniness that Salinger despises, and that Smith eventually realizes. While at work, Smith falls in love with a nun named Irma. When the time comes that Irma can no longer see Smith or attend his class (for religious issues), Smith becomes deeply depressed and begins questioning his existence. While walking down the street, he notices a store clerk dressing a mannequin in a store window. He watches her for a while, before she trips and falls. He reaches out to help her, but can not penetrate the glass, and she falls. “I am giving sister Irma her freedom to follow her own destiny. Everybody is a nun”(Salinger 164). Here he realizes that everyone has their own fate, including himself. He shares the reasoning with Holden in that life’s changes and occurrences are inevitable. He realizes that he must become the goose in Yoshoto’s painting, and “exchange his feelings of self-deception and phoniness for the sky in the painting, eternal peace”(Grodin7).

This is just a handful of Salinger’s writings, and his characters. There are many others in Nine Stories like: John Gedsudski from The Laughing Man, Lionel from Down at the Dinghy, Sergeant X from For Esme’ with Love and Squalor, Teddy from Teddy. Each one of these characters in some way exemplify Salinger in thought, appearance, and personality. Research shows that Salinger began studying Zen philosophy around1951 (20 Cent Writ, Chronology), and adheres to it in his writing. Nine Stories is incorporated with Zen beliefs, and koans, that give a different meaning to the events. From that perspective, these characters are searching for spiritual purity, or some form of immortality in another world. Salinger writes about how corrupt humanity actually is, and the everyday situations that go by unnoticed. His characters are special in their enlightenment’s, making aware different aspects of life. Today, Salinger is still living in seclusion, in a small town in New Hampshire called Cornish. He continues to write daily as well as meditate, and work in his vegetable garden (Maynard 325). His last published work is Hapworth 16, 1924, a short story that was published in The New Yorker in 1965.


Grodin, Justin. Nine Stories. April 20, 1997. Nashua High School, English 11 research


Maynard, Joyce. “Salinger in Love.” Vanity Fair. September 1998. Pgs. 300-304, 321-


Riley, Carolyn. “J.D. Salinger.” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Gale Research

Company. 1975.

“Salinger, J.D.” Discovering Authors. Gale Research Inc. 1993.

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Little Brown and Company, Inc. New York, NY


Salinger J.D. Nine Stories. Little, Brown and Company, Inc. New York, NY. 1953.

Verde, Tom. “J.D. Salinger”. 20th Century Writers. 1950-1990. Facts on File, 1996.

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