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J. D. Salinger Essay, Research Paper

J. D. Salinger

“The worth of a book is to be measured by what you can carry away from it.” -James Bryce*

In 1945, a novel was published that would forever change the way society views itself. The book, entitled The Catcher in the Rye, would propel a man named Jerome David Salinger to fame as one of the most famous authors of the twentieth century. This same man, not ten years after the publication and while still in the peak of his career, would depart from this society- the one that he so greatly changed leaving nothing but his literature to be his lasting voice. However one may view this mysterious life of J. D. Salinger, there is but one thing for certain: J. D. Salinger has provided the reader with a controversial look at society which is greatly enhanced by the integration of his own life experiences, dialect and religious philosophies into his stories.

“Salinger was the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school.” -Norman Mailer (qtd. in “Salinger” SSC 291)

The story of J. D. Salinger begins in downtown New York, NY, where he was born on January 1, 1919. Little is known about his early childhood, but his parents; Sol and Miriam, were known to be of upper-middle class stature and the family dwelled in downtown New York. As Salinger began to attend junior high school, his grades began to drop so his parents decided to send him to Valley Forge Military Academy, which is located in Pennsylvania. While enrolled in Valley Forge, Salinger’s IQ level was tested at 115, which is slightly above average but far from the “genius” or even “superior” category (French 45). At Valley Forge, however, Salinger’s grades rose considerably and he earned a scholarship to New York University. Salinger attended New York University for two years and went on to Ursinus College and then to Columbia University, where he studied with Whit Burnett (”Salinger” CA 997). After receiving an English degree at Columbia, Salinger worked briefly as an entertainer on the Swedish Liner MS Kungsholm in the Caribbean in 1941. In 1942 Salinger enlisted in the United States Army and fought in World War II, where he eventually became a staff sergeant earning five battle stars. The time spent overseas played a major role in what would ultimately be the basis of most of Salinger’s short stories. World War II is also where Salinger met one of his major literary influences, Ernest Hemingway. Although Salinger’s style stems from Hemingway, their first encounter was not one that sat well on Salingers’s mind. The story goes that while Hemingway was serving as an author-correspondent, he visited Salinger’s regiment “and that Salinger became disgusted when Hemingway shot the head off a chicken to demonstrate the merits of a German Lager “(French 25). The incident so affected Salinger that he incorporates it into his short story, “For Esme: with Love and Squalor,” with a corporal named Clay shooting the head off a cat and constantly dwelling upon the senseless act. The relationship between Hemingway and Salinger would last until Hemingway’s death in 1961. Despite having a personal relationship with Hemingway, according to Harold Bloom, “?[Salinger's work actually] derives from F. Scott Fitzgerald (qtd. in “Salinger” SSC 2: 318).” Such a conclusion can be drawn for a number of reasons. First, Salinger’s narrative style shows a striking similarity to Fitzgerald’s; and second, many of Salinger’s characters, like Holden Caulfield and Seymour Glass show a close resemblance to Fitzgerald’s character Jay Gatsby. Another interesting stylistic distinction is the dependable presence of a child in a major role in the storyline. Much like William Wodsworth, Salinger appreciates childhood innocence. It is “the wisdom and spontaneity that is lost in the distractions and temptations of adult life “(Gorden 2040), that Salinger and Wodsworth both incorporate into their work. Salinger eventually became drawn to Eastern philosophy, especially Zen Buddhism. This affliction pushed Salinger in his later works to stray from his original foundation and fundamental Western ideals of literature and begin incorporating Eastern philosophy into his work. Many critics condemn these resulting works and a few even go as far as saying that Salinger has lost his touch. Possibly due to such criticism, but for still unknown reasons, after the publication of his short story, “Seymour: An Introduction,” Salinger fled to a remote cabin outside the tiny town of Cornish, New Hampshire (population 1,659) in 1953. Since 1953 there been no public statement from Salinger himself and little knowledge has ever leaked out beyond his fence line regarding his personal life and habits. However, Salinger’s monolithic silence appears to be ending. Late in 1999 Salinger’s first publication in 36 years was made available, a short story entitled “Hapworth 16, 1924″, which is the finale to the Glass family story that is contained in all of Salinger’s works except his novel The Catcher in the Rye. The signifigance of the date of publication is undetermined, but it may be a sign that, at the age of 80, Salinger may finally be ending his reclusive demeanor. Currently, Salinger is still the mystery of the literary world.

“Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger.” -Franklin Jones*

As with any famous author, criticism is never a unanimous voice. Critical evaluations of Salinger’s work is divided, with some critics going as far as to labeling the work “profound” and others to denouncing it as “immature” (CA 997). As for the negative criticism that Salinger receives, the majority of it derives from the questionable importance and impact of Salinger’s incorporation of Eastern philosophy into his later works. Linda Gorden attributes the integration of Eastern philosophy to “[Salinger's] no longer trying to please the conventional readers but ridding himself of conventional forms and methods accepted by Western society” (Gorden 2046). The obvious conclusion is that Salinger is no longer writing for the reader, but rather for himself; and his values and beliefs are therefore going to unconsciously show up in his work. However it is in Salinger’s post classic period, particularly after the generation engulfed by The Catcher in the Rye, during which the degeneration of the criticism of Salinger’s work really begins. Critics are quick to become more critical and are “labeling [Salinger] as ‘cute,’ ‘repressed,’ ‘Puritanical,’ and ‘grossly sentimental,’” as writes William Wiegand (qtd. in “Salinger” CA 999). Even the preceding is not as harsh as the critical reception of his later works. Some critics began to state that “Salinger has lost the artisitic ability shown during his classic period” (Gorden 2044). One critic has gone as far as labeling the short story “Zooey” as the “?longest and dullest story ever to appear in The New Yorker ?” (Gorden 2045). Although there is a substantial amount of negative criticism of Salinger’s literary works, the positive criticism is greatly in the majority. Not always considered Salinger’s masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye has been his most famous and influential to date and is arguably the most influential novel of the mid- twentieth century. With the publication of this, his first novel, “Salinger accumulated a substantial corps of disciples, especially among the young people” (”Salinger” CA 998). Walter Allen goes on to state that Salinger is a literary phenomenon who “created the dialect of a generation” (qtd. “Salinger” CA 5-8: 998). For the first time, a generation had an author who seemed to understand them, who somehow could capture their values, aspirations, and ultimately define their outlook on society. Maxwell Geismar stated that Salinger accomplishes this task of perceiving the young generations “in a way that nobody since F. Scott Fitzgerald [has] done as well” (qtd. in “Salinger” CA 999). Salinger and his novel The Catcher in the Rye became a voice of a generation, a generation who believed that phoniness is the cardinal sin. Aside from the hero Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, the short stories about the Glass family left their own mark on this new society. Of this new society “the Glass family children, hypersensitive illusion roisters, were its heroes and heroines, and the unattractive ‘Fat Lady’ was Jesus Christ” (”Salinger” CA 998). Although the positive impact of Eastern philosophy in Salinger’s later works is questionable to some, there are many critics that believe that Salinger is now following his own precedent, by not being ‘phony’ and writing for the masses, but rather by writing what he truly believes. However, in the opinion of many critics, positive and negative alike, Salinger is considered “a serious critic of their world” (”Salinger” CA 999).

“Salinger is not so much a writer who depicts life as one who celebrates it, an accurate characterization of the humor and love in his work” -Martin Green (Gorden 2038)

There is no doubt that a generation was greatly changed by the literature of J. D. Salinger. His literature was a mirror of sorts that let a generation see themselves, as they really were. But this mirror has been passed down to the following generations and with each generation that passes sees its each has a unique reflection. The reflection is society, and like the reflection or not, at least now one can understand how to find it- within.

Interview

When I first learned that I was going to conduct an interview about my current author of study, Jerome David Saliger, a name instantly popped into my head as a potentially excellent conversant. My good friend and bible study leader of six years, Nace Lanier, was perfect for fulfilling the spot of interviewee. His credentials include a Bachelor of Science in interdisciplinary social science at James Madison University and a Masters in Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. Undoubtedly Nace was up for the task. Ironically, about six months ago I discovered that somehow Nace was deprived during high school and had never studied Salinger’s most famous work, The Catcher in the Rye. Because it is my favorite book I strongly urged him to read it. After taking up my offer, Nace, like myself, fell in love with the novel and for a good three weeks it was the topic of nearly all of our conversations. So as I sat down in front of my computer to conduct my online interview, I expected an enlightening experience. I was not surprised.

There is no doubt that The Catcher in the Rye had a huge effect on the generation that embraced it, so I began by questioning Nace about what he thought could have caused such an effect on our generation and the generation of the Fifties. Almost instantaneously Nace replied that Salinger identified a need, the need for acceptance and love that seemed absent to this generation that lacked a real family and the unconditional love that such a family would bring. What Salinger did was make the story much like reality with even the popular people struggling for meaning and love. Through these characters, Salinger conveyed his messages. Each character represented a message. Through the eyes of the main character, Holden Caulfield, the reader is meets Sally Hayes, a beautiful girl who represents the shallowness of society and with Robert Ackley, the class nerd, who embodies the equality Salinger advocates amongst the different classes of society. Another character technique of Salinger’s is the incorporation of children into each of his stories. Holden’s little sister, Pheobe, is an ancient soul of six years and perfectly demonstrates childhood innocence. Salinger, then, uses his child figures to deomonstate how innocence is lost in the hassle of everyday life. Nace goes on to expand by stating that children are always a symbol and reality of hope, the hope that is eventually lost in a society that no longer cares. Salinger writes of a society that no longer holds true to the moral codes of yesteryear but instead shows no respect for anyone. This downward spiral of society can even be seen in the language that is integrated into the work. With the use of a rich New York dialect and the use of some popular language of the time, Salinger is able to connect these characters to the reader. Nace stated that “the dialect and language was [Salinger's] way of making the work true and accessible to those readers who could relate.” The language seemed to strengthen the constant narrative dialogue but equally to force the reader to focus on key parts of the novel. This method is the author’s way of pointing the reader’s headin the diction he himself chooses. This society frustrates Holden to the point that he fanaticizes that he be a “catcher” in the playground of a rye field that sits next to a cliff. Holden dreams of letting the children in the playground play until one got too close to the cliff and he is there to catch the children before they fall off. The allusion is Salinger’s way of showing that society does need to care. Even Holden, who can almost not bear to live, still want’s to save the virginity of innocence for his little sister. The symbolism begins to become abundant. At this point Holden has evolved into a much more mature character than is first presented to the reader. “His hope becomes the Christ figure,” says Nace. He wants what is best for the children and his society but in the long run it is this same society that holds Holden back. Holden never loses sight, but at the end he winds up in a mental institution. This ending resembles Salinger’s own true life story in a way as he is now living in seclusion in upstate New York and has made no statement or appearance in the last fifteen years.

Little is known about Salinger lately, and I am sure that is the way he wants it to be. This reclusive lifestyle he has lead has kept him out of the limelight but many are still reading his works. The Catcher in the Rye is now considered one of the fifty best novels of the century and the message is still lying inside its covers, waiting to be discovered by ever-new audiences.

Davis, Robert Con, ed. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 56. Detroit:

Gail Research Inc., 1989.

French, Warren. J. D. Salinger. Boston: Twayne Publishers; 1976.

Gorden, Linda S. “J. D. Salinger,” Critical Survey of Short Fiction, R.E Vol. 5. Ed. Frank N. Magill. Pasedena, CA: Salem Press;1993. pp. 2038-2047.

Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1951

“Salinger, J. D.,” Contemporary Authors Vol. 5-8. Eds. Barbara Harte, Carolyn Riley. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company; 1969. pp. 997-999

“Salinger, J. D.,” Short Story Criticism Vol. 2 Ed. Sheila Fitzgerald. Detroit, Michigan: Gale; 1989. pp. 288-320

*. Assorted Quotes. http://www.quoteland.com. Visited on February 4, 2000


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