To understand the vision of American novelist J. D. Salinger, we must dispense with the damaging misconceptions surrounding his most famous book, The Catcher in the Rye. A book’s popularity often prevents it from being clearly seen; notability’s smog is harsher on the eyes and lungs than mere obscurity would be. Obscure books are free from preconceptions: you approach them in the Zen-like state called “beginner’s mind.” But with famous books, the world intrudes between the reader and the words. You have to slash through a thousand jungle vines with the zeal of Indiana Jones wielding a machete in order to see what is plainly apparent.
Many of the misconceptions surrounding Catcher and its author emanate from a matrix of English class clichés. Holden is a “rebel.” He does not like “phonies.” Et cetera. Additionally, the general resistance of high school students to their assigned reading forms a veritable Great Wall to surmount. Hence, after getting dragged through the morass of American education, the book emerges covered in mud, stuck with burrs, and perhaps sucked at by a few leeches. This July marks the 70th anniversary of The Catcher in the Rye and the 60th anniversary of Franny and Zooey, often the discerning reader’s favorite among Salinger’s books. Given the occasion, it is worth making some effort towards clarification. The Jewish Rabbinic tradition urges us to “build a fence around the Torah,” meaning that the Torah needs a place where it can be accessed, rather than hidden and withheld. Perhaps this essay will be such an exercise in fence-building with regard to Salinger’s works. In one sense, it is an effort to protect them and offer a certain interpretation. However, I’d like to think that it is an effort to give them room—a quiet harborage of the mind where readers might gain a little respite from the clamor and din of our fractious age.
Critics frequently discuss Holden Caulfield as though he were a rebel against conformist 1950s America. They roughly misshape Holden into a proto-Beatnik, a hippie forerunner, attempting to strike a blow against the System, against. . . the Man. He is casually mashed into the same mold as James Dean’s rebel without a cause and Brando’s leather-clad and corny “Wild One.” This misconception, alarmingly ubiquitous, barely rises to the modest standard of being wrong. It has virtually no relation to the actual words comprising The Catcher in the Rye. Only when we stop seeing Holden as rebelling against something and start to see that he is searching for something, do the magic casements of Salinger’s work suddenly swing open and permit us entry. To achieve this feat, we merely have to pay attention.
Holden Caulfield is a hunter, judging by his red hunting cap. But what is he hunting? He is hunting innocence—not to kill it, but to save it, to nurture it, and give it space. Innocence is hard to define, but it is akin to simplicity, unmuddied water. Innocence is potable. It is something that has not yet been warped by the complexity and inauthenticity characteristic of our world. It is Robert Burns’s mouse or William Blake’s lamb. A Zen archer, Holden’s hunt for innocence is also a search for our “buddha nature” or, in Judeo-Christian terms, the image of God still latent in fallen humanity. Of course, this proves to be the one thing most difficult for him to locate. It certainly does not turn up with any dependable regularity as he wanders around Manhattan after being expelled from Pencey Prep.
For Holden, the only overt manifestations of divine innocence occur in the form of two nuns he meets at a lunch counter, his little sister Phoebe, his romantic interest Jane (who never actually walks onstage), and his dead brother Allie. There are smaller, glittering examples constantly exhaled by the breath which propels the book—like the little boy singing, “when a body catch a body, coming through the rye”—but those are the most evident embodiments. His roommates, Stradlater and Ackley, don’t come close to incarnating innocence. The pimp Maurice and the prostitute Sunny certainly aren’t radiating it from their pores. And stuck-up piano players, Ivy League narcissists, and most of the other characters Holden encounters seem to be conspicuously lacking in the innocence department as well. They are all resolutely incapable of appreciating, say, Allie’s baseball glove, etched with poetry. Sincerity plays no evident role in the make-up of their being. Like Seymour Glass’s mother-in-law in the later stories, they are terminally insensible to the current of poetry running beneath the surface of all things.
But their apparent lack of innocence, their seemingly total corruption, is a con. It is nothing but a trick, another one of Maya’s illusions, to put it in the terms of the Hindu Advaita Vedanta philosophy with which Salinger sympathized. In the end, these characters become, in Holden’s eyes, pieces of that lost innocence, fragments of poetry. They are themselves the children—yes, even the most corrupt among them—racing towards the edge of the cliff in Holden’s celebrated vision that grants the book its title. Through his consciousness, they are noted with a degree of sensitivity that hints at their participation in the poetry of all things. One part of Holden’s consciousness kills with an unbearably sharp critical instinct. (This is what inattentive readers call Holden’s “whining,” when they want to complain about reading the book for class.) But the other part of his consciousness performs a more life-redeeming task, and excavates the poetry encoded in the mundanities of life.
As evidence of this essential point, Dennis McCort has argued that Holden’s quest to discover where the ducks in Central Park go in the winter may allude to the Zen story of Hyakujo’s geese, while Holden’s vision of Phoebe riding the carousel in the book’s conclusion perhaps references Rilke’s poem, “The Carousel.” This is plausible, and even if Salinger was not making a conscious allusion to either of these works, they still describe the effect he succeeds in generating.
In the Zen parable of Hyakujo’s geese, a Zen master, and a Zen monk observe a flock of geese flying across the sky. After they disappear, the monk notes, a tad dully, that they have flown away. The Zen master twists the monk’s nose and cries, “Flown away! They have been here from the very beginning!” After this sudden assault, the monk becomes enlightened. This relates to Holden’s search for the ducks. They seem to have departed, leaving a desolate, frozen waste, mirroring the spiritual landscape through which Holden travels. But have they really left?
In Rilke’s poem, the poet observes children riding a variety of animals on a carousel. The poem implies that the animals are really the children’s personalities, while the children themselves—like those playing in the field of rye—are the innocent souls of the people bearing those personalities. For instance, one little boy holds tight to the back of a roaring lion, compelling us to imagine a consciousness held hostage by rage and brutality. At the same time, Rilke notes the returning presence of a white elephant on the carousel, an animal traditionally associated with the Buddha. Innocence endures in the midst of our cacophonous and animalistic personalities. When Holden sees Phoebe riding the carousel, she represents everyone he has ever met or ever will meet. He sees that this world is not best symbolized by a frigid, duck-free lagoon in Central Park. Like the protagonist of an early Salinger story, he finally comprehends that the world is “Not a wasteland, but a great inverted forest / With all the foliage underground.”
As Holden winds through the downward spiral of Manhattan, this City of the Night, we sense he is approaching a final, clarifying moment. Yet, when he reaches his journey to the bottom of the spiral, he does not perceive a fundamental nightmare, a vision of vacuity and non-being. Rather, at the bottom of the spiral, there is a moment of joy. Holden sees his sister riding the carousel and reaching for the golden ring. In that moment, he envisions the condition of the entire human race in a single fluid instance of living poetry. Surprised by joy, he weeps.
Now that we have laid aside a few of the life-draining misconceptions that crowd around The Catcher in the Rye, we can proceed to appreciate the rest of Salinger’s work, demonstrating how it fully realizes the apprehensions already present in Catcher.
“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is probably Salinger’s best-known short story. In a sense, it provides a counter-movement to Catcher, a dark alternative to the vision of divine innocence that restores the heart and makes it whole. In this regard, it is akin to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and many of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories. It is a poem of dissolution, a vision of a life where our poetic apprehensions only isolate us, like the bananafish from the fable that gives the story its title. In this story, Seymour Glass’s sense of the underlying current of poetry in all things cannot shield him from life’s disintegrating energies. His encounter with Sybil, a figure of innocence, fails to divert the forces bearing him towards self-extinction.
However, like William Butler Yeats said, “nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent.” “Bananafish” shows a process of self-destruction, yet the stories that follow it provide healing glimpses of divinity. They build up what the first story breaks down. They are all permeated by a strange perfume of innocence—tidings from a far off country, the soul’s native zone. From “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” to “Down at the Dinghy,” innocence encounters the darkness and bitterness of experience—from a pointless death-by-exploding-stove on a Japanese beach to a casual anti-semitic remark—and emerges with a restored sense of the fullness of Being. Salinger’s characters return from these encounters, like Sergeant X in “For Esme with Love and Squalor,” with all of their faculties intact. Salinger extends this benefit to his readers.
Restored innocence sometimes glows in the subtle margins of these stories, in images like the chicken salad sandwich and dead easter chick in “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” but it always glows. Nearly all of Salinger’s stories provide some version of the same divine mystery that Holden encounters in Phoebe’s carousel ride. Like T. S. Eliot, the reader of Salinger’s stories finds himself or herself “moved by fancies that are curled / Around these images and cling / The notion of some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing.” These stories culminate in a narrative, “Teddy,” that depicts a death opposite to Seymour’s demise in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Here, the protagonist is not riven by madness. He is harmoniously aligned to the core of his being and gracefully pays death its token when the moment comes.
The image of the Fat Lady in Franny and Zooey is the center of Salinger’s vision. The patterns of development through which his characters move flow both toward it and away from it—toward it, insofar as they come closer to perceiving and embodying this essential core of meaning, like Franny; away from it when they become immersed in the mind’s ephemera like Lane Coutell and Zooey’s co-workers in the television business.
We follow the same pattern of rending and making whole that moves from “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” to “Teddy.” Franny, confronted with the vanity and emptiness of the world, as exemplified by her pretentious boyfriend Lane, retreats into a nervous breakdown. Her brother, Zooey, attempts (successfully) to spark her awareness of a life that transcends the petty, ego-driven conflicts that constitute 95% of waking existence. He doesn’t urge her to escape from the seemingly vain and egotistical people crowding around campus but helps her see them in a new, transfiguring light.
Ultimately, Seymour’s “Fat Lady” embodies this higher apprehension. Whenever Franny or Zooey were unwilling to perform their duties in life, resenting the general insensitivity of the masses, their wise elder brother, Seymour, would tell them to “do it for the Fat Lady.” Picturing an obese lady, possibly with cancer, sitting on a broken-down porch, Zooey and Franny both feel recalled to action and duty. Just as Bob Dylan sought to see “the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face” in the song “Every Grain of Sand,” and just as the image of the Pieta, the Virgin cradling the corpse of Jesus, mysteriously recurs in the prisoner Rubashov’s mind in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Salinger’s Fat Lady incarnates a vision of innocence and of the immanent presence of the divine in this world. As Zooey reveals, the Fat Lady is “Christ himself, buddy. Christ himself.”
The Fat Lady is the Godhead as perceived within the confines of our ruptured but still fundamentally salvageable humanity. She is like a subject I remember from a certain Tibetan Buddhist painting, depicting a female form composed of ourselves and all other sentient beings. She appears to be asleep, lost in a dream. She is the Shekhinah of Jewish mysticism, the fallen form of divinity locked in the prison of this world. She is the Virgin and the Magdalene both. She manifested herself as the Goddess Kali to Sri Ramakrishna, one of Salinger’s favorite spiritual luminaries, on the banks of the Hooghly river in Calcutta. Perhaps, in a rather more slender form, she appeared to Dante as Beatrice, his personal conduit to Christ. She is the feminine form of the divine appropriate to our age.
It is the Fat Lady who writes the letter that saves Sergeant X in “For Esme with Love and Squalor.” It is the Fat Lady who takes the form of a salesgirl putting a truss on a mannequin, lending De Daumier Smith a mystical experience in “De Daumier Smith’s Blue Period.” Her wise emissaries range from the old deaf-mute in “Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters,” to the child sages of “Teddy” and “Hapworth 16, 1924.” It is the Fat Lady who lets Holden know that he misses everyone—pimps and narcissists included—in Catcher’s resolution. She rides the carousel of this world and reaches for the golden ring.
“Seymour: An Introduction” also deserves particular notice. I imagine that most readers, after imbibing The Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories, move onto Franny and Zooey and hence to “Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters” and “Seymour: An Introduction.” “Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters” is a beautiful and poignant story, but there is value in contemplating the merits of “Seymour” at this point. It is Salinger’s hidden classic, the one that true devotees of his fiction eventually savor after working their way through his other stories. It achieves something that few other writers in the West have attempted in fiction: to contemplate the attributes of a saintly or borderline-saintly personality. This runs entirely against our usual presumptions about what makes a character interesting. Paraphrasing Cormac McCarthy, the character of human beings, like that of diamonds, is in the nature of the flaw. The most impressive characters are often “great spirits in chains,” from Hamlet and Lear to Milton’s Satan and Captain Ahab. The more corrupt or at least imbalanced a character is, the more that character provokes interest. Even Shakespeare never attempted to depict a saintly character in detail.
Yet Salinger attains this feat. In “Seymour: An Introduction” he contemplates a character who approximates the saint, the Bodhisattva, or, in Hindu terms, the Jivanmukta, the liberated soul. Albeit, Seymour is a near-saint with a great fissure opening under his feet. Yet his brother Buddy lovingly contemplates his qualities in a way that illuminates Seymour as he essentially is: someone who lived in almost ceaseless awareness of the Fat Lady. Buddy, remembering Seymour, reflects many an ardent reader’s quest to understand the truth about humanity and divinity. In the end, he is led round to the same altered perception vouchsafed to Franny and Zooey. He sees that the students at the girl’s school where he teaches, even the most irritating, are his spiritual kin: “They may shine with the misinformation of the ages, but they shine.”
When I consider that Salinger was able to see this, despite the horrors he had witnessed in war and the battles he had fought within the equally grueling arena of the human skull, I am justly over-awed. To ignore the work and criticize the life, to stir up sedimentary imperfections and blow them into the eyes of Salinger’s admirers, seems to be one of the more reprehensible games in town. I personally have nothing but the deepest gratitude for these four volumes, and I am confident that, so long as books continue to be read, generations of readers will come to share that gratitude.
As our attention seeps continually into a billion glowing screens, we risk losing the ability to respond to the power present in literature. Salinger’s work helps us remember how to see and feel. We gain new eyes and new hearts. It is my hope that his four books will continue to offer people these vital organs when in need of a transplant. I have a strange, unaccountable feeling that they will.
Salinger once wrote that where there is smoke there is probably strawberry jello. The smoke that tries to obscure the meaning of his work—the critical chatter, worldly hubbub, snake-oil documentaries, tell-alls—certainly prevents many from noting the mere reality of Salinger’s vision.
But this smoke, black and acrid though it may be, does not conceal a tub of strawberry jello. It indicates the presence of a pure flame.
Featured image: Ducks in Central Park, New York City in photo by Piero d'Houin dit Triboulet via Wikimedia Commons.
Sam Buntz is a writer based in Chicago. He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and Dartmouth College, and his work has appeared in The Washington Monthly, The New English Review, The Federalist, Fare Forward, Pop Matters, and The Symbolic World. You can find more of his writing at his blog The Muted Trumpet. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.