by Sam Buntz
[Note: I hope to actually treat Salinger’s writings and thought in detail in the future — hopefully, when I’m ghost-writing for the Oracle of Delphi, or the newspaper equivalent — not to put too fine a nerd point on it. I wrote this only to try to explain why I think Salinger’s achievement will endure and why certain critics (and a few jaded college students and “veteran bore” professors I’ve encountered) tend to underestimate him. The curious should also feel free to consult an earlier article I wrote for The Dartmouth: http://thedartmouth.com/2010/01/06/opinion/buntz ]
Jumping right in:
I believe that J.D. Salinger’s true accomplishment was overshadowed in the 20th Century because the literary movements of the era tended to emphasize verbal difficulty as a key element in creating excellent literature: Joyce and Beckett, Eliot and Stevens are held up as the period’s central novelists and poets (and they are great, as well). But some critics–Harold Bloom (with whom I usually agree), for instance–won’t even admit Salinger into the same tier of the Pantheon as Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Alfred Kazin—himself, at this point, much more of a forgotten relic than Salinger ever will be—snootily dismissed him as “Everyone’s favorite.” And I’ve seen Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and even John Updike all miss the mark when it came to defining Salinger’s genius. The standard for achievement was narrowed down to doing something new with style and language, a definition narrow enough to exclude originality in voice, temper, manner and energy, and in the basic message and sense of character being conveyed. (I admit I’m only making a partially correct assessment.) But Salinger found his way back to a way of writing that Tolstoy prophesied would be the art of the future—an art-form that would simply communicate the spiritual truths of our humanity and so tend to bind human beings more closely together.
It is because Holden Caulfield both perceives so many touching truths about the people around him—meaning that he appreciates, indeed, loves them—and remains critical about them in a far more judgmental and unhealthy manner, that he exemplifies our own dilemma and provides an occasion for us to develop our own capacity for empathy. We too are forced to choose between letting our minds and critical faculties drag us into contempt for the people around us (the awful fate of sitting around at a bar hating everyone who comes in and looks like they played football in high-school, against which Holden’s teacher warns him) or to use that same critical intelligence to find the poetry and the Goodness in people and things. This debacle is the very crux not only of The Catcher in the Rye but of Franny and Zooey. It is absolutely central to Salinger and its capacity to resonate transcends the historical period and peculiar Manhattan locale of Salinger’s works—evidenced by what (on anecdotal evidence) I take to be Salinger’s popularity in locations as far flung as France, Italy, India, and Japan.
The discussion of the Fat Lady in Franny and Zooey—of Christ as He exists incarnate in all human sufferers—is Salinger’s most direct statement of the empathy we need to develop in our struggle to see the Good in people. Critics who fail to acknowledge its power are too hung up on the importance of style to recognize that the form of a work is more than just its verbal dressing (not that Salinger’s verbal facility or style is anything less than brilliant—it’s just that critics tend to assert that he is stylistically doing just the same thing that Fitzgerald did—which is sort of true, but he’s using it for often quite different purposes.) While originality in form is important, that originality does not manifest itself only in Joycean wordplay or Beckett’s minimalism—it is more than stylization: it is the living fire that engraves the letter. In case that seems too poetically vague, what I mean to say is that the originality of artistic form can be also be found in a straightforward spiritual message artfully communicated through believable and rich human voices (and Holden’s voice is very original — yet in Huck Finn’s tradition at the same time. That is to say, he refines aspects of the tradition of the Huck-style free-wheeling narrator.) Prose doesn’t need to be done in, say, an interlocking system of puns to be original, as long as the simple matter is original and absorbing (or is old truth expressed in startlingly new terms.)
Essentially, I’m trying to maintain an aesthetic stance and say, “Yes, newness and strength of form and voice are crucial for an art-work’s endurance” while politely disagreeing with the other point made by aestheticism, articulated by Oscar Wilde (whom I usually admire), in his aphorism: “The first duty in life is to assume a pose. No one has yet discovered what the second one is.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Oscar said that with a lot of bitterness and irony, but I’m not sure he ever got beyond it, though he probably tried to after his stay at Reading Gaol. But Salinger does get very far beyond it, and that’s the crucial thing anyone needs to realize if they’re going to address his work. He’s dealing with the second duty, the realm of human empathy, the connection between God and Man—he understands the spiritual urgency of what he is doing well enough to know that it would be counterproductive to try to dress it up in frills and superficial difficulties. The real difficulty of “the human heart in conflict with itself” —a difficulty with which Salinger was totally familiar and could express with great fluency—is enough to occupy our time.