The Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour – an Introduction
by J.D. Salinger.
Little, Brown, 1072 pp., $100, November 2018, 978 0 316 45071 3
When I think of J.D. Salinger now – not the books but the man – the thing I find hardest to understand is the moment when, in his early thirties, he began to hide his face. In 1952 he hired the photographer Antony Di Gesu to take a series of portraits. With his prominent nose, jaw and cheekbones he looks as ruggedly confident as a prizefighter – in early life he was a handsome man. But it wasn’t an easy shoot: Di Gesu had to work to get him to loosen up. Salinger liked the pictures but insisted Di Gesu show them to no one else, saying that he wanted them for his mother and girlfriend. The first printings of The Catcher in the Rye in 1951 came with an author photo taking up the entire rear panel of the dustjacket: Salinger’s expression is amused, generous, even sweet; the chances are good that he picked the portrait out himself from a set taken by the photographer Lotte Jacobi the previous year. But when the time came for later printings, with copies flying off the shelves, he insisted that the photo be pulled: from that moment on, none of his books appeared with an author photo. Twenty years later he tried to persuade his lover at the time, Joyce Maynard, to allow no author photo on her own first book. ‘A writer’s face,’ he said, ‘should never be known.’
Yet Salinger had been drawn to Maynard, a Yale student, by her photo on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, which ran an article by her about her life and thoughts at the age of 18. ‘If you hadn’t seen my face,’ she protested, ‘would you have written to me?’ The answer was no. Maynard was his type: young, too thin, smart, a little bold and with next to no experience of the world. It was the photo that compelled him to start writing her a torrent of head-spinning letters but he refused to admit that her face had anything to do with it. Pulling his author photo was the first step in Salinger’s withdrawal from public life – in some ways from life, full stop – and that very dramatic withdrawal stands in the way of every effort to judge what his life and work have amounted to.
You might think that the literary reputation of a writer born a century ago (New Year’s Day 1919), dead for nearly a decade (since 27 January 2010), all of whose published work had appeared by 1965, would be a pretty well settled matter by now, whatever the verdict. Judgment should be an easy matter. But the work can’t be separated from the life, and the life – the Salinger case, really – radically departs from the usual pattern. Beginning with The Catcher in the Rye in 1951, Salinger published four books which dramatically succeeded in the ways books conspicuously can: zillions of readers bought and loved them; critics admired, detested or were baffled by them, and they have never been out of print. One big success of that sort can make an author rich and famous for life but Salinger, blessed with four, instead chose to disappear. He turned his back on the excitements of New York City, where he and most of his fictional characters had been born and raised, for quiet and seclusion at the end of a dirt road in a tiny New Hampshire town. There he bolted his door to the world, answered no questions from the curious, and carried on writing books he did not intend to publish in his lifetime.
I call them books but nobody knows what they are, really: new stories about the fictional Glass family, another novel, a memoir of some kind, and tracts on homeopathy or Eastern religion are all possibilities. The only known reader of the new work is Salinger’s son, Matthew, but he may have been joined by Salinger’s widow, Colleen, and possibly by his literary agent and by a few editors at Little, Brown, the publisher of the original four books. Or maybe not; maybe at this stage it stops with the widow and the son, or even just the son.
Matt Salinger is a onetime film actor and producer, now 59, retired from the movie business and living in Connecticut. There, he recently told a reporter from the New York Times, he has okayed publication of the original four as ebooks, and is preparing his father’s new books for publication, a task he thinks may take another five to seven years. But about the books themselves Matt has said only that they include new work about the Glass family, the project Salinger was immersed in when he dropped from view. It felt ‘weird’, Matt said, to be talking about his father after a lifetime spent ‘protecting him and not talking about him’, but he wanted to correct some ‘utter fiction’ offered as fact by a book and a film documentary, both entitled Salinger, which appeared in 2013. The last chapter of the book, based on nine years of research by its authors, David Shields and Shane Salerno, claimed that at least five books were finished when Salinger died: a collection of Glass stories, a book about the Indian philosophical-religious tradition of Vedanta, a novel about Salinger’s strange marriage to a German woman at the end of the Second World War, a novel about his counterintelligence work with the 4th Infantry Division of the US army from D-Day until the end of the war, and a work expanding the history of Holden Caulfield, the central character in Salinger’s only novel published so far. Of that list Matt Salinger confirmed only the new stories about the Glass family. ‘I wanted people to know,’ he told the Times reporter, ‘that, yes, he did keep writing, there’s a lot of material, and, yes, it will be published.’
Jerome David Salinger the man is a tough subject to write about. The original four books delve deep into matters of love and religion, with breathtaking intimacy. The sense of family – and of higher knowledge – is all around: it’s a family that readers have always wanted to belong to. It could all pall in a hurry but doesn’t in Salinger’s hands. In The Catcher in the Rye, the 17-year-old Holden Caulfield – whose brilliant older brother once wrote a ‘terrific’ story called ‘The Secret Goldfish’ but is now being a ‘prostitute’ in Hollywood – says that the books he loves best make him want to call up the writer. Early on, Salinger may have felt that was OK, but he got over it. For many decades he passionately, and with few exceptions successfully, defended his ‘privacy’. He fended off journalists and biographers, sometimes in the courts: Ian Hamilton was commissioned by Random House to write a biographical study subtitled ‘A Writing Life’, but permission to quote from Salinger’s unpublished letters was denied by the courts and Hamilton’s book ended up being called In Search of J.D. Salinger. The women in Salinger’s life were less easy to restrain. In 1998, Joyce Maynard, whom Salinger had swept up in a devastating eight-month relationship 25 years earlier, when he was 53 and she was in her last year at Yale, described every painful minute with him in a memoir, At Home in the World. Two years later Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, revealed a formidable literary gift of her own in Dream Catcher, describing in loving but pitiless detail her father’s tortured inability to love anybody, but especially women, without trying to control them.
Readers who want to get the backstory straight before trying to weigh what Salinger’s life and work add up to should read the Shields and Salerno book, which takes the form of a six-hundred-page dossier of evidence: snatches of interviews with people who knew him or met him or lived in the same town as Salinger, passages of shrewd analysis, and a chronology of Salinger sightings, wronged women, legal tangles, broken friendships and overheard remarks. The book, like Salinger’s life, is a baffling assembly of moments that may mean a lot or nothing, a bit like a counterintelligence file: just what you’d expect from a half-century of facts gathered by close observation. In the file there is evidence aplenty for a contradiction at the heart of the elusive author: furious insistence (most of the time) on his right to be left alone, alternating unpredictably with emphatic public gestures and words demanding the world’s attention. Years go by with no sighting but then one day without warning, like a plesiosaur from the depths of Loch Ness, he breaks the surface, churning the water and roaring disdain at the crowds lining the shore with cameras and recorders out. Is he trying to hide, or trying to say something?
Nothing quite attracts attention like an effort to hide but what the Salinger file tells us about his life is suggestive, not dispositive. The life seems plain enough at first. The facts of school, neighbourhood, family and adolescence pile up in the usual way but in their midst are signs of a tortured knot of early anguish. He was a rich kid with an Irish-Catholic mother and a Jewish father who ran a movie theatre in Chicago for a couple of years before his son was born and the family moved to New York, where he built a successful business importing speciality hams and cheeses from Europe. Salinger’s mother, he told his daughter, was ‘no dope’, but he called his practical, business-oriented father ‘a great big dope’. Wrapped up with that was the question of identity – what Salinger was. Margaret’s Aunt Doris explained to her that being a half-Jew in the 1920s and 1930s was the worst: you were ‘neither fish nor fowl’. ‘The whole subject of Jewishness,’ Margaret writes, ‘is something my father is very touchy about indeed.’
Margaret argues persuasively that antisemitism was the great social fact in Salinger’s early life, setting limits on what he could hope to be. He hated the personal questions grown-ups pushed on him, trying to pin down what he liked, what he believed, what he took seriously, what he wanted: all the things that define who a person is. What Salinger wanted, Margaret suggests, was to answer those questions on his own. What he resisted was the idea he was a Jew. He never said as much, but how else explain the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant name of his most famous fictional character, Holden Caulfield, whose height (6’$2 2½”) and patch of grey hair, his Park Avenue family home, his chequered record in a succession of smart private schools, his wardrobe from Brooks Brothers, the names of his girlfriends (Sally Hayes, Jane Gallagher), his dream of running off and living in a little cabin in the West, or at the edge of the woods in Massachusetts or Vermont, all say WASP in a voice with no trace of Jewish New York. When Salinger’s mother peppered the young Margaret and her brother with grandmotherly questions about school etc, Salinger exploded: ‘Stop that now, Mother! That’s enough, leave them alone, for crying out loud!’ Margaret thought it weird, even mean. ‘I felt sorry for Granny and could see that these little questions gave her pleasure,’ she wrote. ‘I certainly didn’t mind.’
But being Jewish wasn’t just a matter of cold shoulders in the playground. Salinger was twice confronted with the darkest agony of the time. The first encounter began in the winter of 1937-38, when, partly to please his father, Salinger spent a winter in Vienna, learning the business of speciality food imports from one of his father’s friends. ‘He loved this family,’ Margaret writes of his hosts. The mother called him Jerrila, a Yiddish diminutive of his name. Margaret, he told her, would have been called Peggila. But what she knows about the family comes mainly from ‘A Girl I Knew’, a story Salinger published in Good Housekeeping in 1948, one of several early efforts he later refused to have reprinted. The girl in the story was 16 and seems to have been the sort Salinger prized most: slender fingers and ‘the most exquisite pair of ears I have ever seen’. When they went skating he laced up her skates. In the summer of 1945, from a hospital in Nuremberg, he wrote to Ernest Hemingway – whom he had met in Paris during the first weeks after the Liberation – and said he was planning a trip to Vienna to ‘put some ice skates on some Viennese girl’s feet again’. The tone of the remark suggests that Salinger did not yet know the fate of the girl or her family, but whenever the news came he knew what it meant. The war had shown him.
Salinger’s war began with Pearl Harbor. By that time he had found his vocation as a writer, had laboured to learn his craft, and had begun to sell stories to the slicks, including one to the New Yorker. It was a Holden Caulfield story called ‘Slight Rebellion Off Madison’, ready to run when Pearl Harbor got in the way. Salinger was soon in the army, part of the 12th regiment of the Fourth Infantry Division; he was assigned to a counterintelligence unit because he knew some German. He landed in France at Utah Beach on D-Day, survived a series of major battles, and was with his unit near Landsberg in Bavaria in April 1945 about two weeks before the war ended. The Shields-Salerno book says Salinger saw 299 days of combat but we know little about his actual experience of it, mostly random facts of the kind recorded by Margaret: that he broke his nose diving off a jeep under sniper fire, that he partly lost the hearing in one ear, and that he never forgot the smell of burning flesh.
He also told others about the memory of that smell, which he encountered when the 4th Division liberated Kaufering IV, one of a chain of satellite concentration camps surrounding Dachau: the German guards had fled after murdering most of the prisoners and burning their bodies. The date was 27 April 1945, a Friday. Salinger and an army buddy, Paul Fitzgerald, were side by side when they entered the camp and were confronted by row upon row of emaciated bodies naked or in rags, some stacked like cordwood six or eight feet high. For their book Shields and Salerno gathered many witness accounts and photographs of events at Kaufering IV. One of them shows Johann Baptist Eichelsdörfer, the camp commandant, standing amid a field of dead inmates with an odd expression on his face – irritated or peeved. Were Salinger and Fitzgerald there that day? Did they see Eichelsdörfer? We don’t know. But whatever Salinger saw would have helped him to imagine what had happened to the girl and the family he had known in Vienna. It’s at first sight odd – but significant – that he never wrote about it. All we know is that in July 1945 he signed himself into a hospital for treatment of what the army at the time variously called ‘combat’ or ‘battle fatigue’. He stayed for two weeks. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me,’ he told Hemingway, ‘except that I’ve been in an almost constant state of despondency and I thought it would be good to talk to somebody sane.’
It’s the way readers feel about Salinger’s books, especially The Catcher in the Rye, which still sells a quarter of a million copies a year, that explains the continuing interest in his hidden life. Nine Stories – or For Esmé – with Love and Squalor, as it’s called in the UK – trails behind at about ten thousand copies a year, followed still more distantly by the two volumes of Glass family stories, Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters. Lots of readers love Holden Caulfield but the Glass family fans, though fewer, are just as passionate. I read The Catcher in the Rye in high school and then reread it maybe once a year for five or six years. I read all the Glass stories, too, including every last exhausting, hard-to-take-seriously word of ‘Hapworth 16, 1924’, which purports to be a 30,000-word letter home from summer camp by the seven-year-old Seymour. It appeared in the New Yorker in June 1965, just as I was getting out of the army. What compels people about The Catcher in the Rye from the very first page is Holden’s frank and original voice as he tells us what he did on a weekend alone in Manhattan after running away from prep school, tormented by the ‘phonys’ and the self-absorbed, like the schoolmate he calls ‘about as sensitive as a goddam toilet seat’.
The Glass family stories are very different. They’re all non-stop talkers in the Glass household, a family of super-smart kids who have read everything, who starred precociously on the radio show It’s a Wise Child, who talk brilliantly about life, God, the soul and one another. But in my view the Glass saga was fatally compromised by a strategic literary error at the outset. The problem was ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, the first of the stories to be published, in which the smartest of all the super-smart siblings, Seymour, the family saint and guru, kills himself in a Florida hotel after realising that he has married a woman who thinks nothing is more important than getting her nails right. In my view you cannot build a coherent religious philosophy on the insights of a man who blows his brains out on a hotel bed while his wife is having a nap on the next bed over. The tedium of ‘Hapworth 16, 1924’ – in which Seymour asks his parents for copies of Montaigne’s essays in both the original and English translation, ‘the complete works again of Count Leo Tolstoy’, Conan Doyle, George Eliot, Thackeray, Victor Hugo, Flaubert, Balzac and ‘any unflinching book on the World War’ – suggests that Salinger, whose forty-year silence followed its appearance, may have reached the same conclusion.
But maybe not. Salinger’s enthusiasm for his characters is infectious and the Glass kids can be very good company. While I was working on this piece I opened a correspondence with Sarah Morrill, who in 2002 had published a level-headed account of Salinger’s life and thoughts on her website. (A revised version of her ‘Brief Biography’ appears in a collection of Salinger pieces called If You Really Want to Hear about It: Writers on J.D. Salinger and His Work, edited by Catherine Crawford.) There is no brisker way into the Salinger story than Morrill’s portrait: she is a fan, but she knows how to snap the ruler down. Salinger’s feel for the religions of the East, she writes, ‘is about what you’d have if you minored in Eastern Thought at a state college’. If you think that’s unfairly dismissive, consider a moment recalled by his daughter: ‘I remember once we were looking out of his living room window together at the beautiful view of field and forest, a patchwork of farms and mountains fading into the far distance. He waved a hand across it all as if to wipe it out and said: “All of this is maya, all an illusion. Isn’t that wonderful?”’ By this time Salinger had been studying Eastern thought for perhaps two decades. If life on the edge of the woods at the end of a dirt road in New Hampshire was all an illusion, what was the point of leaving New York?
But what really caught my attention was Morrill’s judgment of ‘Hapworth 16, 1924’. I’m sure there are readers who admire Seymour’s inflated Polonian dicta in ‘Hapworth’ but Morrill is not one of them. ‘Hapworth, I think, is not just a failure,’ she wrote to me. ‘I think it’s an intentional failure created as an act of aggression, an act of rebellion. Kind of like a vengeful suicide.’ Putting it that way got my full attention. On whom was Salinger taking revenge? Critics? Ordinary readers? Why would he turn his own favourite character into a kind of joke? ‘Vengeful suicide’ took me back to ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ and Seymour’s bloody exit next to his sleeping wife. Revenge for what? He has resumed his marriage after years away at war; he is fresh out of a military hospital; he has been behaving strangely and frightening his mother-in-law; he has begun calling his knockout wife ‘Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948’. Now the former seven-year-old know-it-all is not just ending his marriage with a 7.65 millimetre bullet into his right temple from a German-made automatic pistol: he is taking revenge on his wife for what comes down to undeserved luck – for having been spared the horrors of the war, and for still thinking her nails mattered.
These details from the last episode of Seymour’s life all have echoes in Salinger’s own: he had been in a military hospital, he was decompensating, he would not say what he had seen and what it was doing to him. Like Seymour, he had abruptly ended his marriage – to a German woman, Sylvia Welter – less than a month after they had arrived in New York in 1946. The end was not as abrupt as a pistol bullet but in its way was just as violent. The newlyweds were staying with Salinger’s parents, who did not like her at all. What triggered things we do not know, but on Sylvia’s breakfast plate when she sat down one morning was a plane ticket back to Germany; she used it. Soon after that, Shields and Salerno tell us, Salinger was in Daytona, Florida, writing ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’.
This pattern is common to three of Salinger’s early works. Seymour Glass in ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, Sergeant X in ‘For Esmé – with Love and Squalor’: each central character has suffered some kind of ghastly awakening, some horror that has shattered his confidence in the meaning of the world. For Holden, it’s the recent death from leukaemia of his younger brother, Allie. Seymour and Sergeant X have both been through a year of war, fighting from Normandy to Germany. All three have lost their grip; they can’t make sense of anything, are behaving erratically, can’t steady their hands, don’t like what they used to like, are mad at everybody who can’t feel what they feel: they reveal in every way how changed and damaged they feel. In every way, that is, except one: they can’t or won’t talk about the offending horror, the thing itself. The fact that Allie was killed by leukaemia is as much as we know: how it ended, what happened to Allie on the way to death, how the family dealt with it or didn’t, is all left unsaid. About the experience of Seymour and Sergeant X we know nothing.
There is another element common to these stories, a girl still years short of puberty who touches and dazzles the central character: Phoebe, Holden’s sister, who is smart and ‘roller-skate skinny’; Sybil, who charms Seymour on a Florida beach by telling him she has seen a bananafish with six bananas in its mouth; and Esmé, who eats like a bird and hopes that Sergeant X will return from the war ‘with all your faculties intact’. In each story, the fragile, direct and innocent girl is the only thing giving the central character reason to believe in life.
It is worth comparing Salinger’s way of conveying the quality of extreme experience to Hemingway’s. Salinger shows what it does to the victim: the reader watches the effect – the physical twitches, mood changes, anger, blank stares – and reads each suggestive detail back to the enormity of what happened. Hemingway invented another approach: exact, exhaustive, finding the words for the precise weight and quality of what the experience itself was like: the slowing down of time, the sharpening of focus, the feel of not having quite enough breath, the protective muffling of sound, the fear that masquerades as caution, pain’s first hint of what is to come. His men in battle do not come out of it wondering what just happened but take an inventory, preparing for what comes next. Both writers are trying to grasp the quality of experience – the thing itself – but Salinger doubts it can be borne and skirts it, while Hemingway thinks that facing the exact truth of the thing is the only way to survive it.
Salinger had lived half of his life when he stopped publishing in 1965, but he didn’t stop writing. In an out-of-the-blue telephone interview with a New York Times reporter, Lacey Fosburgh, in 1974 he said it was the publishing he had learned to hate, not the writing. ‘I love to write,’ he said. ‘But I just write for myself and my own pleasure.’ In her memoir, Margaret Salinger claimed that it wasn’t so. He intended his new work to be published. On one of the very few times he invited her into his study, she reported, it was to show her ‘a new filing system he had thought up for the material in one of his safes. A red mark meant, if I die before I finish my work, publish this “as is”, blue meant publish but edit first, and so on.’ Margaret’s brother, Matt, has now confirmed this work’s existence. How Salinger’s mind worked during the last half of his life and what he wrote remain concealed, but our best guesses are not entirely blind.
Salinger did not discuss what he was writing even with those closest to him. But he could not hide what he was like, and it emerges with clarity in the work of Margaret Salinger and Joyce Maynard, who both report the many warring enthusiasms of his years searching for perfect health, perfect understanding, perfect harmony with the world, perfect peace and – he did not say but implied – a perfect book on a big subject that would make sense of how he had lived his life. He had a theory about everything from cooking minced lamb (at exactly 150 degrees Fahrenheit) to choosing a mate for marriage (someone who laughs at the same jokes). The list of Salinger’s health, diet and religious fads is long; he insisted to Maynard that, correctly followed, they would allow him to live the 120 years promised by Vedanta. Margaret mentions homeopathy, the Reichian therapy of prolonged sitting in an orgone box, acupuncture using wooden dowels rather than needles (‘It hurt like hell’), suntanning in a lean-to lined with reflectors, speaking in tongues learned at a charismatic church in New York City (‘It gave me the creeps’), the importance of drinking one’s own urine, and a combination of fasting and following a macrobiotic diet. The result of the last, Margaret tells us, was that her father ‘started to turn a sickly shade of green and his breath smelled like death’. He was infuriated by claims that photography was an art, was a student of Scientology and Dianetics, bought his daughter a three-year subscription to a Christian Science magazine when she was broke and ill, and dismissed all college professors as ‘a peerage of tin ears’. Salinger’s four books, now handsomely repackaged without advertisement or comment of any kind, were all unfinished in their way. Did Holden grow up? Does Seymour’s suicide make sense? If Salinger managed to write anything like the big book he was reaching for, some hint of it must lie hidden in the chaos of prejudice and opinion that made up his life – but where?
And then there is the puzzle of the five to seven years that Matt Salinger thinks are still needed to ready his father’s books for publication. Nearly ten years have already passed since he died. How should we explain the delay? Even before Salinger turned his face away from the world he was notoriously touchy about editors meddling with his work. In the late 1940s, out of the army and living in New York, he quarrelled about one of his stories with a friend, the writer and editor A.E. Hotchner, who was working for Cosmopolitan. Hotchner opened the door for a Salinger story called ‘Scratchy Needle on a Phonography Record’, which arrived with a brief note attached: ‘Either as-is or not at all.’ Hotchner got the editor in chief to leave it alone and the story made its way through galleys to the printer and finished copies of the magazine. But when Hotchner caught sight of the camera-ready proofs he found with horror that the title had been changed to ‘Blue Melody’ – which, unlike the original, had the virtue of fitting into the layout. Hotchner was nervous. He knew how Salinger felt about changes and he chose his words carefully when they met for a beer at Chumley’s in Greenwich Village. Hotchner tried to break it gently: he wasn’t the fiction editor, he had nothing to do with layout, he had no idea that the title was going to be changed ... Salinger snatched the magazine from Hotchner’s hand. His face turned red and he unleashed a torrent of abuse at his friend, and walked out; it was the last time Hotchner saw him.
Salinger did not prize Cosmopolitan highly. But about his relationship to the New Yorker, where he worked very closely with the editor, William Shawn, he cared a great deal. Shawn was the man who allowed the impossible to happen – like giving over the bulk of an entire issue of the magazine to ‘Hapworth 16, 1924’. On last-minute, minor matters Shawn was assisted by the fiction editor, William Maxwell, a distinguished novelist and a close friend of Salinger. There came a time during the appearance of the Glass stories when one of them – Shields and Salerno, who tell the story, don’t say which – was going through its final read-through when a proofreader came to a place that he felt required a comma. He took it to Maxwell, who said: ‘Well, it looks like it needs a comma to me.’ New Yorker practice was to check with the author about any and every change but Salinger couldn’t be found so Maxwell okayed the insertion of a comma. According to Thomas Kunkel, a historian of the magazine, when Salinger saw the comma where he had put no comma, he was ‘melancholy’. Maxwell told Kunkel he never did it again.
Knowing how his father felt about meddling editors, Matt Salinger may feel deep hesitation about changing words or punctuation even in the books marked blue. But why it will have taken a decade and a half for the books marked red to appear is a mystery. There is something odd about this long delay. I can’t say what is going on here, but I do feel that the big thing – the thing that Salinger diehards really want, the unsayable thing that darkened Salinger’s life and explains his angers, passions and confusions – is probably bookmarked by two of the Seymour stories. At the far end is ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, which describes the last day in Seymour’s life in March 1948. At the near end is the beautifully opaque ‘Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters’, which relates events on the day Seymour married Muriel – a woman whom Seymour’s sister Boo Boo calls ‘a zero in my opinion’. All is ready, guests gathered, for the big day in May 1942 – and at the last minute Seymour changes his mind, explaining that he is too happy to get married. But then he changes his mind again and they elope. Soon after that Seymour is on his way to war.
One story from before his war, one from after it. Whatever explains the suicide can only have happened in between, at roughly the same time that Sergeant X went to pieces. The Glass stories need an ending, just as Salinger’s life needs a meaning. Maybe, in the last half of his life, Salinger found a way to confront what he saw at Kaufering IV in Bavaria. The truth of that is the big missing thing.
Vol. 42 No. 1 · 2 January 2020
Thomas Powers quotes Sarah Morrill’s assessment of J.D. Salinger’s ‘Hapworth 16, 1924’, his novella of 1965, as an ‘intentional failure’ (LRB, 24 October 2019). We know from Roger Lathbury of Orchises Press, who almost reprinted ‘Hapworth’ as Salinger’s fifth book in 1997, that the author considered it ‘a high point of his writing’. In a letter of 30 January 1997, Salinger said: ‘I loathe and despise and mind it all, as always, but am much more aware with age that a good or nice book weathers things very differently and far better than a writer does.’ Three weeks later, Michiko Kakutani gave the story (as originally published in the New Yorker) a scathing review. It seems that Salinger had failed to comprehend the critical reception of the novella. He then prevented Lathbury from going ahead with publication.
LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS