Wednesday, October 16, 2013

J.D. Salinger and the Glass Stories: How The Four Noble Truths Paved The Way In His Life and Art


By Lars Trodson

"Rarely if ever in literary history has a handful of stories aroused so much discussion, controversy, praise, denunciation, mystification and interpretation. There will be more Glass stories, Mr. Salinger says. Perhaps, when there are, a more coherent pattern will be apparent and certain mysteries and ambiguities will be explained."

This is what Orville Prescott wrote in his 1963 New York Times review of J.D. Salinger's short story collection, "Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour an Introduction."

The Prescott quote is instructional, if only because a coherent pattern was being executed by Salinger by the time "Raise High The Roofbeam" was published. Those “certain mysteries and ambiguities,” as Prescott put it, were already being explained. It's just that no one was paying attention. When Salinger published "Hapworth 16, 1924" in June of 1965, the set of clues was complete, at least as far as Salinger wanted to present them in his published work.

With three short story collections ("Nine Stories," "Franny and Zooey," and "Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters") and one novella (the "Hapworth" story), Salinger had presented a body of work that distinctly reflects, embodies and celebrates the Four Noble Truths, the philosophical core of the Vedanta Buddhism he had been following since the late 1940s. 

Vedanta Buddhism, put across in a bold stroke, is a faith that embraces every path to oneness with God, whether that path be Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, or Christian. Salinger's stories invoke each of these religions at certain times, and his attempt to reach a oneness with God becomes more and more explicit with each Glass story, including "Hapworth 16 1924." 

In the short story "De Maurier-Smith's Blue Period," from "Nine Stories," he writes: "I advocate no doctrine; it is not in my nature to do so."

That does not mean Salinger was not intent on finding some sense of peace. He would do it in his own way. It is essential to note, but not to elaborate on here, Salinger's experiences as a soldier during World War II, which by all accounts were horrific. He was going to rectify the atrocities he saw, not just in his mind, but in his writing.


The Books

Salinger’s reputation rests on a slim body of work: “The Catcher In the Rye,” “Nine Stories,” “Franny and Zooey” and “Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters" and "Seymour An Introduction." The "Hapworth 16, 1924" novella does not in any way improve Salinger's reputation, but this story, as we shall see, is a fundamental component of Salinger's plan in mapping out the Four Noble Truths.

Despite its stature, “The Catcher In The Rye” is not included in this narrative for the very reasons Salinger himself described. Salinger was very clear that Holden Caulfield was an outsider; he was not a character he wished to include in his pursuit of laying out the Four Noble Truths.

The evidence of this comes in “Seymour An Introduction.” Salinger, as Buddy Glass, writes: “Some people—not close friends—have asked me whether a lot of Seymour didn’t go into the young leading character of the one novel I’ve published. Actually, most of these people haven’t asked me, they’ve told me. To protest this at all, I’ve found, makes me break out in hives, but I will say that no one who knew my brother has asked me anything of the kind—for which I’m grateful...”

Salinger and his publishers pointedly did not include any stories featuring Holden Caulfield in “Nine Stories,” despite the fact that the collection came out two years after “The Catcher In The Rye" was published. Holden was introduced in “I’m Crazy,” published in Collier’s in 1945. He was featured again in “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” in The New Yorker in 1946. Other mentions of the Caulfield family are made in “The Last Day of the Furlough” from 1944 and in two unpublished short stories from the mid-1940s. 

Holden was obviously a moneymaker when "Nine Stories" was introduced, so you would think his appearance in "Nine Stories" would have been a lucrative way to sell the collection. 

But Holden, as famous as he was, did not fit into Salinger's plan.

The Four Noble Truths and the Glass Stories

The first Noble Truth tells us that dukkha — suffering —  is a key factor to life. 

The second Noble Truth seeks the origin of dukkha. 

The third Noble Truth is the cessation of dukkha.

The fourth Noble Truth charts a path to the end of dukkha.

Now, in light of that, chart the publications this way:

    •       “Nine Stories” — All the stories have a theme or deep undercurrent of human suffering.
    •       “Franny and Zooey” — These two stories examine the origin of Franny Glass's suffering and, by extension, the suffering of the other members of her family.
    •       “Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour An Introduction” — These two stories are told in a state of bliss, a cessation of dukkha
    •       “Hapworth 16 1924” — A litany of all that which gives (and will give) Seymour happiness; it is a virtual menu of — the path toward — everything that Seymour thinks will bring him bliss.

In the primer “Buddhism In Ten,” by Annellin Simpkins and C. Alexander Simpkins, tell us that the first noble truth is this: “Life is suffering, not just in the narrow sense of pain or discomfort, but as a broader, existential condition. Buddha described six kinds of universal suffering: 1) Suffering begins with the trauma of birth. 2) Throughout life we all must deal with the pain and discomfort of sickness. 3) Old age inevitably comes with its infirmities and limitations. 4) The ever-present fear of death is always there. 5) Throughout life we have to be involved with things we dislike. 6) We suffer when we are separated from what we love."

This is important because the mention of being "separated" is, in Salinger’s world, supremely significant. Everyone in Salinger’s world is separated, physically or psychologically, and almost all his characters masochistically wallow in their own pain. “Detached” is a word that pops up frequently in Salinger's work. 

Salinger believes that people have separated themselves from what truly makes them happy. Their pursuit worldly goods or sensual desires makes them unhappy.

The First Noble Truth: “Nine Stories’

By 1953, Salinger would of course been aware of the Four Noble Truths. He had been, by that time, following Vedanta Buddhism for years. Deeply committed to his beliefs, it is easy to see how Salinger would not only want his life, but his work, to intertwine. 

In “Nine Stories,” Salinger was starting out on his path of discovery, and so were his characters. One of the first stories featuring a member of the Glass family, "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut," begins when Mary Jane, a suburban housewife, loses her way to her friend Eloise's house. Mary Jane and Eloise find no solace in their suffering. They drink all afternoon.

In the story "Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes," a drunken, disembodied Arthur (we only hear him over the phone), asks his friend Lee if he saw his wife leave the party they had both attended. "Why? What's up? Joanie lost?" Being lost generates fear and uncertainty, as it does in "Uncle Wiggly."

Arthur tells his friend, who may or may not be having an affair with the missing wife, that he comes home almost every night in a jealous rage: "I practically have to keep myself from opening every goddamn closet door in the apartment—I swear to God. Every night I come home I half expect I have expect to find a bunch of bastards hiding all over the place. Elevator boys. Delivery boys. Cops—"

This story is a veritable catalogue of suffering.

There is more, in "Nine Stories," including descriptions of violence (“The Laughing Man”),  the effects of war (“For Esme — With Love and Squalor”), and, of course, suicide (“A Perfect Day for Bananafish”).

The last story in the collection, "Teddy," ends with a haunting description of the possible murder of the sister by the main character, the precocious, eerie, Teddy McCardle. Teddy, all of 10, is detached from his own emotions, as he tells his interlocutor, Bob Nicholson. Teddy quotes Japanese poetry. ("They're not full of a lot of emotional stuff."— Teddy says.") 

Teddy has apparently just returned from Boston after being examined by psychologists. He is asked if he is a follower of "the Vedantic theory of reincarnation," to which Teddy replies that this religion is not a "theory." There is a discussion about where God can be found — including a glass of milk. Teddy talks about death, and speculates how he might be pushed into an empty swimming pool by his sister.

The story ends — and the collection itself — with Nicholson walking down to the pool where Teddy is having his swimming lesson with his sister. "[Nicholson] was a little more than halfway down the staircase when he heard an all-piercing, sustained scream—clearly coming from a small female child. It was highly acoustical, as though it were reverberating within four tiles walls."

These stories are dripping with suffering.

The Second Noble Truth: “Franny and Zooey”

The second Noble Truth recognizes that there is a basic cause for suffering, which is self-centered desire. This is almost exclusively what these two long stories are about: The impact of self-centered desires on our true contentment and the paths available to rid ourselves of these self-centered desires.

“The problem with selfish cravings is that it tends to take over and compel us on a narrow course, limiting our potential,” write the Simpkins in their Buddhist primer. Both Franny and Zooey Glass obsess over whether they are living up to their potentials; if they are doing the right thing with their lives.

The story “Franny” begins with Franny’s boyfriend, Lane Coutell, waiting at the station platform for Franny. They are physically separated, though Lane is hoping this weekend will result in a sexual encounter with Franny (a hope he selfishly clings to even after she has broken down). Lane is the embodiment of self-serving desire. He’s a sensualist. He eats frog’s legs and talks endlessly about a paper he hopes to get published.

(Salinger even takes a moment to show us how the Eightfold Path to happiness can be perverted. The Eightfold Path is: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. As Lane and Franny sit down in Sickler’s, the restaurant that is the “highly favored place among, chiefly, the intellectual fringe of students at the college — “, Lane takes care to notice that he is “in the right place with an unimpeachably right-looking girl.”)

Franny is, however, experiencing some disorientation. She orders food but does not eat it. She drinks martinis and smokes. She is a bundle of anxiety and unhappiness. She is carrying a mystical little book, “The Way of the Pilgrim” — an allusion to another path — and she silently repeats its prayer.

Lane puts a question to Franny that goes to the root of the Second Noble Truth: “You’ve got a goddamn bug today—you know that? What the hell’s the matter with you anyway?” In the Second Noble Truth the question of the source of our suffering is only acknowledged. It is not answered and the origin of Franny's bug is not answered here.

In delicate moments Salinger is able to portray the physical and emotional gulf between Lane and Franny, the negative detachment that leads to unhappiness: “Franny quickly tipped her cigarette ash, then brought the ashtray an inch closer to her side of the table.” There begins the great divide. A page later, Salinger gets more specific. When speaking of Lane, Salinger writes: “Quite probably, he resented and feared any signs of detachment in a girl he was seriously dating.” Salinger wrote with precision, and it is easy to see here he crafted a sentence that could have the signs of detachment refer to the divide between Franny and Lane or the divide within Franny herself.

“Zooey” also begins with a physical divide: Zooey (Zachary Martin Glass) is in the bathtub, cocooned by a shower curtain (“scarlet, with a design of canary yellow sharps, clefs and flats on it” — a color scheme not unlike the iconic paperback cover of “The Catcher In The Rye”). Zooey is reading another long Glass letter, and then his mother comes in to talk about the crisis that Franny is experiencing. Franny, too, is separated; she is in another room in the apartment, lying on the couch.

Salinger has Zooey tell Franny to reject her selfish cravings, her "wrong" reasons for wanting to be an actress, and her wrong reading of the Jesus Prayer, because she is expecting to receive something from it. “You can see the Jesus Prayer from now till doomsday, but if you don’t realize that the only thing that counts in the religious life is detachment. I don’t see how you’ll ever even move an inch. Desirelessness. ‘Cessation from all hankerings.’”

Salinger is not only talking about himself — he’s talking to the reader. He is reiterating the tenets of the Second Noble Truth. He is moving closer to his own path.

Even during the justifiably famous conclusion to “Zooey,” during which Zooey offers his own counsel to Franny about how she can experience some contentment once again, where she can find God (it doesn't matter how, as long as one does), Salinger seperates his characters. Zooey is talking to his sister on the phone even though they are in the same apartment.

But Zooey's advice has the desired effect on Franny. If we remember, at the conclusion of "Franny," she lying on the couch in the restaurant manager's office. Lane pretends to care about her health, but only because he wants her to get better because it's been "Too goddamn long between drinks. To put it crassly."

This is how the story ends: "Alone, Franny lay quite still, looking at the ceiling. Her lips began to move, forming soundless words, and they continued to move."

What happens at the end of “Zooey” is the mirror image, the happier version, of that tableau. Franny is listening to the dial tone after Zooey has hung up. This is how Salinger frames her mindset now:

"When she had replaced the phone, she seemed to know what to do next, too. She cleared away all the smoking things, then drew back the cotton bedspread from the bed she had been sitting on, took off her slippers, and got into the bed. For some minutes, before she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, she just lay quiet, smiling at the ceiling."

As we get closer to the end of “Zooey,” Salinger becomes more explicit about his intentions, both artistic and spiritual. He gives us clues. When Zooey walks into the old bedroom that belonged to his brothers Seymour and Buddy, he reads some of the quotations that Seymour had copied onto an old board. The first of which Salinger quotes is not ambiguous:

“You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working. Never give way to laziness, either.” This is from the Bhagavad Gita. This is the cessation of all unsatisfactory sensations.



The third noble truth:"Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters" and "Seymour An Introduction"

“Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour An Introduction” combines two long stories that seek to find a way out of the suffering some members of the Glass family have experienced over the years. The writing here begins, very early, to let the reader (and certainly those critics who started to turn on Salinger) that the Glasses, and Salinger himself, and the very book they have in their hands, no longer exists for their, or Salinger's enjoyment. This is an exercise in melding the beliefs of the writer into the very DNA of the text itself — and further than that, into the experience of reading that text. It is the sound of the words, much like the saying of the Jesus prayer, that should bring the reader happiness, not in anything in it that is actually being said.

These two stories show Salinger in a great mood. “Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters” is one of the loveliest, most sustained pieces of comic writing accomplished by any American writer. There is a happy mix of voices and activities. You can see and hear these people. There are none of the “phonies” we’ve come to expect. There isn’t an adolescent in sight (unless one wishes to count the immature Seymour, who of course remains off stage.) As you read this story, you can almost physically feel Salinger letting go, getting closer to how people should feel when they no longer suffer, when they become whole with themselves.

The famous ending is not really so ambiguous when you realize that Salinger was reducing everything to its essence, and that if you let go of everything, you can be happy with yourself. There is no need to explain, or even do anything, to be true to yourself.

If each of the nine stories in the original collection were composed to express the notion of ever-present pain, and if “Franny and Zooey” is an attempt to articulate the origin of that pain, then, in these penultimate stories, the reader can see that Salinger (and his characters) are letting go of that pain.

In “Seymour An Introduction,” the pain of Seymour’s suicide is often referenced, but there is little residual pain of this event as expressed by Buddy Glass about his brother.

Salinger also isn’t any longer interested in making the reader happy. He’s immersing himself in the process of the work he is doing: “And while I think an ecstatically happy prose writer can do many things on the printed page—the best things, I’m frankly hoping—it’s also true, and infinitely more self-evident, I suspect, that he can’t be moderate or brief; he loses very nearly all his short paragraphs. He can’t be detached—or only very rarely and suspiciously, on down-waves.”

He’s telling the reader what he’s doing. Salinger is going to be happy in his work, and you can take it or leave it: “Worst of all, I think, he’s no longer in a position to look after the reader’s most immediate want; namely, to see the author get the hell on with his story.”

Salinger then takes off on his own sweet ride, taking issue with critics and academics — all of whom, he believes, have misinterpreted his work — core religious issues (“But where does by far the bulk, the whole ambulance load, of pain really come from?”), reader expectations (he plainly tells the reader that his plan to lay out the history of Seymour Glass in more detail has been abandoned), literary expectations (“…I don’t dare go anywhere near the short story form. It eats up fat little detached writers like me whole.” And even his voice, so immediately and widely praised, he freely lets go of. “Oh, this happiness is strong stuff” he writes in all italics, something the earlier Salinger would never have done.

He also says this: “… the true poet has no choice of material. The material plainly chooses him, not he it.” He is being guided.

For more than 100 pages, Salinger rambles about Seymour’s poems, his attitudes, his profession, his philosophy on shooting marbles, and on the way he looks, the way he dresses, his athletic prowess, a raggedy list of anything and everything that either amused Seymour or someone else in the family, whether it was a ride on a bike or the memory of something simple (Seymour’s cut hair jumping about in the barber’s chair).

Salinger (and Buddy) are deliberately obtuse about everything: Seymour was either a great athlete, or not. He was either handsome, or not. He was either amused, or not. He was an aesthete, or not. He was sociable, or not. You decide.

This kind of dualism, in the writer, in the narrator, in the characters and possibly in the reader, needs to be made whole. It's even given a name in the "Seymour" story: Yankauer. This is the last name (first name Ira) of a boy the Glass brothers played marbles with. Ira Yankauer’s name begins with a syllable that is a colloquialism for an American, most decidedly an American soldier. But it has a distinctively Germanic sounding ending. The Yankauer. The Buddhist combat veteran. The Irish-Jewish New Yorker who moved to the country. The most famous recluse in the world. You name it.

Say what you will about the story, and it is no doubt challenging to get through, there is no rancor in it. It may be, as Salinger himself called it, “literary Cubism,” but he’s having a high old time, reader (and critic) be damned.

One last thing. Salinger knows this is all a cosmic joke. He titled this story, “Seymour An Introduction” but knew, and the world knew, that Seymour was actually introduced to the world in 1948, when he committed suicide.

The Fourth Noble Truth: "Hapworth 16, 1924"

Salinger, in “Seymour An Introduction,” tells the reader what's in store with “Hapworth 16 1924.”: “I feel I have a knowledge, a kind of editorial insight gained from all my failures over the past eleven years to describe him on paper, and this knowledge tells me [Seymour] cannot be got at with understatement.”

"Understatement" is not a word that a reader or critic would ever attach to this odd piece of writing, although "odd" itself is an understatement.  Had there been a more quixotic piece of writing to ever appear in a modern mainstream publication? Had there been comparable instances where a writer of proven abilities abandons those abilities in order to achieve such personal and private goals? 
("Hapworth" appeared in a single issue of The New Yorker in 1965.)

"Hapworth 16 1924" is not, in any way, an experimental piece. It isn't attempting to stretch stylistic boundaries of short fiction. It's just that it's so absurd as to be utterly unbelievable. So what was Salinger thinking?

He was thinking of the Fourth Noble Truth, which is the Noble Truth of the Way Leading to the Cessation of Suffering. It is the Noble Eightfold Path, that is to say: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

One definition puts it this way: "This Noble Truth must be penetrated to by cultivating the Path..." It is the way out of suffering, both for Seymour and his creator.
The respected Salinger blog "Dead Caulfields" puts Salinger's twinning of his work and faith this way: "But perhaps the single teaching of Vedanta that most informed Salinger's work—and possibly most affected his life—is the Vedantic concept of karma yoga. Karma yoga teaches that everything in life—from one's vocation to the smallest daily duty—can be approached as an act of service, accomplished as a prayer, as a meditation, and can lead to a clearer realization of God. Salinger readily embraced the concept of karma yoga as an interpretation of his own craft. In short, he came to believe that his own work – his writings – were potentially holy and he learned to regard his work as a path to unity with God if approached and executed with humility."
Fully a quarter of this novella is devoted to a catalogue of books and other writings that Seymour wants to read during the weeks he has left at camp (Seymour is only seven years old). Other moments in the story mention those things that make him happy, whether it is his lustful thoughts about Mrs. Happy, the mother of a fellow camper, to his fond thoughts of all his brothers and sisters. Seymour's letter is a tone poem to bliss and happiness.
This is not the same thing as saying it is a successful piece of writing. It isn't. But this is the Seymour before any damage was done to him by war, by the world, by the cruelties that other human beings can inflict on each other even during peacetime. This is the happy Seymour, not the paranoid, damaged, off-putting Seymour of "Bananafish." This is a Seymour that is pure and whole, one that is almost pure energy and thought.
I think Salinger made Seymour such an old soul (his vocabulary is absurdly mature) in this story because he regretted the literary stunt that he pulled off to such great success in 1948, when he had Seymour commit suicide. I thoroughly agree with Charles McGrath in an essay he wrote for The New York Times in 2008, called "Still Paging Mr. Salinger:" "It’s as if Mr. Salinger realized, belatedly, that he had prematurely killed his best character and wanted to make it up to him." I think that's entirely true. Seymour was only 31 in "Bananafish," but how much fuller those 31 years would seem if he was intellectually and sexually fully developed by the age of seven. Killing Seymour was the one thing Salinger could not undo, literally speaking, so he was going to make it up to him.
So pick a page, any page, in "Hapworth," and one finds the words overflowing with a kind of generosity of spirit that is very much absent from almost all of Salinger's earlier works: "Piled on top of all this good fortune, what else does one find?  A capacity to make many wonderful friends in small numbers whom we will love passionately and guard from uninstructive harm until our lives are finished and who, in turn, will love us, too, and never let us down without very great regret, which is a lot better, more guerdoning, more humorous than being let down without any regret at all, be assured."
Or:

"I quite ask you, though, to imagine how marvelous it is to see this chap, your son Buddy, spring in a trice from a lad of five, who has already lost his heart to every pencil in the universe, into a mature, swarthy author!  How I wish I could lie on a pleasant cloud in the distant future, perhaps with a good, firm, Northern Spy apple, and read every single word he writes about this eventful, pregnant party in the offing!"

But if the Fourth Noble Truth is the path away from suffering or from material gain, then it also must provoke the writer not to publish any more, which requires satisfying vanity and may end in material gain.
Salinger admits this "Seymour," and he knows it will cause him trouble: "'Silence!  Go forth, but tell no man!'  said the splendid Tsiang Samdup.  Quite right, though very difficult and widely abhorred."

And then, at the end, Salinger says "goodbye." After mentioning what kind of writing tablets Buddy prefers to write on, Salinger says this: "Also worth keeping in mind, it is this chap’s leonine devotion to his literary implements, I give you my word of honor, that will be the eventual cause of his utter release, with honor and happiness, from this enchanting vale of tears, laughter, redeeming human love, affection, and courtesy.

"With 50,000 additional kisses from the two looming pests of Bungalow 7 who love you,
Most cordially,
S. G."

In this story, Salinger doesn't believe that the world is a horrible, brutal place, full of phonies and section men and unthinking academics; it is, rather, a "an enchanting vale of tears," a place of laughter and "redeeming human love."

Then, for quite literally the next half of his life, Salinger went quiet. At least for his characters, and especially for his beloved Seymour, there would be no more suffering. 

We have learned, in the the years since his death, that Salinger was not the recluse everyone once thought. He was involved in his community, but also fiercely protected by those lovely New Hampshirites in the town of Cornish. 

What we now know is that he was trying to pursue, as the youthful, loving Seymour said, and as the Fourth Noble Truth would have it, the continuing utter release from all that caused him suffering and pain. He was trying to do it through his art.

Lars Trodson is the author of two novels, "Eagles Fly Alone" (http://amzn.to/1uRsL0E) and "Tide Turning." (http://amzn.to/1v38X9O)