[4 February 2010]
So, J.D. Salinger is dead. Now we who are devotees of his work (self-described or not, wittingly or no) are left with endless obituaries, encomiums, critiques, speculations concerning the reclusive man, and, of course, the celebration and recrimination of his most famous character, Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye. Perhaps I am simply being a contrarian (then again, all truly decent—and you can take that word in the moralistic sense or as an evaluative term of accomplishment—readers of Salinger are perforce contrarians), but when I heard that Salinger had shuffled of his mortal so-and-so, I felt the loss (scratch that, not the loss; he wasn’t writing for us anymore, considering it an invasion of his privacy, so there was nothing for us to lose as readers), I felt the passing not of the creator of Caulfield, the decrier of phonies.
Rather, I mourned the passing of the documenter of a very different sort of character, a character that was far more difficult to love, far more intransigent in his own way, indeed a character that Salinger himself only portrayed as through a glass darkly and never really face to face. I speak, of course, of Seymour Glass. (The Glass family is a group of fictional characters that appear in a number of Salinger’s short stories and in the novel, Franny and Zooey.)
Seymour was the eldest sibling of the precocious and somewhat insular Glass brood—the seven children of Bessie and Les Glass, two retired vaudevillians. All of the children (for the record, and believe it or not, from memory: Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, the twins Waker and Walt, Franny, and Zooey) appeared as stars on a radio quiz show called “It’s a Wise Child”. We are never granted much detail concerning the radio show. We are never granted much detail concerning the Glass family at all. We certainly are not granted much detail concerning Seymour, and that is precisely the point (I can only imagine).
This is why I find myself mourning the chronicler of Seymour more than the progenitor of Holden. Holden was the central figure of a story (albeit a wonderful story). Seymour, however, was a figure of storytelling itself. It seems to me that Seymour represented the impossibility of representation, the enigma of narrative, and simultaneously the hope beyond hope that something may still be said about someone other than oneself. Seymour represented the unknowable nature of the known, the unfamiliarity of the familiar, the estranged character of the loved.
Salinger attempted (for lack of a better term) Seymour three times in a concerted manner. Seymour appears in the first of the short stories contained in Nine Stories, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”; he is the main concern yet the invisible agent of the story, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”; and he is the ostensible subject of the generally dismissed but nonetheless superb essay into the limits of storytelling, “Seymour: An Introduction”. We are told in the latter piece (or perhaps reminded—it all depends upon how you came to Salinger) that Seymour was improperly represented in the short story and never really appeared in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”. Then in “Seymour: An Introduction”, we are treated to an extended disquisition on what our putative author (Buddy Glass—the typical surrogate for Salinger) thinks he ought to expect from us, his readers, followed by a protracted exposition of Seymour’s features. It might not sound particularly revelatory, but it most certainly is.
You see, what my rather flippant summary fails to communicate is the in-between stuff (what Buddy at one point terms the “gluey” stuff) that arises within the non-narrative and reminds the reader why the reader is bothering to read this stuff in the first place. What Salinger confronts when he comes to describe Seymour is the impossibility of doing justice to another human being in our accounting of said human being while simultaneously confronting the impossibility of failing to properly account for the other. I realize this isn’t clear. It isn’t meant to be. Nonetheless, let us try again.
In “Seymour: An Introduction”, Buddy/Salinger repeatedly attempts to elucidate some aspect of Seymour’s character: his renovation of Japanese poetry, his sage advice concerning marbles, his glorious inability to play ping pong, his shamanic habit of puncturing the pretensions of his brother’s mundane self-delusions. With every example, Buddy gets derailed.
He begins to fret over the difficulty of communicating with an audience that refuses to talk back (or talks back too much and drives the author into seclusion); he wonders about our affection for bird watching, his own penchant for happiness (whatever that might mean for those exposed to Seymour); he endeavors to make his readers aware of the time lapse between the various moments at his writing desk. He strives to communicate, all the while realizing that he fails, that he must fail and will always fail.
That sense of failure always comes back to Seymour. Seymour becomes the emblem of our failure, our destiny to fail. Yet, Seymour is not a representation of failure. He represents the exalted success that we see, we understand, but that we cannot communicate. I realize I am idealizing a suicide. That has always worried me. I love Seymour far more than Holden. I can’t seem to help myself.
Fugitive Moments of Bliss
Let’s take things out of order. Let us begin with the diary entries excerpted in “Raise High the Roof Beam”. Buddy finds Seymour’s diary after Seymour seems to have ditched his bride at the altar. Within it, Buddy finds a passage wherein Seymour relates what he considers to be a dermatological problem. “I have scars on my hands from touching certain people”, he writes.
Referring to a former love, Seymour declares, “Charlotte once ran away from me . . . and I grabbed her dress to stop her, to keep her near me. A yellow cotton dress I loved because it was too long for her. I still have a lemon-yellow mark on the palm of my right hand. Oh, God, if I’m anything by a clinical name, I’m a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.”
The word “happy” was too much to bear for Buddy, and he slammed the diary shut. It is too much for me, as well, but I always read on. We might be tempted to assume that Seymour has no understanding of happiness and therefore destroys any possibility of his experiencing it. I cannot help but believe that the converse is true.
He experiences happiness far too readily and is therefore wary of its effects. His moments of happiness stain his very body. His epidermis bears witness to those fugitive moments of bliss. Indeed, the stains are necessary inasmuch as the moments themselves dissipate so rapidly that they threaten to give the lie to their own existence.
This is the answer, of course, that Buddy tries to give to justify the fact that as a child Seymour threw a rock at Charlotte (a girl with whom he was enamored) as she pet his sister’s cat, leading to multiple stitches and a permanent scar. Buddy tries to explain that Seymour had to throw the rock because he found the scene so beautiful.
Perhaps I should be ashamed to say so, but I can understand this sentiment. Furthermore, the very notion of having to freeze those fugacious moments of bliss through an outlandish act of casual violence strikes me as sadly poetic. They pass so quickly, don’t they? There are so many of them, when you think of it. The traumatic gets remembered whether it ought to or not. Transforming some element of the beautiful into the traumatic guarantees its survival in our memories. Or maybe that is not it at all.
It is the very nature of the impossibility of deciding; it is the very essence of such second-guessing that Seymour represents. This is demonstrated most clearly in “Seymour: An Introduction”. As the ostensible narrator, Buddy Glass, attempts to describe seemingly mundane aspects of Seymour’s physical appearance, the narration continually breaks down. The halting character of the narration splits apart, succumbs to digression, loses track of its subject.
Yet, every seeming digression, every ludicrous aside concerning the perils of description, reveals something concerning Seymour that simply could not be flatly stated. This is the magic of the book. By annoying its readers, by seemingly wasting their time, the narration unmasks the elusive aspects of Seymour’s essence. More to the point, the narration constructs that essence.
This might seem to be a contradiction in terms but it is far from it. There is no essence to character (anyone’s character) without narration. The tree falling alone in the forest truly makes no sound here. Seymour might not have been the sage his brother made him out to be but for his brother, and therefore for us, he was nothing but a sage.
So we are brought to his suicide as it is related in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”. Most English professors will fret over the trivial nature of Muriel, Seymour’s wife. They blame her for his death. They are wrong. I do not believe this to be a mere matter of interpretation. They are wrong.
Seymour chose her in the same way he chose Charlotte, and in the same way (counterintuitive as it may seem) he chose the members of his family. To disparage Muriel is to decide that Seymour is a false prophet. He cannot be a false prophet. He is no prophet at all. Moreover, Muriel seems to be good for Seymour inasmuch as anyone can be.
I have read scholars who claim that the blame for the suicide rests upon the little girl he takes into the water in search of bananafish. She played along; she certainly didn’t play Seymour false. He kisses her foot when she imagines she saw a bananafish. This is hardly the act (at least for Seymour) of disappointment, but then he returns to his hotel. He is in the elevator and berates another guest for staring at his feet when she almost certainly is merely staring at the floor as all of us do.
This always struck me as a rather un-Seymourian thing to do. He dares her to stare at his feet but insists she not be so sneaky about it. Why the sudden outburst? Why the uncharacteristic cruelty? And why at that point and only at that point does Seymour (who in this fictional world has been fated to die from the first) put a bullet through his temple while his wife sleeps in the other bed?
I can’t answer the question. I have been thinking about it (on and off) for nearly two decades but I have no clear answer. I am certainly not satisfied with any answer I have seen proposed by the various experts. I suppose, ultimately, that this is the point: Seymour as limit case; Seymour as the incommensurable; Seymour as the constant enigma. This is why Seymour becomes the emblem of storytelling itself within Salinger’s universe: one can never say enough; all evidence demands further exploration, more supposition, more speculation. Seymour is narrative itself with all its propensity to spin itself out into eternity.
Yet Seymour is simultaneously more and less than that. Seymour is the presence you are sure you encountered before the door was shut and you saw him no more. In this way, Seymour (not Holden) becomes the emblem for Salinger himself. After all, what more can we say about the man than that he appeared for a moment before us and then was seen no more, only to leave us with a lasting impression that we continue to consider, that we continue to question, that we continue to hold in misprision? I only hope that Seymour Glass and J.D. Salinger may rest in peace, but I am quite sure that neither of them will allow me to do so until I follow them into eternity.
Chadwick lives in New York City and teaches Music History and Theory at The City College of New York. He earned his doctorate in Musicology at Columbia University. He has given papers on topics ranging from 12th Century lament to Duke Ellington and early radio to the use of Wagner's music in Bugs Bunny cartoons. He has published in scholarly journals on the music of John Cage, Richard Strauss, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He has taught courses on music history, the history of rock, and the history of jazz at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Columbia University