Jerome David (aka J.D.) Salinger stands in the collective memory as the prototype of the mysterious man and, also, the masterful writer. Apart from his published texts – only one famous novel, and few short stories scattered among magazines and collections – we don’t know much about him. We know that he was born in New York in 1919; that he was of Jewish descent; that he was a soldier in World War Two on the European front; that he had a deep knowledge of Eastern philosophies; and that, after achieving literary success, he voluntarily secluded himself, without publishing anything else or giving interviews, from 1965 to 2010, the year of his death.
However, these circumstances are not explanatory of his work: at first sight there is some contradiction, something unresolved about this author. It’s no doubt that, as a man, Salinger devoted his life to a long, relentless, and furious getaway from the whole mankind. On the other hand, it’s clear that the most precious of his gift, as a writer, lies in the purity of his sight, in his skill to describe the world with a precision, a sensitivity, and the perfect innocence of a little wise genius. What makes us love Salinger is precisely the coincidence of these opposites: tenderness and rebellion, teenage indignation and ancient wisdom, young harshness and mysterious clairvoyance. In other words: his peculiar ability to be, at the same time, misanthropist like an old man and innocent like a child.
How to describe this contradiction? And is it really a contradiction? If we just line up the bare events of Salinger’s biography, such questions can’t find an answer. Rather, it would be more convenient to investigate how some specific events of his life have contributed to the creation of some of his quintessential works, representative of a way of life, a collective age, and a place all precisely defined: the 20th century American society, between the ’40s and the ’60s.
Let’s try to find some answers in the analysis of Nine Stories (1953), a work that, in my opinion, is the most suitable to understand Salinger’s artistic world. His most famous book, The Catcher in the Rye – a chronicle of a young hero’s unfortunate rebellion against the phoniness of the adult society – even in its excellence, shows only one of Salinger’s inspiring cores, as it’s centred on the misanthropy of the young protagonist, whose voice fills the novel from the first page to the last. Instead Nine Stories is a turning-point in Salinger’s career and brings him to international attention as a high-level author, because of the variety of his themes, the depth and the poise of his thought, and the mastery of his style.
These short stories, in nearly every case first published in the New Yorker magazine, share some formal peculiarities: brevity, a concern with contemporary life, and characters from the middle- or the upper-middle classes. The time of narration is, except for some ellipses, the present. The prose is clear, the tone is both detached and compassionate, the style is simple and plain, and the events are linear. Rather than providing an interpretation of events, Salinger shows their development, rarely exploring the state of consciousness of the characters. Instead, he prefers to stay on the surface, letting the actions, dialogues and the gestures speak, and letting the readers find the meanings.
The nine stories at first may seem separated from each other but are actually arranged with such cleverness to unveil, if considered as a whole, the author’s vision on the small splendours and the big miseries of American society. In this deliberate fragmentation, the collection actually amounts to a unicum, where each of the parts resonates and continuously refers to the others.
The collection opens with A Perfect Day for Bananafish, the story about Seymour Glass, a young World War Two veteran, whose personality has been irreparably ruined by the horrors of the conflict. Estranged from every “normal” human relationship, Seymour seems to find comfort from desperation only in the friendship, sometimes innocent and some other slightly unhealthy, to Sybil, a child he has met during his vacation in Florida. To Sybil, Seymour will entrust his last message, the enigmatic tale of the Bananafish, that for their unrestrained gluttony, get so fat and big that they cannot get out from their feeding holes.
This short story, both for its opening position and the richness of its themes, should be regarded, on one side as the introduction to the collection, and on the other as an example of Salinger’s skill to use his own life experiences in his artistic creation. Actually, herein we can identify the main topics of the collection: war, whose influence affects the characters’ minds more than their bodies; death, which is behind every action, until it’s manifested in the final part of the story; the genius vs. madness relationship, of which Seymour, halfway from enlightened and maladjusted behaviours, is a typical model; children, portrayed as the only human beings capable of understanding and perceiving the world as it is (a topic Nine Stories shares with The Catcher in the Rye); and American Society (or perhaps the whole mankind), imprisoned in its own materialism, of which the Bananafish are an oblique but terribly exact description.
In the second short story, Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut, the meeting between Mary Jane and Eloise, two ex college roommates who spend their day between gossiping and highball drinks, is just a pretext to unveil the misery of suburban America. Only in the memory of a lost love, a man killed in the war, Eloise will find a meaning to her life, although well aware of the phoniness and the desperation around her.
Just Before the War with the Eskimos depicts the relationships in a group of young people. In this work the themes mentioned above are present too, although in a seemingly lighter tone. The title already mentions the Korean War, and war returns, maybe imaginary but always present in people’s conscience. There are also several references to madness, maladjustment, materialism, and love stories, usually complicated or unrequited.
The Laughing Man is told in the first-person, from the innocent and extremely in-depth point of view of a nine-year old child. Once again the story is about an unhappy love between two young people, The Chief and Mary Hudson. It also introduces the meta-narrative theme of the meaning and fascination of storytelling and, again, casts a light on the strong links between art and life. In this sense, it’s worth noting that the Laughing Man tale, that the enamoured Chief tells the children, has an abrupt and tragic ending right when he realizes that his relationship with Mary is over.
In Down at the Dinghy, after the protagonist Seymour in the first short story, we meet two other members of the Glass family, Boo Boo e Lionel who will also appear in the following books. This is the most autobiographical work of the collection, and the little Lionel is a transparent epitome of the author himself. It tells the sense of dismay and rebellion propelled in the child’s mind by an anti-Semitic remark he has heard against his father. Boo Boo will dispel her son’s premature sorrow, letting him realize that fear and isolation can be overcome with the mutual support and affection of his loved ones.
For Esmé—with Love and Squalor, is perhaps the climax of the collection, together with The Bananafish, and tells the story of a fleeting encounter between two young people in a damp, desperate England, shortly before the D-Day: Sergeant X, an American soldier and self-styled writer who awaits to leave for the war, and Esmé, a thirteen year-old girl, who’s just lost her father during the conflict. A delicate and pure short story, that portrays a brief, unforgettable human relationship, which will lead the two protagonists to understand, in their own way, that life’s worth living if it can offer moments like those they were so lucky to share.
Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes is another accusation against the conformism of American society. In an indirect but still bitter way, it tells the story of Arthur’s wife’s adultery, Joanie, with Lee, her husband’s best friend. Without depicting the infidelity, Salinger concentrates on the phone call between the two men whilst Lee is in his bed with Joanie and lies, trying to convince his friend of the untruthfulness of his suspicions. Arthur’s falsity adds up to Lee’s deception, when the husband, perhaps in an attempt to save the respectability of his marriage, calls his friend again only to tell him that Joanie, who’s actually very close to Lee, has just come back to him. Salinger seems to tell the readers that lies have now such a dominant influence on men to spoil all human relationships of their meaning.
Another one of the collection’s main themes emerges in the last two stories. It’s the Eastern Mysticism theme, that the author juxtaposes to the spiritual blindness of his own social environment. The first work, De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period, narrates the life of John Smith, a young art school teacher, and his epistolary relationship with Sister Irma, a nun who, even though extremely gifted as a painter, decides to give her talent up just to devote herself completely to her vocation. The short story, which starts with humorous tones and closes with religious accents, is particularly remarkable for the epiphany of the sun, rising before John Smith in the night-time, “at ninety-three million miles a second”, that is undoubtedly an allusion to the mysterious presence of God in the world.
The last short story, Teddy, mirrors the opening text and completes the symmetry of the collection. Not only because, like The Bananafish, it introduces another member of the Glass family, but especially because it shares the same reflections on death, or the fragility of human life, and the simultaneous presence of genius and madness in the same human being. Like Seymour, Teddy is actually wise and mad, and torn between unusual behaviours and extremely deep mystical thoughts.
In my opinion, it’s only at the end of Nine Stories that Salinger, after several characters have portrayed him only partially, finds in Teddy his truest and clearest reflection.
It’s in Teddy and in his seemingly fatal destiny, that the author, reconfirming his innocent misanthropy, concentrates the final allusion to a personal desire never fulfilled: the desire for a spiritual and solitary life, in spite of a materialistic social environment, which has always been hostile to him, and incapable of the slightest form of enlightenment.
Translation by the author (edited by Sara Di Girolamo)