Commentary Magazine


J.D. Salinger

To the Editor:

One can understand the sickness of American culture by reading Terry Teachout’s “Salinger Then and Now” [September]. The article, which begins with a discussion of Salinger’s lawsuit against Random House and Ian Hamilton (for unfair use of Salinger’s correspondence in Hamilton’s biography J.D. Salinger: A Writing Life), embodies what I would call a reflexive paradox. Given Salinger’s legitimate appeal for eremitism, any article on his work which discusses the latest incidents is a personal insult. If what Salinger wants is to be erased from the American memory, there is no place for Mr. Teachout’s article. But can a country so enchanted with immortality through public exposure accept such a humble premise? . . .

The Salinger-Random House paradox can, nevertheless, be phrased in more philosophical terms: are our actions and our work truly ours once they are in the public domain?

Zuri Balkoff
New York City

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To the Editor:

Terry Teachout is ordinarily a decent critic, as the species goes. Hence I was particularly appalled by his article trashing J.D. Salinger. The dedication of Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters to the “amateur reader,” which Mr. Teach-out quotes, becomes particularly poignant after his outrageous last paragraph. For an amateur is one who pursues an activity out of love rather than for self-advancement. It is not the opposite of sophisticated, but of professional . . . and Salinger’s misgivings about professional readers are justified by Mr. Teachout’s handling of his work.

Why do I call Mr. Teachout’s last paragraph outrageous? Because his major thrust in discussing The Catcher in the Rye is that it is an eerily faithful rendition of a nearly universal condition. Yet in his last paragraph he protests having “Holden Caulfield’s vision of the world forced into the minds of . . . children.” He cannot have it both ways. But then, ambiguous and contradictory assertions frequently result from a failure to grasp adequately that about which one writes.

Mr. Teachout seems to think that the book’s culminating nervous breakdown is tacked on as a cop-out, when, in fact, the entire book is about the process of a nervous breakdown, from which Holden is recovering when he tells his story, and which he recognizes to have been undesirable. In fact, The Catcher in the Rye . . . presents a common enough, and harmless enough, adolescent condition in pathological hypertrophy. What is that condition? Not misanthropy, as Mr. Teachout thinks, but an almost unbearable compassion. The book records an especially acute version, not of disillusionment with the world, but of the frantic desire to put things right, to help people, to catch people when they fall (hence the title). The reason that Holden has a nervous breakdown is that it is difficult for him to confront his own impotence. Recovering from the breakdown means learning the secret, and sorrow, of maturity: accepting the world as it is, and one’s limited power to affect it.

Similarly, Mr. Teachout does not even know what “Seymour: An Introduction” is about. He describes it as “a love song J.D. Salinger croons to Buddy Glass,” and dismisses it as narcissistic. One may as well dismiss Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as narcissistic. “Seymour: An Introduction” is a modernist literary experiment dealing with an essential, and rather difficult, theme. Buddy loves Seymour intensely, and knows him intimately, and ardently desires to communicate something vital about him. And precisely because of the intensity of his concern, he can say almost nothing about Seymour, so great is his anxiety to do it right. This merely particularizes the dilemma of every truly serious writer, that it is horribly daunting to address directly that which concerns one most deeply, precisely because of the anxiety to convey faithfully one’s perceptions. Indeed, in a sense the story is a defense of modernism as a literary practice, since only such devotion and attendant anxiety can justify all of the convolutions of form to which that tradition has had recourse. But it would be a mistake to deem the story merely “about writing.” Rather, Buddy’s dilemma is a human dilemma, acutely represented, similar to Holden’s. To love truly brings not only joy but trepidation and self-consciousness, a sense of one’s limitations and mortality, and a sometimes exhausting struggle nevertheless to speak and act as best one can. Anyone who has been married (with love), or had children, say, faces this truth periodically.

Since Mr. Teachout does not know what Salinger’s themes are (one may almost say, what his theme is), he has little relevant to say about him or his work. How wrong-headed is his lambasting of Salinger as a “hip guru,” this author who has despaired of all critics, including the fatuously appreciative, and hidden himself from the world. Salinger’s is not a “Zen-flavored gospel of youthful authenticity and neurotic rebellion.” Indeed, in his most important story, “Zooey,” he drives the point home in Zooey’s disgust with, and rescue of, his sister Franny from neurasthenic religiosity. . . . Zooey preaches to Franny, who is nauseated by inauthenticity (“ego, ego, ego”) in herself and others and on the road to a nervous breakdown, the doctrine of devotion to her craft (acting) and to her audience. . . . Surely that is advice of which Mr. Teachout would approve, if he were only perceptive enough to get it.

In closing, permit me to ask what was the point of publishing such an article? As Mr. Teachout says of The Catcher in the Rye, “The book will no doubt remain popular so long as there are teenagers around to read it.” Hence it would seem futile to publish a superficial, tendentious essay such as his: who, after all, cares? . . .

Michael David Blume
Annapolis, Maryland

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Terry Teachout writes:

Zuri Balkoff’s point is an interesting one. J.D. Salinger is entitled to his privacy. The case of J.D. Salinger v. Random House Inc. and Ian Hamilton, however, was not about Salinger’s privacy but about whether or not Ian Hamilton infringed on Salinger’s copyright by publishing portions of his correspondence. This is a matter of public policy, and to discuss it is by no means a “personal insult” to Salinger. In any case, if what J.D. Salinger really wants is to be “erased from the American memory” he should start by removing his books from print.

As for Michael David Blume, I see no reason to comment on a letter which speaks quite eloquently for itself—and, I suspect, for many of J.D. Salinger’s other adult fans as well.

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