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Reading and Writing in the Fiction of J.D. Satinger
J.D. Salinger is very much a writer's writer. His most important characters are writers, and in his stories he
often dwells on the process of narration. Salinger's short story "The Laughing Man" is explicitly about the act
of narration. In the story, a narrator reminisces about his childhood and the story that defined it. He belonged to
an after-school group called the Comanche Club, which was led by a college student known as the Chief. Every
day the Chief added on to his continuing saga of the Laughing Man, an improbable hero who fought against all
odds and all manner of villains to protect his fair maiden. For the Chief, the story provided a way of dealing
with issues in his own life, as his hero was a larger-than-life alter ego who tackled problems in ways the Chief
himself could not. For the young narrator, the story provided a starting point for his imagination, a way of framing
his view of the real world. His victories became the Laughing Man's victories and his struggles seemed
more manageable with his hero by his side. As an adult, the narrator sees the story as a reference point, a way
of defining his childhood. Salinger often uses pieces of literature this way, as reference points for his characters.
The human mind is associative; we link certain experiences and emotions with external stimuli. By listing
literary influences-both "real" literature and "fictional" literature like the Laughing Man saga-Salinger maps out
his characters' intellects and imaginations. He defines his characters partially by what they read-and hear, in
the case of "The Laughing Man." By and large, Salinger's characters are extremely, almost absurdly, well-read.
Their reading tastes range from non-fiction to poetry to fiction to popular cultural texts like comics and songs.
Each genre of reading lends to the characters involved a different level of sophistication and different
Salinger's intellectual heroes, characters like Seymour Glass and Teddy McArdle, read and refer to dozens
of philosophical and religious texts. They cover the basics of a good, solid mid-century education: the
Bible, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and St. Augustine, indicating to the reader that they are smart, but Salinger
shows that they are smart not only in traditional areas but also in the avant-garde ideas of the day. They refer
to their readings in obscure Eastern religious texts that set them apart from most of their contemporaries in terms
of breadth of learning. They are walking libraries. And they are only children. Salinger's children are almost
invariably smarter than his adults because they are still reading and learning, rather than trying to impress
each other over cocktails with what they learned twenty years ago.
Their interest in philosophy and religion identifies these characters as both intellectually and spiritually advanced,
a combination that Salinger explores over and over in his stories. He assigns to his characters extreme
philosophical views that color their interactions with other people, often in negative ways. Salinger's characters
are outsiders because of their hyper-intelligence and the fact that their extensive reading knowledge places them
in completely different mental contexts than everyone around them. His Glass family is somewhat of an exception
to this rule. They are outsiders together, sharing a family library and a sort of collective unconscious that comes
from all having read the same books. Even within his own family, though, Seymour Glass, the eldest Glass
sibling and arguably Salinger's most important character, is an outsider. He is the unquestioned genius of the
family, the resident philosopher and poet.
Poetry is another important reading genre for Salinger's characters, especially Seymour's siblings, who must turn
to his poetry to try to understand his short life. Like the Romantic poets, Salinger's philosopher-poet-heroes
die young. Ten-year-old Teddy McArdle falls or is pushed into an empty pool, Allie Caulfield dies of leukemia at
age eleven, and Seymour Glass puts a gun to his head when he is thirty-one. For Salinger's characters, poetry
is linked with a certain amount of sensitivity and spirituality. As with their philosophical tastes, his characters'
tastes in poetry include not only the basics like Emily Dickinson and John Keats, but also poets who were
more obscure at the time he was writing, especially the Japanese classic haiku poets. In this way, as with
the philosophy, what characters read serves to delineate their educational and social status. Poetry has
traditionally been the literary form of the gentleman, and for Salinger's characters, education and poetry come
with money; he has no poor scholars.
A more democratic form of literature is fiction, which, broadly speaking, does not carry with it the same sorts
of pretensions as philosophy and poetry do. Being such a broad genre, fiction encompasses a wide range of levels
of education and sophistication. Lew Wengler in the short story "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" is seen as
being something of a rube for liking a novel about four men starving to death in an igloo, instead of a Jane
Austen novel. Holden Caulfield, on the other hand, has literary taste that shows his intelligence more than
his academic success does. His favorite authors are F. Scott Fitzgerald, Isak Dinesen, Ernest Hemingway,
and Thomas Hardy, but he has also read Charles Dickens and Somerset Maugham, among others.
For Holden, the books he has read serve as reference points, structuring his education and growth. His
references also help the reader understand his character better. Salinger uses the assumed familiarity of his
readers with these writers' work to imply certain aspects of Holden's personality, not only his intelligence but
also specifics of his situation. The books he has read are appropriate to his character. Dickens writes about
young men growing up and learning about themselves and their surroundings. Hemingway and Fitzgerald write
about the disillusionment that comes with the end of youth. Maugham writes of the intellectual development of
a young man. By simply mentioning these authors as reference points for the reader, Salinger literally
communicates volumes about his characters.
Salinger's use of literary reference points also contributes to his style of literary realism. Details from the real
world give his fictional characters a more realistic world in which to act; his characters seem real for living
on Seventy-ninth Street and shopping at Schrafft's, and they seem real for reading Fitzgerald and Ace
Comics. Salinger's intended audience would know Seventy-ninth Street and Schrafft's and would recognize
the relative merits of Fitzgerald and Ace Comics. Not all of Salinger's literary references are strictly literary in
a highbrow sense; his characters also read junk. They peruse magazines and comic books, attend movies
and Broadway plays, and buy records of popular songs, all cultural texts contemporary to the time and place
of Salinger's stories. Texts like these place Salinger's characters in their own specific and very real time
periods rather than relate them to timeless classics of philosophy, poetry, or literature with a capital L.
Salinger's characters are not only voracious readers but also prolific writers. Aside from the writing attributed to
his first-person narrators, Salinger has his characters writing notes, letters, diaries, poetry, and stories. One story
in which writing takes center stage is "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters." Within the first five pages is a
letter from the narrator's sister reprinted in its entirety, followed later by several whole entries from his
brother's diary. Also included are a note written in soap on a bathroom mirror and an elaborate note written in a
taxi cab to facilitate communication with a deaf-mute. The emphasis on writing is understandable, since the
narrator is a writer by profession. The narrator, Buddy Glass, is a sort of fictional alter ego for Salinger
himself. Buddy even gets credit for writing Catcher in the Rye. Buddy's most important work, though, is
"Seymour: An Introduction." Just as "The Laughing Man" is a story about storytelling, "Seymour" is a story about
the act of narration through the written word. It is ostensibly an introduction to Seymour's character, but it
offers more insight into Buddy's character than it does about its purported subject.
As a writer, Salinger finds other writers fascinating, even if they are figments of his imagination. The most
basic genre of writing engaged in by Salinger's characters is the letter, one or more of which appears in almost
every single story. Salinger's letter-writers are masters of the form. They use their letters to inform, to challenge,
to comfort, and to offer advice. Letters in Salinger's stories sometimes even bring salvation, as in "For Esme-
With Love and Squalor," in which a letter written by a child to a World War II soldier pulls him back from the brink
of insanity. One story, "Hapworth 16, 1924," consists of one long letter written by Seymour as a child. It is offered
by Buddy as a posthumous portrait of his brother. "Zooey" begins with a long letter from Buddy to his
younger brother offering advice. Zooey reads it over and over, treating it not as a letter-a temporary form of
written communication-but as a more permanent sort of document.
Salinger's characters are also skilled in more permanent sorts of writing. Buddy, of course, is a writer, as is
Holden's brother D.B., who is well known for his short stories. Seymour is a poet. Even Holden is a skilled
essayist. For many of Salinger's characters, writing is a way of communicating with other people, but
that communication is indirect. Salinger is a master of dialogue, and his characters are certainly talkative, but
they retreat into writing as a way to get away from direct contact with people. Holden is downright chatty at
times, but he has a secret desire to be a deaf-mute, released from the pressure of talking. Writing is in many
ways easier, because it allows for revision, whereas talking is instantaneous. Salinger's characters, outsiders
because of their education and ideas, often retreat into reading and writing, much as Salinger himself is reported
to have done.
In writing about readers and writers, Salinger writes about what he knows intimately himself, but through
these specific acts, he delineates many universal truths about education and communication. Salinger's
characters' lives are ruled by words because they are fictional, but we live our lives in a real world of words.
The books we read, the stories we hear, and the letters, emails, essays, and poems we write are a large part of
what defines us as individual personalities and as members of the long tradition of human communication. In
The Catcher in the Rye, Mr. Antolini explains the beauty of reading and writing to Holden: "Many, many men
have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of
their troubles. You'll learn from them-if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone
will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history.
It's poetry" (Catcher 189). He might have added, it's life.
The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1951.
Franny and Zooey. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1961.
Nine Stories. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1953.
Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963.
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