Salinger Is an American Literary Treasure, Best Essay

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Salinger is an American literary treasure, best known for his novella Catcher in the Rye. However, Catcher in the Rye is but one of many in the canon of Salinger works. Salinger's short stories have recently garnered renewed attention because several unpublished Salinger stories were leaked online in November of 2013, three years after the author's death (Runcie, 2013). Salinger died a recluse, and a man of mystery who was as much an American antihero as Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye. There have been numerous cultural allusions of Salinger's iconic novel and its quintessentially postmodern protagonist. Although no film has ever been made directly from the story of Catcher in the Rye, Morgan (2010) points out that there have been allusions to Salinger stories in films like The Collector (1965) and Six Degrees of Separation (1993). Additionally, a 2013 documentary film about J.D. Salinger promises to reveal the multiple personas of one of America's most loved writers. Themes like alienation and the futility of Western material culture recur in Salinger's short stories.

Salinger's short stories might not be as famous as Catcher in the Rye, but they say just as much about the author's cultural and historical context. "Teddy" follows in the footsteps of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha in introducing Eastern philosophy and meditation practices to a Western audience. Serving as an intercultural communicator, Salinger uses "Teddy" as a vehicle for subverting Western religions and social norms. In an obituary for Salinger, Gopnik (2010) refers to "the myth of the author as homespun religious mystic," (p. 1). "Teddy" reflects the author's affection with Eastern modes of thought, especially with regards to the attitudes toward death and dying. The title character in Teddy believes fully in reincarnation. His advanced philosophical thinking cause the adults around him to view him as a sort of superchild, and Teddy remains cautiously cynical. In spite of the cynicism brewing beneath the surface in Salinger's books, and in his key protagonists, there is also a core of idealism that is inescapable. Teddy, like Caulfield, blend cynicism and idealism in compelling ways that make these quintessential postmodern antiheroes.

Gopnik refers to Salinger as " an expansive romantic," which is not to connote Romanticism as it was developed in the 19th century but a postmodern interpretation thereof. Salinger's romanticism is expressed as a return to the child's innocent but pressing curiosity about the essence of life and death. Salinger is not only interested in the pursuit of higher consciousness, though. In "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," the author explores interpersonal relationships in more detail than in "Teddy." However, in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," Salinger also explores one of his prevailing themes about human social alienation in the modern age. Social alienation can prompt the person to pursue spiritual inquiry.

Embedded deep but overtly expressed in Salinger stories is a critique of American culture. American culture is a symbol of a social sickness, which contributes to alienation and isolation. However, the stories of "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and especially of "Teddy" show that suffering is a universal human condition and even Eastern religions do not offer much more than psychological salve or at best, material for fruitful intellectual inquiry.

Salinger sets out to portray nihilism as a valid response to social alienation. In both "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and in "Teddy," self-annihilation are core motifs. Seymour's suicide in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" is far more overt and graphic than the demise of Teddy, which is highly ambiguous. Yet it does not matter from a thematic standpoint whether Teddy lives or dies. Teddy himself does not care, as he knows that when (not if) he dies, he will simply be reborn.

Salinger also explores the ironies inherent in the human social dynamic, especially with regards to boundaries between self and other. Salinger's own reaction to the fame of his novel Catcher in the Rye indicate perhaps why the author developed the theme of being unable to switch between the social self and introspective inquiry. In "Teddy," the title character does not necessarily try to impress others, but adults are fascinated and also intimidated by him. As a result, Teddy finds that he has no distinct role to play. This parallels Salinger's own life story. Salinger struggled with the public's projection of fame onto the author's persona. He said in a 1980 interview, "There's a marvelous peace in not publishing... There's stillness. When you publish, the world thinks you owe something. If you don't publish, they don't know what you're doing. You can keep it for yourself," (cited by Runcie, 2013). There is tremendous irony embedded in Salinger's words. On the one hand, his comment can be taken at face value to imply that a writer would be psychologically sounder without publishing and the problems publishing entails such as publicity and fame. On the other hand, a writer who does not publish also wastes time producing a body of work that serves only a self-serving or narcissistic function. The author tread shaky ground throughout his career, as he withdrew from the public eye. Stories like "Teddy" and "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" show how Salinger used short stories to project and develop his own ambivalence toward fame.

Although neither "Teddy" nor "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" are about war directly, Salinger's experience as a solider in World War Two does infiltrate these two stories. "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" does include indirect references to World War II as a historical and social context. World War Two has shaped Seymour's character, as it did Salinger's. What matters of Salinger is the aftermath of war on the individual human psyche as well as the connections between people. Killing people in combat severs some of the trust that binds human beings to one another. It is impossible to emerge from a combat situation completely emotionally unscathed. Seymour's persona in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" is the persona of one who has post-traumatic stress disorder and no constructive means by which to cope. The society that Seymour fought for in the war has dissolved into a materialistic, individualistic, and narcissistic one in which the individual has trouble locating himself. Salinger wrote about what he knew, which is why "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" comes across as semi-autobiographical. Seymour has trouble maintaining intimate relationships, and his relationship with his self has also become fractured. War raises serious metaphysical, moral, and existential questions about the value of human life. When a person is asked to kill in the service of country, the person also weighs the values of that country with the value of an individual stranger's life. Salinger attempts to show how the impetus to be good and the impetus to contribute to an imperfect society are irreconcilable goals. Cognitive dissonance is what drives Seymour to commit suicide.

For one, Salinger's sense of social isolation and loneliness is imparted in the characters of Seymour and Teddy. Salinger's experience in the war transformed his method of interacting with peers. The finishing line of Catcher in the Rye reads, "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody." The idea that forming a relationship is futile because people die seems to directly conflict with Teddy's overt fearlessness of death. War left an indelible impact on the author's psyche, perhaps leading him to pursue Eastern religion in the first place. However, war also helped to create the ironic foundations of Salinger's themes and moral philosophies. "The war, its horrors and lessons, would brand itself upon every aspect of Salinger's personality and reverberate through his work," (Slawenski, 2011). As Slawenski (2011) points out, Salinger was unlike his fellow soldiers in that the author did not buy into the false idealism that accompanied combat. There was only the stark reality of death and dying, killing and being killed. Salinger knew that no amount of political ideology or nationhood pride could make up for the moral implications of war. Thus, "disgust with the false idealism applied to combat, and attempted to explain that war was a bloody, inglorious affair" is what underwrites short stories like "Teddy" and "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" as well as Catcher in the Rye.

Disillusionment and hope seem like strange bedfellows. However, Salinger manages to make the two meld in characters like Teddy and Seymour. Because Teddy has no illusions, it is impossible for him to become disillusioned. Teddy does, however, come to realize the futility in relating to people who are actually beneath him in terms of their moral, spiritual, and intellectual understanding. There is no egotism or arrogance in Teddy, only the realization that he is somehow superior because of his willingness to probe deeper into metaphysical matters. Seymour's inability to forge social ties after the war degenerates. His thorough disillusionment with life causes him to take his own life, which is an unsurprising ending to the story. Teddy, however, builds up his fearlessness of death to the point where the reader ironically and morbidly wants to…

Sources Used in Document:

References

Gopnik, A. (2010). Postscript: J.D. Salinger. The New Yorker. Retrieved online: http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2010/02/08/100208ta_talk_gopnik

McGrath, C. (2010). J.D. Salinger, literary recluse, dies at 91. International New York Times. Retrieved online: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/29/books/29salinger.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Morgan, K. (2010). Six stories: Salinger inspired cinema. The Huffington Post. Retrieved online: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kim-morgan/six-stories-salinger-insp_b_443099.html

Runcie, C. (2013). JD Salinger unpublished stories 'leaked online'. 28 Nov 2013. The Telegraph. Retrieved online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/10480275/JD-Salinger-unpublished-stories-leaked-online.html

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