Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters
Some fifteen years ago, J.D. Salinger published a story about the suicide of a young man. “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is a sensitive little work and deserves the popularity it has won. But the incident that story describes has also become something of an obsession for Salinger. It is the central or nuclear event to which all his writings about the Glass family sooner or later refer. Franny and Zooey, published two years ago, for example, ends with Zooey reminding Franny of one of Seymour’s sayings or parables and thereby bringing her crisis to an end. It acts upon her as if it were literally a voice speaking from the far side of the grave—or as if it were an oracle, a gift of grace, a revelation, or promise of things to come. It is supposed in other words to possess a religious power or magic, as does Seymour himself.
Two more of these long stories are now published in book form. “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour—An Introduction” both appeared in The New Yorker several years ago. Both of these stories deal with Seymour, or rather both of them deal with the problem of Seymour, since he cannot be said to be really there in either of them. “Raise High the Roof Beam,” which first appeared in 1955, is about Seymour’s marriage. It takes place in 1942, and is narrated by Buddy Glass, Seymour’s next youngest brother, memorialist, and Salinger’s alter ego. The point of the marriage is that Seymour doesn’t show up for it, and the story consists of a series of conversational encounters between Buddy and several of the wedding guests. Seymour more or less doesn’t show up for the story either, and one suspects, while reading it, that the author is unable to make him materialize, to bring him dramatically back to life. He does make an indirect appearance, however, through some extracts from his diary which Buddy reads in the course of the narrative. These extracts confirm all one’s suspicions about the reasons for Seymour’s absence from the dramatic present of the story. They are blood-curdlingly bad, and simply make a mockery of the pretension with which Seymour is offered to us as saint, poet, and general all-around genius. This disparity between the author’s claim for his character and that character’s actuality recalls another recent popular representation in fiction of a “genius.” In Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, a similar claim is made for the writer, Pursewarden; yet when we read the passages from Pursewareden’s writings which Durrell produces, we are led inescapably to the conclusion that he is a kitsch genius. And Seymour, it appears, though he has been fabricated in a different workshop, is going to turn out to be a kitsch saint.
Nevertheless, not all of the old Salinger charm is absent from this story. There is, for instance, a four-sided conversation in a stifling taxicab that no one but he could sustain for so long without losing the reader’s attention. And he is still able to manage his consummate, his characteristic, trick—which is to glamorize self-pity. Not since Byron has a writer been so consistently able to raise self-pity to a virtue, to make this suspect emotion seem the very authentic proof of one’s sensitivity to life. Like the early Byron, Salinger deals with the emotions and problems of adolescence,and it is no great slight to him to say that he has not yet advanced beyond them. Adolescence too, we might recall, is part of life. Holden Caulfield is less a contemporary Huck Finn than he is a kind of midget Childe Harold; and the Glass children are all in one way or another variations on this theme of stricken sensitivity.
But even these qualities are absent from the 1959 story, “Seymour—An Introduction,” whose title should properly read “Seymour—A Disaster.” Written in a prose so self-consciously arch and cloying as to be almost impenetrable, it circles and loops about itself and gets nowhere. Obsessed with the character and the suicide of Seymour, Salinger seems on the one hand in danger of being swallowed up by the myth he has created. But on the other, and in the degree that his obsession has intensified, his subject has become extremely attenuated, and he can bring forth almost nothing of Seymour. We are told for example, that Seymour “was an inspired non-stop talker, ” but we get none of the talk, inspired, non-stop, or other. Buddy Glass makes great play about Seymour’s hundred and eighty-four unpublished poems, but these poems exist only in the sense that Mrs. Harris does—and in an even lesser sense, for Mrs. Harris is a conscious joke, a fabrication, and Seymour unfortunately is not. And what precious little of Seymour Salinger does bring forward is extremely revealing. For Seymour, we finally learn, is the saint of the Upper West Side, the guru of the values of Ethical Culture, the starets of Fieldston School liberalism gone slightly wild. The affirmations are incessant. Seymour suspects himself of being “a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.” No irony is discernible here, any more than is in the statement that at the age of twelve Seymour cut up a girl’s face with a rock “because she looked so beautiful sitting there in the middle of the driveway”—this is the way in Jewish Zen that we affirm our happiness and reverence for the created universe. And we equally affirm it by finding God “with enormous success, in the queerest imaginable places—e.g., in radio announcers, in newspapers, in taxicabs with crooked meters, literally everywhere.” But we affirm it most of all in that self-cherishing, self-regarding little hothouse of love and virtue—the middle-class family. Seymour, we are told, “was wild” about his sister Boo Boo. “Which isn’t saying a great deal, since he was wild about everyone in the family and most people outside it.” This is not only intolerably affected but reeks with falsehood. It is almost as if for three hundred years the literature of Western culture had not, so to speak, conducted a campaign to demonstrate that the middle class family is about as close as we have come to achieving hell on earth.
It is such things as these which render Seymour—and the Glasses—profoundly and increasingly uninteresting, and which drain the significance from Seymour’s suicide. The suicides of characters like Werther or Stavrogin are memorable because they express insoluble personal crises which are themselves embodiments of larger conflicts of value. The more one reads about Seymour the less value one finds in him or his death, the more mere pathology they both appear. Stavrogin leaves a note behind, saying “No one is to blame, I did it myself.” His death indicates “evidence of premeditation and consciousness to the last minute,” and the verdict of the doctors was “that it was most definitely not a case of insanity.” One can no longer say anything of the kind about Seymour, and whatever crisis one senses going on in these stories has more to do with what is taking place in their author than with anything he has been able to represent and realize in his fiction.