Author's Note: I originally wrote this as an English research paper on how an author's life and culture affect his works. I selected J.D. Salinger because he is an eccentric hermit yet writes stories that provoke questions about the nature of human thought as well as provide an insight into the psychology of a madman.
Comments, thoughts, praise, criticism, and corrections are welcomed and appreciated.
Salinger's Life and Works: Impact of the Past and Present
Culture and tradition have had tremendous influence over people since the dawn of language. People are strongly influenced by their culture’s history and present state and the changes it undergoes during their life. The literature, music, and art of a period oftentimes embody the values, traditions, and changes in the culture of the time and place it was produced. No one can be impassive to the culture they were raised and live under.
A great paradigm for the effect of culture on people can be seen in mid-1900s America. The country was emerging from the military and economic pressure of World War II. Many minority and female activists began to rise and seek freedoms for their groups. Teenagers and young adults grew tired of being obsequious and began a movement against tradition and conformity and sought independence, creating a subculture of their own. With the large-scale emergence of the mass media, special-interest groups and grandiose out-of-proportion news events became a part of American culture of the time, and some people shied away from these changes.
Jerome David (J.D.) Salinger was an author who exemplified these traits. He wrote in the 1950s and 60s about teenage angst, nonconformity, and depression. His upbringing in New York City and subsequent move to New Hampshire gave him a view of different aspects of the same American culture. Various short works in his compilation Nine Stories, most notably “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “For Esmé,” show his expression of constrained teen angst and a self-contradictory, introverted personality.
Overall, the short stories of J.D. Salinger are greatly influenced by his background and the culture he grew up in. His tumultuous relationship with his family and friends, as well as the horrors he saw when he was a soldier in the Normandy assault in World War II, led him to be a recluse. Salinger vented his anger and depression through stories about young men and women who go against the standards and expectations of modern society just as he had done in his early years.
During the 1940s through the 1960s, the social and political face of the world was changing and America was no exception. In the 1930s and 1940s, open racism against Jews was ubiquitous, World War II wrought chaos worldwide, and the abomination that was the Soviet communist bloc caused many to question political ideologies. In the 1950s, the United States had change of its own, with women, young adults, and minority groups advancing socially. Salinger was affected by several of these happenings. Because he had a Jewish father, he took offense to the open, often highly caustic anti-Semitism, and “wasn't sure how to define himself but he knew he was supposed to achieve higher social status. Being half Jewish drove him nuts” (Morrill 3). His service in World War II also exposed him directly to the horrors and reality of death, destruction, and depression.
American culture was undergoing widespread changes during that time as well. American teenagers began to see themselves more as individuals and less as children. As time passed, many began to conform less and less to tradition, taking on unorthodox practices and new hobbies. However, most of society was droll and “normal,” and Salinger, living in a small semi-agricultural area after his college years, was presented with this for most of his life. Most people in the work force, men and women alike, worked typical nine-to-five jobs. The older generation still attempted to maintain the image that children were always subservient to their elders. Television was becoming another form of family-accessible media. Research that compared the lives of children and young adults before and after the introduction of TV "found a significant and fairly dramatic increase in both physical and verbal aggression" (Frontline 2) and a rise in violent crime and suicide rates.
The minority civil rights and feminist movements were coming to their peak at this time, and it was “a challenge to all of the United States to transform the Negro from a traditional servant… into a citizen with equal rights and opportunities before the law” (Cooke 82-83). Nonconformity movements, or the practice of deviating from the societal standard, went along with these other changes. Up through the early 1900s, children were encouraged to be prim and proper and to obey tradition and standards. Then, in the 1940s,
"about half our generation that tried to change all that — a nonconformity movement. Suddenly, everyone wanted to be original and artsy. Everyone wanted to listen to a punk band and everyone wanted to show that they could stand out from the crowd, getting away from corporate America’s plastic-fantastic conformity regime” (Bost 1).
Salinger became part of this and during his younger years (up until 1953) “(he) used to socialize with local teenagers. That is, he opened up his house and let them drop by, hang out, play his stereo, and throw impromptu parties” (Morrill 7-8).
Many current events and movements of Salinger’s time had a profound impact on his life and more directly the topics and teachings of his literary works. Salinger’s works were all about life in his times, the pressures of being a teenager, and his cynicism.
J.D. Salinger was born in 1919 in New York City to an Irish Catholic mother and a Jewish father. He was known to have been closer to his mother than his father, and in fact Salinger was so cold and distant from his father that he didn’t even attend funeral services for him. Part of Salinger’s coldness toward his father came from the fact that his father was his Jewish half (Morrill 1). He lived in Manhattan as a child, and attended Valley Forge Military School, where he got his love for the armed forces and was able to escape the berating and pressures of his parents. He had previously attended various private schools but was expelled for not making an effort to do the work, often off in his own little world. He attended New York University, but subsequently quit and went to Ursinus College, “a no-name college which he said he enjoyed. He seemed particularly proud that it wasn't an Ivy League school. Salinger had a strong dislike of Ivy League snobbery and being half Jewish gave him good reason” (Morrill 4). He was a walking oxymoron, a charming loner who was anything but gregarious but always sought acceptance and love.
Salinger’s brief service in the U.S. Army had a profound impact on his emotions. He signed up with a certain affection for the Army and, four months after his participation in D-Day, ended up leaving as a horrified, depressed man who had been through the tribulations of seeing the concentration camps of Nazi Germany and the death of as many as 200 of his war buddies a day (Morrill 3). This influenced him to make some of his more depressing characters current or former soldiers; however he never directly discusses war (though in “For Esmé” there is an attempt). After his return from WWII, he began to take writing as a profession seriously, and in 1948 received acceptance for “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” to be published in the “New Yorker” magazine. He continued to have his serious works of fiction published there (over 30 in total, 13 of which were later reprinted) until the end of his prolific writing career in 1965. He did continue to write after that, but few, if any, stories from after 1965 are published (Morrill 4-5). Some say the publication of his writing ironically led to his reclusion; however, most say the real turning point was a 1953 interview by two high school girls. The mass media took the little high school story as a “scoop” and beat a path to Salinger’s door, causing him to become irate with the media, teenagers, and publicity. He was first married to a European girl but soon after WWII ended he divorced her, and destroyed all subsequent letters from her. His second marriage was to a Dartmouth College student named Claire Douglas. With her, Salinger had two children, Matthew and Peggy. Claire developed a gradual hate for Salinger, and later divorced him. His current wife is Colleen, a nurse who is very active in their community and Salinger’s social opposite. His two children have dissimilar opinions about him; Peggy hates him, whereas Matt says he was a compassionate father who was a welcome respite from dealing with Claire (Morrill 6-8).
Salinger continues to write in what he calls his “little green bunker,” but has not published anything in a long while. He has developed a small cult following, with many attempting to follow his values and some even trying to talk to him. It is not, however, recommended to wheedle him about issues that even now he wishes to remain quiescent about, as the last neighbor who just wanted to chat “visited his house and she and her daughter were stopped by an angry J. D. Salinger who was armed with a shotgun.”*
Most of Salinger’s characters and stories are, in one way or another, reflections of him and his life, or in some cases his own alter ego, a facsimile of the real Salinger. In “For Esmé,” he details a fleeting love affair between an American infantry sergeant and a young European choir girl, and later the anguish the soldier experiences as he is part of the aftermath of WWII. Salinger had a short marriage to a European girl while he was in the service, which he does not even regard as his first true marriage (Morrill 6), and attempted to vent his distaste for further instances of that act in “Esmé.” His own alter ego is projected in Sergeant X when he describes the soldier as an intelligence specialist, “essentially (one of) the letter-writing type,” and taking large amounts of literature instead of his gas mask, all things Salinger was known to have been like or done in the service (Salinger 132-133). In addition, this story is influenced by and contributed to Salinger’s growing seclusion. A critic writes that “the… progression of theme and action in “For Esmé” resides the moral basis for Salinger’s art which indicates why… two successful acts of communication (the letters toward the end of the story) are completed while… dramatizing the reasons why most acts of (emotional) expression fail,” which is explained by Salinger’s view of personal expression: that words and appearance are just surface features (Bloom 112). “Esmé” seems to be an embellishment of Salinger’s wartime experience, albeit on an emotional level.
Another of Salinger’s major short stories is “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” which he wrote just two years after returning from Army service. The tale tells of a man not unlike Salinger, a cheerful yet eccentric and somewhat depressive young war veteran, who commits suicide while on vacation. Salinger creates a mythical creature called the bananafish, a fish that will duck into a hole, eat colossal quantities of underwater bananas, and then die from being too fat to escape the hole. The “perfect day” for the bananafish is the day of their death, where having had their fill of bananas, they are able to end their suffering from the fictitious “banana fever” by killing themselves (Bloom 8). While a brilliant metaphor for Seymour Glass’ (and through him, most probably Salinger’s) outlook on life, it deflects the blame for Seymour’s suicide to others rather than inside to himself (Bloom 9). Seymour’s eccentricity led him to be quite the recluse despite being a family man. He conspicuously prefers talking to people far separated from his realm of life and thought, most notably the odd young girl named Sybil. Perhaps this is an insinuation that both Seymour and Salinger are far-gone practitioners of escapism, and this is what their nonconformity and obsession with the minds of the young stem from. As shown by Seymour’s eventual suicide (Salinger 26), people who live vicariously are looked upon as strange, and being unable to live with this situation, are driven to extremism. Salinger’s emotions during his writing period are chronicled in his writings. Having rejected both impulsive suicide and trying to forget his life, he escapes through art, denial, attempts at love, psychiatry, observing the behaviors of children, and mysticism (Bloom 10-11).
It is critical to understand that an author’s environment, life, and culture are reflected in their works. It helps in the understanding of the story itself, but also the reflection of the author it conveys as well as any moral, message, or emotion attached to the words on the printed page. It is not only a projection but a projector itself, as the works of the author can indeed return the influence, and as in Salinger’s case, drove him to new extremes in paranoia, seclusion, and eccentricity.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: J.D. Salinger. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Bost, Eric. “New nonconformity a huge oxymoron.” Ocolly Database. 18 November 2002. Accessed 26 May 2004. (http://www.ocolly.com/issues/search_archive/show_story.php?a_id=17611)
Cooke, Alistair. America Observed from the 1940s to the 1980s. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1988.
“FRONTLINE Examines Impact of Television on Society in “Does TV Kill?”” “Media Literacy Review.” Unknown date. Accessed 26 May 2004.
Morrill, Sarah. “A Brief Biography of J.D. Salinger.” April 2002. Accessed 20 April 2004. (http://www.morrill.org/books/salbio.shtml)
Salinger, J.D. Nine Stories. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, printed 1991 (originals 1948-53).