Dr. David Stromberg
Salinger: Pain and Abuse
We sometimes hear talk about old tattered copies of our favorite paperbacks – but sometimes we also have them. In my case, this is true of Salinger's Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction (1963). I've had this book for a solid couple of decades. And I read the stories in them at least that long ago. But despite my affinity for Salinger's work, I never knew how to write about him critically. He was too impenetrable an author, his prose too perfectly sealed, too hermetic. It took all my doctoral training in narratology, looking beyond unreliability, together with my postdoctoral work in psychoanalysis, which opened up a different way of reading, before I'd been able to get through the tightly packed layers of Salinger's narrative consciousness and reach some of the mechanisms under the hood. And what I discovered there was crisis.
What emerged from that discovery was “‘A Narrator, But One With Extremely Pressing Personal Needs’: Narrative Drive and Affective Crisis in Salinger’s ‘Seymour; An Introduction’ (1959).’’ I want to stress, though, that the article's aims, while scholarly in implementation, are humanistic in nature – by which I mean that they attempt an utterance about the human condition. The narratology in the article may seem a little daunting to those not used to using this kind of language in narrative analysis. But these are precisely the kinds of tools needed to strip away the layers of sophistication that Salinger used to seal up his narrative – the prowess of which makes it so powerful for readers. The tools are meant to provide access to some of the core elements that drive this fictional text and give us not a portrayal but an experience of crisis. I hope that readers of this article will pick up on its own message, even if unconsciously, and go into the world looking to engage others.
I should add, though, that in writing the article, I also experienced a crisis of my own, having to do with Salinger's original Glass story – “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (1948) – and the deep layers of pain that emerge from its own reticent narrative. There's always been talk that the story possibly deals with something inappropriate, but people have often said that it was ambiguous, that those who saw “bananafish” as something perverse were themselves cynical, and that it was obviously a story about how hard it is to reconcile childhood innocence with adult demands. I can understand people wanting to protect the story from those who will see in it something more disturbing. But the problem, for me, was that once I saw this disturbing layer, it refused to be unseen. It wasn't that I now saw Salinger as a potential molester or pervert who exposed himself to children – though his correspondence years later with teenage girls and young women certainly blurred that boundary. I was concerned by the guilt that the story seemed to expose and that we seemed, as a culture, to be avoiding – praising Salinger's prose instead of relating to the pain it conveyed. I had no interest in either defending or condemning Salinger as a person. I was trying to understand what was going on in his narrative. And this perturbed feeling just wouldn't let me alone.
I ended up running a bunch of online searches for various topics related to Salinger and abuse – and what I found astounded me for being completely missing in scholarly discourse. There were those who continued to accuse Salinger, and those who defended him, but there were also those who began to see his earlier writing as an expression of sexual assault and rape. Only one scholar had made the connection between Salinger and Nabokov in portraying child molestation – and this was to suggest that, in both cases, the use of girls in the narrative may have been a smokescreen for abuse they experienced as children. I wasn't interested in excuses for Salinger's behavior, but I was struck by how our culture had missed this aspect of his work, which appeared years before he was given the power to wield his own brand of abuse, and which actually granted him that power. If Salinger hadn't been Salinger, he would have been a creepy old guy sending letters to teenage girls. But because he was Salinger, there was cultural pressure that made getting attention from this great writer something special. The culture was as responsible for this as the man – who was the product of a culture that suppressed the abuse and molestation of boys at schools and religious institutions. In ignoring the pain in Salinger's prose, and praising its power, the culture enabled further abuse – perhaps different in nature, but still potentially destructive.
My first instinct was to go back and incorporate all this into the article, but I knew that it was too late, especially since I found all this during the late copyediting stage. But I made a commitment to express it another way. I also wrote a companion piece, “Grilled Bananafish,” a kind of story-essay that explores some of these themes in more depth. Until it finds publication, my hope is that this article, together with this entry, begin to open access to the emotional substrata of fiction in general, and this story in particular – and that we can, as a culture, face the pain in literature no less than the power.