Video of the Day


Alex Carnevale

Features Editor
Mia Nguyen

Reviews Editor
Ethan Peterson

This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

Live and Active Affiliates
This area does not yet contain any content.

« In Which Everything Has The Same Use Including Food »

The Consumption of J.D. Salinger


J.D. Salinger provokes the personal turn. When we write about his work, we write about him, his private life – or our own. What is public becomes private; criticism creeps towards memoir. Salinger is the JFK assassination, Salinger is 9/11: where were you when you read The Catcher in the Rye? Aleksandar Hemon was in Sarajevo, Aimee Bender in Southern California. Both of them were teenagers, as were Joshua Ferris’s waiter and Adam Gopnik’s son. Joanna Smith Rakoff was working for his agent in New York, where she answered letters from fans who wrote in with their own Salinger stories.

I was on my couch. The book had once belonged to my father, and on its cover was a partial peace sign, which at the time I thought was part of the design. Later I realized my father had drawn it himself. (I think I am not alone when I say I remember Salinger’s stories as books, as encounters with physical objects. Their content seems embodied in their bindings: Franny and Zooey’s green border, Nine Stories in blue and orange. Salinger himself selected the precise shade of white Little, Brown used for his covers.)

When my mom saw me reading Catcher, she reminisced for a while, and then she asked me: why didn’t Holden just eat something? If he had just had a snack he would have felt fine. Who isn’t crabby when he’s dehydrated? It’s a good point, one both real and fictional people would do well to remember, and one that is particularly relevant in the case of dirty realism: everyone feels lousy when they are hungry or hungover. A headache is not a philosophy of the world. Unless, possibly, that world belongs to Salinger, whose fiction is full of finicky eaters. Holden is hardly unusual: Franny picks at her chicken sandwich, and when the narrator of “For Esmé – With Love and Squalor” offers Esmé a piece of his cinnamon toast, she declines, saying “‘I eat like a bird, actually.’” The narrator himself takes only a single bite.

Although Salinger’s characters are not terribly interested in eating food, it does intrigue them for other reasons. In “Just Before The War With The Eskimos,” Selena’s brother presses a chicken sandwich upon Ginnie, who hides it in her coat. When she leaves their apartment, she takes the sandwich out to throw away – but then returns it to her pocket. “A few years before,” Salinger writes, “it had taken her three days to dispose of the Easter chick she had found dead on the sawdust at the bottom of her wastebasket.”

Salinger’s characters ignore meals and preserve dead chicks because, as Aleksandar Hemon points out in “The Importance of Wax and Olives,” Salinger’s characters are interested in objects only insofar as they are useless. The title of Hemon’s essay comes “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” in which Sybil asks Seymour if he likes wax and olives. He says yes: “Olives and wax. I never go any place without ‘em.” What unites olives and wax is their worthlessness: they are pure objects, pre-commodities, neither candle nor garnish. They are just things, things that serve no purpose, like a sandwich you will never eat. The hotel room where Seymour kills himself smells of “new calfskin luggage and nail-lacquer remover” – the odor of officious practicality, of objects bought and used.

In “Seymour: An Introduction,” Buddy reports that his brother admired the kind of poet whose “real forte is knowing a good persimmon or good crab or good mosquito bite on a good arm when he sees one.” Buddy’s analysis serves equally well as a description of Salinger, and of his relationship to objects, or at least the relationship towards which he aspired. His ideal is a kind of categorical imperative of objecthood, Kant’s second formulation applied to Easter chicks. Objects ought to be treated not as means to an ends but ends in themselves. A persimmon, an olive, an arm or the arch of a foot, like Sybil’s, which Seymour kisses: what counts is things as they are, the very pieces of the world.

Buddy’s account also goes a long way towards explaining what it is that makes Salinger’s writing so good. Salinger is acutely aware that we exist in the world – in cities, in apartments, in bodies that rub up against couches and church pews and cabs and other bodies in those cabs – and he is a master of capturing what it feels like, literally feels like, to live.

In Zooey, Seymour’s letter is not just summarized but described: it is a packet of yellow paper, its pages wet with bathwater. It is a real thing Zooey can hold in his hands, like Esmé’s father’s watch, or the red tissue paper that reminds the young Comanche of the Laughing Man’s poppy-petal mask. The richness of Salinger’s fiction comes from his attention to objects, to the physical stuff of life, and from his understanding that the words that describe these things are things themselves. Words are their meanings and more than that: they are themselves, and in Salinger’s hands they are beautiful.

Yet if it is in his treatment of the physical world that Salinger excels, it is also where he eventually gets in trouble. On the New Yorker website, Salinger’s stories are available in their original format, columns of prose bracketed by advertisements for sunscreen and department stores. The offerings are refined, luxury tempered by good taste: madras bathing suits and foundation from Helena Rubinstein for the lady, Yardley shaving cream for “the man who won’t settle for average.”

Unlike wax and olives, these items are valued for reasons beyond themselves. Yardley shaving cream is used to shave one’s face – and to mark oneself as a man who will not settle for average. This is what Hemon calls its “spiritual essence,” which is required for “a commodity to enter the market and attain a value as a thing alienated from human labor.” A commodity, Hemon writes, “cannot be an empty thing... It has to fulfill a need that is not merely material — it must have a spiritual essence that responds to a spiritual need... To possess, to own that essence, that ineffable quality of a commodity that differentiates it from other commodities, one has to buy the thing that contains it, which makes one different from those who buy other commodities. Consumption spiritualizes and individualizes the consumer, as he or she enters a web of imaginary relations between human beings and the world.”

The man who buys Yardley’s shaving cream violates the categorical imperative of objecthood, but so does anyone who values anything for any reason beyond it. Zooey says it himself: “treasure’s treasure,” even when that treasure is spiritual. Disgusted by all the savages, with their phoniness and “unskilled laughter” and consumerism and self-serving ambition that mistakes itself for the pursuit of knowledge and knowledge that does not even pretend to be wisdom, Salinger’s characters devote themselves to that final item totally and explicitly. What they want is spiritual enlightenment, and it turns out that to achieve enlightenment all they have to do is look for it everywhere.

Thus Salinger himself not only betrays his own injunction but commands it. Everything you do ought to be done the service of self-perfection. The smallest action ends in enlightenment: this is what it means to shine your shoes for the Fat Lady.

This is also what tempers the soaring generosity of Zooey, what cuts against Zooey’s – and Salinger’s – overwhelming, aching belief in other human beings. Do you not lose sight of the person himself when all you can see when you look at him is Christ? When, more to the point, all you want to see is Christ? It seems you must: people and objects are valued not for themselves but because for the person seeking wisdom they contain it. Every object is holy, every gesture a genuflection, every person the Fat Lady, and in every Fat Lady is Christ Himself. No longer is anything useless; instead, everything has the same use, including food. “How in hell are you going to recognize a legitimate holy man when you see one,” Zooey asks Franny, “if you don’t even know a consecrated cup of chicken soup when it’s right in front of your nose?”

To a fan, Salinger’s fiction is that “consecrated cup of chicken soup.” He nourishes his reader’s hunger to understand and to be understood, to feel as if Salinger had him in mind when he wrote the way Bessie had Franny in mind when she cooked. To each reader, Salinger says spiritual satisfaction can be achieved through what Joan Didion summarizes as tolerating “television writers and section men” and “looking for Christ in one's date for the Yale game.”

These are what Didion calls Salinger’s “instructions for living,” whose simplicity is the source of their appeal. To ask someone to endure a date is not to ask very much. Ultimately, Didion concludes, Salinger’s books are but “self-help copy. . . Positive Thinking for the upper middle classes, as Double Your Energy and Live Without Fatigue for Sarah Lawrence girls.” We need not change our lives, they tell us, or even necessarily our behavior. All that is required is a good attitude. Enlightenment is as easy as heating up a can of Campbell’s.

If Franny and Zooey is an instruction manual, one of its rules is that it should be read as such. Everything in Salinger’s world has its use, including books: compare Lane’s interest in Madame Bovary with Franny’s in The Way of a Pilgrim. He wants an A, while she wants enlightenment, and it is her way of reading that Salinger celebrates. If Franny is our model reader, what she teaches us is that reading for self-improvement, self-enrichment, self-abasement, self-whatever – reading for the self – is the height of nobility.

She treats The Way of a Pilgrim the way Didion says we treat Franny and Zooey, which is in fact the way many of us do treat Franny and Zooey: as something that can be applied to our own lives, and can change them. Reading for private instruction is not misreading but reading rightly – reading in the manner of Franny. It is for this reason that our first encounters with Salinger loom so large in our memories: his are books about taking books personally.

My father’s copy of The Catcher In The Rye is an artifact, now, so delicate as to be unreadable. Still, I keep it, and if this is taking things personally I will say that is perhaps the way some things should be taken. In fact, part of me is sad that I no longer take Salinger as personally as my younger self took him, and sad that I am a stranger to that girl and the people she once loved.

Elizabeth Gumport is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find her website here. She last wrote in these pages about Maeve Brennan.

digg delicious reddit stumble facebook twitter subscribe

"Ce Jeu (the Twelves remix)" - Yelle (mp3)

"Staring at the Sun (Diplo remix)" - TV on the Radio (mp3)

"Please Stay" - Summer Heart (mp3)

Experience The Best Of Elizabeth Gumport At Your Leisure

Maeve Brennan was heartsick and drunk...

Her favorite novels...

The perils of insomnia...

Where everything is a penis metaphor...

The photography of Bruce Davidson...

...inside Dawn Powell's New York.

How & Why To Write

Part One (Joyce Carol Oates, Gene Wolfe, Philip Levine, Thomas Pynchon, Gertrude Stein, Eudora Welty, Don DeLillo, Anton Chekhov, Mavis Gallant, Stanley Elkin)

Part Two (James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Margaret Atwood, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov)

Part Three (W. Somerset Maugham, Langston Hughes, Marguerite Duras, George Orwell, John Ashbery, Susan Sontag, Robert Creeley, John Steinbeck)

Part Four (Flannery O'Connor, Charles Baxter, Joan Didion, William Butler Yeats, Lyn Hejinian, Jean Cocteau, Francine du Plessix Gray, Roberto Bolano)

References (3)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • Response
    Response: Cheap Jets Jerseys
    Football is truly one of the biggest sports in America. It has a key following.
  • Response
    Response: Jay Cutler Jersey
    Football is definitely 1 of the greatest sports in America. It has a big following.
  • Response

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.