And so we come to J.D. Salinger’s Glass family, or at least the two major published works featuring them. As noted in my previous post, Salinger introduces some members of the family (most notably Seymour in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”) in Nine Stories but it is in these two volumes — a longish short story and three novellas — that they are most fully developed.
Les and Bessie Glass were a well-travelled vaudeville team (song, dance and patter) who retired in Manhattan in the 1920s when Bessie figured out that two-a-day performances were being replaced by four-a-days that were little more than bridges between films. Les went into “ministration” for the rest of his life; Bessie concentrated on raising (some would argue “disrupting”) the family. There were seven Glass children — Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, twins Walt and Waker, Zooey and Franny (born 18 years after Seymour). One of their claims to fame is that for the better part of two decades, starting with Seymour, at least one of the Glass offspring (and often two) was featured prominently on the national radio show “It’s A Wise Child”, a precursor to the awful reality television of today. This exposure played both to the considerable intelligence of all seven and, perhaps even more, their annoying egos. If you don’t like one or all of the Glass offspring (and many don’t), it is safe to assume that “It’s A Wise Child” helped develop that dislike.
“Franny” is the short story of these four works (43 pages). Salinger is rightly noted for his realistic dialogue, but this work is the other side of the conversational coin — while it is effectively an extended exchange between college student Franny and her boyfriend Lane at lunch before the Yale football game, it is really an example of two monologues that never once manage to actually intersect with each other.
Franny has arrived by train for the big weekend (Salinger never says at which university — Dartmouth would be my choice) and the two head off to Sickler’s, the local seafood emporium, for a garlicky pre-game lunch (“Sickler’s was where a student and his date either both ordered salad or, usually, neither of them did, because of the garlic seasoning”). It does not start out well:
“I’m lousy today,” she said. “I’m just way off today.” She found herself looking at Lane as if he were a stranger, or a poster advertising a brand of linoleum, across the aisle of a subway car. Again she felt the trickle of disloyalty and guilt, which seemed to be the order of the day, and reacted to it by covering Lane’s hand with her own. She withdrew her hand almost immediately and used it to pick up her cigarette out of the ashtray. “I’ll snap out of this in a minute,” she said. “I absolutely promise.”
She not only does not snap out of it, things get much worse. Franny is preoccupied — and has been for some time — with a tract, “The Way of a Pilgrim”, about a Russian peasant who “starts out walking all over Russia, looking for someone who can tell him how to pray incessantly.” He eventually finds someone and his purpose then changes to getting others to pray incessantly. It is readily apparent that Franny is a practising convert to the cause.
None of this matters to Lane, whose own preoccupation is with a paper he has just completed attacking Flaubert, which scored an A and which he is now contemplating publishing. Franny makes half-hearted, unsuccessful efforts to pay attention and comment; Lane’s attempts to understand her preoccupation are equally half-hearted and fruitless. The weekend ends in disaster.
While “Franny” is complete as a story, it is in fact a prelude to “Zooey” but it takes some pages into that novella before we discover that. Zooey is a 25-year-old actor whom we meet soaking in the bathtub, reading an extended, ancient letter of advice from his brother Buddy, and getting ready for a business lunch with a producer. Bessie intrudes (an action we are given to understand is not uncommon) and directs her own lengthy monologue at him, eventually getting to her main point that she wants Zooey to speak with Franny, who has been moping around the place ever since the football weekend and is now ensconced asleep on the living room couch.
The Bessie-Zooey interaction has a number of interesting sub-themes, as does the start of the Zooey-Franny exchange (including some great riffs on the Glass family cat, Bloomberg — did Salinger know that New York was destined to have a Mayor Bloomberg?). Zooey is fully aware that his younger sister is praying incessantly and knows why. He finally gets to the crux of the issue:
“It’s us,” Zooey repeated, overriding her. “We’re freaks, that’s all. Those two bastards [Seymour and Buddy] got us nice and early and made us into freaks with freakish standards, that’s all. We’re the Tatooed Lady, and we’re never going to have a minute’s peace, the rest of our lives, till everybody else is tatooed, too.” More than a trifle grimly, he brought his cigar to his mouth and dragged on it, but it had gone out. “On top of everything else,” he said immediately, “we’ve got ‘Wise Child’ complexes. We’ve never really got off the goddam air. Not one of us. We don’t talk, we hold forth. We don’t converse, we expound. At least I do. The minute I’m in a room with somebody who has the usual number of ears, I either turn into a goddam seer or a human hatpin. The Prince of Bores.”
That’s your summary of the Glass family. Brilliant observors, brilliant talkers (or perhaps expounders). Seymour, the departed genius who continues to dominate them all. Buddy, the chronicler who narrates all these stories. And at the youth end, Zooey and Franny, marked forever by their two eldest siblings. There are only sparse references to the middle three siblings. It is true there is a lot of confusing Salinger-spirituality that intrudes along the way, although that neither attracts nor disturbs me. His observational capacities and the ability to articulate them are what forms the brilliance of Salinger’s work for me.
I’m going to give the last two novellas short shrift here. If you are intrigued by the Glass family after Franny and Zooey, you will find Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, An Introduction an intriguing read. If you think they are a bunch of annoying spoiled brats, you will want to give it a miss.
The narrative for Carpenters is the story of Seymour’s wedding day in 1942, even more of a disaster than the football weekend. Yet Salinger uses it as a set piece for an intriguing look into New York and its characters of the day. Seymour, An Introduction is actually more about Buddy than it is about Seymour — it consists of his musings about the legacy Seymour has left (184 short poems in addition to his impact on all his brothers and sisters) and Buddy trying to decide what to do with them. Given that Buddy is also Salinger’s alter-ego, there is a fair bit of perceptive author observation in this one as well — fans of The Catcher in the Rye will find some very interesting thoughts.
Love ’em or hate ’em, the Glass family are an interesting bunch and readers are acutely aware that there is more to say beyond what has been published. Salinger, who wrote his own liner notes and refused to have blurbs on the cover, says as much on the dust jacket of this final volume:
Whatever their differences in mood or effect, [the two novellas] are both very much concerned with the character of Seymour Glass, who is the main character in my still-uncompleted series about the Glass family. It struck me that they had better be collected together, if not deliberately paired off, in something of a hurry, if I mean them to avoid unduly or undersirably close contact with new material in the series. There is only my word for it, granted, but I have several new Glass stories coming along — waxing, dilating — each in its own way, but I suspect the less said about them, in mixed company, the better.
Oddly, the joys and satisfactions of working on the Glass family peculiarly increase and deepen for me with the years. I can’t say why, though. Not, at least, outside the casino proper of my fiction.
With that, J.D. Salinger headed off into seclusion in New Hampshire — only a long and confusing story in the 1965 New Yorker (a letter from seven-year-old Seymour at camp) has been published since. We know from various sources that Salinger kept on writing. We don’t know with certainty whether any of those manuscripts were saved. And we certainly have no idea what thoughts the author left about posthumous publication.
Some of us (that would include me) are hoping to see further works. Other readers speculate, with some passion, that whatever got written later probably continued a trend towards increasing impermeability. Like the author, I certainly regard the Glass saga as a work in progress, one that already provides significant insights and rewards. I haven’t been holding my breath for almost a half century in anticipation; but that does not decrease my desire for more one bit. Perhaps now, with Salinger’s death, we shall see if there is still more to come from one of the twentieth century’s most outstanding writers.