Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction
by J.D. Salinger
Both "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" and "Seymour: an Introduction" are part of, as Buddy eventually explains, a much larger project: capturing his dead brother Seymour on paper. In these and other Glass family stories, Buddy has narrated, expounded, explored, argued, rambled, digressed, and exhausted himself trying to explain just who Seymour was.
Buddy's end goals in doing so are vague, complicated, and sometimes contradictory. Buddy explains that his aims as a narrator actually have very little to do with you, his reader. Instead, they are "extremely pressing" and "personal" ("Seymour" 1.4). He's not writing about Seymour because he wants you to understand what Seymour is like. He's writing about Seymour for himself. He says, "I want to introduce, I want to describe, I want to distribute mementos, amulets, I want to break out my wallet and pass around snapshots, I want to follow my nose" ("Seymour" 1.4).
The distinction between writing for himself and writing for us brings us to a big Glass family problem. The Glasses are unique, particular, and insular. In other words, they have trouble communicating with outsiders, and outsiders have trouble understanding them. Buddy's project would seem to be doomed because he (a Glass) could explain Seymour (another Glass) to any random reader (a non-Glass). It's like a Martian trying to teach an America how to speak Mandarin.
But let's remember that Buddy is more than just a narrator – he's also a character, in both of these pieces. And, like most characters in literature, Buddy brings with him a few big stumping questions. Not so stumping, however, that we can't take a crack or two.
The big question we have about Buddy in reading "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters," is why he sticks around with the guests after Seymour pulls a no-show at the wedding. It's strange that he stays to help the guests into the cars, that he then gets in to one of the cars, that he doesn't leave when the parade is held up, and finally, weirdest of all, that he invites the guests – who really don't like him very much – up to his apartment. What could possibly explain this behavior?
Buddy is an astute narrator, and so he recognizes the confusion this might be causing the reader. He's also an attentive narrator, and so he takes a moment to help us out:
I think a paragraph ought to be wedged in right here to answer a couple of stumpers. First off, why did I go on sitting in the car? Aside from all incidental considerations, the car was reportedly destined to deliver its occupants to the bride's parents' apartment house. No amount of information […] could possibly have made up for the awkwardness of my presence in their apartment. Why, then, did I go on sitting in the car? Why didn't I get out while, say, we were stopped for a red light? And, still more salient, why had I jumped into the car in the first place? . . . There seem to me at least a dozen answers to these questions, and all of them, however dimly, valid enough. I think, though, that I can dispense with them, and just reiterate that the year was 1942, that I was twenty-three, newly drafted, newly advised in the efficacy of keeping close to the herd - and, above all, I felt lonely. One simply jumped into loaded cars, as I see it, and stayed seated in them. ("Roof Beam" 2.46)
OK, so maybe this wasn't the explanation we were looking for. It's a lot of hand waving. What we're starting to see is that Buddy is no more certain of himself and his motivations than we are. This is a confusing story in which confusing things happen, and no one is quite sure what's up (no one – including the reader and narrator). The guests don't understand why Seymour gave Charlotte those stitches. No one knows where Seymour is (until the conflict is resolved at the end of the story). Various obstacles (the parade, the closed Schrafft's store) prevent people from getting where they want to go. Cryptic messages (the Sappho poem, Seymour's diary) have to be interpreted. It's confusing stuff. It would be artificial for Buddy to pretend, years later, that he understood perfectly what went down on that day in 1942.
This is an important idea that's taken even further in "Seymour: an Introduction." Buddy is no passive narrator telling a story that he understands. Instead, he's exploring and learning as he goes. He had original "plans for the space," he tells us, but quickly realized that these plans would not work. So now, instead, he's tossed out the script and is making up the form as he goes along. When something comes to mind, he writes it down. When he feels like digressing, he'll think nothing of leaping into parenthetical comments. When he gets tired, he simply goes to bed and picks up the next night where he left off.
Scholar Ihab Hassan makes the point that Buddy is writing exactly the way Seymour told him to play marbles – without aiming (source: "Almost the Voice of Silence: The Later Novelettes of J. D. Salinger" in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, winter 1963). Take a second look at Seymour's advice to his younger brother:
"Could you try not aiming so much? […] If you hit him when you aim, it'll just be luck. […] You'll be glad if you hit his marble - Ira's marble - won't you? Won't you be glad? And if you're glad when you hit somebody's marble, then you sort of secretly didn't expect too much to do it. So there'd have to be some luck in it, there'd have to be slightly quite a lot of accident in it." ("Seymour" 8.9)
Buddy recognizes that Seymour's advice is a sort of Zen koan. A koan is a Zen riddle, which cannot be solved logically or intellectually. Rather, it has to be understood spiritually. A famous example is "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" which, incidentally, Salinger uses as an epigraph to his short story collection Nine Stories. In this case, Seymour's advice to Buddy – you'll have a better chance hitting the marble if you don't aim for it – falls into a similar category. Buddy says of the advice, "I believe he was instinctively getting at something very close in spirit to the sort of instructions a master archer in Japan will give when he forbids a willful new student to aim his arrows at the target; that is, when the archery master permits, as it were, Aiming but no aiming" ("Seymour" 9.3). If this doesn't make sense to you, that's OK. It's not supposed to make logical sense.
Right after telling us this marble story, Buddy has a sudden epiphany:
This last little pentimento, or whatever it is, has started me sweating literally from head to foot. […] I don't feel up to leaving this chair. Oh, God, what a noble profession this is. […] I can tell [the reader] this: A place has been prepared for each of us in his own mind. Until a minute ago, I'd seen mine four times during my life. This is the fifth time. I'm going to stretch out on the floor for a half hour or so. I beg you to excuse me. ("Seymour" 8.10)
Fortunately, our narrator explains this when he wakes up from his nap (three hours later). "What essentially struck me, incapacitated me," he says, "was the sudden realization that Seymour is my Davega bicycle. I've been waiting most of my life […] to give away a Davega bicycle" ("Seymour" 9.1).
He then launches into the story of Waker's birthday and the Davega bicycle. So how is Seymour Buddy's Davega bicycle? And how does Buddy give him away? It's possible that this again falls into the realm of the koan, or riddle that can't be explained in any cerebral way. There are any number of cases like this throughout the book: Seymour's explanation of Muriel and Mrs. Fedders' "invisible gifts" in "Roof Beam," the cryptic one-liners in Seymour's written responses to Buddy's fiction, or Seymour's claim that he is "too happy" to attend his own wedding (though we take a decent stab at unfolding that one in Seymour's "Character Analysis"). In other words, it may be enough to read this anecdote about the Davega bicycle and understand it in some emotional way.
Of course, that might not be completely satisfying. Another way to think about this anecdote is to ask what Buddy is trying to accomplish with this introduction of Seymour. We already drew a connection between the marble anecdote and Buddy's style of writing. Can we make a similar connection between the bicycle anecdote and act of writing at all? By conveying Seymour to his readers, Buddy is trying to give to us, his readers, a bit of Seymour. His epiphany here may have quite a bit to do not just with his relationship to and understanding of Seymour, but also with his own artistic process and motivations.