Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction
by J.D. Salinger
Analysis: What's Up With the Epigraph?
Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.
The actors by their presence always convince me, to my horror, that most of what I've written about them until now is false. It is false because I write about them with steadfast love (even now, while I write it down, this, too, becomes false) but varying ability, and this varying ability does not hit off the real actors loudly and correctly but loses itself dully in this love that will never be satisfied with the ability and therefore thinks it is protecting the actors by preventing this ability from exercising itself.
– Franz Kafka
It is (to describe it figuratively) as if an author were to make a slip of the pen, and as if this clerical error became conscious of being such. Perhaps this was no error but in a far higher sense was an essential part of the whole exposition. It is, then, as if this clerical error were to revolt against the author, out of hatred for him, were to forbid him to correct it, and were to say, "No, I will not be erased, I will stand as a witness against thee, that thou art a very poor writer."
– Søren Kierkegaard
There are actually four things up with these epigraphs. Let's go one at a time.
The Content: Writing about People is Hard. Actually, Writing About Anything is Hard.
These are some complicated epigraphs, and unless you're used to skimming Kierkegaard and Kafka over breakfast, you probably have to read them a few times to grasp what they're saying. So let's paraphrase. Kafka says that to write about a person with love makes it difficult to write about them with accuracy. When you love your subject, you are never satisfied with your "varying ability" to write about them. Kierkegaard is talking about errors in the content of what is being written – he just uses the metaphor of a "clerical error." Such a fundamental error cannot be easily fixed; instead it remains as a testament to the writer's imperfect abilities.
Of course, both of these quotations tie in directly to Buddy's attempts to write about Seymour. First of all, he says as much: "By and large, I've reproduced the two passages to try to suggest very plainly how I think I stand in regard to the overall mass of data I hope to assemble here – a thing that in some quarters, I don't a bit mind saying, an author can't be too explicit about, or any too early" ("Seymour" 1.2). Buddy certainly writes about Seymour with love, and he repeatedly questions the accuracy of his descriptions. When he discusses the short story "Teddy," for example, he says that he was trying to get at Seymour's eyes with his description of the title character's face, but failed utterly. There's an example of an error that refused to be erased, an error that very much became "an essential part of the whole exposition." Kafka says that the love a writer feels for his subject means he won't ever be satisfied with his writing about that subject. This is Buddy in a nutshell, who openly admits falling victim to this plight with regard to Seymour:
My original plans for this general space were to write a short story about Seymour and to call it 'SEYMOUR ONE', with the big 'ONE' serving as a built-in convenience to me, Buddy Glass, even more than to the reader – a helpful, flashy reminder that other stories (a Seymour Two, Three, and possibly Four) would logically have to follow. Those plans no longer exist. ("Seymour" 1.4)
Buddy has found it impossible to capture Seymour in any "legitimate sort of narrative compactness," and "can't conceive of anyone, least of all [himself], trying to write him off in one shot or in one fairly simple series of sittings, whether arranged by the month or the year" ("Seymour" 1.4).
The Style and Tone: A Fitting Appetizer for Seymour
The epigraphs are effective not just in their content, but in their style and tone as well. They set us up for the more difficult, sophisticated, and cerebral territory of "Seymour" (as compared to "Roof Beam," that is). Check out our discussions of "Writing Style" and "Tone," and you'll see why Kafka and Kierkegaard fit the introductory bill.
Furnishings for the Intellectual Setting
We'll have to send you off to "Setting" if you want to understand this one. Basically, we argue that if "Roof Beam" goes down in a clearly-defined physical setting, then "Seymour" operates in a well-defined intellectual atmosphere. And these opening quotes are the cerebral equivalent of furniture. As Buddy says (in his own special way), the quotations reference his own "aesthetic pathology" ("Seymour" 1.2)
A Thematic Lead-In
Buddy, being the playful and meta-fictional narrator that he is, takes a moment to discuss the importance of his own epigraphs:
I don't really deeply feel that anyone needs an airtight reason for quoting from the works of writers he loves, but it's always nice, I'll grant you, if he has one. In this case, it seems to me that those two passages, especially in contiguity, are wonderfully representative of the best, in a sense, not only of Kafka and Kierkegaard but of all the four dead men, the four variously notorious Sick Men or underadjusted bachelors (probably only van Gogh, of the four, will be excused from making a guest appearance in these pages), whom I most often run to – occasionally in real distress – when I want any perfectly credible information about modern artistic processes. ("Seymour" 1.2)
The Four Sick men are an important idea in "Seymour," and we discuss them fully in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory." Since Kierkegaard and Kafka are two of the Four, it's fitting that they are quoted in the epigraph.