Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction
by J.D. Salinger
Where It All Goes Down
New York City in 1942; upstate New York in 1959
"Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" takes place in New York City in late May of 1942 and is narrated by the fictional Buddy Glass in 1955. "Seymour: an Introduction" takes place and is narrated by Buddy Glass in 1959, "in upper New York, not far from the Canadian border […] in a totally modest, not to say cringing, little house, set deep in the woods and on the more inaccessible side of a mountain" ("Seymour" 1.10). Both stories feature flashbacks to Buddy and Seymour's childhood in the 1920s and young adulthood in the 30s.
One of Salinger's trademarks is his partiality to confined spaces in his settings. His scenes are tight and sometimes border on claustrophobic. In his other Glass family story novel, Franny and Zooey scene that lasted half the novel takes place between two people in a small bathroom. In " Teddy," we have a scene confined to a tiny cabin aboard a ship. And in "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters," we find yet another example in the backseat of the guest car.
Salinger makes fantastic use of his setting to create an oppressive, stifling, overwhelming, and horribly uncomfortable atmosphere in which poor Buddy has to operate. To start with, it's New York City in the summer and is incredibly hot. Then Buddy is crammed into a car with too-little space for five guests in the back. On top of that, he has pleurisy (a painful lung disease) and is trying (and failing) to stop himself from coughing. He's got tape wrapped around his torso, which feels all sticky and itchy and sweaty in the heat. Then the car is stopped in traffic – indefinitely – which means they're stuck in this stifling environment. Oh, right, and at least one of the guests is just about ready to strangle anyone with the faintest connection to Buddy's brother. The discomfort here is palpable – you are supposed to feel miserable, or at least uncomfortable, reading this. You should also endlessly envy Salinger's incredible ability to create a scene.
The setting of "Seymour: an Introduction" is interesting in that it's really more of an intellectual setting than it is a physical one. Physically, the setting of "Seymour" is the opposite of "Roof Beam." Sure, we get a few details from Buddy – typewriter, chair, study – but we really don't see where he is. There is no palpable physical atmosphere as there is in "Roof Beam." There is, however, an incredibly powerful, consistent, and integral intellectual atmosphere. Think of the opening two epigraphs as really setting the stage for what is to come. This is a world defined not by smells or weather or physical spaces, but by ideas and concepts. The concept of the Sick Artist (see "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" for more on this concept) is one of the pieces of furniture occupying this mental space. The quote from Kafka is another. Buddy, who, let's face it, can start at times to sound like a disembodied voice (despite his repeated insistence that he is going to bed, waking up, or having a drink like a normal being), exists, talks in a similarly "disembodied" atmosphere.