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Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction


by J.D. Salinger

Analysis: What's Up With the Title?

"Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenter" and "Seymour: an Introduction" were originally published separately, several years apart. When they were combined in this short story collection, Salinger chose to combine the existing titles as the new title of the collection. So let's look at each one separately, as the stories were originally titled.

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters

This is a line taken from a poem by Sappho, a lyric poet from Ancient Greece. A piece of the poem makes an explicit appearance about halfway through the short story, so let's start by taking a look at its place in the text:

[Boo Boo] had easily managed to post the following message up on the mirror: "Raise high the roof beam, carpenters. Like Ares comes the bridegroom, taller far than a tall man. Love, Irving Sappho, formerly under contract to Elysium Studios Ltd. Please be happy happy happy with your beautiful Muriel. This is an order. I outrank everybody on this block." The contract writer quoted in the text, I might mention, has always been a great favorite – at appropriately staggered time intervals – with all the children in our family, largely through the immeasurable impact of Seymour's taste in poetry on all of us. I read and reread the quotation, and then I sat down on the edge of the bathtub and opened Seymour's diary. ("Roof Beam" 3.28)

The poem from which this line is taken is a celebratory wedding hymn. This is a fitting source for Boo Boo's congratulatory well wishing of Seymour's marriage. But why does it deserve the title spot? We can think of a few reasons, but you should feel free to add your own.

  1. As Buddy points out, this "was a day, God knows, not only of rampant signs and symbols but of wildly extensive communication via the written word. […] If you slipped into bathrooms, you did well to look up to see if there were any little messages, faintly apocalyptical or otherwise, posted high over the washbowl" ("Roof Beam" 3.26). We talk extensively about the theme of language and communication in the text in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" and "Themes." Boo Boo's message is one element in this much larger discussion, so be sure to check out the "Symbolism" section for the full picture.

  2. Buddy's use of the word "apocalyptical" reminds us of the message's irony. At the time we read it, Seymour has failed to show up for his wedding, which means the bridegroom is not coming like Ares. In fact, he's not coming at all. The word, apocalyptical, also reminds us that Seymour will be dead within a short time. As Boo Boo wishes him a happy wedding, we know that her wish will never come true.
  3. Speaking of happiness, it's a major theme in "Roof Beam" present in this mirror message. Recall that Seymour insists he is too happy to get married. There's more on what that means in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory."

  4. Writing a message on the bathroom wall with a wet piece of soap is apparently one of the Glass-isms of this singular family. So is the love for Sappho. The Glass siblings speak to each other in their own way, through their own mannerisms and in their own language. To wish someone a happy wedding by quoting Sappho – and to do so on the bathroom mirror – is to speak the Glass family language. One of the major themes in both "Roof Beam" and "Seymour: an Introduction" is the insularity of the Glass family and the difficulty, for Buddy, of communicating Glass-isms to the outside world. Buddy can never get anyone outside the family to understand Seymour giving Charlotte the nine stitches, for example. Yet, everyone inside the Glass family understands it perfectly. There's more on that in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory."

  5. As Buddy points out, the Glass children's love for Sappho is "largely through the immeasurable impact of Seymour's taste in poetry on all of us" ("Roof Beam" 3.28). Seymour's literary influence on his siblings is explored more in Franny and Zooey than it is here, but title "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" reminds us of the impact Seymour has had in shaping each of the Glass siblings, and the Glass family dynamic as a whole.

  6. Sappho's poetry is written in Greek, and so there's some flexibility when it comes to word choice in translation. Salinger chooses the word "carpenters" where others have used "workmen" or "craftsmen" or any number of similar nouns. We know from the character Cybil Carpenter in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" that "carpenter" is an important word for Salinger, probably because Jesus was a carpenter. This line of poetry thus becomes more complicated, as it mixes an allusion to Christianity with an allusion to ancient Greek religion (the Sappho poem is actually a bridal hymn to Hymenaios, or the ancient Greek God of marriage rites). This is perfectly in line with Seymour's brand of universal spirituality. In his personal religious philosophy, Seymour combines elements of several different religions, including Christianity and Zen Buddhism.

Seymour: an Introduction

This title seems a lot more straightforward, but it's no less informative and consequential than "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters." Again, the title serves several interesting functions:

  1. In "Writing Style," we talk about the fact that Buddy's narratives are meta-fictional. In other words, they acknowledge the fact that they are fiction. The title fits right in to the meta-fiction. By claiming that the following is "an introduction," Buddy acknowledges immediately that this is a work of writing serving some explicit purpose for the writer.

  2. Later in the text, Buddy discusses the title explicitly (yet another example of meta-fiction). Let's take a look:

    [Seymour] lends [himself] to no legitimate sort of narrative compactness that I know of, and I can't conceive of anyone, least of all myself, trying to write him off in one shot or in one fairly simple series of sittings, whether arranged by the month or the year. […] I'm anything but a short-story writer where my brother is concerned. What I am, I think, is a thesaurus of undetached prefatory remarks about him. […] 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. In this mood, I don't dare go anywhere near the short-story form. ("Seymour" 1.4)

    The point is that "Seymour: an Introduction" is not a short story – it's an introduction. And so the title prepares us for the form of the piece. The title tells us not to expect a typically plotted (or typically anything else) short story.

  3. "Seymour: an Introduction" reinforces Buddy's point that Seymour is simply too large to fit on paper. He can't possibly describe everything about his brother (though it's not for lack of trying) on the written page. This is merely an introduction – merely the early beginnings of an infinitely large project. Don't expect to know everything about Seymour from this one piece, the title says, because there's lots more where this came from.

  4. Lastly, the title is a tad ironic since this is one of Salinger's last stories about the Glass family, not one of the first. We've already met Seymour in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and learned all about him in "Franny," "Zooey," "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters," and even subtextually in "Teddy." All of this makes this "Introduction" anything but.

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