While probably best know for his masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye American writer J.D. Salinger is also known for helping to establish The New Yorker's literary reputation on the short story scene. In 1948, after the publication of Salinger's " A Perfect Day for Bananafish," the story of Seymour Glass, The New Yorker signed a contract with Salinger giving them right of first refusal on any of his future stories. Over the next twenty years, Salinger's fame grew with the publication of many more "Glass family" stories.
The seven fictional Glass family siblings (Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, Walt, Waker, Zooey, and Franny) grew up as precocious, intelligent, highly-educated, and spiritual children. As adults in these stories set in the 1940s and 50s, the Glass siblings struggle with social detachment, spiritual and philosophical crises, and in the case of the oldest sibling, Seymour, a form of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.
The Glass family saga began with "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" in 1948, which tells the story of Seymour's suicide at age of 31. In 1943, Salinger published a collection of short stories called Nine Stories, which featured, along with "Bananafish," at least three other stories which hold either major or minor connections to the Glass family saga. (We say "at least" because there is some speculation as to whether certain unnamed characters are Glass siblings in disguise.) Among these is " Teddy," a short story, which second oldest sibling and writer Buddy Glass will later claim to have written himself.
The Glass family saga continued with the publication of "Franny" in 1955, the story of youngest sibling Franny Glass as she undergoes a quarter-life college crisis. Next up is "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" in 1955, narrated by Buddy Glass, a flashback story to Seymour's wedding day in 1942. In 1957 came "Zooey," a direct continuation of "Franny" (as in, it picks up the day after "Franny" left off) in which we see the resolution of Franny's crisis.
Finally we get to "Seymour: an Introduction" in 1959. Also narrated by Buddy Glass, "Seymour" is a sort of free form, plot-free discussion of Buddy's brother, Seymour. Buddy, at age 40, attempts to portray an accurate picture of his dead brother, but quickly admits that to do so is impossible. The story is just as much about the process of writing as it is about Seymour, and the rest of the Glass family. It does fill in a lot of the holes, however, so it's a must-read for any Glass family fans.
The last story Salinger ever published was "Hapworth 16, 1924," which takes the form of a letter home written by a seven-year-old Seymour at summer camp in 1924. After publishing "Hapworth" in The New Yorker in 1965, Salinger retreated to his house in New Hampshire and became a famous recluse. He has published nothing since.
Let's focus on the two stories at hand, "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" and "Seymour, an Introduction." Though they were originally published separately in The New Yorker, they were released together in book form in 1963, as a two-piece short story collection and became the third best selling book of the year. Salinger said of this pairing:
"They ["Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenter" and "Seymour: an Introduction"] are both very much concerned with Seymour Glass, 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 undesirably 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." (From the dust jacket of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenter and Seymour: an Introduction.)
Salinger may have been enamored of these works, but critics gave these pieces – and the Glass family stories as a whole – mixed reviews. As the Glass saga continued, the author seemed to become increasingly intrigued by and interested in his own characters. Some have argued that the Glass children are pretentious, obnoxious, and alienating, and find the writing too showy, cutesy, and self-indulgent. One such critic was American novelist John Updike – you can read what he had to say here.
The criticism is harshest for "Seymour: an Introduction." Times critic Orville Prescott, who enjoyed "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters," said of "Seymour" that "Buddy Glass talks about Seymour at wearisome length and almost as tediously about himself," adding that Buddy's "viscous prose," rambling, digressing, and pontificating renders the story "intolerably dull" (source).
Most will agree that as Salinger's writing evolved in the 1950s and 60s, "egocentricity and eccentricity have increased," as scholar John Lyons puts it (source). But not everyone feels that this is a bad thing.
Though there is a fairly wide critical spectrum, you'll be hard-pressed to find any critic who doesn't admit to Salinger's impact in shaping the course of American literature in the 20th century. Even Updike, who railed on Franny and Zooey, admitted that Salinger's stories "really opened [his] eyes as to how you can weave fiction out of a set of events that seem almost unconnected, or very lightly connected," adding that reading Salinger really "moved [him] a step up […] toward knowing how to handle [his] own material" (source). It's a debate for the ages, so get to reading and jump on in.\
Have you ever tried to describe the love of your life to someone? Or put into writing the important impact your [fill in the blank here – mother, father, grandparent, best friend] had on you growing up? It's not an easy business.
Through the fictional narrator/writer Buddy Glass, Salinger spends hundreds of pages trying to describe the character of Seymour Glass. Buddy, Seymour's brother, struggles to explain to us what his now-dead brother was once like. He gives us physical descriptions, anecdotes from their childhood, his own personal musings, annotated commentary on Seymour's likes, dislikes, and tendencies, and even re-types a dozen or so pages of Seymour's own writing. But Buddy just isn't satisfied.
Buddy's conclusion might be similar to yours. He just can't do it. He can't fit Seymour onto a page. Seymour is simply too large, too grand, too great. But mostly, we learn that it is Buddy's love for Seymour that gets in the way. Love places an incredible burden on Buddy – to be truthful, to be complete, to be accurate.
And according to this book, it's made even more difficult by the impossibility of effective communication. Most of life's important lessons, Salinger tells us, aren't ones that can be expressed by words. There are things we have to understand emotionally or spiritually.
When you put these things together, you get a book that is as much about the process of writing, living, and loving as it is about anything else. And that's definitely something you should care about.
Full Text of "Roof Beam"
As originally published in The New Yorker. (Warning: there's a chunk missing about two-thirds of the way through. If anyone finds a hole-less version anywhere, let us know.)
Full Text of "Seymour: an Introduction"
As originally published in The New Yorker.
Circa…many years ago. He's in his nineties now.
NY Times Topic Page
Check out the NY Time's J.D. Salinger topic page.