The Mystic in the Rye: JD Salinger’s Religious Fiction

While Jerome David (J.D.) Salinger died more than a month ago, on January 27, it is still difficult for me to talk about him in the past tense. I expect that his books have something to do with that—the way they play with time. Yet as the accolades multiplied in the days after his demise, one thing that struck me was the almost telephoto-focus on a single novel, his 1951 classic, The Catcher in the Rye. And the most important thing to observe about The Catcher in the Rye, is that it is the only non-explicitly religious book Salinger, a restless religious seeker, ever wrote.

There is no question but that this book has become an almost inescapable part of the implicit New American canon; scarcely a ninth or tenth grader in the land hasn’t been forced to read it. I was assigned the book in the snowy winter months of my freshman year in high school and I had the supreme good fortune of being taught the book by a very serious, and highly imaginative, scholar of American literature. He did not let the class neglect the crucial detail, revealed near the book’s end, that our stalwart narrator has been confined to a sanitorium, and may not be quite the trustworthy reporter he would have us believe him to be.

So the book was far more than a manifesto for the mid-teen audience horrified by the overwhelming influence of “phonies” in the adult world. It was a cautionary tale about what seeing through the charade may cost the sensitive soul who fails to conform to the anti-Platonic realm of the phonies.

Salinger’s was a wiser and more knowing glimpse into the radicalism of the 1960s that lay not so very far in the country’s collective future. Salinger laid the spiritual foundations for a counterculture.

He was a mystic, pure and simple. The most enduring moment in The Catcher in the Rye is the one thing that seems able to tame even a hardened cynic like Holden Caufield: an encounter with the innocence of childhood, especially children at play. It is this quest for lost innocence that defines the spiritual trajectory of Salinger’s most memorable characters. They are all teachers, parents, players, children-at-heart.

Most of those characters come from the storied Glass family, the surprising brood produced by an old vaudeville family from Manhattan’s Upper East Side (the East 70s, to be exact… the museum district). Bessie (née Gallagher, though this family, if ever there were one, was a matriarchy) and Les Glass were both performers, but they landed their greatest role and expressed their deepest creativity in the children they produced.

There were seven in all, but first among them was the eldest son, Seymour (that’s right, See-More-Glass, the son of Less-Glass). Seymour was, literally from the moment he could read (a very early moment in his case), the poet and spiritual adept who charted out the path along which each of the other Glass children, half Jewish and half Irish, would find their way.

Born in 1917, and a voracious reader of everything he could lay hands and heart upon—the Upanishads and Diamond Sutra, Meister Eckhart and Sappho, all the Christian gospels, the Tao Te Ching and Mencius, Søren Kierkegaard and Anton Chekhov—Seymour Glass also found the perfect role for himself on a radio talk-show called “It’s A Wise Child.” Every one of the Glass children starred on that show, dominating the airwaves with childlike wisdom, from 1927 through 1943 when the youngest of the clan, Franny, signed off for the very last time. The Glass children, that is to say, found their spiritual careers bookended by the World Wars. Then they took their radio profits and went to college, each one in their turn.

You see Salinger’s point; no GI Bill in this family; spirituality paved their ways to a degree.

We learn most of what we know about the Glass family in Salinger’s most important book, Franny and Zooey, published in 1961, but set in 1955. Here are the highlights: Seymour committed suicide shortly after the War, in 1948, and that loss dominated the entire subsequent career of the siblings.

It led to the almost compulsive attempts by the second son, Buddy, to capture some shard of Seymour’s wisdom in words. He was a writer-in-residence at a small women’s college in upstate New York. Boo Boo was a married mother of three, and the twins, Walt and Walker were, respectively, an accidental casualty of the occupation of Japan and a Jesuit priest working in South America. Zooey (Zachary Martin Glass) was an aspiring actor in 1955, and the youngest daughter, Franny, was on leave from her college due to a spiritual malaise that brought her to the brink of a nervous breakdown. An intensely neurotic family.

Also intensely brilliant, intensely attuned, and intensely committed to one another.

What prompted Franny’s crisis was her introduction to the Russian Orthodox classics, The Way of the Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way. These devotional texts relate the story of an illiterate Russian peasant who learns the “Jesus Prayer” and comes to realize that the meditative reiteration of this prayer was what Paul had in mind when he urged his readers to “pray without ceasing.” As the pilgrim internalizes the prayer, his pilgrim’s path unfolds with clarity. Franny, tempted to the prayer, has come home emaciated and exhausted from her spiritual labors. In the end, Zooey reminds her of a story that Seymour was fond of telling the siblings, a way to encourage them to return to the radio show when they didn’t feel like it. Reminding her of this story, Zooey helps Franny to recall the this-worldly mysticism to which their brother had called them. They could enact these subtle truths as easily on the Upper East Side as anywhere.

We learn more about Seymour himself in the other book, or rather, the two novellas that were published together as a book in 1963. The first of the two, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” is actually a quote from one of the fragments of Sappho, the Archaic Greek poetess Plato deemed “the tenth muse.” The line comes from one of Sappho’s wedding songs, which is fitting, since this one relates the story of Seymour’s engagement to a stunning beauty who seems really not to understand him (who, we are put to wonder, ever could?). Seymour calls off the wedding “because he is too happy,” and then later that evening the couple elopes, leaving Buddy holding the bag but also with an important story to tell.

The next piece, “Seymour, An Introduction,” represents the one time when Buddy really tries to come to terms with his brother’s mystic path in something other than storyteller’s terms.

But it is the stories that grab you. Salinger describes Seymour’s final day in a marvelous short story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (from his 1953 collection, Nine Stories). Yet what is assuredly the most disturbing story in the collection is the ninth one, “Teddy.” This one tells the tale of yet one more “wise child,” a spiritual adept who is far enough evolved as to recall his prior incarnations. He also knows that the karmic wheel has dictated that this time around he is destined to be killed by his younger sister, who will push him into an empty pool on a cruise ship. In fact, the child cuts short an interview in order to keep his date with disaster, and the story, like the book, ends with a scream.

These are very hard stories, and Salinger’s is a very hard world. It seems important to keep in mind how World Wars bookend the narrative world he went to such lengths to create, and that his own writerly career was more or less bookended by the end of the Second War and the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.

Yet the quest that Seymour set for his siblings, a quest apparently best captured by a posthumous collection of 184 short poems we never see, was a quest for happiness, the very thing he never figured out. Seymour Glass clearly felt that you could be “too happy” (perhaps ‘serene’ is a better word for the state he wished to cultivate). Buddy swerved from that path. Perhaps.

Oh this happiness is strong stuff. It’s marvelously liberating. I’m free, I feel, to tell you exactly what you must be longing to hear now. That is, if as I know you do, you love best in this world those little beings of pure spirit with a natural temperature of 125, then it naturally follows that the creature you love next best is the person—the God-knower or God-hater (almost never apparently anything in between), the saint or profligate, moralist or complete immoralist—who can write a poem that is a poem. Among human beings, he’s the curlew sandpiper, and I hasten to tell you what little I presume to know about his flights, his heat, his incredible heart. (“Seymour,” 113-114)

After this burst of spiritual and quasi-scriptural energy spanning roughly a decade, Salinger fell silent. Theories abound as to why. He ran out of things to say. He felt that he’d said everything he could responsibly say. He felt that publishing was just “a damned interruption.” I’ve even heard that he stopped writing under his own name and started writing under another—Thomas Pynchon is the most intriguing hypothesis I ever heard.

The main thing people who take his work seriously wonder about is the degree to which Salinger worried that to write anymore about such deep and impenetrable topics would be to risk the very phoniness that shattered Holden and Seymour both, in the end. Salinger doubtless found some of the New Age syrupy and superficial, whereas his own version of written spiritual exercises was hard-nosed and irreverent.

He knew that the task of the maturing self was to let the self go, to clear it out in order to make room for spirit to enter.

When Zooey Glass was trying to find his own way, the only alternative to the theater he seriously considered was a PhD in ancient Greek. Sappho’s poetry and Plato’s philosophy haunt these pages. Salinger knew well that these Greek traditions were fundamentally religious in nature, a point still lost on far too many contemporary readers.

(A marvelous exception is Anne Carson; if you want to see what Seymour-like poetry might look like, then read any of her books, but especially Eros the Bittersweet and her more recent work, Decreation).

Plato, it is important to recall, famously admitted in the so-called Seventh Letter that he never wrote what he most believed, because words do not lend themselves to that kind of thing. Franny and Zooey is a play on some important Greek words, meaning something like “mind and life,” or “thinking and living.” The point is not to let the thinking trump the living. Zooey, the living, helps Franny, the thinking, find her peace.

And so Salinger fell silent, entering a nearly hermetic existence that stayed with him, so we imagine, to the end. If he wrote more as he saw more, we never knew. Likely we will see new manuscripts in print in the near future (several unpublished collections of short stories already circulate).

Perhaps the best way, the only way, to end this is the way Salinger ended his Seymour reflections… not with the gunshot in a short story, but with Buddy’s final words at novella’s end.

One of the thousand reasons I quit going to the theater when I was about twenty was that I resented like hell filing out of the theater just because some playwright was forever slamming down his silly curtain. (What ever became of that stalwart Fortinbras? Who eventually fixed his wagon?) Nonetheless, I’m done here… Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one piece of Holy Ground to the next. Is he never wrong?
Just go to bed, now. Quickly. Quickly and slowly. (“Seymour,” 212-213)

Perhaps saying good night is a more tolerable way of saying good-bye to those we love, and lose.