On Matters That Matter

The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones

Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters

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“There were ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel, and, the way they were monopolizing the long-distance lines, the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through. She used the time, though. She read an article in a women’s pocket-size magazine, called ‘Sex Is Fun-or Hell.’ She washed her comb and brush. She took the spot out of the skirt of her beige suit. She moved the button on her Saks blouse. She tweezed out two freshly surfaced hairs in her mole. When the operator finally rang her room, she was sitting on the window seat and had almost finished putting lacquer on the nails of her left hand. She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing. She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty.”

The paragraph above is the beginning of J.D. Salinger’s novella ‘A Perfect Day For Bananafish,’ published in the 31st January 1948 edition of The New Yorker. It is the first story about the fictional Glass family created by Salinger. The lady mentioned above is Muriel; the wife of Seymour Glass, the eldest in a family of seven brothers and sisters, who in 1948 is 31-years-old and on a vacation in Florida. Seymour meets a six-year-old girl Sybil Carpenter at a beach and there is a conversation that follows. Seymour tells little Sybil a story about ‘bananafish’ and how it is a perfect day to spot them. They wade in the water for a while and then the man returns to the hotel. Below is the last paragraph of the story.

“He got off at the fifth floor, walked down the hall, and let himself into 507. The room smelled of new calfskin luggage and nail-lacquer remover. He glanced at the girl lying asleep on one of the twin beds. Then he went over to one of the pieces of luggage, opened it, and from under a pile of shorts and undershirts he took out an Ortgies calibre 7.65 automatic. He released the magazine, looked at it, then reinserted it. He cocked the piece. Then he went over and sat down on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple.”

Salinger’s 1951 book The Catcher In The Rye is by far the work he is most renowned for; both for acclaim and censure. The book is considered as one of the classics of post-war American literature. “A first-person narrative by Holden Caulfield, or rather, a dialogue between Holden and the reader, this novel is unique in literature by the apparent absence of the author.”

On January 1, 2009 Salinger turned 90 and he still remains the celebrity because of his absence from public space. The year 1955 was a very productive one for Salinger. In the beginning of the year he released Franny and by the end of the year gave a novella through which many of his past efforts would converge; Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. It was also the first year of his marriage with Claire Alison Douglas on February 17, 1955. The wedding took place twenty miles west of Cornish, in Barnard, Vermont, and it was attended by only the closest of family and friends. Salinger had spent years drawing characters into the Glass family but it was only in 1955, with the publication of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters that the members of Salinger’s ‘settlers’ assembled as a unit. The New Yorker’s editor William Shawn worked the year round with Salinger on this seminal work about the Glass family. In book form it was published with another story called Seymour An Introduction.

I am using an extract from Seymour An Introduction for the one brilliant poetic illustration in it: “It would be absurd to say that most young people’s attraction to poetry is far exceeded by their attraction to those few or many details of a poet’s life that may be defined here, loosely, operationally, as lurid. It’s the sort of absurd notion, though, that I wouldn’t mind taking out for a good academic run someday. I surely think, at any rate, that if I were to ask the sixty odd girls (or, that is, the sixty-odd girls) in my two Writing for Publication courses—most of them seniors, all of them English majors—to quote a line, any line from ‘Ozymandias,’ or even just to tell me roughly what the poem is about, it is doubtful whether ten of them could do either, but I’d bet my unrisen tulips that some fifty of them could tell me that Shelley was all for free love, and had one wife who wrote ‘Frankenstein’ and another who drowned herself.

I’m neither shocked nor outraged at the idea, please mind. I don’t think I’m even complaining. For if nobody’s a fool, then neither am I, and I’m entitled to a non-fool’s Sunday awareness that, whoever we are, no matter how like a blast furnace the heat from the candles on our latest birthday cake, and however presumably lofty the intellectual, moral, and spiritual heights we’ve all reached, our gusto for the lurid or partly lurid (which, of course, includes both low and superior gossip) is probably the last of our fleshy appetites to be sated or effectively curbed. (But, my God, why do I rant on? Why am I not going straight to the poet for an illustration? One of Seymour’s hundred and eighty-four poems—a shocker on the first impact only; on the second, as heartening a paean to the living as I’ve read—is about a distinguished old ascetic on his deathbed, surrounded by chanting priests and disciples, who lies straining to hear what the washerwoman in the courtyard is saying about his neighbour’s laundry. The old gentleman, Seymour makes it clear, is faintly wishing the priests would keep their voices down a bit.)

I can see, though, that I’m having a little of the usual trouble entailed in trying to make a very convenient generalization stay still and docile long enough to support a wild specific premise. I don’t relish being sensible about it, but I suppose I must. It seems to me indisputably true that a good many people, the wide world over, of varying ages, cultures, natural endowments, respond with a special impetus, a zing, even, in some cases, to artists and poets who as well as having a reputation for producing great or fine art have something garishly Wrong with them as persons: a spectacular flaw in character or citizenship, a construably romantic affliction or addiction—extreme self-centeredness, marital infidelity, stone-deafness, stone-blindness, a terrible thirst, a mortally bad cough, a soft spot for prostitutes, a partiality for grand-scale adultery or incest, a certified or uncertified weakness for opium or sodomy, and so on, God have mercy on the lonely bastards. If suicide isn’t at the top of the list of compelling infirmities for creative men, the suicide poet or artist, one can’t help noticing, has always been given a very considerable amount of avid attention, not seldom on sentimental grounds almost exclusively, as if he were (to put it much more horribly than I really want to) the floppy-eared runt of the litter. It’s a thought, anyway, finally said, that I’ve lost sleep over many times, and possibly will again.”

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