The Salinger Generation

by John B. Judis | January 30, 2010

I was a child of the J.D. Salinger generation. Not of his generation, but of his stories and one novel, The Catcher in the Rye. I read Catcher in Rye in prep school when I was fourteen, using a flash light after lights-out. I didn’t get expelled like Holden Caulfield did, but my roommate and I would sometimes sneak off to New York with phony permission slips signed by our parents and fake IDs to roam around bars and dream of escaping to the West (which I eventually did). But of all Salinger’s writings, Catcher in the Rye made far less of an impression than the Nine Stories, and particularly the opening story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” I think of it just about every time I go up in an elevator with a woman I don’t know.

The story is about Seymour Glass, the eldest child of the Glass family—Franny and Zooey of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey are his siblings. Like Salinger himself, Seymour suffered some kind of nervous breakdown after serving in World War II and is on a vacation in Florida with his wife Muriel. Muriel, as the story opens, is alone in the hotel room, removing a stain from her Saks blouse and doing her nails when the phone rings. It is her mother who is worried some harm will come to Muriel from Seymour who, she believes, will “lose control of himself.” Many writers use dialogue to convey an impression of interaction that they could have gotten across just as well by leaving out the quotation marks and describing the gist of what each person said. But Salinger was capable of conveying the way people actually spoke to each other—the pauses, broken sentences, interruptions, overlapping trains of thought—while at the same time setting a larger scene for the reader. Here is a segment of the conversation between Muriel and her mother:

“Are you all right, Muriel? Tell me the truth.”

“I’m fine. Stop asking me that, please.”

“When did you get there?”

“I don’t know. Wednesday morning, early.”

“Who drove?”

“He did,” said the girl. “And don’t get excited. He drove very nicely. I was amazed.”

He drove? Muriel, you gave me your word of—”

“Mother,” the girl interrupted, “I just told you. He drove very nicely. Under fifty the whole way, as a matter of fact.”

“Did he try any funny business with the trees?”

“I said he drove very nicely, Mother. Now please. I asked him to stay close to the white line, and all, and he knew what I meant, and he did. He was even trying not to look at the trees—you could tell. Did Daddy get the car fixed, incidentally?”

“Not yet. They want four hundred dollars, just—”

“Mother, Seymour told Daddy that he’d pay for it. There’s no reason for—”

Muriel’s mother keeps reiterating her concerns about Seymour going out of control, but Muriel keeps shifting the conversation to “that awful dress we saw in Bonwit Teller’s window” or to the guests at the hotel that “look as if they drove down in a truck.”

On the beach, Seymour is lying on his back with his bathrobe still on. A little girl, Sybil, who has taken a shine to “See More Glass,” comes over to him. She asks him where his wife is. “That’s hard to say, Sybil. She may be in any one of a thousand places. At the hair dresser. Having her hair dyed mink. Or making dolls for poor children, in her room,” Seymour replies.

Sybil asks him to go for a swim with her. He tells her that if they do, they might be able to “catch a bananafish.” He explains that they are “very ordinary-looking fish” who, “after they swim into a banana hole, eat as many as seventy-eight bananas.” Afterwards, unable to extricate themselves from the hole, “they die … from banana fever.” When a wave hits, dousing Sybil, whom Seymour is guiding through the water on a float, she says that she saw a bananafish with six bananas in its mouth. Seymour kisses her on the arch of her foot and pushes the float back toward safety and the shore.

Seymour goes back to the hotel and gets into the elevator with a woman with “zinc salve on her nose.” The following exchange ensues:

“I see you are looking at my feet,” he said to her when the car was in motion.

“I beg your pardon,” said the woman.

“I said I see you’re looking at my feet.”

“I beg your pardon. I happened to be looking at the floor,” said the woman, and faced the doors of the car.

“If you want to look at my feet, say so,” said the young man. “But don’t be a God-damned sneak about it.”

“Let me out here, please,” the woman said quickly to the girl operating the car.

Seymour gets off the elevator himself at the fifth floor and enters his hotel room, which “smelled of new calfskin luggage and nail-lacquer remover.” He takes out a service revolver from under a pile of undershirts in a piece of luggage and fires a bullet through his right temple.

Seymour’s suicide is abrupt, surprising, shocking, yet entirely consistent with what preceded it, and what we learned about him from Muriel’s conversation with her mother. It’s not that Seymour is crazy. It’s that he despises the superficiality and dishonesty of the world around him and finally decides that he would be better dead than part of it. His wife Muriel lives entirely among Saks blouses and Bonwit Teller dresses. The woman in the elevator won’t acknowledge that she was looking at his bare feet—a sexual act in marked contrast to the purity of Seymour kissing Sybil’s arch.

Now that I reread “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” many years later, I see that it is another instance of a male vision that ran through other writers of the 1950s like Norman Mailer and Paul Goodman: married women as the anchors of conformity and superficiality. But it’s more than that. Seymour Glass, like Holden Caulfield, anticipated the Beatniks of the later 1950s and the Hippies of the 1960s with their rejection of the “rat race” and the “grey-flannel suit” and the “organization man.”

There’s also an aspect of Seymour Glass’s despair and suicide that I recognize, but that may no longer resonate. Kids like myself who grew up in the 1950s and came to question the whole ethos of parents and jobs and family and marriage and country and God were often on the lookout for something else that could give meaning to our lives. My friends and I used to even use initials—“M of L”—for the meaning of life, because we talked so much about trying to find it. Some friends from those days did commit suicide, and others spent stretches in mental hospitals. These were extreme, but not incomprehensible or clinically classifiable, reactions to the failure to find the M of L. So Seymour’s story made perfect sense, as did Allen Ginsburg’s refrain at the end of “Howl”:

Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland

            Where you are madder than I am

As I think about Seymour and Muriel Glass vacationing in Florida, I would draw a contrast with The Heartbreak Kid, a hilarious movie that came out in 1973 and was written by Neil Simon and Bruce Jay Friedman and directed by Elaine May. A young Jewish couple is honeymooning in Miami Beach when the husband meets and falls in love with a rich WASP, and leaves his wife to pursue her. In this case, it is the husband who is outwardly obsessed with status and appearance. He has an inner self just as Seymour does, but it only consists of an exaggerated version of his outward self. His M of L is a beautiful shiksa.

Someone made a new version of The Heartbreak Kid in 2007. I had no interest in seeing it. But the point I’d make is that someone could remake that movie 34 years later without it seeming anachronistic. I’m not sure if someone could write a new version of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Seymour’s sensibility and his suicide very much belonged to a period when there was a kind of reevaluation of all values—when one looked inside and encountered unanswerable questions. Is that true anymore? I’m not sure. But in the 1950s, when I read Salinger, it captured something very real and disturbing.

John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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