By Kenneth Slawenski
Random House 2011
Reviewed by Norma Gay Prewett
The Spiritual Hermitage of Pure Art
It is fitting and proper that I should end my thirty-year career as an English teacher writing about J.D. Salinger. In 1965, a timid country girl sat in the second row of Mrs. Rosalie Stotmeister’s English class in a small-town high school falling in love—with Holden Caulfield, with learning, with a teacher who would be the first to take me in hand, direct my meandering teen-aged mind to loftier pursuits than whose class ring I should accept, and show me what courage and commitment to teaching looks like.
A giant of a woman in a blue-plaid Pendleton jacket and stern shoes, she spotted me despite my cowering. When she couldn’t hear my whispered answers in response to her questions in class, she demanded I come in early to school (which meant she had to come in early too, I later understood) and be given “voice development classes,” which meant calling out things from the third-floor landing of the high school loudly enough that Mrs. Stotmeister (“Stotsy” to both admirers and detractors) could hear and repeat my words.
Today, this direct instruction might qualify as bullying, but even then, I think I knew that she was teaching me to stand up for my ideas, be bold, and giving me confidence that I had never earned on my own. When she introduced the class to The Catcher in the Rye, that slim little red book with the gold lettering that had already been derided at colleges as being profane and dangerous to youthful minds, I grabbed it eagerly.
My mistake was trying to read it at the supper table, stashed on my lap. Though meals in my family were not really decorous affairs, my mother had apparently had a bad enough day not to put up with being disrespected one more way. She snatched the book, which happened to fall open to one of the four times Salinger uses “Fuck” in the book—the notorious mummy graffiti incident where someone has scrawled the “F-word” on a sarcophagus (page 204 of the Bantam edition if you have to know).
Mother scowled. She made an appointment with this MRS. Stotmeister, an amazing act of courage which must have filled my mother, a shy but devout Baptist woman, with terror. It was clash of the Titans to my mind, but Catcher stayed in the curriculum, I continued to read it, and a few years later, by then a teaching assistant with my own class of scared college freshmen, I taught the dangerous book for the first time. By then, I had befriended another grad student who was so enamored of Salinger that he seemed to want to become either the author or a member of the author’s fictional Glass family. Like untold numbers of other young people, I began to think, talk, act like my version of the family that seemed infinitely wiser, wittier, more interesting than my own.
I became a “Salingerite,” as John Updike dubbed us in a slighting review of Franny and Zooey. Years intervened and I broadened my literary palate and began to read and teach widely enough that J. D. Salinger seemed just another comfortable friend of my youth. I think I taught Catcher one more time and found its ironic language, by then so much parodied and badly mimicked, a little passé. The final piece of the personal part of this review arrived just last week, while I was cleaning out my office for retirement from teaching. High on a dusty shelf, filled with my childish scrawled notes (such as “not literally” next to the words “it killed me”), was my original high school copy of Catcher.
Ten years ago, when the editor of Cambridge Book Review asked me to review Joyce Maynard’s At Home in the World, Maynard’s memoir of her years as Salinger’s lover, my curiosity had again been piqued. My observation in that review was: “Everything is fair game in this book and reading these gutsy confessions is enervating and energizing … Maynard confesses all, from her precocious longing for world-shine and all-encompassing ability to dissemble, to her breast implants, which gave her an instant 40-inch bust. She made me squirm with her descriptions of ‘Jerry’ Salinger’s sexual preferences …”
Now, having finished Kenneth Slawenski’s new biography, J.D. Salinger: A Life, the contrasts and yet ironic similarities between Maynard’s style of being in the world and Salinger’s abound. Among his last parting “shots” at Maynard when he dismissed her as his lover: “The trouble with you, Joyce,” he (allegedly) says, “is you-love-the-world.” But, perhaps he doth protest too much?
One of the best parts of reading A Life was that it compelled me to seek out and reread much of Salinger’s other work. Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, larded as they are with internal, though not external autobiographical bits, reminded me of what a tender soul Salinger was. His love for the world, especially the innocent parts of the world, shine through. He also reminded the world in Carpenters, of R.H. Blyth’s famous and useful definition of sentimentality: “giv[ing] to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it” (quoted in A Life). Slawenski nearly mirrors this definition when he asks, “If Seymour Glass loved the fullness of living … why did he end his own life—and why did Salinger, enjoying the liberation of writing freely and without regard to opinion, similarly end the life of his authorship?”
Salinger essentially quit publishing (though not writing) for the last forty years of his life. He rebuffed many efforts to meet him, interview him, and endured trickery and treachery from people who should have known better to pry information out of him and his neighbors. Apparently, he was well-loved enough by his neighbors in Cornish, New Hampshire to have earned their concerted effort to foil pilgrims and reporters.
When people inquired, they were sent on wild J.D. chases ending on dirt roads or at fictional addresses. His wife and children (two, a girl, Peggy, and a boy, Matthew) did not fare as well, since in his need to protect them, he seems to have endeavored to cloister them, according to Slawenski. In this one detail, Maynard’s reportage concurs. Intimacy with his real intimates was not his strong suit. Vacations to Europe and to New York were plentiful for a few years—then even these dried up.
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Norma Gay Prewett taught English for 34 years and recently became RETINO (retired in name only) from University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (as Gay Davidson-Zielske). She is now free to do any dang thing she wants anytime she wants, but will probably continue to write, bike, quilt, keep her coop, and meditate at her retreat, Piney Wood Mews. She also co-produces Mindseye Radio, which airs first Fridays at 11 PM on WORT-FM or radio4all.net.