Sex in the Salinger archives?

Scrutinizing culture.
Feb. 4 2010 9:30 AM

Sex in the Salinger Archives?

A little-known short story might be a clue.

Also in Slate: Joanna Smith Rakoff on answering Salinger's mail; Troy Patterson on the two Salingers; Stephen Metcalf on Salinger's genius; Nathan Heller on Nine Stories; Chris Wilson on " Seymour: An Introduction"; Jody Rosen on Salinger's New York; Dana Stevens on Hollywood Holdens; Donald Fagen on his love for Franny Glass.

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The Renata Adler memoir—combined with "Go See Eddie," the road-not-taken story—tempt one to speculate that Salinger left behind, in that house on a hill, a treasure trove of Salingeresque erotic novels. Who knows—even porn. No writer had a keener ear for the innuendoes of human speech and eye for gesture, and to have that attentiveness focused on sexual tension …

Well, it's just a possibility, sure to be refuted, but that's what I'm hoping we'll find, something shocking and sexual that will give the world a new vibrant Salinger to contend with.

"Go See Eddie" may not be a polished work, but it reminds us of what we lost as Salinger systematically excised sex from the world of his fiction.

It's not that he was anti-sexual in his later New Yorker fiction the way Tolstoy, say, turned anti-sexual. Sex was unbearably present for the Tolstoy of The Kreutzer Sonata and the late novella The Devil (one that he hid from his wife and would not allow published until after his death). In the latter, the narrator's obsessive attraction to a peasant girl, which torments him with its uncontrollable possession of him, its degradation of his dignity, maddens him enough to murder the young girl. So it's sexually anti-sexual.

But in Salinger's later work, sex isn't bad or good, it's just absent. Much of the posthumous discussion of Salinger has been about how to regard this later work, with advocates pointing to Janet Malcolm's influential and persuasive essay "Justice to J.D. Salinger" in a 2001 issue of The New York Review of Books, while others regard as lame the attempts to convince us to take seriously the mystical profundity Salinger has all his other characters attribute to Seymour.

I could find myself completely convinced by Janet Malcolm's cogent exegesis yet still not convinced enough to care about the Seymour of "Hapworth 16, 1924," where his saintliness is insisted on to the point of driving you to distraction in its coy self-assurance. One can hear the ancient cries of editors everywhere: "Show, don't tell!"

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Does anyone really like this? Can anyone really stand Seymour? And why don't we? Does the sexlessness of the later fiction have something to do with it? Can you think of another author you like from whose work sex, longing, love, lust was absent? Yes, it was there in Catcher. "Franny" was sexy, the character, the situation structured as a seduction ritual. "Zooey" not so much, and then came the deluge of details about sexless Seymour.

What a jolt to come on the Salinger of "Go See Eddie" and realize not only that "Go See Eddie" is hot but that Salinger is good at it, at innuendo and the sexual power struggle, and the precise balance—that tension—a woman had to maintain if she liked a good time but didn't want to be commodified as a slut or worse.

Well let's hope we find out that Renata Adler is right, that he's been writing about sex these last 45 years or that his new work is infused with sexuality. He's such an observant writer. He captures the human voice so perfectly and all the conflicts and longing it embodies. One yearns to see what it would be like if he embodied bodies with the same expressiveness. Literature needs a hot writer now.

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