Salinger's Best Story

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 28 2010 3:06 PM

Salinger's Best Story

I love J.D. Salinger, who died today , far too much to write about him with any perspective. Perhaps this qualifies me to eulogize his last anthologized work the story of a man who loves and admires his deceased brother too much to write about him with any perspective.

"Seymour: An Introduction" was originally published in The New Yorker in 1959 and was  printed in book form , alongside "Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters," four years later. It runs about 120 pages and has no appreciable form, reading like an unedited, freewheeling character description. I know several avowed Salinger fanatics who have never made it through the thing, and I don't blame them: The story is dense, tiresome, and irritating. Its charm is difficult to diagnose. But I submit that it's the best story the guy ever wrote.

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Narrated by Buddy Glass—the second eldest brother of the prodigious family that occupies the majority of Salinger's post- Catcher fiction—it takes place years after Seymour Glass committed suicide. There is very little plot. Buddy, like Salinger, has retreated to a bucolic existence in New England, where he is preparing a volume of his dead brother's poetry for publication. The story is a jumble of anecdotes, musings, and epic descriptions, punctuated by Buddy's still-raw anger and confusion over his brother's suicide. A sampling: "Alright. The Nose. I tell myself this'll only hurt a minute." A long paragraph on Seymour's proboscis follows, running more than a page.

When the story was anthologized in 1963, Steven Marcus had this to say about it in the New York Review of Books :

Written in a prose so self-consciously arch and cloying as to be almost impenetrable, it circles and loops about itself and gets nowhere. Obsessed with the character and the suicide of Seymour, Salinger seems on the one hand in danger of being swallowed up by the myth he has created.

True, true, and true. Salinger actually beat Marcus to the punch on this one. About 40 pages into the story, Buddy wonders: "Do I go on about my brother's poetry too much? Am I being garrulous? Yes. Yes." But disorganization is no reason to ignore the story. I see the messiness of "Seymour: An Introduction" as Salinger's final confrontation with all the strains of his earlier fiction: sentimentality, depression, Eastern philosophy, isolation, and the guilt of being happy.

This struggle reads like Salinger's final battle. Whether or not he saw it this way, with "Seymour" Salinger wrote his own literary obituary. The story is readable, but just barely—very nearly smothered by the author's self-consciousness about being a writer. From here on out, it seems clear, Buddy will be too plagued by his literary persona to write a story worth reading.

Unfortunately, "Seymour" is not the final note on Seymour Glass. As any devoted Salinger sleuth has discovered in the catacombs of some university library, he published a final story two years later in The New Yorker : "Hapworth 16, 1924," which takes the form of a letter from a 7-year-old Seymour Glass to his parents from summer camp. The story is grating, ponderous, and, I find, unreadable; I've never made it through more than 5,000 of the 30,000 words. If we needed any more evidence that Buddy—or Salinger—was on the brink with "Seymour," "Hapworth" is it. If he has been writing for the past 40 years, I fear it was more of the same.

Also in Slate: Stories on J.D. Salinger from our archives ; Stephen Metcalf on the precise nature of Salinger's genius ; the Audio Book Club on Catcher in the Rye .

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