The Mimic: How Salinger Helped Reinvent the Short Story by Imitating It

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 28 2010 7:15 PM

The Mimic: How Salinger Helped Reinvent the Short Story by Imitating It

When Nine Stories appeared in the spring of 1953, J.D. Salinger had been the nationally reknowned author of The Catcher in the Rye for two years. But the collection was, in some sense, his debut. Its stories, most of which first ran in The New Yorker , largely predate the novel, and they served as templates for a lot of what he wrote in the ensuing years. Although the book was not nearly the public coup Catcher had been—the New York Times politely lauded it as "so interesting, and so powerful"—it heralded a crucial transition in postwar fiction. Nine Stories was a bellwether of the era in which general-interest magazines turned literary.

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Nathan Heller Nathan Heller

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

Today, the existence of literary fiction in respectable glossy magazines is often taken for granted (or bemoaned in its absence). But in the late '20s and '30s, when Salinger was a student of the form, these quality standards had not entirely been set. Several general-interest magazines ran stories—often several per issue—but few, if any, sought out what would today be recognized as worthy fiction. Vignette and genre entertainment was the taste of the day: The Saturday Evening Post commissioned a great run of hastily composed F. Scott Fitzgerald stories, most of which read like imitations of his better work; The New Yorker , under Harold Ross, went in for prose skits and "casuals," putting a jaunty frame around prosaic life. There were, of course, great talents trying to navigate these expectations. But great talent itself was not the point. American glossy-magazine fiction between the wars was predominantly popular fiction. Its chief goal was to entertain until the next issue arrived.

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This was the landscape Salinger was entering when his first story—a vignette he had written for a class—appeared in print in 1940. Over the next few years, he went to war and slowly grew into a favorite of The New Yorker 's fiction department. The shorts that eventually became Nine Stories are today known both for their inimitable Salinger purfling (the wise-child protagonists, the lambent madness) and as the archetype of '40s " New Yorker fiction" (clipped, urbane prose with lengthy conversation pieces; sharp, deus-ex-machina endings). Their brilliance was to have it both ways.

What's striking on rereading these nine stories, in fact, is how distinctly they are written into snappy '30s form. Two begin with phone calls, one with a wedding invitation, another with highball cocktails, another with tennis: A reader encountering these openings for the first time would have no reason to anticipate anything besides boilerplate casuals. The overtures, of course, are misleading. " Teddy ," which finishes the collection, begins on a cruise ship with a jaunty quote and ends with a child dying in an empty swimming pool. Throughout the book, haunting backstories billow behind Salinger's natty prose like gossamer; a story like " The Laughing Man " (from 1949) is as intricate and contrapuntal as anything Borges composed. Today it seems clear that Nine Stories is a book about war trauma, but in its setting, storylines, and style, it is the most oblique war narrative imaginable. Salinger captured the personal refractions of a national crisis and placed them into the hollowed-out shell of domestic narrative. This was, in many ways, the genesis of the postwar short story.

The hybrid form also shaped Salinger's writing itself. There almost is no Salinger style; his gift for mimicry was so sharp it is easy to forget how totally he owned his prose. (William Maxwell, one of his New Yorker editors, once got chewed out for adding a grammatically correct comma in the press version of a story.) He was a student of Hemingway's elliptical approach and channeled the buoyant, lucid tone prized by magazines like The New Yorker to play a smoke-and-mirrors game with daring subjects. He did not avoid the breezy surface appeal of popular shorts. Instead, he carved spaces for depth and nuance in its interstices. Precocious child protagonists walked among the two-dimensional grown-ups he'd imported from light vignette fiction, giving the stories stakes—and, in some cases, horrors—in geometries an actual vignette could never conjure.

It is easy to cast the magazines Salinger wrote for as the dupes in this game. But the truth is that writers and editors grew together. The '40s and '50s were a period of stiffening ambitions for The New Yorker 's fiction department, largely under the influence of Katherine White and Maxwell; stories got longer, more complex, and, in the best instances, canonical. By the '60s, Donald Barthelme had secured the magazine's benediction. Nine Stories may have been a hinge that opened the door to this new generation of short fiction—but it was also, and maybe more crucially, a collection that helped prime the market to get those stories read.