Novella: Seymour—An Introduction

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Seymour—An Introduction (the punctuation varies), by J. D. Salinger

Appeared in the June 6, 1959 New Yorker (subscribers can read here); collected in Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction

I would guess 15,000 words; better estimate later

It defeats the purpose of this blog to keep saying “I don’t know why I like this so much.” Anyway, I do know why I like Seymour so much, even if I shouldn’t.

I almost labeled this a fictional essay instead of a novella. It comes towards the end of Salinger’s slide from stories to “prose home movie[s]” (as Buddy Glass described Zooey) to lengthy ramblings. What makes it a novella is that it has a plot: Buddy wrestles with the ghost that has inspired much of his writing, a ghost that threatens to eat him and his essay/novella alive. (Henry Anatole Grunwald said it first and probably better—he called it “a rebellion of puppet against puppeteer.”)

I think the ghost wins. I think the ghost might have beaten Salinger too, which explains a lot. One of the things Seymour tells Buddy from beyond the grave is to write his heart out.

If only you’d remember before you ever sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.

The word for this is “self-indulgent.” It’s a damning term from a critic but perhaps not from a writer who trusts his instincts, certainly not from me. And I think I know exactly why I like this type of writing so much.

For one thing, I usually enjoy the fulfillment of Salinger’s twee fantasies—a saint-like prodigy who dies young, a writer in love with a ghost, the space to ramble on endlessly for an insatiable audience. (To describe fantasies is to deflate them, but I don’t intend praise or criticism of Salinger’s; I just mean to say I can enjoy them whether they’re silly or not.) For another thing, the self-indulgence is what makes this a story about stories. There’s nothing rare or special about writing about writing (in fact we could all probably use a bit less of it), but a story whose telling feels like a tightrope act affects me more than a story taking place on a literal tightrope. For a certain type of reader, the fear that Buddy will get Seymour wrong is a real fear. Then there’s the fear that the reader will get him wrong. The childish fear that, if I stop reading, they will both go out like candles. The fear that the whole sham will collapse—that the notebook containing one hundred eighty-four examples of Seymour’s poetic genius, all conveniently impossible to quote for legal and personal reasons, will turn out to be invented from thin air, as of course it is. (And the fact that Franny Glass never read one of these poems until Buddy typed it up makes me suspect it’s Buddy, not Salinger, who’s responsible for the sham.) The fear that Seymour will turn out to be invented from thin air, as of course he is.

We all know Buddy will fail. He can never bring Seymour to life. Isolated scenes, descriptions, anecdotes, memos, diary entries, but not the three-dimensional man who supposedly justifies all this love and grief and legend. Even if Buddy succeeded, it might kill him. Realizing the scope of his failure could certainly kill him. For this reason, I spend the whole story perched on Buddy’s tightrope, willing him not to look down. When Buddy wonders, at least fifty pages too late, whether the modern reader will detect something homoerotic in his description of his brother, I pull faces at his obtuseness but I’m also a little relieved. I need him to stay innocent of certain things—psychology, sex, the outside world, his own preciousness, himself.

Anyway, that’s why this novella has me on the edge of my seat. For readers who don’t feel that tension, or who just don’t care about Buddy, it must be an unbearably boring read.

The New Yorker apparently has Salinger’s infamous last published story/novella/essay/fragment, Hapworth 16, 1924, behind a negligible paywall. I’m a little afraid to look.