I’ll start with the ending of Raise Hight the Roof Beam, Carpenter, and Seymour: An Introduction, by J.D. Salinger. In it, narrator Buddy Glass, goes on a vignette about his brother Seymour catching him in a foot-race around the block as kids. The preceding hundreds-of-pages are spent describing all the high-minded virtues of Seymour but it’s an apparently trivial one that Salinger chooses to elevate. I’m not sure I understand why, but I’ll give it a shot.
Raise… is the tragic tale of the Glass family, interpreted through the lens of the second eldest son from a family of seven. It is set in two parts; when Buddy is twenty-one and when he is forty. The two novellas comprising the single-bound book contrast dramatically in style, and somewhat in world-view. Raise… is narrative whereas Seymour is a free-flowing meditation. Salinger doesn’t refrain from the profound and quotidien in either voice but the second is more direct about it.
Unlike Franny and Zooey, another dualistic story about the Glass’s, Raise… is less critical of social and intellectual norms, preferring, with Buddy as the prime example, to skate over contentious issues such as psychoanalysis, marriage, and the meaning of writing than barrage them with his incisive mind.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and oddly find little to say about it. Perhaps it’s just too personal. Salinger turns his hyper-critical mind on himself by choosing to write about writing—perhaps I just don’t want to hear the tough things he has to say about me/him.
In any case, there are many purely entertaining parts of the book; the cartoonishly earnest maid-of-honour in Raise…, and readers as birdwatchers, and astronauts as middle-aged hot-rodders among others. (Aside: The passage about ‘the grounded everywhere’ shows that the Beats owe a debt to Salinger for their style.) And on the serious side, there are a lot of erudite statements: guilt as an imperfect form of knowledge; children as guests in their parent’s house, to be served not possessed; how writers should let all their stars shine and write their hearts out; the deconstruction of sentimentality as the over-application of tenderness to things (more than God would bestow); and art as an imperfect-able vocation and aspiration.
My ambiguity is getting clearer. I read (thank you internet) that Raise… and Seymour were written separately. I’m not sure why Salinger would have published them together; maybe it wasn’t his decision, a theory that could explain his notorious vexation with the publishing industry. In clarity, Seymour is a meditation on the difficulty of artistic endeavours whereas Roof is a more traditional story. It’s obvious why I don’t like Seymour as much as Raise… The epigraph’s themselves describe writing as an exercise in dishonesty and masochism. The conclusion, a small saving grace, is that there’s no depression in that but rather that we should embrace the simpler things like teaching a class or walking in a courtyard.
I’m going to honour Salinger and not attempt a synthesis or grand meaning from these books, including Nine Stories, and Catcher, my thirteen-year-old self’s holy bible. Or better, I will, (I lied):
Catcher made me feel more alive in the sense of being in kismet with someone, however phoney that person turned out to be; Nine Stories showed me the variety and beauty of the world even in war and despair; Franny and Zooey made me question reality, the existence of everything; and Raise… and Seymour… made me question myself.
I might be over-analyzing this. Maybe Raise… and Seymour is simply a love-letter to a brother - a tall, yet sentimental task for anyone who has ever had a brother, let alone a dead one. This is a relieving point of view, one that suggests that the simple, the beautiful, is never complete or easy. If that’s the message then I believe Salinger may have achieved what he denied: he wrote honestly if scathingly.