J. D. Salinger: Mirror for Observers

Salinger, A Critical and Personal Portrait introduced and edited by Henry Anatole Grunwald. Harper 1962. 287pp. $4.95.

With apparent deliberation, J. D. Salinger has trimmed his prose until it cannot stand by itself, has excisedaction and event so rigorously that the stories only through the significance and meaning that his readers give them. In consequence, he not only inspires much criticism but also becomes more important direct proportion to that criticism- the sensitivity to ambiguity and the search for meaning which critics have engendered among Salinger's more sensitive readers is precisely the mood which makes Salinger's style intriguing and seductive.

Henry Anatole Grunwald's anthology says on Salinger is therefore interesting not so much as a key to the Truth about J. D. S. but as a clue to how susceptible Salinger's work is to modern criticism. We may be tolerant of the editor's apparent commitment to the Hundred Monkeys school of anthologizing (if a hundred monkeys with a hundred typewriters typed for...), not because of the essays are by important people but because the diversity is the key to the Salinger industry.

Grunwald seems uncertain of the purpose of his anthology. His introduction-a synopsis of the book--suggests that there is somewhere a something to be What Salinger is Really About." It would follow that critics who say different things about him are either saying rather the same thing or else are fundamentally opposed, at least one being wrong.

The contributors including the editor, very well equipped to cope with like Salinger, who is as committed to ambiguity as Zen. He is, above and beyond all, a technician. His biennial production of stories suggests the care he devotes to his work; the remarkable style he has achieved suggests how completely he has become obsessed with selecting gesture, word, and scene.

Salinger was master of the New Yorker style, but in the last decade he has refined his writing to nuance-and-mannerism studies, which, while brilliant and compelling, define their own limits. Much of his stunning narrowness follows from this technique, and his very peculiar characterizations are the fruit of that same invention.

This does not tell us much of what Salinger is about, but it says quite a bit of what he is not doing. In the first place, Salinger's characters, appealing or not, are quite unlike anyone we have ever met. They are almost perfectly described with Salinger's peculiar methods, but the reverse is also important--these people are a consequence of his style.

Perhaps Salinger has a very specific message, but it is far from obvious. His stories are so completely founded on style that they cry for some attributed meaning, and critics have been generous. They have, at least, assumed that he has something to say.

The more improbable of these critical assumptions make Salinger the fictional counterpart of David Riesman assessing American society. Others claim he is writing an American epic. And the procession goes on, in almost unlimited diversity.

Yet what Salinger has evidently been trying to do for the past ten years is to justify writing stories with his peculiar style Zoocy was an attempt to legitimize Franny, and Seymour did its best to rescue A perfect Day for Bananafish. But the lasting impression is that Salinger has lost control of his style, and that the style is writing his stories for him.

While it ministers to the demands of a confused reading public, the variety of critical reaction also fills a real gap in Salinger's writing. But Grunwald's collection illustrates well that Salinger has become little more to his critics than a blackboard and a mirror.

Then too, it is impossible for a truly gifted writer to avoid offering clues of his own concerns. So far, however, Salinger's work is faintly reminiscent of a psychological test, revealing the story-teller by the way in which he unfolds his story rather than by any message that he means to convey. To interpret Salinger demands a singular sensitivity to the way in which style dominates content and a very direct perception of a most unusual writer. I would not claim this skill, and neither, in fact, do the contributors to this collection.

In consequence, the critics talk quite directly to Salinger's readers about--in better essays--things that matter to both. But whether they matter to Salinger is a good deal more debatable.