Thursday, April 22, 2010

J.D. Salinger: "Hapworth 16, 1924" (1965)

"Hapworth 16, 1924" was Salinger's last published story, and the most famous of his uncollected stories, because it's the only one of them that postdates his success with Nine Stories.

You may have heard that this is a strange story, not very auspicious if you're hoping for great literary riches among his unpublished late manuscripts. I do have that hope, and while this story is very strange, I think it's sort of auspicious.

The famous reading list only takes up the last third or so of the story, and it is, make no mistake, tedious, but goes a long way toward completing in the reader's mind a picture of Seymour. As we know, this story is really the only place we get Seymour speaking in his own voice.

As such, this story is an exercise in voice and tone, a piece of vocal mimicry on Salinger's part. What would an incredibly precocious, self-conscious, past-life-aware, prophetic, genius, mystic,
logorrhoeac seven-year-old write like? Like this, answers Salinger. It's a pretty persuasive answer: purely on the verbal level, it's a fascinating and very entertaining story, as we notice Seymour's verbal tics, his sensibilities just barely outstripping his prodigious eloquence (everything's "heartrending" or "touching" or "charming," evidence not only of Seymour's peculiar sensitivity and cosmic perspective, but his slight poverty of expression).

We get to laugh at Seymour, in other words. It's a pretty funny story. Not least because in form it's a parody of the familiar (especially mid-century) "letter from summer camp." Allan Sherman's "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh" came out two years before, recall. Was Salinger listening to the radio? Is this story an intellectual's take on Sherman's song?

I hope it gets collected now that Salinger's gone on to his next appearance. It really adds, I think, to the Glass saga. Note the frame. Buddy tells us he had been working on "a long short story about a particular party, a very consequential party, that [Bessie] and Seymour and my father and I all went to one night in 1926." Then he became aware of this letter, and decided to reprint it instead of his own story (more of that authorial constipation from "Seymour, An Introduction").

Seymour's letter talks about this party. About halfway through the story, Seymour writes of two glimpses he's had of the future. One is about the party itself - he says a man there will make the family a "business offer" that "will not too seriously change the regular, normal course of our childhoow" but that "the surface upheaval will be quite enormous." The other is that Buddy will one day write about the party.

The party: it's pretty strongly hinted that the business offer is for the radio show that will eventually immortalize, consume, and stunt all the Glass children, the big fact of all their lives. Seymour says no more about it, but we all know what a gnawing effect this strangely anonymous celebrity will have on the children.

Buddy writing about it: of course he does - that's what Buddy tells us at the outset of his story. But once he discovers that Seymour has predicted it, he gives up. He gives us Seymour's voice instead of his own; whatever insights Buddy was going to reveal about this party, the children's career, their place in the world, are stifled, as Buddy decides to silence his own voice in favor of his dead older brother's.

As a last published story before fifty-five years of public silence, it's a great gesture, isn't it? It leaves us with this poignant vision of Buddy himself, longing for a figure of spiritual transcendence and expressive eloquence (in "Seymour, An Introduction" he makes much of Seymour's poetry), a figure who died right after the war (is it too much to say "in the war"? maybe "with the war"). Buddy is about loss: he knows the truth, or whatever, but he thinks that truth perished, essentially, with his brother. And he is unwilling/unable, in the end, to substitute his own (presumably) hard-won experiential knowledge for the elusive prescience of this vanished oracle.

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