Essay on “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour: An Introduction”

Literary critics and Salinger

During the first 20 years after publication of “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour: An Introduction,” more literary critics than not tended to review the Salinger ouevre unfavorably. Refreshing in this regard was Granville Hicks’ review of the first book edition of these two long short stories (some refer to them as novellas), originally published in The New Yorker (in 1955 and 1959 respectively).

Hicks presents a straightforward account of each story, cites a passage, and defends Salinger against fellow critic Mary McCathy’s charge of “phoniness.” However, Hicks does (in spite of his valiant defense of Salinger) seem to agree with fellow critic Warren French that Salinger went astray in not pursuing the “Holden Caulfield” type of writing. Further, the passage he cites is one of the most abstract in the novel, meant by the reviewer to give an idea of the abstruseness of the philosophical tract critics make it out to be.

[What can be said concisely about “Raise High…” and “Seymour: An Introduction” eludes me. My mind seems to be that wonderful, peaceful void Salinger would have us Zen-istically attain to. I wonder he would want us to write anything at all; he wants us to absorb his meaning and integrate it. What Salinger has to say is of great value when as carefully sifted as Seymour’s famous ashtray ashes are sifted by him. This much I do know: Salinger always leaves some quintessence behind, even if his vision is not always clearly apprehended–seen–by us. He enables perceptive, sharp-eyed readers to grasp an idea of his Lebensphilosophie. Each of these readers must apply it in his/her own terms, within his/her own frame of reference.]

Sainthood? By whose reckoning?

And yet … and yet, I believe there is truth in something Salinger’s critics consistently affirm: They are affronted at Seymour’s rank as saint. Nor can I agree with Salinger on this saint-making–if that is indeed what Salinger is doing. To elevate Seymour to such is to deny his humanness and his worth as a superior human being. Or is this exactly what Salinger is painting, and the “saint” idea is only something the critics have, of their own volition, conceived and then insisted upon arguing over? Numerous careful re-readings are the key to solving this dilemma, and some readers may come to one conclusion and others to the opposite.

That the criticism was put forward at all is enough of a starting point. And to view Seymour’s violent self-destruction, we must ask ourselves whether this is the end of a saint. Surely Buddy’s verbal acrobatics cannot mesmerize us into accepting his romantic view that it is “plain how the true artist-seer actually dies.” He says “that the true artist-seer, the heavenly fool who can and does produce beauty, is mainly dazzled to death by his own scruples, the blinding shapes and colors of his own sacred human conscience.”

But this assessment by Buddy has little basis in fact. The world has indeed had its share of poets, geniuses, or “artist-seers”–whatever one decides to call them. Yet while a good many were mad (perhaps victims of “divine madness”?) or eccentric, or met early deaths (even if by their own hands), from a psychological viewpoint (most particularly Otto Rank’s), a true genius is a person who, though out of step with the rest of society, goes his own way while learning to cope with that society. He does not blow his own brains out. And unless we are to take this action of Seymour’s as a literal “emptying of one’s head,” there is little meaning in the act or in his elevation to sainthood.

Suicide in context and in retrospect

Because of these objections, I find it easy to agree with Hicks that it is difficult to assess the Seymour in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” by reading the later stories about him. These, especially the so called “Introduction,” shed no light at all on the subject. My personal view is that Salinger, in later years, regretted killing off such a fascinating character. Holden he resurrected; Seymour he could not. Seymour’s suicide is, later, always handled with kid gloves, as though it were an embarrassment to Salinger. It is as if he was apologizing for the absurd end of a character he had barely begun to plumb–to the depths, to the very core of being.

Is Seymour’s absurd end intentional? Is it intentional because it is illogical, and Seymour has transcended reason? Yet, if we are to follow Seymour’s dictims regarding “aiming,” he was wrong to have pointed the Luger at his temple and fired. (A more proper end might be his firing at the ceiling and the bullet’s properly “un-aimedly” ricocheting and putting a proper end to him.)

Or was Seymour shotting himself because he had lost the ethereal in the real world of marriage to Muriel? Or could it be that he was at the peak of his intense happiness, and so must die, while in ecstasy?

In this regard, it might be observed that eight-year-old Seymour wrote the John Keats “poem,” and that Keats, of course, often wrote of intense, co-existing pain and pleasure–most notably in his “Ode to a Nightingale.” This is why some argue that “Seymour: An Introduction” may shed some light–as may its companion story, “Raise High…” However, I maintain that more questions are posed by these later works than are answered. Seymour and Salinger remain something of twin puzzles. Which is probably how Salinger wanted it to be.