It might seem odd to be writing about JDS in a higher education forum, given that (by Wikipedia’s count) he spent only two semesters as a college student—one at NYU and one at Ursinus—that he never taught (as if!), and that he frequently derided academic literary critics in his fictional works and in his public statements. But you may recall that his alter ego in his later works, Buddy Glass, is “a part-time English Department member at a girls’ college in upper New York not far from the Canadian border.” And Buddy’s obsession, his brilliant late brother Seymour, was a more serious academic. At one point, Buddy remarks:
When Seymour was a nearly full professor of English, and had already been teaching for two years, I asked him what, if anything, got him down about teaching. He said he didn’t think that anything about it got him down, exactly, but there was one thing, he thought, that frightened him: reading the pencilled notations in the margins of books in the college library.
True that–except that these days, alas, the scary notations are more often in pen or Sharpie.
The two quotations above are from “Seymour: An Introduction,” the last Salinger work to be published in book form (in 1963), and a very weird text, to which I have always been partial. I wanted to take a look at it yesterday, but I think Lizy has my copy, and the one at the Swarthmore College library appeared to have been stolen. (Salinger is probably second only to Iceberg Slim in library filchings.) So I read it online–through the New Yorker’s digital archives, available for free to all subscribers to the magazine. This gives you a facsimile of the actual 1959 magazine, and it was an odd, heady experience to read Salinger’s prose through the ads for Beefeater’s gin and Hathaway shirts and cartoons by Alan Dunn and William Steig.
Anyway, “Seymour” was as weird and compelling as always. This time I paid special attention to Buddy’s remarks about his life as a teacher, especially the ending, when he is about to finally get up from the typewriter, having wrestled for weeks with the challenge of doing justice to his superhuman brother. He writes:
It’s twenty to seven, and I have a nine-o’clock class. There’s just enough time for a half-hour nap, a shave, and maybe a cool, refreshing blood bath. I have an impulse–maybe more of an old urban reflex than an impulse, thank God–to say something mildly caustic about the twenty-four young ladies, just back from big weekends at Cambridge or Hanover or New Haven, who will be waiting for me in room 307 … but I’m not my brother’s brother for nothing, and I know–not always, but I know–there is no single thing I do that is more important than going into that awful room 307. There isn’t one girl in there, including the terrible Miss Zabel, who is not as much my sister as Boo Boo or Franny. They may shine with the misinformation of the ages, but they shine. This thought manages to stun me: There’s no place I’d really rather go right now than into room 307. Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next. Is he never wrong?
I think about that passage a lot, especially now, as I’m about to return to my own room 307, and my own Miss Zabels. Channeling Buddy Glass, I am pumped.
But first, I’m leaving tonight for four days in Paris, where I will be visiting Maria.