“I almost always write about very young people,” J.D. Salinger said in 1946, and today this giant of midcentury fiction is being remembered as a chronicler of his time and, especially, of a time of life. But he was also a poet of place. Nearly all of Salinger’s troubled, brilliant young people—Holden and Phoebe, Seymour and Buddy, Franny and Zooey—are Manhattanites, and their stories are distinctly New York stories, set against a backdrop of bustling avenues and classic sixes on either side of Central Park, and narrated in an ironic, neurotic, contrarian voice whose provenance is unmistakable.
The Catcher in the Rye is, among other things, one of the great New York travelogues: Like Leopold Bloom, Holden Caulfield is a Ulysses at sea in his hometown. Holden professes to loathe the city. (“I hate living in New York and all. Taxicabs and Madison Avenue buses, with the drivers and all always yelling at you to get out at the rear door, and being introduced to phony guys that call the Lunts angels, and going up and down in elevators when you just want to go outside, and guys fitting your pants all the time at Brooks. …”) And yet he is a New Yorker through and through. In one of the book’s best set pieces, Holden finds himself up boozing and dancing in a down-at-heel hotel ballroom with three young women, tourists from Seattle. He can’t suppress his Gothamite’s disdain for the rubes:
That business about getting up early to catch the first show at Radio City Music Hall depressed me. If somebody, some girl in an awful-looking hat, for instance, comes all the way to New York—from Seattle Wash ington, for God’s sake—and ends up getting up early in the morning to see the goddamn first show at Radio City Music Hall, it makes me so depressed I can’t stand it. I’d’ve bought the whole three of them a hundred drinks if only they hadn’t told me that.
There was a discernable ethnic tinge to Salinger’s New York accent. His father, Sol, was a Polish Jew; his Scotch-Irish mother, Marie, changed her name to Miriam and passed as Jewish. Like his characters, Salinger was assimilated, upwardly mobile, uptown. (He was raised on West 82nd Street and, later, Park Avenue.) The Jews who populate Malamud and Roth—fierce bridge-and-tunnel strivers, steeped in Yiddishkeit and lingering Old World resentments—are nowhere to be found in Salinger.*
But consider Holden, the dyspeptic social outcast who rails against snobs and “phonies”; and consider the brilliant bourgeois-bohemian Glass family, with their vaudevillian background and bookish Eastern spiritual dabblings. Technically tribe-members or not, they’re just so Jewish. The New York Jewish counterculture that infused American life in the 1950s and ‘60s—from Lenny Bruce to Allen Ginsberg to Bob Dylan—is stirring beneath the cool elegance of Salinger’s sentences.*
The writer’s own relationship to his home city was apparently fraught. Holden Caulfield longed to go “someplace way the hell off. In the woods or some goddamn place”—and Salinger did just that, heading for New Hampshire at the height of his fame, never to return. But he left behind some valentines. One of my favorite passages in Salinger is the lyrical description of a curbside marbles game that comes toward the end of Seymour: An Introduction(1963):
One late afternoon, at that faintly soupy quarter of an hour in New York when the street lights have just been turned on and the parking lights of cars are just getting turned on—some on, some still off—I was playing curb marbles with a boy named Ira Yankauer, on the farther side of the side street just opposite the canvas canopy of our apartment house. I was eight. I was using Seymour’s technique, or trying to—his side flick, his way of widely curving his marble at the other guy’s—and I was losing steadily. Steadily but painlessly. For it was the time of day when New York City boys are much like Tiffin, Ohio, boys who hear a distant train whistle just as the last cow is being driven into the barn. At that magic quarter hour, if you lose marbles, you lose just marbles.
*Corrections, Jan. 29, 2010 : This blog entry originally misspelled the names of Allen Ginsberg and Bernard Malamud.