Fifty years ago this month, The New Yorker published a bizarre short story by J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, written in the form of a 28,000-word letter from a seven-year-old child at summer camp. No one could know it at the time, but this story was to mark one of the longest and most fascinating silences in literary history. Shortly after the story appeared, Salinger retreated into his reclusive rural New Hampshire home, and never published anything again in his lifetime.
The story, titled “Hapworth 16, 1924” in a disorienting merging of date and location, remains something of a baffling enigma: branded as unreadable by critics, and never republished, only the most dedicated Salinger devotees bother to track it down and slog through it. Indeed, the negative reaction to the story is thought to have been the catalyst for Salinger’s retreat from publication, even though he personally believed it to be “a high point of his writing.”
“Hapworth” is the final story (although the first chronologically) in Salinger’s Glass series, a sequence of short stories revolving around a family of hyper-intellectual New Yorkers. Despite, the swift ascension to the status of American classic for The Catcher in the Rye (just five years after it was published it was being compared to everything from Homer’s Odyssey to Ulysses and The Great Gatsby) Salinger’s reputation gradually declined as he began to focus on the Glass stories, losing more and more fans with each subsequent publication.
One of the most common criticisms leveled against the Glass stories was that Salinger was writing them purely for himself, at the price of alienating his readers. Salinger even admitted as much, stating “I write just for myself and my own pleasure,” and “there is a real enough danger, I suppose, that sooner or later I’ll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods.” Thus, “Hapworth” came for many to represent the culmination of this, and the ultimate in insufferable self-indulgence, with its endless verbosity and preposterous length. Even within the story, Salinger appears to acknowledge this, with his narrator warning us that “This is going to be a very long letter!” and later urging the reader “Please, please, PLEASE do not grow impatient and ice cold to this letter because of its gathering length!”
This length is perhaps the greatest obstacle for readers aiming to tackle “Hapworth.” However, it is not just the practical side of reading such a long story filled at times with impenetrable language and incoherent structuring, but more the implications that come with the fact that we are told this letter has been authored by a seven-year-old.
The narrator, Seymour Glass, is frequently held up as bastion of human intelligence in the earlier Glass stories, and even as something approaching an enlightened spiritual guru. But “Hapworth” takes this concept to a level well beyond the far-fetched, endowing its child protagonist with the power to accurately predict the future, recall past lives, and write with the vocabulary of a PhD candidate. One of the most critically derided passages of the story takes up around a quarter its length and consists entirely of Seymour’s absurd and entirely age inappropriate list of requested reading material: “the complete works again of Count Leo Tolstoy […] any thoughtful books on human whirling or spinning […and] both the French edition and Mr. Cotton’s wonderful translation of Montaigne’s essays.” Likewise, Seymour’s request to his father to share any “imaginary sensual acts [which] gave lively, unmentionable entertainment to your mind” has proved another source of eye-rolling disbelief for readers, leading many to the assumption that “Hapworth” is simply some kind of curious in-joke between Salinger and his imaginary Glass family.
However, such an interpretation, though valid, is simplistic, and with so little having been written on “Hapworth,” it seems that the 50th anniversary offers a chance to reexamine the story, and see if the overwhelmingly negative critical consensus is not somewhat hyperbolic.
When “Seymour: An Introduction” (the immediate predecessor to “Hapworth” in the Glass series) was published in 1959 it attracted more negative reviews than any of Salinger’s previous stories, but since then some critics have argued that Salinger was well ahead of his time, including Eberhard Alsen, in his A Reader’s Guide to J.D. Salinger, suggesting he in fact “anticipated by a decade the self-reflexive trend in American postmodernist fiction.” Roger Lathbury, who attempted to republish “Hapworth” in 1997 and even met and exchanged letters with the reclusive author, posits a similar theory for “Hapworth,” arguing that Salinger was “trying something new, arguably something different than any other American writer: to reconcile non-material (Eastern) ways of transcendence with the particulars of American daily life.” Lathbury contends that this accounts for its unusual style — “a letter that is not a letter” — and that to write what Salinger wanted to write necessarily required “a seismic shift in sensibility.”
Salinger addressed this exact concept in an earlier story entitled “Teddy,” which also takes a child prodigy with spiritual gifts as its protagonist: “It’s very hard to meditate and live a spiritual life in America.” Likewise, the form of “Hapworth” is recycled from an earlier unpublished story, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” which is also presented as a letter written home from summer camp. Thus, one might hypothesize that”Hapworth” represents an attempt by Salinger to readdress his earlier fiction, and more radically alter his style, moving away from the traditional structures of the American short story to reflect his spiritual Eastern-influenced themes.
This would explain “Hapworth’s” rambling and meandering style: rather than forcing his story into a conventional linear structure, it follows the contours of the mind. However, unlike the modernist form of stream-of-consciousness, “Hapworth” is both internal and external at the same time: in addressing his letter to his family, Seymour the narrator is communicating externally; but, at the same time, large portions of the letter seem to be directed at himself. And perhaps the same could be said for Salinger: through “Hapworth” he is addressing both the reader and himself.
Amid all of this, however, the story does have a strange kind of structure, though it is one of circularity. Moments from the beginning have their corresponding counterparts at the end, and yet nothing is really tied up neatly. For instance, in the letter’s opening, Seymour expresses his belief that it is every individual’s moral duty to act kindly without hope of reward: “without examining […the recipient of a good deed’s] face or combing it for gratitude;” and just before signing off he mentions an acquaintance’s need “to see the grateful recipients’ faces in person when he does them a favor.” Here Salinger is trying to reconcile the moral ideal with the imperfection of human nature. And indeed, despite Seymour’s almost superhuman abilities, “Hapworth” reveals a “humanness” in the character that is rarely glimpsed in the other Glass stories.
However, the presentation of such “humanness” is arguably Salinger’s undoing. By revealing too much of Seymour, who had previously been conspicuously physically absent from most of the Glass stories, Salinger shatters the enigma, and reveals the man behind the curtain. It is clear this was his intention, as the story revolves around the conflict between the spirit and body, but for many devotees of the Glass saga, uniting the saintly Seymour of the previous stories with the angry and pretentious Seymour of “Hapworth” is too great an ask.
Still, Salinger fans will find plenty of interest in “Hapworth,” not least the familiar upbeat style — a balance of the intellectual and the colloquial — complete with the trademark tautology and adjectival listing that came to define much of Salinger’s later work. And one could also argue that while revealing Seymour’s imperfection — “Do not think me infallible! I am utterly fallible!” — spoils the mystery of the character, it also opens up new enigmas, such as the possibility that the letter is inauthentic, and is in fact authored by Buddy, Seymour’s younger brother.
Buddy’s voice is apparent via a brief introduction before the letter begins, in which he assures us twice that he intends to type up an “exact copy,” which is what we will read. This over-assurance is immediately suspicious, and the opening line, in which Seymour states “I will write for us both,” might also serve as evidence. Inconsistencies in the text, such as Seymour’s not knowing the address his parents are staying at, reinforce this hypothesis, but, once again, there is no concrete proof, only further and deeper mystery.
This is the crux of “Hapworth” — it defies interpretation, and in this way stands as Salinger’s ultimate embodiment of the Glass family’s ideals. Just four years earlier he had admitted that Buddy was his “alter-ego,” blurring the lines between fiction and reality, and here we see him bringing the ideals of his fictional world into the reality of his work as a writer. In Franny and Zooey, Salinger quotes at length from Swami Prabhavananda: “You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work.” “Hapworth” can be seen as a culmination of this ideal, as it represents Salinger writing purely for himself, and for the pleasure of the work. The fact that he continued to write for the rest of his life, but ceased publishing, also meant he was rejecting considerable “fruits:” Franny and Zooey spent 25 weeks at the top of The New York Times fiction bestseller list in 1961-1962, for instance.
Whether or not any of this was intentional on Salinger’s part is purely speculative, but one cannot deny that he took considerable risks with “Hapworth,” and that, as Roger Lathbury has argued, “For refusing to repeat his popular successes, Salinger deserves respect and honor.” Thus, ironically, the very complaint critics had of his later work (that it was becoming too self-involved) is the very thing that makes it unique — no other American writer ever created so complete a retreat into his or her fictional world.
The story itself remains ambiguous, and a thorn in the side of Salinger fans and scholars alike. Nonetheless, the exaggerated critical drubbing it received should not put new readers off, and it remains, undeniably, a true original. Within “Hapworth 16, 1924,” J.D. Salinger praises this very quality — “Close on the heels of kindness, originality is one of the most thrilling things in the world, also the most rare!” — suggesting perhaps that this was his primary goal. In that sense, at least, he succeeded.
“Hapworth 16, 1924” was published in The New Yorker on June 19, 1965 and has never been republished. It is available to read in The Complete New Yorker.
All quotations by Roger Lathbury are from personal email correspondences.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.