“Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same things as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.” —Simone Weil, “Attention and Will” (1942)
“I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them.” —Flannery O’Connor, private “prayer journal” (1946)
Murmuring fills the stone halls of Mt. Athos’s monasteries, exhaling like breath into a cold and clear morning. With its thousands of monks, there is not silence—there is the opposite of silence. Excluding the sounds of nature—the cooing of turtle doves and the swooping of Dalmatian pelicans; the sound of rain hitting the granite paths of the isle; the lapping of the ocean upon the jagged rocks—there is the omnipresent shudder of thousands of men’s faintly mumbled devotions, called to prayer by one of their brothers hitting the metal of a semantron with a wooden mallet. Like chill dew condensed on green leaves still black before the dawn, prayer clings in the atmosphere of this place. Prayer is the ether of Athos through which light must travel; the dun of monks chanting at every hour of the day and for all days is like a holy cosmic background radiation.
At the tip of that rocky peninsula, jutting like a limb into the wine-dark Aegean, are the 20 communities of the Orthodox Monastic Republic of Athos, an outcropping that has been continuously home to ascetic, celibate, reverential monks for 18 centuries. There, overlooking the Greek sea, sit buildings like the blue onion-domed mirage of St. Panteleimon Monastery, filled with Russian monks keeping their liturgy, and the Byzantine castle that constitutes the Stavronikita Monastery in honor of St. Nicholas. That holy bishop looks down on his novices with black eye from gold icon; St. Nicholas is joined by companions such as St. Gregory, St. Nektarios, and the gentle Virgin of Theotokos, as painted by the great artist Theophanes the Cretan. In their otherworldly position, what do the icons see? There they watch scores of dark robed monks, who with lips covered by black and grey and white beards repeat the same prayer as if breathing, over and over: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Such a process, the continual repetition of the Jesus Prayer until it begins to lose coherence, in the same way that a continually uttered word begins to sound like nothing if you do it long enough, lends the words a different sort of significance. Any true hearing of the prayer has to consider the words beyond the words, that which it gestures toward in dictionaries that exist beyond literal statement. Meaning is sacrificed for mystery, and in the process an infinity is gained. Many who use this approach, known as Hesychasm, do so “not just as a philosophical device for indicating God’s utter transcendence, but also, and much more fundamentally, as a means for attaining union with Him through prayer,” notes Timothy Ware in his classic introduction The Orthodox Church. The spiritual cosmonauts who are Hesychasts engage in this extreme repetitive prayer, chasing the literal semantic meanings out of words like souls departing from dead flesh, because such “negations…acted as a springboard or trampoline whereby the mystical theologian sought to leap up with all the fullness of his or her being in the living mystery of God,” as Ware explains.
As superficial attributes are burnt away, the sinner is to encounter that noble silence that is at the core of all of us, the ineffable utterances of prayer. A process whereby those enraptured in the liturgy will subtract that which defines their externalities; a prayer so fervent that it will blind your eyes, mute your mouth, and deafen your ears. This is prayer at its most extreme—absolute, indomitable, and unceasing. Philip and Carol Zaleski explain in Prayer: A History that the “roots of the Jesus Prayer lie in the traditional belief that names contain power…and that repetition of a name concentrates and focuses this power.” The famed utterance is based on these contemplative principles of Hesychasm formulated within Eastern Orthodoxy, whereby the individual empties her soul out so as to make room for those defusing molecules of holiness. In such a space, it is not just the spirit, mind, heart, and mouth that utter the anchorite’s prayer, but indeed the elbow and ankle, the eyelash and earlobe, the knuckle and wrist also. Writing in the fourth century, the Church Father John Cassian said that the Jesus Prayer is to be one that you think upon “as you sleep, as you eat, as you submit to the most basic demands of nature…You will write it upon the threshold and gateway of your mouth, you will place it on the walls of your house and in the inner sanctum of your heart.” For if the Jesus Prayer is a narrative, it is one into which those who pray must descend; if it is a poem, it is one where the words themselves become indistinguishable from the reader, where the recitation becomes life.
The Jesus Prayer is not mere supplication, rather it’s a variation on what Walt Whitman intoned in Leaves of Grass whereby “your very flesh shall be a great poem.” When one transforms themselves into an evocation, it matters not whether we’re speaking of “prayer” or “poetry,” for in heaven those categories are the same thing. Prayer is like poetry in that the greatest examples of both take as their greatest subjects themselves. All true prayers are about prayer; all beautiful poetry is really about poetry. Like all divine utterances, the Jesus Prayer is also narrative and rhetoric, capable of being read critically. This is not to diminish the import of this celebrated Orthodox prayer; we must avoid collapsing the liturgical into the aesthetic, the profundity of ritual into the mere marketplace of art. But the Jesus Prayer—all 12 words, four clauses, three commas, and one period that constitute it—wouldn’t be as effective were it not also poetry, if it did not also have an endlessly regenerative story at its center. A script into which any penitent could imagine themselves.
For those who aren’t Orthodox, but are familiar with the Jesus Prayer, it’s perhaps read less as literature itself and more a concept that may have been encountered in literature. The prayer plays a large part in the plot of J.D. Salinger’s novel Franny and Zoey, whereby the former of the two Upper East Side Glass sisters becomes obsessed with the Jesus Prayer after reading an account of it in the 19th-century anonymous Russian tract called The Way of a Pilgrim. As Franny recounts to her college boyfriend, when considering unceasing prayer as is practiced on Athos, one must emphatically ask if they had ever heard “anything so fascinating in your life, in a way?” Far from mere neurotic scrupulosity, the Jesus Prayer is a melding of the person with the poem, whereby the author of The Way of a Pilgrim could say that “Sometimes my heart would feel as though it were bubbling with joy; such lightness, freedom, and consolation were in it.” The repetition of prayer is like wheels turning in the wind, equally dispelling meaning and its malignant sibling worry. Franny was right to be fascinated.
So, let’s close read the Jesus Prayer as poetry. It begins with that invocation, a calling upon Christ as if Homer entreating the muse; it transitions into the statement of identity for the Son of God, whose majesty is contrasted with the narrator of the lyric who is in need of saving grace. The plaintiveness of requesting mercy has the weighted heaviness of its simple declaration. So much is held in those last two words; the indefinite article indicating the universality of sin, the confession of that condition the material for all great drama. The Jesus Prayer is a microfiction written in the present tense, where the main character is whoever should be speaking it. The great tale it tells is that of unearned salvation. The peroration is inconclusive, the ending yet to be written.
God will hear any prayer as poetry—even the recitation of the alphabet or guttural nonsense syllables may be recognized by the Lord as prayer, but humans require prosody to stick in the brain. Too often prayer is dismissed by the secular because it’s reduced to mere plea for intercession; it’s slurred as being a cosmic gift-card, and not recognized for what it actually is—the only poetic genre defined by its intended audience being the Divine. Not enough attention is paid to the poetic aspects of prayer, scarcely more attention is paid to the prayerful qualities of poetry. Prayer is just as deserving of critical analysis, of close reading and interpretation through the methods of literary interpretation as any verse is. Such is the position of The New Yorker’s esteemed book critic James Wood, who in his introduction to the Penguin Deluxe Edition of the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer’s 1549 The Book of Common Prayer argued that the Church of England missal marked “one of the great, abiding works of English literature.” There are a handful of anthologies that treat prayer with the literary interest expressed by Wood. The Oxford Book of Prayer is an ecumenical anthology compiled by a group of scholars that goes beyond Christianity to explore the varieties of the poetic numinous, with the committee member George Appleton explaining that their desire was to express admiration for “all who value the religious experience of mankind, and are seeking the Eternal Mystery and Transcendence.” Religion popularizer Karen Armstrong offered her own selection of prayers as poems in the collection Tongues of Fire: An Anthology of Religious and Poetic Experience, which is sadly out of print. But for the most part, there is an endemic critical fallacy separating prayer and poetry.
Theologians frequently divide prayers into five categories: adoration, petition, thanksgiving, contrition, and confession; in an act of Episcopalian parsimony the essayist Anne Lamott collapses those categories in her new-age guide Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Certainly prayer as a genre has multiple uses, with petition for the Lord to redress our needs and desires but the least of these. That’s not to diminish the importance of supplication; there are few things more understandable, universal, and human than the individual crying out to God in helplessness. Even God Himself supposedly does it as He dies upon the cross. If poetry is to be an expression of the breadth of humanity in its full experience, than the various purposes of prayer are a helpful encapsulation of what it means to be a person; running the gamut from ecstatic wonder to humble gratitude, desperation to guilt. The most powerful of prayers arguably embody all of those reasons for praying in the first place, because it’s not always easy to separate the terrible wonder toward God from our desire for redemption or our cries for help.
Filmmakers often understand the innate dramatic potential of a prayer, whether it be John Cazale’s stoic Fredo calmly reciting a Hail Mary in the seconds before his brother Michael, as played with reptilian efficacy by Al Pacino, shoots him in the back of the head during an ill-fated fishing trip in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II; bellowed out in horror and sadness like Harvey Keitel’s tortured scream within a cathedral at the conclusion Abel Ferrara’s gritty noir depiction of a corrupt cop in Bad Lieutenant; or Samuel L. Jackson’s character Jules Winnfield reciting scripture (hubristically invented by director Quentin Tarantino) before executing someone who has run afoul of him in Pulp Fiction. If crime drama seems heavy on prayer, then it’s because prayer isn’t only for quiet meditation, but exists at those places where sin and the sacred must by necessity occupy the same space. Such is the explanation as memorably delivered by Jackson, who reflects that when it comes to his scriptwriter’s pseudo-scriptural inflection, “I been saying that shit for years. And if you heard it, that meant your ass. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker…But I saw some shit this morning that made me think twice…The truth is… you’re the weak, and I am the tyranny of evil men. But I’m trying.”
Prayer must by definition be extreme; to make oneself a conduit for the transcendent by words artfully arranged is, in a materialistic culture dominated by ruthless pragmatism, a transgressive practice. For those who reject prayer as maudlin affectation, more Thomas Kincaid than Caravaggio, know that the later has been at the forefront of the sacred a lot longer than the former. Not surprisingly, but strangely under remarked on, is the understandable facility with that poets themselves have in composing prayers. The 19th-century novelist Anne Brontë wrote her own subversive supplication in 1844, asking “My God! O let me call Thee mine! / Weak, wretched sinner though I be, / My trembling soul would fain be Thine, / My feeble faith still clings to Thee.” The poem is perfectly orthodox (lower-case “o” emphasized), for there would be nobody in the Church of England at the time who would look askance at confession of their faith’s fallibility. Yet there is also an eroticism in Brontë’s lyric, the romantic connotations of asking the beloved to be the speaker’s, the desire to cling to the beloved. In her language she calls back to the 17th-century Metaphysical tradition of George Herbert, or especially John Donne; in her punctuation she calls forward to Whitman. The forwardness of her confession that “Not only for the past I grieve, / The future fills me with dismay” is Brontë’s alone, however, the universality of such an observation paradoxically belying its personal nature.
Some of our greatest modernists have penned prayers as captivating as anything written in a patrist’s cell or jotted in the margins of a Puritan’s notebook, and not even necessarily the obvious figures who had religious fascinations like T.S. Elliot or Ezra Pound. Broad-shouldered Carl Sandburg of that hog butchery capital of the world Chicago wrote an unlikely prayer, appropriately enough for his proletariat subject-matter entitled “Prayers of Steel.” In a manner that evokes the Holy Sonnets of Donne, Sandburg asks the Lord to “Lay me on an anvil, O God. / Beat me and hammer me into a crowbar./Let me pry loose old walls. / Let me lift and loosen old foundations.” If prayer is erotic, then it’s also violent—it’s instrumental. Such a practice is to be a technology for transformation, and Sandburg’s desire is to be made into something with all of the heft, energy, and grit of sheer matter, so that God would “Beat me and hammer me into a steel spike. / Drive me into the girders that hold a skyscraper together. / Take red-hot rivets and fasten me into the central girders.” For such is a fundamental tension, a beautiful paradox of prayer—that it requires a profound humility, but is based upon the belief that a simple human can casually compose verse for the Infinite, so that he who is in repose may “be the great nail holding a skyscraper through blue nights into white stars.”
Another modernist psalmist is the Jamaican-American poet and seminal Harlem Renaissance figure Claude McKay, who composed a melancholic and intensely personal meditation in 1922, writing that “’Mid the discordant noises of the day I hear thee calling; / I stumble as I fare along Earth’s way; keep me from falling,” a declaration that is perhaps that which most sharply differentiates prayer as a subset of poetry—for unlike the later the former is always obligated to be honest (for its Reader would know if it wasn’t). In a theme that has motivated religious narrative from Paul to Augustine to Hank Williams Sr., McKay tells God that the “wild and fiery passion of my youth consumes my soul; / In agony I turn to thee for truth and self-control.” The rhyming couplets, as critically out of fashion as they were and continue to be, give the prayer the sing-song quality of hymn; their formal innocence add to the sense of helplessness that motivates the most intense of prayers.
That great wit and raconteur Dorothy Parker, more famous for her cutting gin-and-vermouth fueled quips at the Algonquin Round Table than piety, penned a beautiful and sad prayer in 1930 that James P. More Jr. described in One Nation Under God: A History of Prayer in America as “conveying a rare tenderness in the midst of personal loss.” Written in light of infidelity, miscarriage, and the omnipresent companion of alcoholism, Parker pleaded, “Dearest one, when I am dead / Never seek to follow me. / Never mount the quiet hill / Where the copper leaves are still, / As my heart is, on the tree / Standing at my narrow bed.” Parker’s sadness is a rejoinder to those who see in prayer only the myopia of personal contentment, for the asking of a cosmic favor. Rather, her prayer is an artifact of the broken ego that defines the tragedy of any prayer uttered truthfully—that prayer, if it’s to be heard, must be a ritual of ego extinction, of Hesychasm. “Only of your tenderness, / Pray a little prayer at night,” wrote Parker, “Say: ‘I have forgiven now – / I, so weak and said; O Thou, / Wreathed in thunder, robed in light, / Surely Thou wilt do no less.”
If prayer was “effective” than people wouldn’t die young, alone, sick, spurned, and forgotten; if prayer was “pragmatic” than loved ones wouldn’t suffer and pass, people wouldn’t be in debt, homes wouldn’t be foreclosed; if prayer was “useful,” than we’d never be despairing and broken. That prayer’s purpose isn’t to be effective, pragmatic, or useful speaks to a far deeper thirst that the practice quenches. Prayer isn’t about avoiding bad things; it’s about how one approaches their inevitability in a fallen world. Because I am a broken person who once drank too much, and discovered that it was impossible for me to drink less without drinking everything, I decided that it would be easier to not drink at all. As such, there’s a perhaps predictable and cliched prayer that I’ve long been partial towards, but which has as much significance to me as the Jesus Prayer had to John Cassian. The Zaleskis write of the “Serenity Prayer” that “nothing in it smacks of ideology or sectarianism, and yet its demands, if followed faithfully and to the letter, require Solomonic insight and saintly fortitude.”
Commonly attributed to the liberal Protestant minister and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who claimed that he first preached it in a sermon at an Evangelical church in western Massachusetts during World War II, the prayer was attributed by the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W., to everyone from an “ancient Greek, an English poet, [or] an American naval officer,” as the Zaleskis write. As seen on coffee mugs, wall-hangings, key chains, and cross-stiches, the Serenity Prayer implores “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,/Courage to change the things we can,/And wisdom to know the difference.” This Stoic injunction is often misinterpreted as maudlin pablum by those who stop at the first sentence, misinterpreting the call to surrender as unthinking capitulation, whereas in reality it is often good sense. It’s the second sentence that has the pathos, however, and in the third there is the ingredient for all true narrative. When people are unable to know the difference we call it tragedy; when they can, we call it something else—even if tragedy remains forever a possibility.
The prayerful greatest hits have much to recommend in themselves as well, of course. Each of the great Abrahamic faiths is poetically bound by defining prayers, whether the Jewish Shema Yisrael, the Christian Pater Noster, or the Islamic Shahadah. The Shema’s blessing is both principle and poem, the short declaration “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” a statement of divine synthesis, unity, consilience. The imploration that the collected people must listen raises our profane realm into the transcendent. As with the Hesychasts or Whitman, humanity itself is transposed into the very flesh of the prayer. Melvin Konner describes the phylacteries used by observant Jews in the recitation of the prayer, writing in Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews about “tefillin, the black leather boxes that hold the words of the Shema, fulfilling the commandment to place them as ‘a sign upon the hand’ and ‘frontlets between the eyes.’” The Shahada does something similar, presenting an axiom as a prayer, the drama implicit within it a statement about reality itself. “There is no god but God,” prays the observant Muslim, and part of the beauty of the statement lies in its tautological simplicity, self-referentiality only broken in English transliteration by orthographic convention regarding the capitalization of certain words. The Pater Noster has a similar sense of the ways in which heaven (and perhaps hell) dwell not in a beyond, but in the here and now, as clear as a poem placed in a box and affixed to the forehead. What could be more tangible than the forgiveness of debts and of our “daily bread?”
America’s greatest psalmist, Emily Dickinson, defined the genre as being “the little implement / Through which Men reach / Where Presence – is denied them,” the gap of that characteristic dash saying everything we’ve ever felt, thought, or wondered about the spaces at the center of that absent Writer we call G-d. Perhaps that old language of adoration, thanksgiving, contrition, and so on is limited, better to think of prayer as being the poetry that you internalize and take with you, a consumptive implement that burns away the detritus of personality to leave behind (w)holly ash. Prayer is the poetry that possesses the body, the kernel of a soul left over when everything else has been immolated. Poems are written for audiences, readers, the poet themselves, but only prayers are written for God.
No doubt the literary genre for which there is the greatest number of compositions, but for which the vast majority of them will never be heard or read by any living person. The only literary genre in which there need not even be words for it to be a poem. All true prayers have as their subject the drama of salvation, redemption, reconciliation, peace. Such was the request of the great Iranian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi who in the 13th century ecstatically implored us to “Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of learning – it doesn’t matter, / Ours is not a caravan of despair. / Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times, / Come, come again, come.” So that prayer is, even when it seems to despair, a fundamentally optimistic genre. What it presupposes is that every second is a portal through which some kind of grace may enter. What it hopes is that there is somebody on the receiving end, listening.
There is a marvelous scene in Dick Fontaine’s underseen 1968 roustabout documentary Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up? where we are in a bar watching people watch Norman Mailer on Merv Griffin’s show. He’s ostensibly being interviewed about his latest novel, Why Are We in Vietnam?. But just as that book is only obliquely about Vietnam, Mailer is only obliquely being interviewed. Griffin lets the pugilistic author hurl denunciatory roundhouses about the war at the camera, the instinctive performer going for where the real audience is. In the bar, the patrons take it all in passively, much as we all do while watching TV unless the Cubs are winning the World Series or the president is announcing that bombing has begun. Eventually there is grousing at Mailer’s fury, though, and the set duly disconnected. America’s great public intellectual is silenced.
The movie is a companion piece of sorts to The Armies of the Night, Mailer’s nonfiction novel—a genre he had disparaged when Truman Capote, one of his rivals in the world of literary TV jousters and quipsters, had tried it out—about attending and being arrested at the 1967 March on the Pentagon. Like Fontaine’s quizzical and half-jesting film essay on celebrity and authenticity, Mailer’s book is not so much a document of the thing itself but a cockeyed jape about his vainglorious participation. Yoked as it is to a brooding and half-baked analysis of American sin and militarism, The Armies of the Night is fitfully incandescent. But it rewards for being reported on the ground without resorting to canned narratives. All is filtered through Mailer’s sensibility, trained by years of fiery raging against the creeping totalitarianism of American life. It’s best read with Miami and the Siege of Chicago, the other great grounding component of the new boxed set of Mailer-ana from Library of America: Norman Mailer: The Sixties.
At nearly 1,400 pages packed into two volumes, it’s all too much at once, like a supercut of Mailer’s TV appearances, those bright dark eyes and halo hair, his machine-gun sentences snapped out one after the other until the white flag is waved. The delineation by decade isn’t particularly helpful, because it necessitates including a couple of Mailer’s noisier but lesser novels.
Although he had spent much of his writing life after the war trying to be recognized as a novelist, nothing after his still-notable debut, The Naked and the Dead, attracted the kind of heat he desired. 1965’s An American Dream was noisy at the time but embarrassing now. It’s a feverish mess related by Stephen Rojack, a war hero turned philosophy professor and politician who just can’t keep himself out of trouble—a character who, in other words, reads purposefully like an exaggeration of all Mailer’s traits (lest we forget that time he ran for mayor with Jimmy Breslin). After murdering his wife, Rojack wastes no time bedding her maid and then falling into bed with a nightclub singer, not to mention nearly killing the singer’s lover and making friends with the cop who’s investigating him. There is some snap to Mailer’s voice here and there (“the air had the virile blank intensity of a teller’s cage”). But its ludicrous potboiler elements are laughable, and the turgid antihero narrative, reflecting his unfortunate tendency for romanticizing violent outsiders, leaves a sour aftertaste.
As for the collection’s other novel, 1967’s Why Are We in Vietnam?, this slogging faux-Burroughs picaresque mockery of American male braggadocio tries to fashion itself as some kind of commentary on the war and the species, but chases its own tail in exhausting fashion. One can see why everybody at the time wanted to know why the whole book, which only directly references the war at the very end, seemed like a tiresome setup for an unfunny joke, like Portnoy’s Complaint without the wit.
It was Mailer’s nonfiction—an earlier batch of which had been collected in 1959’s Advertisements for Myself—staggering under more ideas than they could conceivably carry and redolent with doom, which ultimately did for him and his reputation what his novels’ scandalous content never had.
By the time The Armies of the Night opens, Mailer is in the full bloom of naked self-regard of his brilliance and contradictions. He views himself as a character—“the novelist,” or simply “Mailer.” Bumbling about a pre-march party in D.C., he gets heroically tanked and makes catty little remarks about fellow peace-marching literati like Dwight Macdonald and Robert Lowell. Then comes a shambling speech at the Ambassador, which he relates in the book as a kind of verbal performance art, but which looks in Fontaine’s movie as garbled and occasionally racist nonsense.
“He laughed when he read the red bordered story in Time about his scatological solo at the Ambassador Theater—he laughed because he knew it had stimulated his cause.” What cause was that, exactly? He doesn’t discuss the war itself much at all, in fact. When Mailer can wrest the book away from contemplation of “Mailer,” Armies is a tactical work about how the protestors formed, scattered, and regrouped in their move on the Pentagon, a building whose sheer size made any confrontation or encirclement impossible. (There’s an irony here, in that Mailer had a few years earlier complained about James Jones’s The Thin Red Line, which had been compared to his own World War II Pacific Theater combat novel, The Naked and the Dead, saying that “it is too technical. One needs ten topographical maps to trace the action.”)
In Mailer’s highly personal history, there isn’t any grand forward momentum. Rather, it’s a chaotic melee in which batches of fuzzy-headed youths and intellectuals, and the odd tight phalanx of true activists, swarm fitfully toward a monstrous and unassailable target with no idea of what victory would constitute. As such, Mailer analyzes the whole “ambiguous event” with enough distance to keep from romanticizing it. A note of sorrow pervades the account when he can wrest his eyes from himself, worrying over a “terror” that “nihilism might be the only answer to totalitarianism.” He looks over it all like a tactician studying a dusty book of battle: “they assembled too soon, and they attacked too soon.”
Strategies are also promulgated throughout Miami and the Siege of Chicago. A tighter and angrier piece of work than Armies, it finds Mailer in leaner form. Leaving behind some of those toys that cluttered up the earlier book, he keeps to the subject while not abandoning his orotund voice. It’s an account of a seemingly doomed nation told in two meetings: the 1968 Republican convention in Miami in early August and the Democratic convention that followed in Chicago later that month. Mailer’s voice is fulsome but not playful, as though he has come to the end of things after the killing of Bobby Kennedy two months before: “Like pieces of flesh fragmented from the explosion of a grenade, echoes of the horror of Kennedy’s assassination were everywhere.”
The “Nixon in Miami” segment is a classic slice of New Journalism. Spiky with overblown metaphors and heavy with luxuriantly dark language (“the vegetal memories of that excised jungle haunted Miami Beach in a steam-pot of miasmas”), it delivers cynicism by the truckload as Mailer stumps around the plasticine pirate place, sweating in his reporter suit as he delivers the nit and the grit of delegate counting. The competition between a desperately mugging Richard Nixon and serene but outmaneuvered Nelson Rockefeller is handled as mostly a foregone conclusion whose result at this phenomenally dull Potemkin event is ultimately beside the point: “unless one knows him well…it is next to useless to interview a politician.”
At one point, Mailer aims a full racist sneer at the black musicians playing for the white crowd, calling them “a veritable Ganges of Uncle Toms.” This racism is of a piece with many other moments throughout this collection. Witness his observations in Armies of the black people at the march who he thought held themselves apart, referring once to a “Black contingent [drifting] off on an Oriental scramble of secret signals.” Or, after he was arrested, seeing the “sly pale octaroon” with “hints of some sly jungle animal who would scavenge at the edge of camp.”
Like in Armies, with its uncertainty over tactics and goals, at the start of “The Siege of Chicago,” Mailer arrives in town as no friend of Daley’s pro-war hippie-thumping fascists. But it takes time for him to line up behind the protestors. Delving somewhat back into his old self-regarding ways, Mailer puffs himself up as a supposedly unique breed of “Left Conservative” as though there weren’t also millions of Americans who hated the war and the reactionary attitudes of its supporters but still wanted nothing to do with the slovenly utopian narcissism of the Yippies and their compatriots. But the war veteran who first wonders if “these odd unkempt children” were the kind of allies with whom “one wished to enter battle” is turned around once he witnesses the “nightmare” of the police riot on Michigan Avenue and sees the tenacity of the bloodied protestors who faced down assault after assault: “Some were turning from college students to revolutionaries.”
Mailer presents himself as the grounded intellectual, one who might find common cause with the agitators but still holds himself to the side. Some of this is the querulous discontent of the middle-aged man (born in 1923, he was well into his 40s by the time he marched on the Pentagon). Part of that constructed image is also a leftover of that detachment he tried to identify in 1957’s “The White Negro,” that weird firebomb of an article on the permutations of Hip.
But in the ’60s, some things were different. Mailer had determined to put drugs behind him. His contempt for the liberal establishment, especially after they gained power in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, grew ever larger. The divorces and children kept adding up, as did the bills. Paying journalism kept the paychecks coming in more than those pieces for Dissent or the novels that never blew the doors off as much as he imagined they would. So he kept himself going on TV to stir the pot and keep his name out there. He also kept knocking out the articles that fill up this collection’s second volume.
As in any collection of Mailer, this batch is part premature wisdom and part gasbag. Some pieces have both in abundance. “Ten Thousand Words a Minute,” supposedly about the 1963 Patterson-Liston heavyweight fight in Chicago, has top-notch material on the fight itself and a half-comic ode to the “shabby-looking” sports reporters feverishly bashing at their typewriters, all worked into soliloquies on “the Negroes,” the nation, and whatever else was coursing through Mailer’s overtaxed neurons at the time. Occasionally he fixates on a person, and the result is never good, as seen in “An Evening with Jackie Kennedy,” which contains among the most meaningless sentences one could ever read: “Afterward one could ask what it was one wanted of her, and the answer was that she show herself to us as she is.”
But, then, he was writing about a woman, and they eternally flummoxed Mailer. Take 1963’s “The Case Against McCarthy,” a clumsy blatherskite of a piece supposedly reviewing Mary McCarthy’s The Group. It was not only a bestseller, which infuriated Mailer, but written by a woman and about women, which pushed him over the edge. Loosely framed as a trial enunciating the author’s transgressions, Mailer’s piece windmills frantically. Even as he acknowledges her craft, he huffs and condescends about this lady daring to ascend the Olympus of Male Writers, calling her, a “duncy broad” and “Mary” (nowhere does he say “William” for Burroughs), imagining her as a shop lady with “a little boutique on the Avenue,” and concluding that “she is simply not a good enough woman to write a major novel.” Unlike, say, Mailer, who was a good enough man to have stabbed his second wife, Adele, with a penknife three years before writing this piece. She had reportedly told him he wasn’t as good as Dostoyevsky.
Misogynist character assassinations aside, the essays are replete with literary jousting of the kind one doesn’t see anymore. While savaging Another Country, Mailer extends a deft and graceful appreciation of James Baldwin (“Nobody has more elegance than Baldwin as an essayist, not one of us hadn’t learned something about the art of the essay from him”) before twisting the knife one more time just for fun (“and yet he can’t even find a good prose for his novel”). It’s illuminating also, in this time of shellacked appreciation for J.D. Salinger, to read this dismissive and probably correct assessment: “there is nothing in Franny and Zooey which would hinder it from becoming first-rate television.”
The digressions are, as ever, not just rampant but part of the attraction. In the middle of “The Debate with William F. Buckley,” Mailer finds time for an extended journey into “the plague” of the century:
Even 25 years ago architecture, for example, still told one something about a building and what went on within it. Today, who can tell the difference between a modern school and a modern hospital, between a modern hospital and a modern prison, or a prison and a housing project? The airports look like luxury hotels, the luxury hotels are indistinguishable from a modern corporation’s home office, and the home office looks like an air-conditioned underground city on the moon.
What was his point, again? Something about alienation and the Right Wing and our disconnection from reality and responsibility in the great postwar malaise of homogenized madness. Doesn’t matter—he was essentially correct even without being anybody’s idea of an architecture critic.
Mailer and his writing was essential to his time because he declared it so. Later, with the onetime public intellectual’s turn to gaseous fictions (Harlot’s Ghost, Ancient Evenings) and a retreat from the constant engagement demanded by nonfiction journalism, that was not the case. But in the 1960s, he planted himself in the streets and in the pages where battle took place, told what he saw, and made his stand.
I took Purity in one long gallop, reading it over four days at my friend’s house. Sarah had already read it, and was desperate for me to hurry up and finish so we could talk about it. The minute I put it down, I went to go find her. She was wearing clean white shorts and a miraculously uncreased blue linen shirt. I was wearing a regretted purchase from H&M — a white cotton dress with little roses on it that looked fine in the shop, but depressing on me. I told Sarah that I’d finished and she said, “Have you noticed,” she asked, “the clothes thing?”
Yes, the clothes thing. The whole point of Jonathan Franzen is the richness of his description, his eye for a telling detail. Where are all the clothes, then? Why are there almost no descriptions of what anyone is wearing? It seems like the most amazing oversight. How is it possible that two characters can have an extremely detailed conversation about a third character being “jealous of the internet”, or that we are subjected to a long and over-vivid description of Pip’s boring job, or the smells of different kinds of soil, and yet we are given almost nothing in the way of clothing? They all might as well be walking around naked. The only detailed description of an outfit in the first section, for instance, is the following: “she saw Stephen sitting on the front steps, wearing his little-boy clothes, his secondhand Keds and secondhand seersucker shirt.” The word “seersucker” is latched onto and used twice more (“she whispered into the seersucker of his shirt”; “she said, nuzzling the seersucker”). It gets slightly better as the novel progresses, but not by much. The first time Pip sees Andreas Wolf, for instance, his “glow of charged fame particles” are vividly described, but his clothes? No. Even Tom’s mother’s significant sundress is described only as being “of Western cut.” It’s unsettling.
I know this to be a petty criticism, but there are all kinds of nerds who write long, aggrieved blog posts about how some novelist got a car wrong, or misdated the death of an actress. Clothes have always been important to me, and while their fictional depiction might be beneath some people’s notice, it is always one of the first things I see. Clothes aren’t just something one puts on a character to stop her from being naked. Done right, clothes are everything — a way of describing class, affluence, taste, self-presentation, mental health, body image. Clothes matter. Besides all that, clothes are fun. Descriptions of dresses got me through War and Peace. I think about Dolores Haze’s outfits on a near-daily basis (“check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, snug-fitting bodices and generously full skirts!”) I think about her cotton pyjamas in the popular butcher-boy style. Holden Caulfield’s hounds-tooth jacket, and Franny Glass’s coat, the lapel of which is kissed by Lane as a perfectly desirable extension of herself. Sara Crewe’s black velvet dress in A Little Princess, and the matching one made for her favourite doll. The green dress in Atonement (“dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck.”) Anna Karenina’s entire wardrobe, obviously, but also Nicola Six’s clothes in London Fields. Nicola Six’s clothes are fantastic.
Aviva Rossner’s angora sweaters and “socks with little pom-poms at the heels” in The Virgins. Pnin’s “sloppy socks of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges”, his “conservative black Oxfords [which] had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing (flamboyant goon tie included).” May Welland at the August meeting of the Newport Archery Club, in her white dress with the pale green ribbon. I quite often get dressed with Maria Wyeth from Play It As It Lays in mind (“cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator”). I think about unfortunate clothes, as well. I think about Zora’s terrible party dress in On Beauty, and about how badly she wanted it to be right. The meanest thing Kingsley Amis ever did to a woman was to put Margaret Peele in that green paisley dress and “quasi-velvet” shoes in Lucky Jim. Vanity Fair’s Jos Sedley in his buckskins and Hessian boots, his “several immense neckcloths” and “apple green coat with steel buttons almost as large as crown pieces.”
This list changes all the time, but my current favorite fictional clothes are the ones in A Good Man is Hard to Find. There is no one quite like Flannery O’Connor for creeping out the reader via dress. Bailey’s “yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed on it” contrasts in the most sinister way with the The Misfit’s too tight blue jeans, the fact that he “didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt.” I’d also like to make a plug for one of The Misfit’s companions, “a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” Any Flannery O’Connor story will contain something similar, because she used clothes as exposition, as dialogue, as mood. Anyone to who clothes matter will have their own highlight reel, and will argue strenuously for the inclusion of Topaz’s dresses in I Capture the Castle, or Gatsby’s shirts, or Dorothea Brooke’s ugly crepe dress. They will point out, for instance, that I have neglected to mention Donna Tartt, top five fluent speaker of the language of dress. What of Judge Holden’s kid boots, in Blood Meridian? What about Ayn Rand, who, as Mallory Ortberg has noted, is just about unparalleled?
The point is, we do not lack for excellent and illuminating descriptions of clothes in literature. Given such riches, it is perhaps churlish to object to the times when people get it wrong. Haven’t we been given enough? Apparently not. Just as I can think of hundreds of times when a writer knocked it out of the park, attire-wise, (Phlox’s stupid clothes in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, all those layers and scarves and hideous cuffs), I can just as easily recall the failures. There are a variety of ways for an author to get clothes wrong, but I will stick to just two categories of offense here.
1. Outfits that don’t sound real
Purity again, and Andreas’s “good narrow jeans and a close-fitting polo shirt.” This is wrong. Andreas is a charismatic weirdo, a maniac, and I struggle to believe that he would be slinking around in such tight, nerdy clothes. Another jarring example is Princess Margaret’s dress, in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope: “the ambassador raised his fork with such an extravagant gesture of appreciation that he flicked glistening brown globules over the front of the Princess’s blue tulle dress.” The Princess here is supposed to be in her sixties. Would a post-menopausal aristocrat really be wearing a blue tulle dress? Is the whole thing made out of tulle? Wouldn’t that make it more the kind of thing a small girl at a ballet recital would choose? St. Aubyn’s novels are largely autobiographical, and he has mentioned in interviews that he met the allegedly blue-tulle-dress-wearing Princess on a number of occasions. Maybe that really is what she was wearing. It doesn’t sound right, though, or not to me.
One last example, from The Rings of Saturn: “One of them, a bridal gown made of hundreds of scraps of silk embroidered with silken thread, or rather woven over cobweb-fashion, which hung on a headless tailor’s dummy, was a work of art so colourful and of such intricacy and perfection that it seemed almost to have come to life, and at the time I could no more believe my eyes than now I can trust my memory.” One believes the narrator, when he says that he cannot trust his memory, because this actually doesn’t sound like a dress, or not a very nice one. It sounds like a dress a person might buy from a stall at a psytrance party. The word “colourful” here is a dead giveaway that the narrator does not necessarily have a particular dress in mind: what kind of colours, exactly? “Intricate” is also no good — it seeks to give the impression of specificity, but is in fact very vague.
2. Outfits that make too much of a point
Many people are suspicious of fashion. They do not trust it or like it, and, while they see that it serves a purpose, they wish it was somehow enforceable to make everyone wear a uniform at all times. Deep down, they also believe that anyone who does take pleasure in it is lying to themselves, or doing it for the wrong reasons. I argue with such people in my head all the time, because this is not what clothes are about for me, at all. I argue with the books they have written as well. To be fair to Jeffrey Eugenides, he is mostly excellent on the subject of dress. The Lisbon girls’ prom dresses and the Obscure Object’s High Wasp style are in my own personal highlight reel. The Marriage Plot is different, though. It is deeply cynical on the subject of dress. Clothes in that novel are always an affectation or a disguise, a way for a character to control the way others see her.
Here is Madeline, getting Leonard back “Madeleine … put on her first spring dress: an apple-green baby-doll dress with a bib collar and a high hem.” Here is Madeline, trying to seem like the kind of girl who is at home in a semiotics class: “She took out her diamond studs, leaving her ears bare. She stood in front of the mirror wondering if her Annie Hall glasses might possibly project a New Wave look…She unearthed a pair of Beatle boots … She put up her collar, and wore more black.” And here is Madeline, failed Bohemian, despondent semiotician, after she has gone back to reading novels: “The next Thursday, “Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design.” After college, she realizes that she can dress the way she has always, in her haute-bourgeois heart, wanted to dress: like a Kennedy girlfriend on holiday. Another costume, for a girl who doesn’t know who she really is. The problem with these clothes is not that they don’t sound real, or that they are badly described. It’s that Madeline only ever wears clothes to make a point, to manipulate or to persuade her audience that she is someone other than she really is. Worse, there is the implication that she has no real identity outside from what she projects. It’s exact opposite approach to O’Connor’s wardrobe choices in A Good Man is Hard to Find. The guy in the red sweat shirt, with the silver stallion? He is not wearing those clothes for anyone but himself. Same with The Misfit and his frightening jeans.
Those who are suspicious of fashion tend to believe that people (especially women) only ever wear clothes as a form of armor, a costume, and never because they get pleasure out of it. Madeline, in other words, doesn’t wear clothes because she likes them, but because she likes what they do. I find this line of thinking very depressing.
There are other categories (clothes that I think sound ugly, clothes in over-researched historical novels where the writer takes too much relish in describing jerkins and the smell of wet leather etc.), but these two stand out. I’m not asking for anything too excessive — just a few more details, a bit more effort when getting a character dressed. Clothes matter, to some of us, and we need to see them done right.
Image: John Singer Sargent, Wikipedia
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.
In the fall of 1995, Joanna Rakoff dropped out of graduate school and returned to her parents’ home in the suburbs. “I want to write my own poetry,” she told her college boyfriend, “not analyze other people’s poetry.” Three months later, having done little more than allow her mother to buy her a wool gabardine suit and put her name in with a placement agency, Rakoff landed a plum job as an assistant to the president of a storied literary agency whose clients had included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, and Agatha Christie.
Though Rakoff never names it in her memoir, My Salinger Year, the literary agency where she worked was Harold Ober Associates, and her boss – again not named – was Phyllis Westberg, whose most famous client was J.D. Salinger, author of the classic young-adult novel The Catcher in the Rye. When Rakoff arrives at Harold Ober in January 1996, the agency does not own a single computer. Agents still track submissions on little pink file cards and Rakoff spends much of her day behind an IBM Selectric typing correspondence recorded for her by Westberg on a 1960s-era Dictaphone machine.
Rakoff’s work is largely secretarial, but it pays $18,500 a year plus benefits and affords Rakoff, now a successful journalist and writer in her 40s, a valuable apprenticeship in the tight-knit world of New York publishing. For readers like myself, who are old enough to have begun their careers in the analog era, Rakoff’s tale carries with it a strong whiff of nostalgia. Like Rakoff, I was a humanities major with great artistic ambitions and little notion how to make good on them, and like Rakoff, I fell backward into a low-paying entry-level job in the culture industry. In my case, despite not having written a news story since high school, I wound up as a reporter at a local newspaper, an experience that gave me on-the-job training I am still using more than 20 years later.
But if you are now 23, the age Rakoff was when she started at Harold Ober, you may have been hung up by this fact: They paid her $18,500 a year, plus benefits. Granted, that’s hardly a lavish salary, just $28,000 in today’s dollars, but it beats interning for no pay, which is how most anyone in Rakoff’s position — college-educated and bright, but without relevant experience or contacts — can expect to start out in publishing today. I would go so far as to suggest that this helps explain the sleeper success of My Salinger Year, which has already gone into its third printing and been sold to the movies.
Every year, droves of smart young people from America’s best universities come to live in Brooklyn and work in New York publishing, just as Rakoff did 18 years ago, drawn at least in part by an image of working in hushed, book-lined offices where art and commerce meet and famous authors regularly drop by for martini-soaked lunches. What they find is an industry beset by tectonic shifts in technology and consumer leisure habits, in a knife fight against a certain Seattle-based e-tailer that now controls a third of its business. Against this backdrop, Rakoff’s tale of Dictaphones and gabardine suits, in which a literary agent could say in all seriousness, “I don’t know what an electronic book is, but I’m not giving away the rights to it,” can sound like a fairy tale set in a mythical land.
Of course, part of the joke of My Salinger Year is that the literary world Rakoff enters exists nowhere but at Harold Ober Associates. By 1996, the tech boom was underway and a generation of younger people, including Rakoff, had grown up using computers, but Harold Ober is still a world of paper in which even form letters must be individually typed by hand and the office photocopier is considered newfangled. “Until just a few years prior,” Rakoff writes, “assistants had typed every letter in duplicate, inserting into their typewriters a paper sandwich consisting of a thick sheet of creamy letterhead, a slender black wisp of carbon, and a piece of soft, pulpy yellow paper on which the carbon imprinted a copy of the note.”
The quaintness of the agency’s office fixtures — the dark-wood paneling and dim lighting, the heavy black desk phones and the “statuesque” receptionist answering them — is matched by its old-school business culture. Westberg, who swans into work at 10 “swathed in a whiskey mink, her eyes covered with enormous dark glasses, her head with a silk scarf in an equestrian pattern,” doesn’t believe in multiple submissions and abhors publisher bidding wars, which she considers “uncouth.” “We send things out to one editor at a time,” she tells Rakoff. “We match writers with editors. We have morals.”
Morals Westberg may have, but her stodginess is costing her clients — except of course for J.D. “Jerry” Salinger, whose hit books from the 1950s and ’60s, including Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey, are still keeping the lights on. Save for a single brief appearance, Salinger remains an off-stage presence, a distant voice on the phone calling from his compound in Cornish, N.H. Disgusted by modern publishing and overwhelmed by the tidal wave of appreciation his work provokes in his most ardent fans, Salinger has walled himself off from the world, declining to publish the novels he claims to be still writing and refusing to even look at the stacks of letters from readers hungry to share their problems with the creator of Holden Caulfield, American literature’s great cynical romantic.
This leaves Rakoff, as the assistant to Salinger’s agent, the unenviable task of sending letters informing his readers that their literary hero doesn’t want to hear their praise or their problems — a job at which Rakoff fails magnificently. Refusing to simply retype the form letter, whose original dates back to 1963, Rakoff begins composing letters of her own, dispensing consolation and advice as she sees fit. Some write to thank her, while others fume at her presumption, but as a gesture, her espistolary mischief makes sense. Though the pages of My Salinger Year are lousy with writers, at heart this is a book about readers, professional and unprofessional, who hunger for communion with the remote and often troubled authors they revere.
For all her limitations as a literary agent — and they are legion, if Rakoff’s account is to be believed — Westberg is a dedicated professional reader who sees her role in life as fostering an atmosphere in which literary talent can thrive. “For my boss, the Agency was not just a business,” Rakoff writes. “It was a way of life, a culture, a community, a home. It was more in common with an Ivy League secret society or — though it would take me time to see the extent of this — a religion, with its practices defined and its gods to worship, Salinger first and foremost.”
What Rakoff doesn’t say, because anyone who would read an insider’s memoir of the book business already knows it, is that it is precisely these professional readers who have been hurt most by the collapse of the old model of publishing. In the short term at least, the digital age has been a gift to nonprofessional readers. Books, which before chain stores were often expensive and hard to find, are now cheap and available at the push of a button. Readers also have more access to writers than they ever have, to the point that it’s hard to see how a shy, reclusive writer like Salinger or Thomas Pynchon could build a readership in an era of Facebook friending and constant book tours and signings.
Writers, of course, bemoan the withering of the publishing industry, and to a degree they are right to do so. Tight profit margins for publishing houses mean fewer book contracts and smaller advances. But do writers really have it so bad? Without a doubt, there is a gaping hole in the market for writers whose work falls between the plot-driven, Zeitgeisty fiction major publishers still pay big money for and the more literary, craft-driven fiction that ends up at indie houses. These so-called midlist authors, whose toil pays off not in a blaze of bestseller glory, but over the long haul in slow but steady sales, are now being shunted into self-publishing — or more often, are finding themselves recalibrating their work toward the more viable poles of the literary/commercial divide.
Still, thanks to self-publishing and the rise of MFA programs as a subsidy system for poets and literary novelists, writers today have more paths to publication and more ways to make money as writers than has ever been the case. A less-heralded casualty of the digital age is the disintegration of the lower rungs of the ladder that have long led young, smart readers into the caste of professional tastemakers.
Think for a minute of 23-year-old Joanna Rakoff at her humming Selectric typing those form letters to Salinger’s fans. Today, fans communicate directly with authors or with each other online, and if one does route a message through a publishing house or literary agency it is typically deleted unread or farmed out to an unpaid intern. The same goes for Rakoff taking her boss’s correspondence from a Dictaphone. Today, agents and editors handle their own email and use their assistants to screen out people they don’t want to deal with. That’s a real job, as anyone who reports on the publishing industry can tell you, but it’s a lot less work than typing thousands of letters.
Publishing is hardly alone in seeing its lower ranks eviscerated by time-saving digital devices, but in the book business the problem is particularly acute and widespread, affecting not just agents and editors, but critics and booksellers. The top positions in each field still exist and can be well-paid, but the gateway jobs where generations of young people learned the trade, are being devalued or outsourced. In publishing, it’s the near-mandatory unpaid internships that make it so hard for anyone without rich parents to enter the business. In criticism, it’s the blogosphere and reader sites like Goodreads that outmoded the books page in all but a few newspapers and magazines. In bookstores, it’s Amazon that has digitized the recommendation role that well-read independent booksellers play in the lives of their customers. You can still be a passionate reader, but it’s getting harder to make a profession of it.
At the end of My Salinger Year, Rakoff leaves Harold Ober to be a writer, but not before she experiences the thrill of being a professional reader when she helps Westberg sell a story for one of her clients. “Rationally, I know that it’s just a business transaction,” she tells her college boyfriend. “But I can’t help feeling that there is more to it: I brought this story into the world. People will read it because I placed it. Until I placed it, the story belonged only to the writer. Now it will belong to the world.”
In a final twist that will not surprise many, Rakoff reveals that around the same time she left the literary agency, she ditched the nogoodnik writer boyfriend she was living with in Brooklyn, and now many years later, after a failed marriage, she has reunited with the college boyfriend to whom she poured out these first thoughts of readerly pride. Frankly, I found Rakoff’s account of her affairs outside the office less compelling — and less believable — than those of her days in the hopelessly outdated offices of Harold Ober. I was also put off by the book’s coyness in declining to name its central characters, especially since she has identified the major players in earlier versions of the story that can be found with a few keystrokes on Google.
But it is hard not to be charmed by her sepia-toned portrait of a time when a smart young woman in possession of no more than a decent wool suit and rudimentary typing skills could be acculturated into the profession of reading. Maybe it’s just as well that those jobs are going away. It was a sexist system, and a deeply conservative one. Young would-be publishing professionals may find it hard to get paid to learn their trade, but they’re not spending their days fetching coffee and doing things the old way just because that’s the way people have always done them. But it’s a loss, too — one Rakoff captures with elegance and humor in My Salinger Year.
This question was posted all over New York City — on subway platforms and the sides of buses, in bright caps-locked letters. It was advertising the new documentary by Shane Salerno and David Shields about the ever-elusive writer. It also worked to promote the companion oral biography by the same name, Salinger. By adding no byline or description, the title sounds authoritative and definitive, it promises new insights into the author’s life and never-before-seen accounts by friends, ex-lovers and contemporaries.
The book is written in a cut-and-paste format familiar to readers of Shields’s “manifesto” Reality Hunger, a jarring style for a biography. The book is made up of pieces from Shields and Salerno’s own research as well as interviews conducted by other people, and — dominant in the book — accounts taken from other publications — the memoirs, biographies and letters already printed about old J.D. The style creates a sort of Salinger-history montage. An In Case You Missed It! of Salinger studies in the past several decades.
Most of the so-called new revelations in Salinger are well known to dedicated fans of the writer. His experience in World War II was detailed extensively in Kenneth Slawenski’s 2011 biography and his questionable experiences with younger women have been told countless times, most notably in Joyce Maynard’s memoir At Home in the World. That Salinger was not the most dedicated father or husband is no mystery to anyone who’s even heard of his daughter Margaret Salinger’s account in her own memoir, Dream Catcher. Salinger’s earlier fiction and the content of his letters is available to anyone with transportation to Princeton’s Firestone Library in New Jersey. While certainly not known to the average reader, these sections of the biography are hardly new discoveries.
To Salinger’s credit it does manage, between the stitches of its frankenstein format, to show a different, and quite clear, picture of Salinger’s life. All together, the fragmented accounts work as snapshots that create vibrant scenes of the experiences around and with J.D. Salinger. We hear the chatter and smell the cigarette smoke in the Stork Club as cameras flash to capture a moment in the life of Oona O’Neill, the Debutante of 1942 and sometimes-date of Salinger. Later we find ourselves waist-deep in water storming Utah Beach, surrounded by shellfire and chaos. In one of the final scenes of the book we see two photographers for the New York Post blocking in Salinger’s car in a grocery store parking lot, snapping photos and yelling harassment at the 69-year-old author.
Yet in all of the scenes in Salinger, through all the vivid color and sound, we see only what is going on around Salinger. The man himself is left in the shadows, remaining just out-of-frame. There is no moment, excepting the few quotations from Salinger’s own work or letters, when he feels present at all. The biography manages to circle in the air around old J.D. without ever hitting center.
There are attempts to fill these holes and reassert Salinger in what should be a story about him, but these feel rushed and speculative. Interviewees, and even Shields at times, insert statements that begin with “Salinger probably thought” or “Salinger must have felt” — and these instances feel like neighborhood gossip, not the work of literary biography.
After finishing the book I found myself with the same question that I began it with: What happened to J.D. Salinger? He appears absent in his own biography — a ghost, as Shields calls him several times. But this is the same Salinger we’ve seen, or rather haven’t seen, since he moved himself up a mountain in New Hampshire in 1952. He maintains, after death, the same elusiveness regarding his motives, his intentions, and his feelings, as he did for the last half century of his life. We have, instead of answers, a list of possible culprits for Salinger’s reclusion: heartbreak over Oona O’Neil, post-traumatic stress disorder from the war, and dedication to a Vedantic way of life which, we’re told rather adamantly, “killed his art.” These postulations fall short and don’t satisfy Salinger readers any more than previous accounts of his life had done.
So if this new project, hyped as one of the great literary reveals of our time, cannot help us find Salinger, what can?
Most striking in Salinger is the repetition of Salinger-seekers who went on to write or be interviewed about meeting the author, who didn’t expect their personal stories to elicit the attention and publicity that they received. Whenever news of Salinger was revealed, throughout his lifetime and especially after he ceased to publish, it was met with a flurry of public interest. Salinger has managed to not only maintain a readership through new generations, but to instill the same kind of devotion and excitement that once had readers rushing to newsstands the morning of a new New Yorker story.
Scholars, critics, everyday readers — everyone wants answers about (and from) Salinger. Many of the accounts in Salinger are from fans who decided that they needed, were even entitled, to an audience with the recluse, and they showed up at his doorstep only to be disappointed.
Michael Clarkson, the subject of the book’s first “Conversation with Salinger” section, drove 450 miles to meet the man he instinctually, and without permission, called Jerry. “I wanted to ask him, ‘Where do I go from here? What’s the next step?’” Unsurprisingly, Salinger was exasperated at being sought out as a guru to a stranger, to countless strangers, who showed up in the town that was supposed to be his santuary. Clarkson claims that he felt a certain obligation to Salinger fans to tell his story, and could not fathom that Salinger did not feel such a loyalty himself.
There’s something about Salinger that touches readers unlike any other 20th-century writer — he actually made people believe, in all sincerity, that he understood them, and truly cared. “There are few writers in this century,” Adam Gopnik is quoted saying, “who find or forge the key that enables them to unlock the hearts of their readers and their fellow people. And Salinger did that.”
He created his own small living room universes, revolving around three families — the Caulfields, the Glasses, and the Gladwaters of his early war stories who are mysteriously absent in the Shields/Salerno project — who struggled, as all people do, to reconcile that the world is full of suffering and horror, but no less full of beauty and hope. I can’t help but wonder why, for the fans who banged down his door, the fiction Salinger already gave us wasn’t enough.
In the 1959 New Yorker novella, Seymour: An Introduction, Buddy Glass, speaking as character and creator, says “I must reveal that my reputedly heart-shaped prose has knighted me one of the best-loved sciolists in print since Ferris L. Monahan, and a good many English Department people already know where I live, hole up; I have their tire tracks in my rose beds to prove it.”
Salinger fans, it seems, are forever leaving those tire tracks, trying to peek through the window. Perhaps his prose invites it — after all Salinger wrote the sort of books that, when you’re all done reading them, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours. For a lot of readers this instilled an entitlement for answers from the man who had already given them so much in those four slim volumes.
This, in part, feels like the premise of Salinger — that this writer, who we once dearly loved, abandoned us, and we deserve answers. The book seeks to answer not what happened to J.D. Salinger, but what was J.D. Salinger’s problem, anyway? It seeks answers like a child seeking an absent father.
So where do we go from here? With all of the information compiled in these new projects, the what’s, where’s, and when’s of Salinger’s life — what is there left to find? The why’s and how’s interest us most of all.
I believe the only way to fill these blanks is by returning to the beginning. To re-read The Catcher in the Rye with PTSD in mind. By reading Franny and Zooey, knowing that “Franny” was written as a wedding present for Salinger’s second wife Claire — a marriage that faded away as the Glass family grew more and more defined. Return to “For Esmé”, knowing that all of its hope and fragile beauty were created by a man present in many of the bloodiest battles of World War II and witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust. He managed to not only convey the numbing desolation of shell-shock, but to put the pieces back together again.
It’s time to not only return to his books, but to go back even further to his early stories — of Vincent Caulfield (later D.B.) and his brother Holden, each of whom die in the war and are resurrected in Catcher. To discover the Gladwater family, friends of the Caulfields, whose siblings Babe and Mattie mirror the relationship we see developed more fully between Holden and Phoebe. For those too far away from Princeton’s Firestone Library, the library at the University of Texas in Austin, or the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England — many of Salinger’s old stories can be found in library archives or, less reputably, transcribed online.
To read Salinger with new awareness of his experiences, retaining the grains of salt which must be taken alongside the Shields/Salerno projects, a new Salinger just might emerge. Now is the perfect time to revisit Salinger’s work and breathe new life into a body of critical work that is lacking at best. The conversation about him is re-starting and the readers who have remained quiet, holding their collective breath, for new Salinger material, can come out of hiding.
Perhaps we’ll even be rewarded with something truly new. There is not, for anyone who has read his final interviews or, better yet, read his letters, any doubt that Salinger kept writing. Salinger wrote his old friend Donald Hartog in 1991 that he kept busy writing, “fiction, as always.” In 1997 he noted, with great relief, that the fire which scorched a good part of the house, including his study, had spared his writing. After, he invested in a fireproof safe to protect his writing from future disasters, showing that Salinger didn’t only write for himself, but he actually took pains to preserve his work. If this doesn’t indicate an intention to publish, Shields and Salerno have word from “two independent and separate sources” that there are five works approved for publication beginning in 2015.
What awaits Salinger readers in the vault? Maybe more of the ecstatic prose of Seymour: An Introduction, or spiritual healing of “Zooey”. Perhaps, even, he continued in the direction of “Hapworth,” which so bewildered his critics. We may only speculate until the works are actually released but, whatever the outcome, new Salinger writing would help fuel the of renewed interest in the writer’s work and perhaps even relieve some of the bitterness that marks the better part of the Shields/Salerno project and so many other seeker accounts besides.
Whether or not Shields’s sources have any validity will be seen in time. It’s telling that Colleen O’Neill and Matthew Salinger, the two executors of the writer’s estate, both refuse to make a statement one way or the other. It will be impossible to gauge what the result of new Salinger fiction could have on the way that we view his writing as well as how we come to judge his reclusive years.
A couple of weeks passed and I had the urge to read another novel, so using a trip to Chicago as the good chance it was, I picked up J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Again, I was amazed at the ease with which Salinger grasps the reader’s attention and pulls him into the dialogues of Franny and Zooey. The Glass family is extraordinary in many ways and Zooey’s rants reminds me of an older version of Vince Vaughn. I could not finish the novel on my flights to and from Chicago, which is just as well, because on Monday, after I got home from work I filled the tub a la Zooey, lay in it for half an hour, and finished the book. A friend of mine once mentioned that it was his favorite piece growing up and he’d read it once every week, I understand and respect his mania now. I think I shall turn to The Catcher in the Rye next and keep reading the genius that Salinger is.I traveled to Charlottesville and back via train in the same week. During the thirteen hours I spent on the Amtrak couch, I luxuriously started and finished Orhan Pamuk’s Sessiz Ev (silent house, La Maison du silence). I really like Pamuk, he is a pretentious, rich, aristocratic bastard in life but his novels are for the most part very successful in grasping certain periods of Turkey’s modern history. I am afraid that Sessiz Ev has not been translated into English but you can read it in French if you so desire. In this second novel of his, Pamuk describes the visit of three siblings to their grandmother’s residence an hour east of Istanbul. It is the summer of 1980, three months before the military coup, the youngest brother, now a senior in high school, wants to continue his education in the U.S. and has high capitalistic ambitions, the sister, a junior in college, is an ardent communist and would like nothing better than to see the fascists beat, and the older brother, a thirty-four-year-old drunken history professor, is aloof to everything and resembles his father and grandfather in his disconnect to the world. Sessiz Ev is a very interesting study of an important period in Turkey through common, unhappy and disgruntled characters.My last pick of the year is a serious undertaking, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I am almost halfway through and enjoy the story, language, and the other novellas inserted in the middle. Clearly there is much to be said about Don Quixote but I will keep my reserve until I am done reading the whole novel.And last but not least, I also picked up Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lord Henry Wotton’s opinions have forced me to put Don Quixote on hold and indulge in the vanity that Lord Henry propagates. Of course, more on The Picture of Dorian Gray once I am done, but let it suffice to say that I am currently thrilled by its brilliance.[Thanks for sharing your year in reading, Emre]Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
The recent news, here in Canada, of our great lady of letters, Alice Munro, taking the Giller prize for Runaway (excerpt), her latest collection of short fiction, gives us a chance to praise that wonderful literary form – the short story – and the authors who have practiced it with precision, humanity, and wit.Collected volumes of short fiction often provided me with an easy approach to the many writers who would become my favourites. Tight, economical writing, a whole world painted with just a few deft strokes – and I was hooked.And so it was that Welcome to the Monkey House became the book of my formative college years. In short order, I would devour all of Kurt Vonnegut’s marvelous works, but I still hold dear this short story collection. Even now, years later, the thought of “Harrison Bergeron” makes me simultaneously laugh and shudder at the alternate universe he inhabits – a world in which all citizens are subjected to absurd physical and mental “handicapping,” a leveling-out process that results in a form of institutionalized mediocrity. Sameness.For Ernest Hemingway, clarity and precision were his stock in trade, and nowhere is this more resonant than in In Our Time, a collection of early shorts. Hemingway can present Nick Adams to us and reveal more of his world in 5 pages than many writers would dare to in 500. “The Battler” stands out – a tale of young Nick’s encounter with a disfigured and psychologically damaged prizefighter while riding the rails. Equally powerful are the numerous vignettes that Hemingway intersperses between the stories, many of them harrowing slices of war.Hemingway’s contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, gives us Jazz Age Stories. It’s within these pages that you can experience the remarkable “Diamond As Big As The Ritz“, an astonishing tale of money, power, fear (of losing it) and the complete moral bankruptcy that ensues. This is an unparalleled story of illusion and disillusion. It creeps up on you and will echo for years and years.While The Catcher in the Rye has become such an iconic cultural phenomenon, its often forgotten that J.D. Salinger wrote anything else. Unless of course you’ve read Franny and Zooey, or Raise High the Roof Beam. Or my personal choice, the collection Nine Stories. Then you never forget. This is dysfunction grounded in reality, not simply splayed out for shock value or a quick laugh. I recommend you revisit the extended Glass family in the deceptively simmering “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.”In recent years, I’ve come to regard Anton Chekhov as the master of the form. Any collection will do. Try Lady With Lapdog and Other Stories. I challenge you to find an unnecessary or misplaced word. Simple, perfect writing. These selections just scratch the surface, and of course there’s no shortage of good contemporary short fiction. But it serves us well to be reminded from time to time of “the greats” – not as an untouchable force that stomps on any newcomers, but rather as artistic touchstones that let you approach, and that remind you of first principles. These masters have given us a vital part of our literary canon.Also recommended: The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories by Oscar Wilde, James Joyce’s (surprisingly readable) Dubliners, and Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver