A Question of Influence, T. S. Eliot and J. D. Salinger

Written by John Piersol, November 2009.

  • Unlike with writers such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, there is no convincing biographical evidence that Salinger was directly influenced by Eliot’s work.  There are some overt references to Eliot, however, notably in “Franny” and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” but on the surface these amount to little more than brief allusions.
  • “I absolutely adore your letter especially the part about Eliot.  I think I’m beginning to look down on all poets except Sappho” (Franny and Zooey 4-5).
  • “‘Ah Sharon Lipschutz,” said the young man.  ‘How that name comes up.  Mixing memory with desire’” (Nine Stories 13).

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

T. S. Eliot – “The Waste Land”

  • “The Inverted Forest”
    • In his book of essays, J.D. Salinger (1963), Warren French points to Salinger’s early uncollected story as a direct response in many ways to Eliot.
    • “As psychologically realistic fiction, “The Inverted Forest” is surely one of the least satisfactory tales ever written, but it can be justified as an allegory.  That an allegory is intended is suggested by the only lines of Ford’s poetry actually quoted in the story, “Not wasteland, but a great inverted forest / with all foliage underground,” from which the title of the story is taken.  Since we are also told that during his days in Florida, Ford read a little Eliot, the “wasteland” referred to in the poem must surely be the twentieth century West as emblemized by Eliot.  Ford’s poem answers Eliot by asserting that the world is not really all wasteland, all “phony,” but that the “nice” world exists beneath the surface (in the mind) where beautiful, green things grow that cannot be observed externally” (71).
    • While Eliot looks to reform the external “Waste Land,” Salinger’s Ford is content to escape his “wasteland” by retreating into the workings of his own mind.  French also sees Salinger challenging Eliot in regards to “invented” vs. “found” poetry.
  • The Love Ethic
    • David Galloway connects Salinger and Eliot in his essay, “The Love Ethic,” writing that “Franny’s description of her illness—or at least of one of its major manifestations—is reminiscent of Celia’s description of her “perplexing” illness in T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party” (42)

“I don’t mean there’s anything horrible about him or anything like that.  It’s just that for four solid years I’ve kept seeing Wally Campbells wherever I go…It’s everybody, I mean.  Everything everybody does is so—I don’t know—not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily.  But just so tiny and meaningless and—sadmaking.  And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you’re conforming just as much as everybody else, only in a different way.” — from “Franny”

But that sounds flat.  I don’t mean simply

That there’s been a crash: though indeed there has been.

It isn’t simply the end of an illusion

In the ordinary way, or being ditched.

Of course that’s something that’s always happening

To all sorts of people, and they get over it

More or less, or at least they carry on.

No.  I mean that what has happened has made me aware

That I’ve always been alone.  That one is always alone.

Not simply the ending of one relationship,

Not even simply finding that it never existed—

But a revelation about my relationship

With everybody.  Do you know—

It no longer seems worth while to speak to anyone!

from “The Cocktail Party”

  • The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock
    • John M. Howell’s 1966 article “Salinger in the Waste Land” draws parallels between Eliot’s modernist masterpiece and The Catcher in the Rye.
    • While “The Waste Land” (1922) represents Eliot’s bleak vision of the modern world, his earlier poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917), deals more specifically with the condition of modern man within that world, and perhaps relates more directly to Salinger’s project in much of his writing.
    • “[The landscape of Catcher] is an environment in which real communication on a sensitive level is impossible, and when Holden unsuccessfully tries to explain his spiritual pain to Sally Hayes, there is certainly more than a coincidental suggestion of Eliot’s “J. Alfred Prufrock” in the frustrated cry, “ ‘You don’t see what I mean at all’ “ (Galloway 29).
    • “Sally is comfortably at home in the twilight world of J. Alfred Prufrock, measuring out her life ‘with coffee spoons’ ” (French, J.D. Salinger, Revisited 39).
    • Compare the following excerpts from Catcher and Prufrock:

“It isn’t fantastic.  I’d get a job.  Don’t worry about that.  What’s the matter?  Don’t you want to go with me?  Say so, if you don’t.”

“It isn’t that.  It isn’t that at all,” old Sally said.  I was beginning to hate her, in a way.  “We’ll have oodles of time to do those things—all those things.  I mean after you go to college and all, and if we should get married and all.  There’ll be oodles of marvelous places to go.  You’re just—“

“No, there wouldn’t be.  There wouldn’t be oodles of marvelous places to go at all.  It’d be entirely different,” I said.  I was getting depressed as hell again….“It wouldn’t be the same at all.  You don’t see what I mean at all” (Catcher 132-133).

And would it have been worth it, after all,

Would it have been worth while,

After sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,

After the novels, after teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—

And this, and so much more?—

It is impossible to say just what I mean!

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:

Would it have been worth while

If one, settling a pillow by her head,

Should say, “That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.”

–Prufrock, lines 99-108

  • Other Catcher-esque portions of Prufrock:

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent

To lead you to an overwhelming question…

Oh do not ask, “What is it?”

Let us go and make our visit.  (4-12)

I know the voices dying with a dying fall  (52)

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets

And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes

Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…

I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.  (70-74)

  • Scholars have also noted the attention in both Salinger and Eliot focusing on a cultural indictment of materialism:

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet (26-27)

My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the


My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—

(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”) (42-43)

And I have known the arms already, known them


Arms that are braceleted and white and bare

(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown


Is it perfume from a dress

That makes me so digress?

Arms that lie along a table, or wrap around a shawl.  (61-67)

I grow old…I grow old…

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a


I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the

beach.  (119-122)

  • Others have suggested that Seymour is Salinger’s Prufrock:

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,

Then how should I begin

To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all–…..  (55-61)

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves

Combing the white hair of the waves blown back

When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.  (123-130)

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