Almost the Voice of Silence: The Later Novelettes of J. D. Salinger by Ihab Hassan

MLA Citation:

Hassan, Ihab. “Almost the Voice of Silence: The Later Novelettes of JD Salinger.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 4.1 (Winter 1963): 100-08. Print.

First Paragraph:

“Anyone who comments on the works of J. D. Salinger, nowadays, does so at his peril. There are many – editors, critics, friends, relatives, and plain readers among them – who are eager. to chastize the commentator for his indiscretion. This is just as well: one may thus feel free at last to say what one wishes. Where cannons and controversies reign, there is some freedom in playfulness.” (5)


Hassan notes the “nervous” critical reception to Salinger’s later stories (“Zooey,” “Raise High,” and “Seymour”) and labels them “anti-form,” suggesting that they are not enjoyable for either readers or critics. Although he is not entirely negative, his  proposition is “that the stories exhibit a new conception of form, particularly suitable to their vision, which is becoming rife in current literature.” (5-6) Hassan labels this new conception  of form as essentially surreal. In part I, Hassan is primarily interested in the development of Salinger’s fiction:

In the past, the dramatic gestures of his fiction were defined by the poles of love and of squalor, worship and irony. When the gestures aspired to pure religious expression, language reached into silence. When the gestures revealed their purely satiric content, language moved toward sentimentality. But it is clear now to which pole Salinger tends: I see no reason to avoid calling him a religious writer. His idea of love – a paramount concern – is entirely spiritual, and his celebrations of life are very nearly sacramental. (6)

In part II, Hassan deals almost exclusively with the Glass family. He makes a keen observation about Salinger’s attention to language, specifically in “Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters,”  in developing the surreal aspect, writing, “[c]liches, slogans, ejaculations, second and third hand gossip, patriotic parades, bands playing raucous music, Sea Scouts singing off-key, written notes passed back and forth in the car, messages scrawled with soap on bathroom mirrors, rhapsodic entries in a private diary, and phone calls with inaudible connections, envelop reality in a sur-real haze.” (8) Hassan’s conclusion is that the “reality Seymour feels and the reality Buddy has just experienced remain separated by a chasm neither language nor feeling can bridge.” (9)

Part III deals more with “Zooey,” the novella paired with “Franny,” and published in 1961. Hassan notes the more self-conscious turn that Salinger’s work takes. He points to Buddy’s character, who he categorizes as going through the motions even when the opportunity for impactful truth has passed. Hassan goes on to write, “The lure of primordial silence is fully felt and finally resisted. This is what the form of the story, moving from dispersion to resolution, also maintains.” (13)

In Part IV, Hassan turns his attention to Seymour: An introduction, stressing that the aim of the work “is less to describe Seymour, who beggars description, than to justify language which must, in the same breath, try and fail to encompass holiness.” (14). Though Hassan notes the inside jokes, and even labels “Seymour” as polemic, he nonetheless seems to recognize that there is some element of genius and hyper-reality at work in these later novellas. (14-15)

In the closing section of his essay Hassan writes that, “[a]ll three novelettes obviously entertain a sacramental view of life, and a view of language that is increasingly so. They all reach for a right understanding of Seymour: love in daily action, spirit making its home in the world.” He also asserts that silence is not only a theme but an element of primary importance in their form and that the primary aesthetic of Salinger’s fiction is love. Therefore, the “Glasses are not vaudevillians for nothing: they are “professionally ecstatic” people who make religion a part of their daily actions.” (19)

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