“When J.D. Salinger’s “Hapworth 16, 1924”—a very long and very strange story in the form of a letter from camp written by Seymour Glass when he was seven—appeared in The New Yorker in June 1965, it was greeted with unhappy, even embarrassed silence. It seemed to confirm the growing critical consensus that Salinger was going to hell in a handbasket. By the late Fifties, when the stories “Franny” and “Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters” were coming out in the magazine, Salinger was no longer the universally beloved author of The Catcher in the Rye; he was now the seriously annoying creator of the Glass family.”
Malcolm wisely takes on the critics who critically denounced Salinger’s works dealing with the Glass family. Her article concentrates heavily on “Franny” and “Zooey,” but addresses most of the Glass family stories. She reminds us that Salinger considered the Glass stories to be the works of his lifetime. She stresses that it is not Salinger, but his critics who are “dated,” and that the negative contemporary criticism serves as further evidence of Salinger’s originality. She also argues the essential “freakishness” of the “preternaturally good-looking” Glasses, noting that Salinger understood well the offensiveness of his creations. Malcolm is happy to give credit to Salinger’s later works, specifically, “Franny and Zooey,” which she credits with having the air of Greek myth about a return from the underworld. She also wisely addresses Kazin’s flippant comment about the use of smoking and cigarettes in Salinger’s work. She says:
Cigarettes offer the writer (or used to offer) a great range of metaphoric possibilities. They have lives and deaths. They glow and they turn to ashes. They need attention. They create smoke. They make a mess. As we listen to Bessie Glass and Zooey talk, we follow the fortunes of their cigarettes. Some of them go out for lack of attention. Others threaten to burn the smoker’s fingers. Our sense of the mother and son’s aliveness, and of the life-and-death character of their discussion, is heightened by the perpetual presence of these inanimate yet animatable objects.
Malcolm goes on to criticize Maxwell Geismar’s criticism of the extent to which Salinger explores Judaism in his fiction. She also notes that the Glasses live in a “hermetically sealed world,” but does not condemn Salinger for this as others have done. She goes on to praise Salinger for his use of small spaces, noting the claustrophobia which others lament as a clever plot device which helps capture character. Of the Glasses, Malcolm insightfully remarks:
They have the Glass disease; they suffer from a kind of allergy to human frailty. The pettiness, vulgarity, banality, and vanity that few of us are free of, and thus can tolerate in others, are like ragweed for Salinger’s helplessly uncontaminated heroes and heroines.
Malcolm concludes with the reminder that, “[w]hether Salinger is the rat his girlfriend and daughter say he is will endlessly occupy his well-paid biographers, and cannot change anything in his art.”