Readers Guide – “Hapworth 16, 1924”

Reader’s Guide kindly contributed by Kathy Gabriel.  Thanks, Kathy!

Publication Details

Published in the The New Yorker, June 19, 1965, pages 32-113

Plot Summary

Buddy Glass, age 46 transcribes a letter written by his older brother Seymour at the age of seven, when both boys were attending summer camp at Camp Simon Hapworth. Seymour provides an emotional account of their time at Camp Hapworth interspersed with condescending advice to his family and rants on religion and literature in nearly 30,000 words. It was Salinger’s first and only published work after “Seymour: An Introduction.”

Reviews, Criticism, & Commentary

“Hapworth’s” reception is most concisely explained in the introduction to the article “Justice for Salinger” by Janet Malcolm:

When J.D. Salinger’s “Hapworth 26, 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 hand basket.

The “embarrassed silence” Malcolm describes can best be illustrated by the lack of attention paid to “Hapworth” by Time magazine, the publication that featured Salinger on its cover just four years earlier. The story received only the following blurb in the “People” section of the magazine:

After six years of painful, reclusive silence, Author J. D. Salinger, 46, has produced another story. It’s no Catcher in the Rye or Franny and Zooey—just one more refraction through his magic Glasses in the form of a fictional family’s letter that Seymour Glass, the presiding guru and ghost, wrote home from Camp Hapworth, Maine, at the tender age of seven. Published in The New Yorker, the note is introduced briefly by Family Historian Buddy Glass, who for years has been garrulously obsessed by the memory of his suicide brother. By the letter, Childe Seymour seems to have been, practically from birth, a perfervid scholar, linguist, spiritual genius and altogether verbose little man who finds everything in life “heartrending,” or “damnable.” “My emotions are too damnably raw today, I fear,” he starts, and in 28,000 words plunges forth to speculate on God, reincarnation, Proust, Balzac, baseball and the charms of the camp director’s wife (“quite perfect legs, ankles, saucy bosoms, very fresh, cute hind quarters”), while insistently querying his parents about “what imaginary-sensual acts gave lively, unmentionable entertainment to your minds.”

In his book J.D. Salinger, Revisited, Warren French declares that “any scrutinizing of ‘Hapworth’ has to begin with the acknowledgement that in the course of this bold experiment something went wrong (110).” He goes on to criticize Salinger’s error in failing to end the story sooner:

Then in one of those monstrous mischances in the secret history of creativity, at a point where the letter should properly end and Seymour should wait to see if he evoked any response, he finds another pad of paper and takes off again, extending the letter almost half its length over in a pompous display of erudition that many commentators have found simply unreadable (110).

Critics often point out the unsettling characteristics that can now be attributed to Seymour as a result of his telling letter. In J.D. Salinger, James Lundquist notes that:

Salinger attempts to portray Seymour in the process of deepening his awareness. Seymour’s special powers and his special weaknesses apparently must be thought of as emanating from some central force underlying all changing manifestations of reality. But the character that emerges is monstrous, fully as hideous in some ways, as the devil-children in such recent movies as The Omen. What the story does is to emphasize how oppressive as well as potentially enlightening Seymour’s Influence on his brothers and sisters must be. He is a grotesque, but then so are the lives of most saints (149).

The notion that Salinger purposely crafted the “unreadable” work in an attempt to illicit the response it got, was addressed by John Wenke in J.D. Salinger:

Surely it would be possible to construe “Hapworth” as a joke, a hoax, or even, as I suggested earlier, an act of authorial contempt designed to deter hopeful (and unswervingly loyal) readers from desiring future productions. But in “Hapworth” Salinger seems serious. As with every other aspect of his professional career, Salinger makes no concessions.

Ian Hamilton confirms that Salinger does not write to please anyone but himself in the biography In Search of J.D. Salinger:

In “Hapworth” the reader is blithely disregarded: “Take it or leave it” is Salinger’s unmistakable retort to any grumbles from the nonamateurs among his audience and he seems fairly certain (in deed makes certain) that most of them will leave it. The boy Seymour really is writing to his family. The Glass family has, in this last story, become both Salinger’s subject and his readership, his creatures and his companions. His life is finally made one with art (188).

In Harold Bloom’s J.D. Salinger: Modern Critical Views, Max Schulz reiterates the unreadable quality of the work and focuses on Salinger’s predisposition to writing gifted children:

Buddy-Salinger’s resort to the letter of a seven-year-old is a resourceful tactic for giving credence and inevitability, if not esthetic responsibility, to such insouciant dips into the pools of experience. But the trick does not hide the growing desperation of this reliance on the mouth of little babes. The child as a saint grows somewhat stale in repetition—and quite suspicious when, as in this case, he is merely a ventriloquisitic device for the voice and thoughts of the author (61).

Although the vast majority of responses were negative there were a few that saw the good in “Hapworth”. In Jack Sublette’s J.D. Salinger: An Annotated Bibliography, 1938-1981 there is a small summary of one positive article in response to “Hapworth”.

In his article “Hapworth 16, 1924” written for the The Village Voice, Donald Newlove rates “Hapworth” as “Salinger’s finest work and a perfection among great short novels by 20th century Americans—as strong as “The Old Man and the Sea,””The Great Gatsby,” the best of Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Faulkner (117).”

Points of Interest & Discussion Questions:

1.In his book In Search of J.D. Salinger, Ian Hamilton points out that in “Hapworth” Seymour “has key words that he just learned and cannot help repeating—“charming,” “touching” “magnificent,” “heart-rending,” “humorous (186).” I too noticed a great deal of repetition in the following words and their possible variations:

“God” (used 79 times)               “Dubious” (used 27 times)

“Jesus” (used 8 times)         “Heart” (used over 100 times)

With the religious themes, strong emotional outpourings and the uncertain nature of the story these words all seem to be serving a very specific role. What is the function of these repetitions?

2. Hamilton also states the story “provides some new Seymour revelations but not as many as    we have the right to expect in a first-person document of such forbidding length (187).”

What can be learned about Seymour from this letter? Are there any previously established traits that are reinforced here?

3. In “Seymour: An Introduction” Buddy says that Seymour once woke him to say that “he finally knew why Christ said to call no man Fool” “Christ had said it, Seymour thought I’d want to know, because there are no fools (158).” In “Hapworth” he refers to himself as a “young fool” and “foolish.” At what age do you suspect Seymour had the revelation about Christ and the fact that fools are nonexistent?

4. Is “Hapworth” an effective next step in Salinger’s exploration of the Glass Family and their spiritual journeys or do its “unreadable” qualities prevent further insight into their world?

5. Do you have a hard time reconciling the picture of Seymour you had from “Bananafish,” “Raise High,” and “Seymour” with the Seymour portrayed in “Hapworth?”  Do your feelings about him change after reading of his intolerance for other people and his sexuality?

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