Salinger and the Literary Geography of a Real and Fictional New York City

Written by Angelica Bega-Hart, November 2009.

According to Phillip Lapote there are ten themes [1] that occur “obsessively” in fiction written about or situated in New York City. (Lapote, xviii) Though Salinger does not appear at all in Lapote’s bulky anthology, several of those themes are manifest n Salinger’s writing.  As Ruth Prigozy notes,

The local references in Nine Stories clearly indicate a recognizable fictive world: New York City predominates, from the opening line in “A Prefect Day,” set in Miami but alluding to “ninety seven New York advertising men” (3). In “The Laughing Man, ” the precise geography of the city forms a substructure for the double layered story as does the east side of Manhattan for the dramatized encounters of “Just Before the War.” Whether the characters are on vacation, on a ship, in a foreign country, or in a Connecticut suburb of the city, the sensibility of Salinger’s world is firmly established by its references to the sophistication, polish, manners, and locales associated with the New York City of Salinger’s educated upper middle class. (qtd in Bloom, 93)

Certainly, Salinger’s familiarity with the city was an important part of his ability to portray it in a “precise” and stylized manner. And Salinger was as familiar with the city as anyone. Raised in New York, Salinger was born in 1919 to Sol Salinger and Marie (Miriam) Jillich at the Nursery and Child’s Hospital on West 61st Street. “Sonny” as he was nicknamed, went home to 103rd Street and Riverside Drive. As his father’s success increased the family moved to a house on West 82nd Street on the Upper West Side and then later to the fashionable and ritzy Upper East Side, to the building located at 1133 Park Avenue. (Alexander, 31-35) William Maxwell would later argue that Saliner’s childhood gave him a unique perspective on the city that would later dominate the settings for much of his fiction, saying:

JEROME DAVID SALINGER was born in New York City on January 1, 1919. So far as the present population is concerned, there is a cleavage between those who have come to the city as adults and those who were born and raised there, for a New York childhood is a special experience. For one thing, the landmarks have a very different connotation. As a boy Jerry Salinger played on the steps of public buildings that a non-native would recognize immediately and that he never knew the names of. He rode his bicycle in Central Park. He fell into the Lagoon. Those almost apotheosized department stores, Macy’s and Gimbel’s, still mean to him the toy department at Christmas. Park Avenue means taking a cab to Grand Central at the beginning of vacation. (Dead Caulfields [2])

Salinger’s time in New York lasted until his early teens, when he went away to prep school in Pennsylvania, but after a few brief years, he was back in the city of his birth attending college at New York University’s Washington Square College and later taking classes with Whit Burnett at Columbia University.  Perhaps more importantly, Salinger came back to New York at the conclusion of the war and spent time in Greenwich Village where he made connections with other aspiring writers. (Alexander, 114)

Despite Salinger’s New York roots and the tendency of his stories to focus on New Yorkers with overt references to important New York City landmarks, Salinger is not often anthologized as a New York writer. Most often included in anthologies about the Big Apple are earlier writers such as Washington Irving and Walt Whitman and from Salinger’s generation, John Cheever, John Updike, and the Beat poets. One anthology of New York writing that does include Salinger is David Remnick’s Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker. In it, Remnick includes stories that “reflect the city’s moods and crises over seventy-five years,” from writers who “are legion” and who have “helped create a powerful and complex portrait of New York.” Most importantly, Remnick says he aims for a “quality of endurance” (Remnick, xii) Remnick apparently sees such a quality in one of Salinger’s earliest short stories, “A Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” which illustrates a scene that would eventually be rewritten (from a different point of view) and incorporated into Salinger’s most famous work, The Catcher in Rye. It remains unclear if, as Paul Alexander suggests, Salinger may have prevented his work from being reproduced in anthologies [3] and whether this fabled decision of Salinger’s is the primary reason for his lack of inclusion in a number of New York anthologies. (Alexander, 24)

Anthologized or not, Salinger often sets his stories in the city of his youth. These settings are not only symbolic arenas as many critics have discussed them, they are embodiments of something more. Salinger’s use of New York City and its environs demonstrate not only symbolic aspects of character, but also gives the reader an important glimpse into the real and imagined world of Salinger himself. While most critics point to his insider’s view on the city as a way of intoxicating the reader who can only hope to be part of that world, other critics have pointed to them as less than real. The view of a real New York encapsulated in time is one critics from Maxwell Geismar to Harold Bloom have espoused. The more romanticized version is evidenced by responses of readers such as those who wrote essays for With Love and Squalor. One such contributor, Walter Kirn remarks [4],

To me, though, the era sounded, well, beautiful. The tidy parks with their flocks of fluffy ducks. The glamorous restaurants that served drinks to minors. The museums. The trains. The crime free avenues. New York, as pictured on the evening news, was a hellhole of muggers and uncollected garbage, of sidewalks strewn with junkies’ hypodermics, and to think that there had been this golden decade when teenagers could roam about at night there, checking in to hotels and blithely wandering – repressive? Hardly. It sounded like a blast. (Kotzen, 9)

John Updike is a representative of the other camp. He suggests that Salinger presents neither a realistic interior view, nor a romanticized ideal. Instead, in his critical review of Franny and Zooey, Updike laments, ‘”Franny,” nevertheless, takes place in what is recognizably our world; in “Zooey” we move into a dream world whose zealously animated details only emphasize an essential unreality.’ (Updike, emphasis mine)

Still it would be virtually impossible, and also irresponsible to omit that criticism which deals with setting at the level of the symbolic. Among the criticism that deals with Salinger’s settings directly, there are a few regularly occurring motifs. One of these is the idea of New York as hell. Ruth Prigozy in her essay, “Nine Stories: J.D. Salinger’s Linked Mysteries” says:

If Salinger’s Manhattan is hell, a hell of unleashed materialism, then for the tortured souls who inhabit the city, the search for a serene spiritual existence perforce becomes central to their efforts to find meaning where none apparently exists. This, then, is the spiritual level of Nine Stories, and it evolves naturally out of the brilliant depiction of modern urban hell. (Bloom, 103)

Prigozy and others have also made much of Muriel’s reading of an article entitled, “Sex Is Fun—or Hell” at the beginning of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” The notion of Manhattan as hell might be one Salinger uses as a narrative technique to advance plot, but it is seldom that Salinger or his characters show true contempt for the city itself. In fact, in many ways they celebrate those landmarks which bring them comfort and joy, and instead bemoan the people who create hell on earth, a hell of unrelenting indifference to the true emotions of love and compassion.

In actuality, what one takes away from Salinger is the same type of New York character that is often portrayed in the films of Woody Allen or the lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel.  This version is of a city that is comforting, even to individuals whose lives have ventured off course due either to their own neuroses or the alienating pace of modern life. While literary critics have discussed the narrative space of Catcher, at least tangentially, for a number of years now, two geographers have recently taken up the “imagined geography,” in an effort to understand better the concept of the therapeutic landscape [5]. For Holden the landscape of New York clearly offers both healing and tension. He moves back and forth through the narrative in real New York spaces that are comforting for their static existence in a dynamic and increasingly fast-paced world of “phonies.” One such space is the Museum of Natural History, of it, Holden says,

“The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different.” (Catcher, 157-158)

Holden searches in Catcher for a bridge between childhood and adulthood, leading critic David Galloway to conclude that, “what prompts Holden’s quest is a desire for unity, a desire that is expressed in the comfort and safety which he always felt at the Museum of Natural History,” Galloway goes on to argue,

That such a reassuringly ordered universe is an impossible dream is emphasized by the fact that, when Holden visits the Museum near the conclusion of his New York odyssey, he sees the words “’Fuck you’ … written with a red crayon or something, right under the glass part of the wall, under the stones” (264). Holden wishes to erase the interminable “Fuck You’s” on all the alley walls, and school corridors, and sidewalks in the world. And this intention to cancel out vulgarity and phoniness is a poignant if naïve example of the absurd. (Bloom, 30)

The museum then serves as a reminder of that which is constant, even if his adult self has discovered that permanence is an illusion, it remains a powerful and well-serving memory.

The final New York landmark to be discussed symbolically from Catcher is Central Park. Salinger’s childhood home was only a few short blocks from the southeastern tip of the park and it is clear that the park functions importantly in Catcher, as it probably did in his own childhood. Holden recalls the park several times in the novel,  most often his mind wanders to the ducks in the lagoon and to contemplating what they will do in the winter, just as he avoids contemplating what he will do with his own life. Holden as he prepares to leave Pencey Prep says,

The funny thing is, though, I was sort of thinking of something else while I shot the bull. I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go? I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away. (Catcher, 23)

Most often the park also conjures fond memories, but occasionally the park is the setting for soul searching which results in a feeling of alienation and depression. Several critics have noted that the passage below may indicate that Holden is unprepared at this point in the novel to make the transition from child to adult. This opinion is reinforced when a frustrated and alienated Holden complains,

It was lousy in the park. It wasn’t too cold, but the sun still wasn’t out, and there didn’t look like there was anything in the park except dog crap and globs of spit and cigar butts from old men, and the benches all looked like they’d be wet if you sat down on them. It made you depressed, and every once in a while, for no reason, you get goose flesh while you walked. It didn’t seem at all like Christmas was coming soon. It didn’t seem like anything was coming. (Catcher, 118)

However, Phoebe’s carrousel ride in the park ultimately becomes a symbol of Holden’s acceptance of his changing role,

Then the carrousel started, and I watched her go around and around. There were only about five or six other kids on the ride, and the song the carousel was playing was “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” It was playing it very jazzy and funny. All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she’d fall off the goddam horse, but I didn’t say anything or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them.” (Catcher, 211)

New York plays a pivotal role then not just in Catcher, but in many of Salinger’s stories from the tattered carpet of the Glass family apartment to the Fifth Avenue department stores referred to in “A Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” Salinger creates a fictional New York that is nearly as complex, charming and dynamic as the city itself.

Works Consulted:

Baer, Leonard D. and Wilbert M. Gesler. “Reconsidering the concept of therapeutic landscapes in J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.” Area Volume 36.Issue 4 (2004):404 – 413. Published Online: 13 Dec 2004. Web.

Bloom, Harold. ed. Bloom’s Modern Ciritcal Views: J.D. Salinger. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2008. Print.

French, Warren G. J.D. Salinger (Revised Edition). Twayne’s United States authors series, TUSAS 40. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976. Print.

—. J.D. Salinger, Revisited. Twayne’s United States authors series, TUSAS 542. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988. Print.

Gwynn, Frederick L. and Joseph L. Blotner. The Fiction of J.D. Salinger. Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh Press, 1958. Print.

Homberger, Eric. The Historical Atlas of New York City: A Visual Celebration of 400 Years of New York City’s History (Revised and Expanded Edition). New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005. Print.

Kotzen, Kip, and Thomas Beller. With Love and Squalor: 14 Writers Respond to the Work of J.D. Salinger. New York: Broadway Books, 2001. Print.

Lopate, Phillip. Writing New York: A Literary Anthology. New York: Library of America, 1998. Print.

Remnick, David. ed. Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker. New York: The Modern Library, 2001. Print.

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher and the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown, 1951. Print.

—. Franny and Zooey. Boston: Little, Brown, 1961. Print.

—. Nine Stories. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963. Print.

Updike, John. Anxious Days for the Glass Family. The New York Times Books Section. The New York Times. Web. <>

[1] Lapote actually identifies eleven themes, but for the purposes of this paper I lump together his statements about New York’s “concentration of media and information, leading to the manufacture of celebrity for the few” [and] “anonymity to the many,” since these oppositions are often dependent on one another.

[2] “ J. D. Salinger,” Book of the Month Club News, (biography to accompany The Catcher in the Rye) July 1951. Slawenski’s website is not the only mention of the Maxwell biographical preface to Catcher, but it is the only source that I have that reprints its content.

[3] Alexander does not cite where he obtains this information, so it is difficult to hold it as truth. However, given Salinger’s notorious proclivity to control the distribution of his work, it seems likely that Salinger would have made such a request.

[4] Another author, René Steinke remarked “…the price marked on the cover (fifty cents) fit the book’s glamorous  origin in a different world, New York City in the fifties, a place I imagined as populated by men with very short hair who smoked and took a lot of trains, and stylish women who were a little sarcastic. (Kotzen,15-16) This quote shows how elaborately Salinger’s writing of time and place are concocted and the types of emotions they evoke.

[5] See: “Reconsidering the concept of therapeutic landscapes in J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye” by geographers Leonard D Baer and Wilbert M Gesler. “Through examples from Holden’s experiences, [they]  explore therapeutic landscapes as ambivalent, nuanced spaces. [They argue] that therapeutic landscapes should be considered beyond exceptional cases, in everyday experience.

Aerial View of New York City
Aerial View of New York City, Life MagazineArchive on Google, (Non-commercial use)

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