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Salinger and Consumer Culture

Contributed by Tim Towslee. Many thanks Tim!

Ed. note: This is great background for examining the cultural shifts that Salinger was reacting against. More information is forthcoming about Salinger’s relationship to post-war consumer culture.

Consumer Culture: 1945-1960

A Very Short History of Consumerism in Prewar America:

  • Consumerism has its roots on American soil in the seventeenth century. The puritans believed that there were two types of consumption: that which was directed at satisfying needs, and that which purposed to satisfy wants. They considered the former legitimate and condemned the latter (Campbell 19).
  • As America developed as a nation, consumerism played a great role. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Americans were producers. In the mid- to late- nineteenth century, with the emergence of the middle class, a shift occurred and more people took part in consumption of goods rather than production. At the end of the nineteenth century, middle-class Americans left their blue-collar production jobs for white-collar careers in sales, advertising, banking, etc. These jobs afforded them more money and more leisure time in which to spend it. Thorsetein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) addresses this phenomenon. His book is still uncannily prescient today.
  • American culture transformed from a more text and language based society to a more audiovisual culture in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Warren Susman identifies this period as the origin of “the comics, the poster, the photograph, the phonograph, the telephone, the radio, moving pictures, advertising, pulp magazines and with them certain genres of fiction and nonfiction, and, perhaps most centrally, the automobile” (xxvi). Susman argues that these media define our culture and its ideology.
  • In his book Keywords (1985), consumer culture historian Raymond Williams lists “personality” as one of the words that entered the middle class vocabulary in the early twentieth century as advertisers catered to the individual and the development of self through consumerism.
  • Veblen’s model assumes that consumption is a form of communication in which the ‘signals’ concerning wealth (and thus, it is argued, the social status) of the consumer are telegraphed to others. In addition, it is assumed that individuals seek to use such ‘conspicuous consumption’ as a way of improving their social standing, aiming ultimately to ‘emulate’ that ‘leisure class’ which, it is claimed, stands at the pinnacle of the class system. This view of the class system links it directly with an ethically dubious activity, social climbing. In assuming that consumers’ main interest in goods is as symbols of status, Veblen asserts that consumers are motivated by a mixture of anxiety (over how others may view them) and envy (of those in a superior position). (Campbell 21)
  • The seeds of mass consumption were planted in America in the 1920s and 1930s, but the Great Depression and World War II kept it from flourishing until 1945. There were, however, visible sprouts present in wealthy metropolitan areas that were unfazed by both depression and war.
  • In his 1941 State of the Union Address, Franklin D. Roosevelt “laid out ‘Four Freedoms,’ one of which was ‘freedom from want,’ calling for ‘the enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living’” (Glickman 5).

Postwar Economy in a Nutshell:

  • After World War II, America experienced an economic boom attributed to, among other things, lower gas prices, more women in the workforce, the baby boom, and a vast suburban migration. More than anything else Americans cast aside their penny pinching thrift, a habit necessitated by twenty years of depression and war, and replaced it with a new level of consumption. Answering F.D.R.’s call, middle-class Americans were now “denoted by their skills in ‘the art of living’ – defining their social status and sense of cultural identity through distinctive, consumption-driven lifestyles, their values and codes of behavior laying an accent on stylistic self-expression, self-conscious display, and [using Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘new petite bourgeoisie’ terminology] an ‘ethic of fun.’ …[They] embraced “hedonistic consumption as an acceptable – indeed, highly desirable – focal point to their values, aspirations, and social practices” (Osgerby 12).
  • America proved the biggest single consumer of [its own outpouring of wartime production]. Denied many goods during the austere war years, their pockets lined with unspent money, citizens rushed to buy everything that appeared on the new peacetime market. The orgy of self-indulgence created a level of prosperity unseen since the heady days just before the stock market crash of 1929 (Young 3).
  • Between 1950 and 1960, the gross national product grew from $285 billion to $500 billion.
  • The U.S. population grew from 132 million in 1940 to 150 million in 1950, and to 179 million in 1960.
  • The median family income rose from $3,083 per year in 1950 to $5,976 per year in 1960. This surge in disposable income manifested itself in increased sales of “new cars (as opposed to used ones), televisions, high-fidelity units, improved telephones, alcoholic beverages, and endless entertainment” (Young 6).

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Reader’s Guide – “Zooey”

Publication Details

Franny and Zooey
Image by Megan Inghram

The New Yorker, May 4, 1957 pages 32-42, 44, 47-48, 50, 52,54,57-59, 62, 64, 67-68, 70, 73-74, 76-78, 80-82, 87-90, 92-96, 99-102, 105-106, 108-112, 115-122, 125-139 (original appearance). Later published by Little Brown as Franny and Zooey in 1961, and dedicated to William Shawn.

Character List

Frances Glass (“Franny”)

A 20 year old college student

Zachary Martin Glass (“Zooey”)

Zooey is 25 years old. He is considered one of the most attractive and successful of the Glass children. It is noted that he is a successful television actor.

Bessie Glass

Irish-born family matriarch. Bessie worries about her children who have all seemed to grow up almost by themselves after years of success on “It’s a Wise Child.”

Les Glass

The absent father, Les is more or less only mentioned in “Zooey.” He is of Jewish descent and he and Bessie were successful Vaudevillians

Buddy Glass

Buddy is the second-oldest of the Glass children, he teaches at a women’s college.

Seymour Glass

Seymour has been dead 13 years during the course of events that composes “Zooey.”  Franny says she wants to talk to Seymour and that doing so is the only thing that will make her feel better.

Plot Synopsis

“Zooey” continues the story of Franny’s “spiritual awakening” on Monday, two days after Franny’s trip to Princeton. The novella also gives the reader additional information about the unusual upbringing of the Glass children, whose radio appearances as child geniuses, has created a unique bond among them. Salinger indicates even more in “Zooey” than in other Glass family stories that the Glass siblings have a unique understanding of one another based on this shared experience.

The narrative opens with Zooey, smoking and soaking in a hot bathtub, reading a four-year old letter from his brother, Buddy. The letter encourages Zooey to continue pursuing his acting career. Zooey’s mother, Bessie, enters the bathroom, and the two have a long discussion, wherein Bessie expresses her worries about Franny, whose existential anxiety seen in “Franny” has progressed to a state of emotional collapse. During the conversation, Zooey vacillates between a sort of tit-for-tat banter with his mother and a downright rude dismissal of her and repeatedly asks that she leave. Bessie accepts Zooey’s behavior, and quips that he’s becoming more and more like his brother Buddy.

After Bessie leaves, Zooey gets dressed and moves into the living room, where he finds Franny on the sofa with her cat Bloomberg, and begins speaking with her. After upsetting Franny by questioning her motives for reciting the “Jesus Prayer,” Zooey goes into Seymour and Buddy’s former bedroom and reads the back of their door, which is covered in philosophical and literary quotations. After contemplation, Zooey telephones Franny, pretending to be their brother Buddy. Franny eventually acknowledges the ruse, but she and Zooey continue to talk. Knowing that Franny reveres their oldest brother, Seymour – the spiritual leader of the family, who committed suicide years earlier – Zooey shares with her some words of wisdom that Seymour once gave him. At the end of the call, as the fundamental “secret” of Seymour’s advice is revealed, Franny seems, in a moment reminiscent of a mystical satori, to find profound existential illumination in what Zooey has told her.

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