Tag Archives: Materialism

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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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)

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A Question of Influence, T. S. Eliot and J. D. Salinger

Written by John Piersol, November 2009.

  • Unlike with writers such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, there is no convincing biographical evidence that Salinger was directly influenced by Eliot’s work.  There are some overt references to Eliot, however, notably in “Franny” and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” but on the surface these amount to little more than brief allusions.
  • “I absolutely adore your letter especially the part about Eliot.  I think I’m beginning to look down on all poets except Sappho” (Franny and Zooey 4-5).
  • “‘Ah Sharon Lipschutz,” said the young man.  ‘How that name comes up.  Mixing memory with desire’” (Nine Stories 13).

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

T. S. Eliot – “The Waste Land”

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