Nine Stories
by J D Salinger

Little, Brown
1953
First Collection







"Nicholson flicked his cigarette ash off to one side.
'I take it you have no emotions?' he said.
Teddy reflected before answering.
'If I do, I don't remember when I ever used them,' he said. 'I don't see what they're good for.'
"


Reviewed by Sara Baume

Shortly after Little, Brown published the first edition of Nine Stories in the US in 1953, Eudora Welty was invited to review it for The New York Times. "J.D. Salinger's writing is original, first rate, serious and beautiful," she began. The piece that followed was short and succinct and resoundingly positive. Although Welty had admired Salinger's 1951 novel, The Catcher in the Rye, she proclaimed that "all of its virtues can be had in a short story by the same author, where they are somehow more at home.'"

By close of review Welty had managed to capture the collection's unique resonance and the author's strange genius so thoroughly that she justly left coming epochs of reviewers with little to say in praise of Nine Stories that could possibly outsmart such insight and precision. Toward the end of the piece was a sentence in anticipation of things to come: "Mr. Salinger is a very serious artist, and it is likely that what he has to say will find many forms as time goes by - interesting forms too." It is this mistaken assumption in an otherwise pitch-perfect review which allows for Welty's insight to be re-examined with hindsight almost sixty years later.

The forms that Salinger's writing found in the aftermath of Nine Stories were undeniably interesting but disappointingly few. In 1961 Franny and Zooey was published followed by Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction in 1963. Both books consist of two linked novellas charting the lives of the dysfunctional Glass family, as does the long story Hapworth 16, 1924 which appeared in The New Yorker in 1965 and has since become the last of Salinger's works to be published within his lifetime.

Salinger died in January 2010 after spending more than fifty of his latter years living in seclusion and writing, it is believed, but refusing to publish. The stories and novellas have yet to achieve anything like the whirlwind acclaim of his debut novel. From Catcher... onwards through to Hapworth..., there is something of a decline in pace and a marked rise in talk of ideas surrounding spirituality. Yet true Salinger disciples, like Welty, will love him less for the angst-ridden tirades of Holden Caulfield than for the world-weary prophecies of Franny Glass, less for the quarter-of-a-million copies of Catcher... still sold around the world each year than for the fact of its author's exceptional lifestyle.

Today, it is difficult to write a review of Nine Stories without a Salinger on one's shoulder - without an awareness of his early charisma and ambition, his experiences as a soldier in the Second World War, his Zen Buddhist beliefs and withdrawal from society. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems reasonable to believe that disregarding the atypical facts of his life will ultimately do a greater disservice to Salinger's writing than to acknowledge them will.

Seven of the pieces which make up Nine Stories were originally published in The New Yorker, amongst the best known of which are For Esmé - with Love and Squalor and A Perfect Day for Bananafish. Although not initially written to be collected together, each story is still coloured by a common shade of warm grey and underscored by a common current of disaffection.

Here pictured is a world of "smart alecks" and "hoodlums", of "backgammon'"and "humidors". Here are characters called Boo Boo , Ramona and Theodore, who dress in beaver coats, turtlenecks and gabardine suits, who do their hair up in pompadours and chain-smoke "cork-tipped Herbert Tareyton" cigarettes. Here is the landscape of glamorous New York in the mid-twentieth century, or more accurately, the humanscape - for Salinger is never one to waste words on description of place or setting in time. Welty noted that "Mr. Salinger's world urban, suburban, family, mostly of the Eastern seaboard is never a clue to the way he will treat it: he seems to write without preconception of shackling things."  For example, from Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut:
'Maybe you can get a lift with Dick and Mildred.' She listened. 'Oh. Well, that's tough kid. Why don't you boys form a platoon and march home? You can say that hut-hope-hoop-hoop business. You can be the big shot.' She listened again. 'I'm not funny,' she said. 'Really, I'm not. It's just my face.' She hung up.
The heart of each story is set to the beat of its characters - to unfussy accounts of the way in which they move through the world and interact with one another, to their confidential phone-calls and wisecracking conversations, to the cautious articulation of their understated feelings and nascent beliefs. Salinger's characters are chosen chiefly for their capacity to spark potent dialogue. This most often takes the form of a child in haphazard conversation with a newly encountered adult, as Sybil and Seymour in Bananafish, Esmé and Sergeant X in For Esmé..., Teddy and Nicholson in Teddy. His adults are characteristically broken by habit and suffering "the ruthless cruelty of conventional social judgements and behavior", and this is a condition rendered all the more stark when positioned alongside the unassuming wisdom of the very young.

In some stories, in The Laughing Man and sections of Bananafish and Down at the Dinghy, the narrative is angled at an oblique perspective - that of a character somehow removed from the main protagonist and through whom the reader looks in and passes unwitting judgement. In all stories, regardless of perspective, the narrative is basted by strands of oblique meaning. Nothing is shouted or spelled out inelegantly or sentimentally. Yet the attentive reader, the reader whose life, in some unfathomable way, has tuned them to Salinger's particular frequency will see through the humidors and pompadours to the most fundamental of things - to innocence and regret and hope and love and madness.

In The New York Times in 1953, Welty described Nine Stories as 'neither easy nor simple in any degree'. Nevertheless each piece is as worthy of reading and re-reading today as they were all of fifty-eight years ago. Originally written in skilful criticism of a burgeoning culture of ego and materialism, the stories 'all pertain to the lack of something in the world.' In a contemporary world all the more generally lacking in virtuousness, this classic collection still tolls a sad truth - a truth that tolls all the louder for the monumental silence of its author.

 


Sara Baume is a freelance writer based in southern Ireland. Her reviews, interviews, articles and stories have been published both online and in print, from Circa art magazine to The Stinging Fly literary magazine.

                     
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Born in New York in 1919, J D Salinger is most renowned for his only published novel, The Catcher in the Rye, which came out in 1951. Nine Stories was published in the US in 1953, followed by Franny and Zooey in 1961 and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction in 1963, both of which comprise two linked novellas. Salinger died in New Hampshire in 2010 after more than fifty years of living in virtual seclusion.