J. D. Salinger: Seeing the Glass Family (Seymour/Raise High the Roof Beam)

Up until the mid-fifties, J.D. Salinger had been circling around the eldest child of the Glass family, Seymour. Seymour appeared as the main character in the short story “A Perfect day for Bananafish”, but for the most part he stayed in the background. At the time of Franny and Zooey he was already dead. But in almost every Glass family story, Seymour was a presence: the soul, conscience and genius behind Les and Bessie Glasses’s large troupe of precocious children.

Now, in twin novelllas packaged in one volume, and appearing in in 1963, Seymour gets top billing. But because these are Salinger novels, Seymour does not come out and speak or perhaps do a little soft shoe for our amusement. Instead, the stories are narrated by his Boswell, his brother Buddy Glass, and once again Seymour is one degree removed from the action of the stories. The name of this collection is Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is the first and most engaging story in this collection. It concerns the wedding day of Seymour and his wife-to-be, Muriel. The rest of the Glass family is dispersed across the face of the earth due to the war, so it is up to Buddy to be the sole Glass representative at Seymour’s wedding.

Buddy had been drafted into the army, and he arrives in New York, on leave, from Fort Benning on a sweltering June day. He takes a cab to Muriel’s grandmother’s house and waits with the other guests for the arrival of the groom. And waits. And waits. Finally it becomes apparent that Seymour is not going to show up, and all of the guests pile into waiting cars to take them to Muriel’s parent’s house.

Buddy jumps into a car with, among others, the matron of honor, who keeps repeating that she wants to just get her hands on Seymour for ”just two minutes” and do him some bodily harm. Buddy, who at this time has still not introduced himself as Seymour’s brother, sits uncomfortably in the car, not knowing why he is even there.

The car moves along slowly and then comes to a dead stop. Madison Avenue is blocked both north and south due to a parade. The occupants of the car wait in the sweltering heat, a situation that becomes even more uncomfortable when it the others discovers that Buddy is Seymour’s brother. The inhabitants of the car eventually decide to abandon it and head for a nearby Schrafft’s restaurant.

Schrafft’s, however, is closed for renovations, so Buddy invites the whole group to go to his and Seymour’s old apartment, which is not far away. He promises cool drinks, and the guests follow. The guests assemble in the living room while Buddy searches for misplaced artifacts that the guests should not see. He guides the matron of honor into the bedroom to use the telephone, and luckily rescues Seymour’s diary from a pile of clothing before the matron of honor can lay eyes on it.

The diary clutched in his hands, Buddy retreats to the bathroom, sits on the tub, and reads, trying to find a clue as to why Seymour left Muriel at the altar. In the diary is a mention of Seymour promising to see a psychoanalyst. Seymour diagnoses himself as “a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.” Perhaps Seymour was what used to be called manic-depressive (bi-polar today) and was at this period in time on a manic upswing.

Buddy hides the diary in the laundry hamper and goes out to fix drinks for his guests. On the way to the living room with the tray of drinks, he suddenly gets the idea to drink a half a fifth of scotch, even knowing that he is not a drinker and that the alcohol will have a violent effect on him.

The party degenerates from here. The guests more or less partake of the Tom Collinses that Buddy had prepared, and admire the photos on the wall showing Seymour and Buddy’s star turn as children in the radio show “Its’s a Wise Child”, in which they appeared as Billy and Buddy Black. The matron of honor emerges from the bedroom to announce that all is well – the bride and groom have eloped. She downs several large drinks, and then the party breaks up. Everone leaves but Buddy, who is now quite drunk, and Muriel’s tiny, deaf-mute uncle, who is sipping Tom Collinses in the corner and smoking a Cuban cigar.

Buddy reads one more entry in Seymour’s diary, which considers the sacred duties of marriage as described in an ancient Hindu text. He then goes into the bedroom and passes out. When he awakes, he is alone. Muriel’s deaf mute uncle has apparently let himself out.

Seymour: an Introduction is a much more difficult and convoluted story. It begins with page after page of rambling, self-indulgent prose by Buddy. We struggle through many digressions to find that Buddy is sitting on a cache of 184 poems that Seymour has written but never published. The poems reside in a loose leaf notebook, and the other Glass siblings have been pressing Buddy for years to have them published.

Buddy seems reluctant to let the poems go. He feels that their publication will eventually prove Seymour to be the greatest poet of his age, but he worries about how critics will receive them. He describes some of the poems, said to be in the form of a double-haiku, but gives no examples.

Two things become clear as Buddy rambles on and dances around the subject of Seymour. First, it is clear that Buddy is a thinly disguised J.D. Salinger, and he uses this lengthy preamble to air his (Salinger’s) views on writing and particularly on privacy. The second thing that becomes clear is that Buddy has to reconcile himself to what he has become after Seymour’s death. Seymour’s suicide left an immense whole in Buddy’s life that he is still trying to fill. The two were inseparable as children, and with Seymour gone, Buddy looks for validation as a writer, something that Seymour gave him while he was alive by writing little critiques on all his stories.

Finally, after stalking the subject of Seymour for most of the novella, Buddy finally coughs up what we wanted to know in the first place. We learn that Seymour as a child was a genius, that although an enthusiastic but indifferent tennis and ping-pong player, he was absolutely unbeatable at stoop ball and curb marbles due to a style that was similar to Zen archery. He read vast amounts of books, was fluent in Chinese and Japanese, and had been writing poetry in earnest since he was eleven. He also had the wisdom to solve family crises, as when Waker gave away his brand new bike to a kid he met in the park.

My absolute favorite characteristic of Seymour, one that I remember from my first readings, is the fact that he used to stay up for several days on end if he was working on a particularly interesting project. He looked little the worse for wear from this lack of sleep, and the only thing that seemed to suffer was his circulation. His feet got cold. Buddy relates “Besides me, Bessie was the only one in the apartment who could tell when Seymour was ignoring sleep. She judged by how many pairs of socks he was wearing.”

By reading all of the Glass stories – for not all of Seymour’s traits are found in one place – a picture emerges of a young genius, a star of a radio quiz show, a student at Columbia at the age of 15 and a professor at twenty. And then a suicide at 32. Married for a few brief years to Muriel, a beautiful but shallow woman who apparently for a time made him happy.

To his brothers and sisters Seymour was a saint. He led the family spiritually and intellectually, much more so than Bessie and Les, the titlular parents.

It was Seymour who took charge of Franny and Zooey’s early education. But he was also a spiritual being who felt uncomfortable in the materialistic world that surrounded him, especially after the Second World War. He might be said to be a martyr to the cause of spiritualism vs. materialism.

One last Glass story, “Hapworth 26, 1924”, appeared in the June 19, 1965 New Yorker. It is a letter home from summer camp, written by a seven-year-old Seymour Glass. A deal to publish “Hapworth 26, 1924” as a book eventually fell through. Salinger at this point lived as a recluse in New Hampshire, and although he apparently continued to write, he never published again.

We are left with two slim volumes and a few short stories with which to piece together the enigma of Seymour Glass and his siblings. And yet, to me anyway, the Glass siblings of Franny and Zooey and the Seymour stories come across as a full blown family, as detailed as anything by Marcel Proust or John Galsworthy. This is due to Salinger’s incredible talent for conveying character and mood through dialogue or a few short descriptive sentences. If we carefully follow all the clues that Buddy/Salinger has scattered among the stories, the real Seymour stands before us at the end.

One Response

  1. After immortalizing the
    After immortalizing the fictional Caulfield and Glass families, Salinger provided this coy reflection in a letter dated December 20, 1982:

    “No, I did not grow up in a large family. Two parents, one sister born six years ahead of me. I agree, it is pretty singular, if not amazing, that I write on and on about families, siblings. Hand-picked ones, that is.”

    Amazing indeed.

    Again, thanks for the series.

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