by Rebecca Curtin
My ten year high school reunion is coming up. That means it was ten years ago that I had my first spiritual encounter with J.D. Salinger. At the time I had already read The Catcher in the Rye and had not been very moved. But, my senior year in high school we were asked to read Franny and Zooey. I used my mother’s precious and battered copy from 1971, in which she had scribbled her maiden name, so familiar to her and strange to me because it was a name I had never heard her use.
Salinger never says much about Catholicism besides, in Catcher, “Catholics are always trying to find out if you’re Catholic” – a line that still makes me smile. His favorite family, the Glass family, who are the center of Franny and Zooey, is half-Irish and therefore, we assume, half-Catholic, for we learn one of the Glass children has become a Roman Catholic priest. Much has been said in the literary world about the influence of Eastern religions on Salinger’s writing, but in Franny and Zooey, despite the narrator’s own insistence that it is not a work of mysticism, I recognized a spiritual philosophy that helped me understand the depth of my Catholicness.
Franny and Zooey, in many ways, exposed me to religious ideas in a broader sense. Quotes from the Stoic, Hindu, and Christian traditions are in one scene shown carefully listed, together, on the back of a bedroom door. This juxtaposition was itself unique to a high school student accustomed mostly to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, and Romeo and Juliet. It was exciting. But, what really moved me in Franny and Zooey was what seemed to be a family-centered theology, a theology of the everyday. Religious language invades Salinger’s prose, and the banal aspects of everyday life become are here as sacred as prayer. Members of the Glass family inspire enlightenment in each other and perhaps even, as was recently suggested by one commentator on NPR, sacrifice themselves for one another’s spiritual well being. Mrs. Glass’s homemade chicken soup is called “consecrated”; it is sacramental, Eucharistic, and accordingly, Franny, feeling depressed and flawed, must refuse it.
And, in the end, the escape route from the malaise, from the frustration of life as it must be lived in the twentieth century, is unconditional love. And, various characters lecture and insist, this love must be shared with everyone, especially with the unlikeable, marginalized person in society, the person who you can’t imagine loving. For, Zooey counsels Franny at the end of the text, that dislikeable person is “Christ himself.”
J.D. Salinger is a controversial figure, and sometimes I feel a little guilty for liking him so much. He had, as many tormented geniuses do, a sordid past and troubled existence. His reported treatment of women has been, above all, a particularly difficult thing to stomach. It is sometimes difficult to reconcile the personal life of a writer with the beauty of the art they create.
One Salinger line, though not from Franny and Zooey, that has really stuck with me over the years is a description of another of the Glass children, Boo Boo Glass, in one of Salinger’s short stories, “Down at the Dingy.” Salinger writes: “Her joke of a name aside, her general unprettiness aside, she was – in terms of permanently memorable, immoderately perceptive, small-area faces – a stunning and final girl.”
And Salinger, all his unprettiness – and sometimes pettiness – aside he remains that stunning and final writer who can still move a twenty-eight year old woman to tears, just as he did her teenage self, all those years ago.
Rebecca Curtin lives in Cambridge, MA and hopes that she will always recognize a consecrated bowl of chicken soup when it is offered to her.