Hagiography of a Narcissist: On J. D. Salinger’s “Hapworth 16, 1924”

Grace Byron explores J. D. Salinger’s literary and personal legacies through the lens of “Hapworth 16, 1924.”

Hagiography of a Narcissist: On J. D. Salinger’s “Hapworth 16, 1924”

WHEN I WAS 16, I stumbled to the giant glass public library in Downtown Indianapolis; the only way to read J. D. Salinger’s short story “Hapworth 16, 1924” was on microfiche. I forced my friend, who perhaps had a crush on me, to come along. We located the New Yorker copy from 1965 and found that the story takes up almost the entire magazine. It certainly could be its own novella—but Salinger never republished “Hapworth” in book form. Allegedly, it was publishers who fumbled the bag, and the reclusive and difficult author decided against reprinting his last work. Salinger didn’t publish anything for the rest of his life; he died in 2010.


We didn’t make a copy of the story. Instead, we went to a male talent show at my high school where I saw my actual crush and forgot about everything else. But I had found “Hapworth 16, 1924.” I’d read all of Salinger’s books by then: The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Franny and Zooey (1961), Nine Stories (1953), Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963). But I wanted more. The saga of the Glass family enchanted me, like a never-ending ephemeral story. In this loose chronology, spread across multiple books, Salinger chronicles the life of an upper-class family in New York centered around one Christ-like brother named Seymour, an obnoxious American Proust. Salinger himself was like one of his own creations, all grown up. He made childhood seem glamorous but failed to find any glamour in adulthood; instead, he fetishized youth, in writing as in his life.


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A few years ago, I found “Hapworth 16, 1924” on the internet; I couldn’t bring myself to read it for some time. I worried that when I reread Salinger, I would find him flat, a one-note mimic. The truth was shakier. Salinger launched the genre of the precocious narrator: the self-reflexive man or woman whose story is propelled forward by rumination and faux-religious epiphanies like “Christ lived on cheeseburgers and Cokes.” The idea of such a quaint family dynasty felt like a precursor to the intricately built worlds of Wes Anderson. Salinger’s own family, as we will see, had been similarly dysfunctional.


Which means that, between the fuck-yous, phonies, and ironicals, there’s a lot of unpleasantness. “That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any,” Holden declares in Catcher. He can entertain this pessimism because, as a white male, he has free time. Ennui is often a rich person’s game. This is a rich white family, which is the only way to be considered precocious or intellectual instead of a menace. Intelligence in those considered “other” is nearly always threatening. Librarians give Salinger protagonists any book they want to read even if it’s high above their grade level. That’s not the case for Toni Morrison’s young protagonists, who encounter libraries as viciously guarded sanctuaries of elite knowledge.


Salinger’s characters treat their lives like uninteresting toys, things to be thrown around—and this bourgeois literary style has infused contemporary fiction with vicious glee. Rich, annoyed, and annoying, Ottessa Moshfegh’s women owe something to Salinger’s characters in their addiction, excessive sleeping, and wasted ambition. Sally Rooney has admitted to being a Salinger disciple, and it shows. Fractured innocence, pessimism, mysticism, and anorexia plague her characters too. John Green, of course, loves the man. Haruki Murakami translated some of Salinger’s books into Japanese.


We all love The Catcher in the Rye, and we all hate it. We feel it is juvenile to still enjoy something so gratuitously rebellious, something that tries to take down Shakespeare and lift up sports columnist Ring Lardner. Salinger’s artistic taste was often based on misplaced angst. Shiny things attracted him. Especially bright young women coming into their prime.


Perhaps the renowned author was rendered obscure for a reason. Salinger—both as a person and in his work—fetishized youth by feeding on ingenues. Through his books, he worked to attract the innocence he so desperately wanted to destroy. While critics have mocked the cuteness of his narrators, Salinger’s way of mixing literary fiction and young adult subject matter captures his deeply contradictory relationship to young people.


Joyce Maynard revealed what a horrible man Salinger really was. He dated 18-year-old girls and ruled his house with eccentric fury. He stopped publishing, vanished, and died. Salinger criticism was never a very serious field, but it plummeted after his death. He did not get the same treatment as his fellow depressive and disaffected successor, Sylvia Plath. Even after a documentary came out promising a Salinger revolution, nothing big followed. A few puffs on a cigarette and a few mumbled “phonies.”


Cuteness, Sianne Ngai has theorized, is an “aestheticization of powerlessness.” The cute asks us to squish it or destroy it. Cuteness is an encounter with otherness. Of course, cuteness can also be an encounter with the otherness inside ourselves that we don’t want to see. Its characteristics, “smallness, compactness, formal simplicity, softness or pliancy” evoke “helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency.” This can inspire our own sadism—a desire to crush.


As Salinger’s characters talk about cuteness, we see them as cute in turn: it’s cute to think you’re at the top of the intellectual food chain. Salinger’s characters turn their noses up at those they consider beneath them, and we turn our noses up at them in turn. We all think we’re better than the hapless wannabe—that our literary pursuits are less pretentious than the man writing prose poems about Kafka. No one wants to be caught out in a world built on irony; we want to catch the joke before it hits us in the head. We don’t want to be the quaint one who thinks we know everything; we want to actually know everything. To be cute is to be crushed, to fail at the game of intellectual prowess.


Salinger’s later works and juvenilia never saw the light of day. Why? It certainly wasn’t the criticism of his personal behavior; the David Foster Wallace renaissance shows us that. When people write about Wallace’s personal life, they nearly always end up writing a hagiography for a narcissist. I wanted to find something more. I wanted to come face-to-face with one of the literary icons who made me want to be a writer.


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“Hapworth 16, 1924” is a nearly 30,000-word short story in the form of a letter by the eldest Glass brother, Seymour, who dies by suicide in one of Salinger’s earlier stories, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (1948). Seymour’s death looms large in the mythology of the Glass family. He’s the prophetic brother, a prodigious talent, savior to his siblings. Most of what Salinger is remembered for was written between 1949 and 1959, and anthologized in book form between 1951 and 1963. “Hapworth” should read as the feather in this era’s cap.


Seymour, seven years old, is writing home while away at camp with his brother Buddy. Primarily addressed to his parents, the letter occasionally dispenses religious advice to his siblings. Lists abound. Every few stanzas, Seymour stops to acknowledge the length of his letter. “Oh my God, I am relishing this leisurely communication!” John Updike once wrote that Salinger loved the Glass family “more than God” did. This letter may prove it. As Seymour briefly outlines his days at camp, he also extols the virtues of Zen, showmanship, and Russian literature. He wants his mother and father to return to the stage. He wants his sister Beatrice (a.k.a. “Boo Boo”) to stop using her age as an excuse for mucking about. The letter circles an endless well while the reader waits for the joy of water, some mesmeric token to help us understand Seymour’s genius, or why Salinger finds him so fascinating. Mostly, we understand that Seymour’s precocity has no limits. He admires William Blake and Anna Karenina. He’s seven.


Only rarely does Seymour box with his earthly peers over childhood matters. Seymour occasionally degrades other children, letting us know which kid has “a nervous and lonely bladder.” But Seymour is a child who would get the shit kicked out of him today. Eventually, he reports that “many sweet animals loom into view […] such as chipmunks, unpoisonous snakes, but no deer,” as if he wants to give his family just a taste of normality.


I wondered if any of Salinger’s viciousness would show up in the text. Seymour develops a crush on a woman 15 years his senior who, he tells his mother, “shares with you […] a touching heritage of quite perfect legs, ankles, saucy bosoms, very fresh, cute, hind quarters, and remarkable little feet with quite handsome, small toes.” Her name is Mrs. Happy because, of course, she is married. But she is also one of the few adults who has any need for Seymour. She needs someone to talk to because she’s lonely. Mr. Happy does not keep her happy. Salinger lets his character’s lecherous thoughts mix with naivete, especially in these sexual gray zones. One minute Seymour is sizing up a woman’s figure and the next he wants an innocent smooch: “A delicious cup of cocoa, decorated with a thoughtful marshmallow, is no decent substitute for a kiss or hearty embrace where a child […] is concerned.” He worries she is going to have an affair and fall from grace. He doesn’t know what to tell her, “being torn between good, sensible, merciless advice and corrupting desire to have her open the door in the raw,” and he urges his family to “pray for an honorable way for me out of this ridiculous and maddening wilderness.”


A brush with nature ends up taking Seymour to the hospital. While working on an old cart, he is pierced by a piece of iron sticking out of a wooden wheel and is rushed to the infirmary on the back of Mr. Happy’s motorcycle. Finally, we think, a plot! But it is only a setup to let us know how much Seymour despises Mr. Happy and that Seymour can force himself not to feel pain. Miracles, one and all. He notes that he is the one who drives himself in life, “like a humorous dog,” being the eldest boy in the family. In his despair, he thinks of humanity in the abstract. Every hurt is an opportunity to reflect on human nature. Witticisms abound, the kind I copied into my notebook as a teen: “I am convinced God will kindly wear a human head, quite capable of nodding, for the benefit of some admirer who enjoys picturing Him that way.” They seem beautifully empty now, flourishes of prose more than meaningful commentary. But isn’t that the mark of good YA? Seymour is the kind of wronged boy who is too ugly to put under anesthesia: he tells them that he can’t feel pain and they believe him, performing surgery on his little, unhandsome frame.


As the thin narrative loses steam, Salinger begins to enter the picture through Seymour. Brief bits of advice are dispensed to individual members of the family before a long list of library requests that seems to mostly reflect opinions on what constitutes good literature. He does not feel the need to reread The Kreutzer Sonata but wants to read the Gayatri Prayer. (Did I mention that he’s seven?) Still, he humbly writes, “Do not think me infallible! I am utterly fallible!” So am I, but when I am fallible, it’s because I eat soup out of a can without reheating it.


Seymour’s opinions range from the precocious to the egregious. Don Quixote is a genius. “I salute you, Charles Dickens!” he writes before a treatise on John Bunyan and God. (God can’t be perfect since he loves famines and untimely deaths.) He admires “George Eliot; however, not in her entirety.” He has a deep love for Sherlock Holmes and wants to sleep with the Brontë sisters: “One is at a human loss, at moments, not to reach out to these doomed girls carnally.” Even Seymour knows he’s being a nerd. “Jesus, what a millstone, bore, and general nuisance I am becoming in your lives!” he concludes. Yes, he admits it. But it doesn’t gain him any points. The list of his faults runs quite a few pages. An Esquire article on Salinger’s solitude tried to parse his religious references for allusions to “silence”—as if that would reveal why the author himself was so quiet after the publication of “Hapworth 16, 1924.” Though, it should be noted, the article also seems to believe that Salinger’s favorite junk food was doughnut holes, “the pastry equivalent of the sound of one hand clapping.” It’s more likely that the criticism the story received wound up dealing a heavy blow to his ego.


Seymour crowns Buddy his ultimate successor, as if he knows he will die young. Of course, we already know this if we read Salinger’s work chronologically. This letter is a prologue to everything to come. Seymour knows Buddy will take to nature late in life, and we know this to be true from Buddy’s later writing. Seymour even knows that Buddy will be the family chronicler with a “very moving, gorgeous typewriter.” This letter is Salinger’s main brush with outright mysticism and prophecy. Buddy is ostensibly the author of Seymour: An Introduction (1959) and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (1955). In the latter, he’s the main character, accidentally getting stuck with Seymour’s fiancée’s relatives after Seymour stiffs her at the altar. They end up eloping shortly after.


It is only at the end of Seymour’s letter that he returns to childish things. He implores his mother to replace Buddy’s “big bunny” with “middle bunny.” Big bunny was lost on the train ride to camp and Buddy needs a replacement. These forms of attention seem to be Seymour’s primary spiritual strength. He offers Boo Boo a straightforward prayer. He was the first to learn the unceasing “Jesus Prayer” that Buddy and Franny later discuss in Franny and Zooey. “The young must stick together; only they can save each other,” Janet Malcolm wrote in a 2001 review of “Hapworth.” As in the world of Charlie Brown, adults are merely background noise. In the cartoons, this is endearing, but in Salinger, it’s grating: a world of young narcissists with class privilege bumming around summer camps and Yale games, where flunking out of boarding school is less enjoyable than watching children talk to dogs.


Yet Salinger’s saints continue to provoke. Even if scholars turned their backs on him, The Catcher in the Rye continues to be a best-selling and perennially banned book. Rebels are not beloved by the establishment. My English teacher unofficially assigned me the book when I started talking to her after class. Catcher is a word-of-mouth book, the kind that starts a young mind turning, curious what else is out there. It collects a cult of fanatics who want nothing more than a strange old man writing in the woods about New Yorkers in the 1950s having nervous breakdowns.


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Franny and Zooey was my original sad girl novel. Joan Didion hated the book, calling it “self-help […] for Sarah Lawrence girls.” The titular protagonist of the short story “Franny” is the youngest girl of the Glass family, who is trying to convince herself that she loves her boyfriend, Lane. He goes on and on about Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and “Shakespeare” because they “were such goddam word-squeezers. They just wrote. Know what I mean?”


I’ve dated plenty of such men and had crushes on many more. The authors occasionally change, but Dostoevsky remains in rotation for literary fuckboys everywhere. Salinger’s characters reference Marx, Baldwin, Shakespeare, or Tolstoy without engaging with their actual textures. To engage only with the surface of a text allows one to disengage from its politics. Citing Marx does not a Marxist make. Yet this shallowness never seems like intentional satire on Salinger’s part. Notably, Salinger’s fetishistic attachment to the East also comes to mind. He loved Buddhist texts, but his characters don’t seem to grasp the concept of not grasping. They yearn, like all YA characters, for an authentic experience. Unfortunately, these experiences rarely come to fruition. Maybe if they paid closer attention in analysis.


Anorexia and religious fever fuel Franny as she writes her boyfriend impassioned letters he doesn’t seem to care for. At lunch, before the big game, she won’t even drink a glass of milk. She doesn’t even seem to want to talk to her boyfriend about the prayer she’s obsessed with from The Way of a Pilgrim. Her boyfriend eats frog legs as she sits and listens until finally collapsing, her lips “forming soundless words.”


In the novella Zooey (1957), the sad girl story’s direct sequel, Buddy is the one tasked with making Franny snap out of it. He informs her that both he and Seymour learned the Jesus Prayer in their youth but that she shouldn’t start looking for a guru:


Even if you went out and searched the whole world for a master—some guru, some holy man—to tell you how to say your Jesus Prayer properly, what good would it do you? How in hell are you going to recognize a legitimate holy man when you see one if you don’t even know a cup of consecrated chicken soup when it’s right in front of your nose?


He wants her to treat everyone as a possible Christ figure, to do her best for them.


Can’t you see Christ in everyone?


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The story most like “Hapworth” is Seymour: An Introduction. That novella is also written in the form of a long letter with occasional meanderings and is framed by Buddy’s notes about publication. It seems his family is fine being written about, though they all fret over giving Seymour a postmortem. Seymour’s wife would prefer that only his poems were published. Buddy writes about beautiful poems that Seymour was supposed to have written, though he never quotes them. Seymour’s shrill wife shows up briefly in both “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.


“Some people,” Buddy writes, obliquely referencing Catcher in the Rye, “have asked me whether a lot of Seymour didn’t go into the young leading character of the one novel I’ve published.” By the middle of his life, Buddy, like Salinger, lives alone not far from the Canadian border. Salinger lived in New Hampshire in near isolation while Buddy works part-time at the English department of a girl’s college in upper New York. Later, Buddy writes, with a Nabokovian wink, about a short story that Salinger wrote called “Teddy.”


This autofictional element to Salinger’s saga is fascinating. For a man so obsessed with privacy, he loved to play with his life as material. Salinger grew up in Manhattan, like many of his characters. He knew their dialect and intellectual milieu. Writing about them was easy—almost as easy as his earnest belief in the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. It’s kind of cute.


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It is time, I’m afraid, for the part of the literary resurrection where we pull the curtain back and discuss the fact that men are terrible. Literary fame is no more noble than any other kind.


Joyce Maynard was 18 when she and Salinger started dating after exchanging a flurry of letters; he was 53. Eventually, she wrote a memoir about it—and was publicly crucified during the early days of the internet, as many claimed to worry about the violation of Salinger’s privacy. Recently, Maynard wrote about Salinger in a post-MeToo world, likening him to Woody Allen. “The world knows them as iconic artists whose work transformed the cultural landscape of America. I see them both as predatory men with a taste for teenagers.” She goes on to say that she “was groomed to be the sexual partner of a narcissist who nearly derailed my life.” Some of Salinger’s stories, she argues, predict his behavior, his geniuses marveling at young women. Maynard also discovered that Salinger had written similar letters to other girls like her.


In 1945, Salinger had his first, brief taste of marriage. A decade later, in his mid-thirties, Salinger dated a 19-year-old, later marrying her. They divorced in 1967, after having two children—Margaret and her brother Matthew. When the 18-year-old Maynard published a piece in The New York Times Magazine in 1972, Salinger began a correspondence with her. She was already an accomplished writer, publishing “The Embarrassment of Virginity” in Mademoiselle as a college freshman. Instead of returning to Yale for her sophomore year, Maynard moved in with Salinger. After 10 months of droll lectures on Buddhism and a brutal dismissal, it was over.


After another affair, Salinger met his third and final wife, Colleen O’Neill, a local woman in the secluded New Hampshire town he had retired to. If we recount the torrid love lives of women, the least we can do is follow a fucker like Salinger around.


Salinger’s daughter Margaret has discussed the abuse her mother faced at the hands of her father. Margaret’s brother was less than enthused by the memoir she wrote. “I guess she’s got a lot of anger. But to write a book just isn’t right.” (The exposure of abuse is never “right.” It must be delicate, quiet, and private. Even then, women run the risk of retaliation or tone-policing.) Margaret told the Times that “when she was 13 months old, her mother planned to kill her and commit suicide, and did indeed burn the house down later. [She] said her mother denied setting the fire.” Meanwhile Salinger fasted, drank his own urine, and sat in an orgone box. Margaret’s childhood was troubled as well—she struggled with bulimia and panic attacks, and when she got pregnant, Salinger told her he hoped she would get an abortion.


Margaret said that “Hapworth 16, 1924” sounded a lot like lectures her father used to give her family.


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Christ may be able to live on cheeseburgers and Cokes, but Salinger wanted something more. This is his power and his downfall—his vampiric need to drain the potential of the young. Whether through his bohemian characters or the very real women in his own life, he was always ready to give a lecture and take power. Cute as Salinger’s characters are, they live under his thumb. They’re playthings, like dolls. We enjoy judging their powerlessness, but his fetish for purity was often what he tried to use to get off the hook for his ghoulish behavior. Marrying young women until they were no longer ingenues, feeding on the genre of YA as a source for so-called serious literary fiction, devouring Eastern prayers without regard for their context or specificity. YA is his Trojan horse. This is a grim realization. As women, we can become attracted to this luminosity. When a man takes your spiritual concerns seriously, he can entice you further down the beach. Then he can corner you, flash you, take your ideas. But the original spark remains: the idea that young women can be pilgrims at the center of their own practice.


Many Marxist bros, David Foster Wallace acolytes, and L.A. Buddhists wield their convictions like cudgels. Approval from men can feel validating. This is why some women writers don’t just want to write about other women—men take men more seriously. Meeting, or even loving, one of the boys can seem like a step on the ladder to literary stardom. Listing male influences provides more social currency. Yet these male authors nearly always have women behind them. Norman Rush’s wife, Nabokov’s Véra, and, of course, Salinger’s many, many women.


Yet Franny and Zooey still feels like a knife. Salinger inspired me to write awful, puny satire, eventually propelling me to more serious literature. Before MeToo, he gave me a lesson on not meeting your heroes. The talismans in his novels did not lead me to a Zen-like epiphany, but they did give me a lot of new source material to track down. Rereading his work does not bring the same rapture I remembered. I can see why a high schooler would want the kind of life Franny or Buddy leads in New York, but I am less convinced now. There is an uneasy boundary between adults and children in Salinger’s work. The young are old; the old are hapless. Maybe we all grow into such naivete. We can lose ourselves in mysticism and decide to see ourselves as Christ instead of looking outward. We need to size up our relationship to positions of innocence and power. Doing so requires constant renewal. If we try to have a beginner’s mind, we may just grow up.


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Featured image: Unknown. Eye Miniature, early 19th century. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John W. Starr, 1954. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (54.128.1). CC0, metmuseum.org. Accessed June 11, 2024.

LARB Contributor

Grace Byron is a writer from Indianapolis based in Queens. Her writing has appeared in The Baffler, The Believer, The Cut, Joyland, and Pitchfork, among other outlets.

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