Sunday, 13 November 2016

Repel Boarders! Two Unintermittently Stupid Sophomores Outstay Their Welcome . . . Ackerly and Ackley Conform to Type for Giacommetiesque J D Salinger and Jean Webster

A sophomoric heroine and a sophomoric hero are just settling down to immersion in an edifying book, when the seclusion of their dorms is breached by . . .

It rained so we . . . had to go to gymnasium instead. The girl next to me banged my elbow with an Indian club. I got home to find that the box with my new blue spring dress had come, and the skirt was so tight that I couldn’t sit down. Friday is sweeping day, and the maid had mixed all the papers on my desk. We had tombstone for dessert (milk and gelatin flavoured with vanilla). We were kept in chapel twenty minutes later than usual to listen to a speech about womanly women. And then—just as I was settling down with a sigh of well-earned relief to The Portrait of a Lady, a girl named Ackerly, a dough-faced, deadly, unintermittently stupid girl, who sits next to me in Latin because her name begins with A (I wish Mrs. Lippett had named me Zabriski), came to ask if Monday’s lesson commenced at paragraph 69 or 70, and stayed ONE HOUR. She has just gone.
            Did you ever hear of such a discouraging series of events? It isn’t the big troubles in life that require character. Anybody can rise to a crisis and face a crushing tragedy with courage, but to meet the petty hazards of the day with a laugh—I really think that requires spirit.
            It’s the kind of character that I am going to develop. I am going to pretend that all life is just a game which I must play as skilfully and fairly as I can.
First person epistolary coming-of-age novel 
by Jean Webster, 1912.
(A best-seller with over 1 million copies sold 
before the end of the decade.)

(Silent movie, 1919.)

He’s tall and thinnish with
a dark face all over lines . . . 
he has fourteen years’ start of me.’ 

Anyway, I put on my new hat and sat down and started reading that book Out of Africa. I’d read it already, but I wanted to read certain parts over again. I’d only read about three pages, though, when I heard somebody coming through the shower curtains. Even without looking up, I knew right away who it was. It was Robert Ackley, this guy that roomed right next to me. There was a shower right between every two rooms in our wing, and about eighty-five times a day old Ackley barged in on me. He was probably the only guy in the whole dorm, besides me, that wasn’t down at the game. He hardly ever went anywhere. He was a very peculiar guy. He was a senior, and he’d been at Pencey the whole four years and all, but nobody ever called him anything except “Ackley.” Not even Herb Gale, his own roommate, ever called him “Bob” or even “Ack.” If he ever gets married, his own wife’ll probably call him “Ackley.” He was one of these very, very tall, round-shouldered guyshe was about six fourwith lousy teeth. The whole time he roomed next to me, I never even once saw him brush his teeth. They always looked mossy and awful, and he damn near made you sick if you saw him in the dining room with his mouth full of mashed potatoes and peas or something. Besides that, he had a lot of pimples. Not just on his forehead or his chin, like most guys, but all over his whole face. And not only that, he had a terrible personality. He was also sort of a nasty guy. I wasn’t too crazy about him, to tell you the truth.

From the novel’s concluding epilogic paragraph . . . 
. . . [my brother] asked me what I thought about all this stuff I just finished telling you about. I didn't know what the hell to say. If you want to know the truth, I don't know what I think about it. I’m sorry I told so many people about it. About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old . . . Ackley, for instance . . . It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.
The Catcher in the Rye
First person testimonial coming-of-age novel
by J. D. Salinger, 1951.
(A best-seller with over 1.5 million copies sold
by the end of the decade.)

The Apotheosis of
J D Salinger.

(Published by
The San Diego Union-Tribune
two days after 
the writer’s death.)

Shadow of the Thin Man in Gender-Rôle-Reversal.

Ackerly and Ackley? A tribute? A homage? Is there a correlative? 
            Of course I cannot be sure.
            However, I am sure that to all appearances The Catcher in the Rye can be seen as a shadow novel whose sophomoric gender-rôle-reversal resonates decidedly with Daddy-Long-Legs insofar as there exist observable concordances congruent with certain recurrent motifs found in Salinger’s most characteristic pseudo-autographical works. 
            I’m thinking here of the reclusive ‘Daddy-Long-Legs’ himself, described as ‘. . . tall and thinnish with a dark face all over lines, and the funniest underneath smile that never quite comes through but just wrinkles up the corners of his mouth . . . he has fourteen years’ start of me. In other ways, though, he’s just an overgrown boy, and he does need looking after—he hasn’t any sense about wearing rubbers when it rains.’ 
            ‘Daddy-Long-Legs’, if you are not familiar with the novel, is an unseen wealthy New York benefactor so named by the young orphan girl in starched gingham whom he has chosen to fund through college. The name derives from her ‘fleeting impression of the man . . .’ glimpsed at the orphan asylum, consisting ‘. . . entirely of tallness . . .’ a shadow of a man that ‘. . . pictured grotesquely elongated legs and arms that ran along the floor and up the wall of the corridor.’ 
            The novel is composed wholly of the orphan girl’s letters to her unknown patron, written in a fresh slangy style, describing her daily student life, encouraged by ‘Daddy-Long-Legs’ who conveys through the Orphanage Superintendent the explanation for his beneficence. ‘The gentleman . . . believes that you have originality, and he is planning to educate you to become a writer.’

Homespun Confessions of Do-Gooding All-American Every-Teens.

The authoress of Daddy-Long-Legs was the grand-niece of Mark Twain so it is no surprise to learn that a literary lineage is considered by American critics to survive in her epistolary coming-of-age novel, a novel redolent of the homespun do-gooding moral choices enacted in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a first person account by a boy of ‘thirteen or fourteen or along there.’  The novel is narrated by Huck:
            ‘You don’t know about me . . . but that ain’t no matter.’
            Compare sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye:
            ‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like . . .’
            Compare the eager seventeen-year-old orphan girl in starched gingham in Daddy-Long-Legs:  
            ‘Here I am! [at college.] . . . It seems queer to be writing letters to somebody you don’t know. It seems queer for me to be writing letters at all—I've never written more than three or four in my life, so please overlook it if these are not a model kind . . . But how can one be very respectful to a person who [is anonymous] . . . I might as well write letters to Dear Hitching-Post or Dear Clothes-Prop.’
            To her anonymous benefactor the orphan girl in starched gingham writes: ‘You have already given me such lots of things—everything I have, you know—that I don’t quite feel that I deserve extras. But I like them just the same. Do you want to know what I bought with my money? . . . A silver watch in a leather case to wear on my wrist and get me to recitations in time . . . I’m pretending to myself that . . . the watch is from father . . .

A Teenage Orphan with a Wrist Watch ‘Too Large for Her Slender Wrist’.

One is reminded of Salinger’s For Esmé with Love and Squalor. 
            ‘I happened to be looking at [thirteen-year-old orphan Esmé’s] enormous-faced, chronographic-looking wristwatch again. I asked if it had belonged to her [late] father. She looked down at her wrist solemnly. “Yes, it did,” she said.’ 
            Or . . .            
             Would you like me to write to you?’ she asked, with a certain amount of colour in her face. ‘I write extremely articulate letters for a person my . . . ’
            Or . . .
            Esmé gave me a long, faintly clinical look. ‘You have a dry sense of humour, haven’t you?’ she said–wistfully.
            Or . . . 
            ‘Usually, I'm not terribly gregarious,’ [Esmé] said, and looked over at me to see if I knew the meaning of the word. I didn’t give her a sign, though, one way or the other. ‘I purely came over because I thought you looked extremely lonely. You have an extremely sensitive face.’ I said she was right, that I had been feeling lonely, and that I was very glad she’d come over. [To which Esmé replies:] I’m training myself to be more compassionate.’
            For Jerome Salinger, the interplay between an orphaned adolescent girl and a man fourteen years her senior (Jervis) virtually corresponds to his own exchanges, as ‘Sergeant X’, with thirteen-year-old Esmé (if the fiction were truly a factual account, Salinger would have been 24-years-old when he met 13-year-old ‘Esmé’ on Saturday April 29 1944*). 
            In both accounts the callow earnestness of the two adolescent girls enchants their older male interlocutors who are portrayed as disillusioned idealists, prematurely aged yet devilishly attractive withal.  
            Such sentiments and characteristics identified in For Esmé with Love and Squalor certainly chime with those found in exchanges between the wrist-watch-wearing orphan girl and her cadaverous benefactor, Jervis Pendleton, in Daddy-Long-Legs:
            ‘. . . lots of very clever men get smashed up in Wall Street. But at least you will stay tall all your life! So I've decided to call you Dear Daddy-Long-Legs.’
            Across the decades following her death, it is almost as if Jean Webster were—in place of Jervis—describing Jerome (‘Sergeant X’), the laconic Dostoevski-quoting idealist who is branded by his corporal as looking ‘. . . like a goddam corpse. How much weight ya lose? How many pounds?’
            Both admirers of the girls are survivors of breakdowns: for Jerome it was recovery from ‘battle fatigue’; for Jervis, an outdoors man, it was recovery from pneumonia contracted when hunting (he clearly neglects to wear rubbers when it rains)**.      
            The coordinates shared by these two authors of classic first-person-coming-of-age narratives are, in my own view, uncanny:
            1)  The mantle of Mark Twain both authors wear.
            2)  The college dorms’ bêtes noiresAckerly and Ackley. 
            3)  The two sophomoric narrators characterised as runaways from school. 
            4)  The two tall cadaverous epistolary interlocutors of adolescent orphaned girls.
            5)  The mirrored pentasyllabic names of Jerome Salinger and Jervis Pendleton.
            6)  The morning-faced Pollyanna-ishness of the girls’ unalloyed optimism. 
            7)  The girls’ totemic wrist-watches signifying rites-of-passage out of girlhood. 
            8]  The preference of two New Yorker hebephiles for nymphic girls. 
            9]  Both Jerome and Jervis are mentors to apprentice teenage writers.
                  And more . . . 

Surrogate Fathers.

Of course, let me be the first to confess to my being a common lay reader and not an academic one. It’s just that these literary connections strike me as worthy of remark.
            As it is, I am not alone in zeroing in on the the symbol of Esmé’s ‘military-looking’ wrist watch’, which she mails to ‘Sergeant X’, transforming him into a Daddy-Long-Legs-like surrogate father to whom she writes.
            For Salinger, the consummation of this idolisation of developing young girls found its most perfect expression when, following his fan letter to 18-year-old Joyce Maynard upon publication of her article (An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life) in The New York Times Magazine, she became his protégée and he became her Daddy-Long-Legs . . . a New York gentleman who persuades her to drop out of Yale in her freshman year and whose extra-curricula education he plans to oversee because he believes she has originality as a writer.
            The epistolary Salinger was fifty-three years of age.    
            Here’s a description of Salinger (circa 1950, aged thirty-one) by a Park Avenue girl-friend: ‘He came in, and he was very, very tall. Very thin. Elongated and attenuated, like a candlestick, a Giacometti statue, you know, not like a lantern. And he had these wonderful eyes, the colour of black coffee. Very intense. You could feel it suddenly, his extremely intense presence.’       
            Twenty-two years later, significantly, the cover photo for the NY Times magazine features Joyce wearing an oversized watch resembling the one on Esmé’s wrist that ‘Sergeant X’  remembers, recalling how he had wanted to ‘suggest that she try wearing it around her waist.’
             It’s an image that, rightly, literary theorists have fixated on. It’s a fetishised image that summons up the writer’s preoccupation with arresting time, a space to savour youth while its bloom remains, stainlessly uncharactered by the corruptibility of self regard.
             (Arrested time: It was a long time before X could . . . lift Esmé’s father’s wristwatch out of the box. When he did finally lift it out, he saw that its crystal had been broken in transit.’
             According to Salinger’s biographers (Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno, 2013), throughout Salinger’s life ‘he was fixed upon this pivot point between childhood and adulthood . . . He loved childhood, wanted to canonise it’ .
             Well put.
             Yet, may I suggest that such an apprehension, so evident in The Catcher in the Rye was planted long, long ago in the psyche of the All-American Girl by the authoress of Daddy-Long-Legs. 

Champions of Childhood Innocence

That both teenage narrators (of The Catcher in the Rye and of Daddy-Long-Legs) are the champions of a childhood innocence that cannot be saved from adulthood reveals a commonality that expresses an ultimately moral theme: in short, ‘I’m training myself to be more compassionate.’
            In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield muses on the defencelessness of his kid sister, Phoebe: ‘Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.’
            In Daddy-Long-Legs, the orphaned letter-writer confesses the pain of her orphanhood, which once prompted her to run away: ‘It’s really awfully queer not to know what one is . . . wouldn’t you expect her to run away? I only ran four miles. They caught me and brought me back . . . Duty was the one quality that was encouraged. I don't think children ought to know the meaning of the word; it’s odious, detestable. They ought to do everything from love . . If I have five children, like Rousseau, I shan't leave them on the steps of a foundling asylum in order to insure their being brought up simply . . . Wait until you see the orphan asylum that I am going to be the head of! It’s my favourite play at night before I go to sleep. I plan it out to the littlest detail—the meals and clothes and study and amusements . . . But anyway, they are going to be happy. I think that every one, no matter how many troubles he may have when he grows up, ought to have a happy childhood to look back upon. And if I ever have any children of my own, no matter how unhappy I may be, I am not going to let them have any cares until they grow up.’

And then the day came, when the risk to remain tight in a bud
was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. 

                                                                                                 Anaïs Nin (circa 1947)

* Esmé, in her letter to ‘Sergeant X’, professes they first met on ‘April 30 1944’, yet that day was a Sunday, which could not be so, because ‘Sergeant X’ tells us they became acquainted in a teashop on a Saturday. April 29 1944 was a Saturday. She writes on June 7 1944: ‘I hope you will forgive me for having taken 38 days to begin our correspondence . . . ’ Can we, therefore, assume that: a) Esmé’s ‘wristwatch, a military-looking one that looked rather like a navigator’s chronograph’ is inaccurate? or b) the day they met was sacred in her memory, a Sunday-sort-of-day?; or c) the author has attempted to reproduce the effects of disordered time and memory experienced in the mind of an orphaned girl fixed on the ‘pivot point between childhood and adulthood’ and living, she admits, in ‘difficult days’? or d) the ‘talisman’ she sends is her own specific symbol of ‘squalor’ since the watch is, in actuality, smashed when she mails it, and it represents her own tragic orphaned state.

** Shades of maimed and blinded Mr Rochester and orphan, Jane Eyre. In fact, the orphan of Daddy-Long-Legs writes: ‘When I was reading about little Jane’s troubles in the charity school, I got so angry that I had to go out and take a walk.’

Kenneth Slawenski, the renowned biographer of Salinger, brings an entirely fresh perspective to contextual speculations.   

Kenneth Slawenski writes: Many of Salinger’s most significant characters were (at least initially) based on real people. It’s likely that the character of Esmé was based upon Salinger’s fiancé at the time he wrote the story. She was an especially serious-minded 18-year-old, born in England, and Salinger was so extremely devoted to her at the time as to make it unimaginable that she had not been the primary inspiration for Esmé’s character. 
             Ackley’s origin is a simpler matter. Salinger went to boarding school with a Richard Ackley. I’m not sure why Salinger picked on his luckless classmate but poor Ackley complained bitterly of his depiction for decades. 
             I’ve noticed the date discrepancy in ‘For Esmé’. Salinger’s stories teem with dates and numbers and it wouldn’t be his only chronological error—he made a few when building the Glass series. It just might be that: a simple mistake. But I tend to agree that there’s something more to it—and that it’s full meaning was probably known to Salinger alone. Looking at Salinger’s life, the choice of dates is interesting. Salinger would not have been aimlessly walking the streets of Tiverton on either day. Friday, April 28 was the date of Operation Tiger, one of the most horrific events in Salinger’s life. Could the choice of dates represent a search for solace regarding that event/memory? Isn’t ‘For Esmé’ actually a story divided in three (if we count the unseen but very-present war in between)? Could Esmé have brought about a measure of resurrection we often associate with Sunday?
             They’re fascinating questions. And I believe that Salinger, despite his protestations, would have enjoyed that we’re considering them. Why else would he have included so much symbolism into his work? But sometimes we’re left still not knowing. And I think he’d enjoy that, too.

Kenneth Slawenski’s scholarly writings on The Catcher in the Rye may be read at his site dedicated to the life and works of J.D. Salinger at

Unborn America . . . the American Nobility.

Postscript (21.11.2016) Despite the numerous open-ended possibilities for interpretations adumbrated in the foregoing commentaries, there remain – I am prepared to admit – residual suspicions as to the sentiments (contra-Lolita) that prompt the seeming willingness of the New World to be seduced by the Old World in For Esmé - with Love and Squalor
‘My first name is Esmé. I don’t think I shall tell you my full name, for the moment. I have a title and you may just be impressed by titles.’ 
Just think, the lines that follow were composed in the year of Salinger’s birth. They are from the penultimate couplet of An American Nobility (dedicated to Unborn America) and would seem to be an exhortation to the impressionable to resist the siren voices of an outworn patricianate.
Americans! direct your destiny!
Build of yourselves a New Nobility!

Proto-Holden postscript 24.03.2017

A recent citation to which my attention has been drawn reveals an interesting proto-Holden passage in Charles A Fenton’s contemporaneous account of flying as a tail-gunner in World War II, published 1945.***
He remembered that phoney prep. school. You had to go there, or something like it, if your father were a would-be captain of industry. They taught you bad manners and what clothes to wear and the superiority of your class. But if you were lucky you had in the four years perhaps one intelligent master, and you discovered Hemingway***and Keats and the dusty charm of history books. You had splendid long talks at night with your friends and decided you were the true lost generation. He wondered about that. Perhaps a part of every generation was lost.
***   From You’ll Get No Promotion by Charles A Fenton in Penguin Parade published 1945.
**** Charles A Fenton, author of The Apprenticeship of Ernest Hemingway; The Best Short Stories of World War II: an American Anthology; and Stephen Vincent Benét: The Life and Times of an American Man of Letters, 1898-1943.

Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. 
see Eisner’s Sister Morphine (2008)
(where the counterespionage operations of Stoneburgh may be read in Red Coffee)
and Listen Close to Me (2011)

No comments:

Post a Comment