The most interesting retrospective I saw when J.D. Salinger died in January was by Michael Greenberg in the New York Review of Books. Without passing any sort of judgment, Greenberg put his finger on what Salinger did as a writer and on why he stopped doing it. Salinger wrote stories about characters “paralyzed by their uncompromising sensibility.”
Greenberg’s first for-instance is Frannie, who quits acting because she’s good at it and likes the applause and hates herself for liking it. She tells her uncomprehending boyfriend she’s ashamed of herself for lapping up “everybody else’s values.” His second is Holden Caulfield, who “lives in a hell of second-guessing, in which every motive — even those behind seemingly altruistic acts — is potentially corrupt.” How would the lawyer “saving innocent guys’ lives,” Holden wonders, know whether he really wanted to save them or instead just wanted to be “a terrific lawyer, with everybody slapping you on the back and congratulating you in court when the goddamn trial was over….How would you know you weren’t being a phony. The trouble is, you wouldn’t.”
As adolescent stumpers go, that’s one of the best. But as a novelist’s idée fixe, it’s not going to sustain a long career. Other eulogists noted diminishing returns. Greenberg is content to say that Salinger “seemed to regard his literary success as a moral stain” and was being true to his fiction when he stopped publishing and lived out his life as a recluse in rural New Hampshire.
In this week’s Reader I have a piece on a writer named John Howard Griffin, who wrote other books but is remembered for one, Black Like Me, an account of his travels through the deep south as a black man in 1959. Griffin struggled with his motives. In my article I say Griffin told himself he was “engaged in sociology” — as in, finding out what black people truly thought by joining them. This is the explanation the author gives in Black Like Me. But was it true or was it "phony"? Apparently Griffin himself wasn't sure. Man in the Mirror, a book-length portrait of Griffin by his friend Robert Bonazzi, calls sociology the “official” explanation and says Griffin’s “more personal answer” was that he didn’t want his children to grow up in a world as racist as his own. But Bonazzi tells us Griffin once allowed that although this was “a good enough answer,” it wasn’t the “real answer.”
Which was? “In the first place, it was nobody’s damned business what my motives were,” he told Bonazzi. “The very idea of anyone probing the privacy of another man’s conscience, it seems to me, is the greatest obscenity we know today. I utterly refuse to judge a man’s motives, because I don’t think you can know a man’s motives.” And in the second place? Bonazzi spoke for Griffin. He said the “real” answer was no less complex than Griffin himself, but a vital piece of it was that Griffin “believed firmly that true knowledge was first a matter of personal experience.”
Or to reduce the “real” answer to an existential aphorism, you are what you do. Thinking about the elusive reasons why you do it apparently made Griffin as cranky as it made Holden, but otherwise they were poles apart. Griffin understood there’s something phony in getting hung up on phoniness. And even though Holden Caulfield is a beloved fictional character, American culture overwhelmingly takes Griffin’s side. We don’t pillory the character who does the right thing for the wrong reasons — we call him an antihero, and he thrills us. When he shows up in movies and books, his reasons for acting often are not given. They’re a mystery to us and they’re probably a mystery to him. But they’re not important.
That “terrific lawyer” Holden Caulfield gets so worked up about could have told him a thing or two about motives. He could have told him that what’s dumbest about our legal process is the part where every suspect needs to be given a simple motive for whatever he’s accused of doing. It was “revenge.” It was “blind rage.” He met someone new and “needed to be free.” “You’re going to be hearing testimony about a lot of very long and complicated financial documents,” the prosecutor will tell the jury at the outset of the trial, “but never lose sight of the fact that what this case boils down to is simple greed.”
Defendants like Conrad Black, whom I sat a few feet from in a courtroom for several days three years ago, don't hate being accused. They hate being reduced. But don't we all?
If she liked acting, Frannie should have gone on acting but not come out for the curtain calls. It worked for Ted Williams.