Of Steinbeck and Salinger

Along with my youthful taste for Zen and Daoism, I was also reading John Steinbeck and J.D. Salinger—though at the time I was barely aware of their mutual connections. So this is not so much a Lit Crit review as an attempt to see them in the context of my own “development”—“all that David Copperfield kind of crap”.

For Steinbeck I’m thinking not of his weightier tomes on the plight of immigrant workers and class struggle, but of Cannery row (1945). Here’s the celebrated opening:

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky-tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches”, by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men”, and he would have meant the same thing.

Subliminally I found Lee Chong, Doc, and Danny incarnations of different oriental wisdoms. Doc (based on Ed Ricketts) was a sage, akin to Gary Snyder. And the hobos were Hanshan and Shide, their mishaps reminiscent of The good soldier Švejk and, later, Shameless (“PARTY!!”). And at a time when Chinese characters were still rare in Western fiction, Lee Chong made a beguiling stereotype of the inscrutable Chinese storekeeper (for Ray Man, my mentor in Chinese music in Soho, click here).

Steinbeck pursued the theme in the sequel Sweet Thursday (1954). But the scenario goes back to his earlier Tortilla flat (1935), depicting a group of paisanos in a tumbledown district of Monterey. Here’s the opening:

This is the story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house. It is a story of how how these three became one thing, so that in Tortilla Flat if you speak of Danny’s house you do not mean a structure of wood flaked with old whitewash, overgrown with an ancient untrimmed rose of Castile. No, when you speak of Danny’s house you are understood to mean a unit of which the parts are men, from which came sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow. For Danny’s house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it. And this is the story of how that group came into being, of how it flourished and grew to be an organization beautiful and wise. This story deals with the adventuring of Danny’s friends, with the good they did, with their thoughts and their endeavours. In the end, this story tells how the talisman was lost and how the group disintegrated.

For Steinbeck’s 1947 trip to the USSR with photographer Robert Capa, see e.g. here.

* * *

If in Steinbeck the theme of oriental mysticism is latent, it’s more explicit in Salinger. Like John CageGary Snyder, and Alan Watts, Salinger was influenced by the teachings of Zen master D.T. Suzuki at 1950s’ Columbia, and later by Vedanta. The theme has attracted considerable discussion (e.g. here); like the whole TMI confessional style, not all of it is positive. And it’s still subsidiary in critical commentary on Salinger’s work; indeed, the more his fictional characters immersed themselves in such arcane pursuits, the less they appealed to his core readership. But the Beats, and later the Hippies, took note.

The Wisdom of the Mystic East may be overlooked in The catcher in the rye (1951, after serialization in 1945–46)—the book’s enduring popularity (not least in China) is based on the themes of phoniness and alienation. But the theme is unmistakable in Salinger’s portrayals of the precocious Glass family [cue Heart of glass], whose siblings became immersed in Zen (see e.g. this essay by Henry Shukman).

In Franny and Zooey (1961, first published separately in 1957) the Bhagavad gita, the Upanishads, and the Diamond sutra are framed by the Christian mysticism of The cloud of unknowing and Meister Eckhart. Such works were hardly standard inspirations for fiction at the time, though later I would snap them up in Watkins bookshop. From a letter by Buddy to Zooey:

Seymour had already begun to believe (and I agreed, with him, as far as I was able to see the point) that education by any name would smell as sweet, and maybe much sweeter, if it didn’t begin with a quest for knowledge at all but with a quest, as Zen would put it, for no-knowledge. Dr Suzuki says somewhere that to be in a state of pure consciousness—satori—is to be with God before he said, Let there be light. […] We thought it would be wonderfully constructive to at least (that is, if our own limitations got in the way) tell you as much as we knew about the men—the saints, the arhats, the bodhisattvas,the jivankuktas—who knew something or everything about this state of being. That is, we wanted you both to know who and what Jesus and Gautama and Lao-tse and Shankaracharya and Huineng and Sri Ramakrishna, etc., were before you knew too much or anything about Homer or Shakespeare or even Blake or Whitman, let alone George Washington and his cherry tree or the definition of a peninsula or how to parse a sentence. That, anyway, was the big idea.

The appeal of Far-Eastern poetry is encapsulated in a long passage in Seymour: an introduction (1959), recalling the narrator Buddy’s late brother:

During much of his adolescence, and all his adult life, Seymour was drawn, first, to Chinese poetry, and then, as deeply, to Japanese poetry, and to both in ways that he was drawn to no other poetry in the world.* I have no quick way of knowing, of course, how familiar or unfamiliar my dear, if victimised, general reader is with Chinese or Japanese poetry. Considering, however, that even a short discussion of it may possibly shed a good deal of light on my brother’s nature, I don’t think this is the time for me to go all reticent and forbearing. At their most effective, I believe, Chinese and Japanese classical verses are intelligible utterances that please or enlighten or enlarge the invited eavesdropper to within an inch of his life. They may be, and often are, fine for the ear particularly, but for the most part I’d say that unless a Chinese or Japanese poet’s real forte is knowing a good persimmon or a good crab or a good mosquito bite on a good arm when he sees one, then no matter how long or unusual or fascinating his semantic or intellectual intestines may be, or how beguiling they sound when twanged, no-one in the Mysterious East speaks seriously of him as a poet, if at all. My inner, incessant elation, which I think I’ve rightly, if incessantly, called happiness, is threatening, I’m aware, to turn this whole composition into a fool’s soliloquy. I think, though, that even I haven’t the gall to try to say what makes the Chinese or Japanese poet the joy and marvel he is.

* [footnote in book] Since this is a record, of sorts, I ought to mumble, down here, that he read Chinese and Japanese poetry, for the most part, as it was written. [SJ: um, as if that’s possible—cf. Bach] […] If, in the line of duty, I should incidentally titillate a few young people’s interest in Chinese and Japanese poetry, it would be very good news to me. At all events, let the young person please know, if he doesn’t already, that a goodish amount of first-class Chinese poetry has been translated into English, with much fidelity and spirit, by several distinguished people; Witter Byner and Lionel Giles come most readily to mind. The best short Japanese poems—particularly haiku, but senryu, too—can be read with special satisfaction when R.H. Blyth has been at them. Blyth is sometimes perilous, naturally, since he’s a highhanded old poem himself, but he’s also sublime—and who goes to poetry for safety anyway?

I’m glad he credits Blyth there: indeed, Zen in English literature and oriental classics, which goes back to 1941, chimes in with Salinger’s quest for oriental wisdom in the Western world, not only in its high art but in its mundane realities (see e.g. here). Salinger/Buddy goes on:

Unofficially, Seymour wrote and talked Chinese and Japanese poetry all the thirty-one years he stopped with us, but I’d say that he made a formal beginning at composing it when he was eleven, in the first-floor reading room of a public library on upper Broadway, near our house. It was a Saturday, no school, nothing more pressing ahead of us than lunch, and we were having a fine time idly swimming around or treading water between the stacks, occasionally doing a little serious fishing for new authors, when he suddenly signalled to me to come over and see what he had. He’d caught himself a whole mess of translated verses by P’ang, the wonder of the eleventh century [SJ: this would be Layman Pang, actually a Tang master—whose sayings I also found in Watkins]. But fishing, as we know, in libraries is a tricky business, with never a certainty of who’s going to catch whom. [Typically lengthy aside on fishing…] Permanently, from that morning on, Seymour was hooked.

Indeed, the companion Raise high the roof beam, carpenters (a Sappho quote, for aficionados of the female composers T-shirt) opens with Seymour, then 17, reading a Daoist story to their ten-month old sister Franny.

Of course, with exceptions like Eugen Herrigel and Gary Snyder for Japan, such explorations were untramelled by engagement with the lives of their real Eastern contemporaries. But they weren’t merely retreating into an abstract Wisdom of the Mystic East but seeking to reconcile it with living in the modern world. Still, all this only goes some way towards explaining how I ended up traipsing around dusty Chinese villages in search of Daoists.

* * *

In their lives as in their fiction, both Steinbeck and Salinger come out poorly from later studies of their attitudes towards women. Kate Millett had bigger fish to fry (to a cinder) in Sexual politics (1970)—D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer. But as early as 1954 Ward Moore made some pithy criticisms of Cannery row:

To Steinbeck, who carries to an extreme the Hemingway small-boy nostalgia for the never-never world of comradely masculine society without women save as an occasional inconvenience, Cannery row was an ideal microcosm. In it, socially at least, the infantile triumphed; Mother—the realist, the disciplinarian, the stabilizer—was excluded, and Father, if admitted at all, came as a refugee from domesticity. In Cannery row the locale the small boy as employee justified his restiveness in casual labor; in Cannery row the novel the small boy vindicated his pranks, his misdemeanors, his fear of responsibility in a glorification of perpetual hooky.

And the relation between Franny and her older, wiser brothers, with their more “legitimate” spiritual crises, has also been unpacked.

Still, at the time I was most beguiled by such Western pioneers, and their themes still resonate.

3 thoughts on “Of Steinbeck and Salinger

  1. Pingback: More East–West gurus | Stephen Jones: a blog

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  3. Pingback: The Celibidache mystique | Stephen Jones: a blog

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