American Vedantist Newsletter No. 1
J.D. Salinger & Vedanta
by Jon & Anna Monday
1965 J.D. Salinger, one of the world’s best-selling, most influential
and popular authors, stopped publishing and went into deep seclusion
in New Hampshire. For 45 years reporters and fans stalked the
man, snapping photos from behind bushes, trying to find out if he was
still writing, and why he dropped out and went into hiding – a
life-style choice not unlike the ambitions of Holden Caufield, the
iconic hero of his best-selling novel, The
Catcher in the Rye. After going into seclusion, he allowed only
one novel and 13 short stories to continue in print (less than half of
his published writing). He sued anyone who threatened to publish his
letters or invaded his privacy. He
wanted nothing to do with the outside world.
Salinger, a new documentary film (see Official Trailer at source or on this page) by Shane Salerno and a companion book of the same name by David Shields and Shane Salerno about J.D. Salinger (January 1, 1919 - January 27, 2010) were recently co-released. The film is currently screening in theaters, on Netflix, and is scheduled to air on PBS’s American Masters in January 2014. Unfortunately, the film only briefly mentions Salinger’s relationship to Vedanta. This paper deals with the book, which handles the Vedanta connection very differently. Unlike previous biographies or the film, this book heartily acknowledges Salinger’s deep commitment to Ramakrishna/Vivekananda Vedanta:
the late 1940s onward, Salinger became increasingly committed to
Eastern philosophy and religion, especially Vedanta. Visiting the
Ramakrishna/Vivekananda Center of New York, going on retreats in
upstate New York, and reading sacred Hindu texts, he bases virtually
every decision of his life on Vedanta’s tenets. [Page 319]
further reiterate the import of Vedanta’s influence on Salinger, the
book is structured on Hinduism’s four stages of life. The table of
contents headings read: Part I – Brahmacharya (Apprenticeship); Part
II – Garhasthya (Householder Duties); Part III – Vanaprasthya
(Withdrawal from Society); Part IV – Sannyasa (Renunciation of the
World). This perspective allows the authors to offer a plausible
explanation for Salinger’s withdrawal from public view based on the
principles of renunciation and self-abnegation as laid out in the Bhagavad
Gita, which Salinger read daily.
book tracks the path of Vedanta’s influence on Salinger, and
presents a brief, but basically correct, history of the modern Vedanta
movement, based on the life and teaching of Sri
nineteenth century holy man who lived in the Bengal district of India:
died in 1886. His student, Swami Vivekananda, popularized Vedanta in
the West in the late nineteenth century. Tolstoy called Vivekananda
“The most brilliant wise man. It is doubtful in this age that
another man has risen above this selfless, spiritual meditation.”
must also acknowledge the contribution of other direct disciples of
Sri Ramakrishna and the further dissemination of Vedanta teachings
through the English translations of Vedanta texts by Swami Nikhilananda
Prabhavananda for Western audiences. The book
adherents of Vedanta were Jung,
Miller (a lifelong devotee), Aldous Huxley (who called Vedanta, “The most
profound and subtle utterances about the nature of Ultimate
Reality”), and George
Harrison, according to whom Vedanta has one
goal: “The realization of God.” [Page 401]
luminaries influenced a broader circle of friends and associates, most
notably W. Somerset Maugham, who wrote The
Razor’s Edge, the book that set Salinger on the path leading to
Vedanta. Anyone who reads Salinger finds explicit references to
Ramakrishna and Vivekananda and the expression of Vedantic ideas in
virtually all his short stories that are still in print. As many of
these Western intellectuals are fading from the public’s memory, so
is the knowledge of the source of their spiritual inspirations. This
book might change that trend.
literary celebrity is immense, which is astounding given how little he
published – one novel (The
Catcher in the Rye) and a series of short stories originally
published in popular magazines of the time, principally The
New Yorker. Literary critic Michiko Kakutani wrote,
critics dismissed the easy surface charm of Mr. Salinger’s work,
accusing him of cuteness and sentimentality, but works like
“Catcher”, “Franny and Zooey”, and his best known short
stories would influence successive generations of writers… [his
characters] would emerge as avatars of adolescent angst… [Page 552]
in the Rye was published in
1951 to rave reviews and has sold over 65 million copies and counting.
It still sells over half a million copies a year. During the 1950s and
early 1960s, it was simultaneously the most assigned novel in high
schools and the most censored book in high schools. Teachers were
fired for suggesting that their students read the book. It marked the
beginning of a new post-war America and foresaw the coming of the Beat
Era, Hippies, New Age, and the interest in Eastern religions that took
hold in Western culture.
was a coast to coast buzz whenever a new Salinger story was published.
One popular magazine’s all-time record high circulation was the
issue that featured a new Salinger story. Life,
Newsweek, and Time
magazines did stories about him (a cover story by Time),
sending reporters and photographers to his cabin in the woods of New
Hampshire only to be shunned and often sued.
New Yorker, in 1965, ran
his last published story, Hapworth
16, 1924. In it, the main character, 7-year old Seymour Glass,
writes to his parents from summer camp:
and Bhakti-Yoga, two heartrending, handy, quite tiny volumes, perfect
for the pockets of any average, mobile boy our age, by Vivekananda of
India. He is one of the most exciting, original and best equipped
giants of this century I have ever run into; my personal sympathy for
him will never be outgrown or exhausted as long as I live, mark my
words; I would easily give ten years of my life, possibly more, if I
could have shaken his hand or at least said a brisk, respectful hello
to him on some busy street in Calcutta or elsewhere.”
Salinger’s objective as a writer, Salerno and Shields report:
one constant in Salinger’s life, from the early 1950s until his
death in 2010, was Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, which transformed him
from a writer of fiction into a disseminator of mysticism… [Page
also continues to surface as a cultural icon, being cited as an
inspiration by the likes of writer/director Quentin
appearing in the works of indie rock group Green
Day; W.P. Kinsella's novel Shoeless
Joe, upon which the film Field
of Dreams was based; and The
which dedicated the entire September 10th,
2013 episode to Salinger (watch
episode here, or see transcript,
or excerpts Appendix
C below), to name just a few. In 2010, the National
Portrait Gallery put Salinger’s portrait on permanent display.
the last 45 years of his life, he wrote constantly but not for
publication in his lifetime. He was following the instructions of the Bhagavad Gita as taught to him by his guru, Swami Nikhilananda, of
the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York (aka the East Side
Center): We must do our duty and work,
but should not let the rewards be our goal.
To work, alone, you are entitled, never to its fruit. Neither let your motive be the fruit of action, nor let your attachment be to non-action.
1965, at the peak of his career, he abruptly stopped publishing, would
not give interviews, took aggressive legal actions to guard his
privacy, and dropped out of sight for the rest of his life with only
himself and God as his audience and critic.
his absence his legend only grew.
David Salinger was born on January 1st, 1919 in New York to
a life of privilege on Park Avenue on the Upper East Side. His family
was fairly affluent and was in touch with high society. His father was
Jewish and his mother was Catholic. He had a Bar Mitzvah and his
family celebrated both Christmas and Chanukah.
is semi-autobiographical. Salinger went
to several uppercrust
prep schools, was rebellious and had
been kicked out of most if not all of them.
The attitude of his first-person protagonist was all Salinger and would influence
the attitudes and behavior of generations of youth in the decades
since its publication.
his teenage years, he longed to be a writer with the ultimate goal of
being published in The New
Yorker. He was first published in 1940 at the age of 21 in a
monthly magazine called Story.
In the summer of 1941, he was living with his parents in Manhattan
when he met and started dating Oona O’Neill, the daughter of the
Nobel Prize laureate playwright Eugene O’Neill. She was stunning and
sophisticated beyond her years. At the age of 16, she would hang out
with her friend Gloria Vanderbilt at the Stork Club, having drinks and
hobnobbing with celebrities. Salinger was in love; but for Oona, he
was just one in a long line of celebrities that she would date,
Wells, Peter Arno (The
New Yorker cartoonist) and, finally, Charlie
America first entered World War II, Salinger tried to enlist; but
physical problems made him ineligible for military service. However, as
the war effort grew, the standards were lowered, and he was finally
drafted. Because of his linguistic skills (he spoke French and
German), he was trained to be in military intelligence, interrogating
prisoners and locals for information about what US troops were facing.
While this may sound like a “behind the lines” office job,
actually he was in the thick of combat, immersed in death and
rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant in the 12th Infantry
Division, which saw some of the most brutal fighting of the war. He
landed on Utah Beach on D-Day and was in the middle of the worst
fighting, including the Battle of the Bulge, as the Allies drove from
the beaches towards Germany.
the midst of his time in the European War Theater, Salinger carried
pictures of the love of his life, Oona O’Neil, and bragged about
their relationship; but then he read in the newspapers that Oona had
married Charlie Chaplin on her 18th birthday. Salinger was
Battle of Hurtgen Forest was particularly nasty. US troops were freezing
to death in their foxholes, or dying from the concussion caused by artillery shells, or dying
in hand to hand combat. He was also in
the first group of American soldiers to liberate a death camp that was
part of Dachau.
Salinger thought the war would provide him with real-life experience,
which would make him a better writer. He carried the first six
chapters of Catcher with him when he landed on Utah Beach and would work on the
novel and new stories between the battles. But by the time he saw the
death camps, he no longer felt that the war was “won” or that the
soldiers were heroes riding to the rescue. Rather, he had the
sickening feeling that the Allies were just too late to stop the real
horrors of the war. The impact of the death and destruction he
witnessed in the battles and the death camps shook him to the core.
This realization, combined with the heartbreak of losing the dream of
Oona, resulted in a nervous breakdown. Shortly after the war ended,
while still in Germany, he checked himself into a civilian hospital
for what was then called “Battle Fatigue,” now known at Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
was a short marriage to a German woman, but after coming to the US,
Salinger discovered she had been a student informant for the Gestapo
during the war. Without discussion, Salinger left her a plane ticket
back to Germany on the breakfast table one morning. It would be years
before he would marry again, and even then he claimed on the marriage
license that he hadn’t been married before.
knew he was damaged after the war and tried to deal with it by first
checking into the hospital in Germany, then attempting self-development
through philosophy and religion. He began a search for answers.
Catcher, Salinger became
increasingly devoted to and influenced by Advaita Vedanta Hinduism,
the religious and philosophical teachings that Swami Vivekananda
brought to the West in 1893. Salinger’s discovery of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (translated by Swami Nikhilananda and
Joseph Campbell and published by the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of
New York) was a major event in his life, second only to the war. The
damage the war wrought compelled him to seek not only transcendence
but erasure. [Page 396]
divided his work into stories written before encountering Vedanta and
those written after embracing Vedanta. He wouldn’t allow any of his
pre-Vedanta work to be re-published, which is why there are so few
Salinger stories currently in print – less than half of what was
originally published in magazines.
writing became more exclusively focused on the Glass Family. To
understand Salinger’s Glass Family, you should read all the Salinger
stories that are still in print in the order they were written. The
progression reflects Salinger’s deepening understanding of Vedanta
and how it changes and impacts the lives of the Glass family. Here is
a list of his publications after his exposure to Vedanta which are
still in print: A Perfect Day
for Bananafish (1948); Uncle
Wiggily in Connecticut (1948); Just
Before the War with the Eskimos (1948); The
Laughing Man (1949); Down at
the Dinghy (1949); For Esmé
with Love and Squalor (1950); The
Catcher in the Rye (1951); Pretty
Mouth and Green My Eyes (1951); De
Daumier-Smith's Blue Period (1952); Teddy
(1953); Franny (1955); Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters (1955); Zooey (1957); Seymour,
finally gave an interview to The
New York Times titled, J. D.
Salinger Speaks About His Silence, November 3, 1974 by Lacey
Fosburgh. Here are some excerpts from that interview:
his opposition to republication of his early works, Mr. Salinger said
they were the fruit of a time when he was first beginning to commit
himself to being a writer. He spoke of writing feverishly, of being
"intent on placing [his works] in magazines."
not trying to hide the gaucheries of my youth. I just don't think
they're worthy of publishing."
he expect to publish another work soon?
was a pause.
really don't know how soon," he said. There was another pause,
and then Mr. Salinger began to talk rapidly about how much he was
writing, long hours, every day, and he said he was under contract to
no one for another book.
is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It's peaceful. Still.
Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I
love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure."
new biography reveals that some in the media and his legions of fans
thought Salinger was a recluse, a sort of literary Howard Hughes.
Those Vedantists who would go to retreats or classes that Salinger
attended at the New York City
Vedanta center or Thousand Island Park would keep his
attendance secret, so much so, that his 55+ year connection with
Vedanta was virtually unknown to the public.
who knew him respected his privacy and wouldn’t talk about him. But
those few who did talk, or were suspected of talking, were shunned by
Salinger. In a conversation, celebrated Vivekananda scholar Marie
Louise Burke (aka Gargi) confirmed a theory that Salinger’s
disposition of Seymour Glass was premature, a mistake in his own eyes.
Her source was a statement of his in part of a long correspondence
with Salinger. Salinger, however, got it into his head that she was
somehow attempting to use his letters to benefit herself. In disgust,
Burke destroyed the letters. The friendship was over.
craved the privacy of a normal man, an ordinary citizen. After he died
in 2010, a few townspeople opened up and said he was just that – an
ordinary man, talking about commonplace things, going to high school
games. Every day he walked to the post office and store, sometimes
chatting with neighbors over coffee. We also heard a reminiscence from
Smith who, as a young man, was a disciple of Swami Nikhilananda
and part of the East Side Center spiritual community. He encountered
an amiable man outdoors at the Thousand Island Park retreat. They had
a relaxed conversation about cars. Smith later discovered it was
he never allowed the last story he wrote for publication, Hapworth 16, 1924, to be re-published in book form. He only allowed
13 of his short stories, all originally published in magazines, to be
re-published in book form in addition to his only novel, Catcher.
Today we have only four Salinger books in print: The Catcher in the Rye; Nine Stories; Franny and Zooey; and Raise High the Roof
Seymour an Introduction.
only represents about half of what was originally published in
magazines. At the end of this paper there is a complete list of all
the stories he published. While one used to have to go to large public
libraries to search their microfilms for copies of the stories that
were no longer in print, now you can find copies on the internet.
Reading his material chronologically paints a perfect picture of
Salinger’s spiritual evolution and the sudden change in content and
style that happens after his commitment to Vedanta.
Salinger family and estate has been notoriously rigid, prohibiting any
of Salinger’s personal letters to be published in any form, not even
paraphrased. But, as part of the 150th anniversary of Swami
Vivekananda’s birth celebrations, they did allow the New York East
Side Vedanta Center to release letters written by Salinger to the
Swamis of the Center. Those letters give us an insight into the extent
of Salinger’s devotion and dedication to his guru, Swami
Nikhilananda; the Gospel;
the Gita; and Vedanta
philosophy. Here is one excerpt from Salinger’s letter quoted in the
book. When Salinger heard that Swami Nikhilananda had been confined to
a wheelchair and had had to cut back his lecture schedule, he wrote:
may be that reading to a devoted group from The Gospel of Sri
Ramakrishna is all you do now, as you say, but I imagine the students
who are lucky enough to hear you read from the Gospel would put the
matter rather differently.
that I’ve forgotten many worthy and important things in my life, but
I have never forgotten the way you used to read from, and interpret,
the Upanishads, up at Thousand Island Park.
a 1975 letter to Swami Adiswarananda. who
succeeded Swami Nikhilananda as head of the New York East Side Center,
read a bit from the Gita
every morning before I get out of bed, Swami Nikhilananda’s
annotated version. (It seems such a reasonable pleasure to imagine
that Shankara would have approved unreservedly of Swami’s inspired
intelligence, devotion, and authority. How could he not?)
And here is an extended portion of one of Salinger’s letters to Swami Adiswarananda. A shorter segment was quoted in the book:
authors, Shields and Salerno, seem to have done a great job in finding
new details that many Salinger fans had not known before. And their
assessment of Vedanta and the effect it had on Salinger’s life is
very positive. But, their opinion of the effect Vedanta had on
Salinger’s writing is suspect. They claim that it ruined
Salinger’s writing. But, without having access to the unreleased
hoard of unpublished stories and books, they have no basis for such a
to the book, the first stories to be published in 2015 will extend the
Glass family saga.
story deals with Seymour’s life after death. The stories... are
saturated in the teachings of the Vedantic religion… Salinger has
also written a ‘manual’ of Vedanta–with short stories, almost
fables, woven into the text; this is precisely the form of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, which Salinger called, in 1952,
‘the religious book of the century.’ Salinger’s ‘Manual’ is
the explicit fulfillment of his stated desire to
through his writing, the ideas of Vedanta. [Page 575]
early crisp writing in the first two decades of his career had an
instant appeal. The deliberately minimalist approach to the stories
allowed the reader to create their own mental image of the scene,
unspoiled and unaffected by what decade the reader happened to be in.
For instance, here’s the first paragraph from The
Young Folks, his first published story, which appeared in Story
magazine in 1940,:
eleven o’clock, Lucille Henderson, observing that her party was
soaring at the proper height, and just having been smiled at by Jack
Delroy, forced herself to glance over in the direction of Edna
Phillips, who since eight o’clock had been sitting in the big red
chair, smoking cigarettes and yodeling hellos and wearing a very
bright eye which young men were not bothering to catch. Edna’s
direction still the same, Lucille Henderson sighed as heavily as her
dress would allow, and then, knitting what there was of her brows,
gazed about the room at the noisy young people she had invited to
drink up her father’s scotch. Then abruptly, she swished to where
William Jameson Junior sat, biting his fingernails and staring at a
small blonde girl sitting on the floor with three young men from
later work seemed to ramble. Many say this is a sign that Salinger
went off the rails. On the other hand it could be a first example of a
whole new style of a prose-poem. Here’s the first paragraph of
Seymour’s letter in Hapworth:
WILL write for us both, I believe, as Buddy is engaged elsewhere for
an indefinite period of time. Surely sixty to eighty per cent of the
time, to my eternal amusement and sorrow, that magnificent, elusive,
comical lad is engaged elsewhere! As you must know in your hearts and
bowels, we miss you all like sheer hell. Unfortunately, I am far from
above hoping the case is vice versa. This is a matter of quite a
little humorous despair to me, though not so humorous. It is entirely
disgusting to be forever achieving little actions of the heart or body
and then taking recourse to reaction. I am utterly convinced that if
A’s hat blows off while he is sauntering down the street, it is the
charming duty of B to pick it up and hand it to A without examining
A’s face or combing it for gratitude! My God, let me achieve missing
my beloved family without yearning that they miss me in return! It
requires a less wishy-washy character than the one available to me. My
God, however, on the other side of the ledger, it is a pure fact that
you are utterly haunting persons in simple retrospect! How we miss
every excitable, emotional face among you! I was born without any
great support in the event of continued absence of loved ones. It is a
simple, nagging, humorous fact that my independence is skin deep,
unlike that of my elusive, younger brother and fellow camper.
the ongoing controversy about the direction of Salinger’s writing
after such a promising start, author John Updike eloquently weighs in
and Zooey,' by J.D. Salinger, New York Times 10/17/61):
these are hard words; they are made hard to write by the extravagant
self-consciousness of Salinger's later prose, wherein most of the
objections one might raise are already raised. On the flap of this
book jacket, he confesses, "There is a real-enough danger, I
suppose, that sooner or later I'll bog down, perhaps disappear
entirely, in my own methods, locutions, and mannerisms. On the whole,
though, I'm very hopeful." Let me say, I am glad he is hopeful. I
am one of those -- to do some confessing of my own -- for whom
Salinger's work dawned as something of a revelation. I expect that
further revelations are to come.
Glass saga, as he has sketched it out, potentially contains great
fiction. When all reservations have been entered, in the correctly
unctuous and apprehensive tone, about the direction he has taken, it
remains to acknowledge that it is a direction, and that the refusal to
rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one's
obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what
makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all.
here’s author and literary critic Eudora Welty’s concise take (Threads of Innocence – New
York Times 4/5/1953):
has the courage--it is more like the earned right and privilege--to
experiment at the risk of not being understood.
Did Vedanta ruin Salinger’s writing? The
question assumes that Salinger’s writing was, in fact, ruined, which
is a premature judgment absent the last 45 years of his work, as
compared to the mere 25 early years available to us. But if Shields
and Salerno are correct about the writing, was Vedanta necessarily the
culprit? Perhaps there’s another option – that the writing took
the course it did regardless of, not because of, Vedanta. If we
examine the productive arc of most creative minds, not just artists
but also scientists, or anyone thinking outside the box, we find that
even among geniuses, few are able to keep evolving creatively over the
course of an entire lifetime, Beethoven or Rembrandt being examples of
those who did successfully sustain their creativity. Sri Ramakrishna
was one such in the spiritual realm.
There’s more commonly a limited creative
window after which the creative persons either quit or repeat
themselves. Those who attempt continued growth venture into
undiscovered realms of expression, often inaccessible to the layman,
and are not always artistically successful. A prime example of a work
of this phase of artistic aspiration is Beethoven’s Grosse
Fugue, which was entirely rejected when he presented it in 1826
but is now regarded with awe, a prophetic work that has enshrined him
in the highest realm of genius. In 2006, 180 years later, Alex Ross
wrote in The Rest Is Noise
New Yorker, Feb. 6, 2006): “...the Great Fugue is more than a
piece; it’s a musicological Holy Grail, a vortex of ideas and
implications. It is the most radical work by the most formidable
composer in history…”
a performance of the Grosse Fugue here at source http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEZXjW_s0Qs)
(Watch a performance of the Grosse Fugue here at source http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEZXjW_s0Qs) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEZXjW_s0Qs
But most importantly, we must keep in mind
that it was liberation and not his artistic legacy that was
Salinger’s motivation for embracing Vedanta and retreating from the
While not well-crafted, nor tightly edited, nor beautifully written, and according to some reviewers, insufficiently vetted, Salinger is a very interesting read for those who love Vedanta or Salinger, or both. And kudos to Shields and Salerno for letting Salinger be Salinger.
Young Folks (1940)
Stories that are still in print, as they were written after Salinger was
introduced to Vedanta.
Excerpt from the Tobias Wolff Interview Segment:
Excerpt from the Shane Salerno Interview Segment:
* While the online transcript reads "His religion says...", the interview footage shows that Salerno responds "His religion—the Vedanta religion—says..."
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