Thursday, August 9, 2012

Glass, Salinger, Strunk, White

What follows is speculation:

In “Hapworth 16, 1924” (1965), J. D. Salinger’s last published work of fiction, seven-year-old Seymour Glass, writing a letter to his parents and three of his siblings from summer camp, acknowledges — at length — that he needs to improve his writing:

While bearing in mind that my loss of you is very acute today, hardly bearable in the last analysis, I am also snatching this stunning opportunity to use my new and entirely trivial mastery of written construction and decent sentence formation as explained and slightly enriched upon in that small book, alternately priceless and sheer crap, which you saw me poring over to excess during the difficult days prior to our departure for this place. Though this is quite a terrible bore for you, dear Bessie and Les, superb or suitable construction of sentences holds some passing, amusing importance for a young fool like myself! It would be quite a relief to rid my system of fustian this year. It is in danger of destroying my possible future as a young poet, private scholar, and unaffected person.

*

[I]t is all too easy for a boy of my dubious age and experience to fall easy prey to fustian, poor taste, and unwanted spurts of showing off.

*

I am personally very hopeful that great layers of unnatural, affected, stilted fustian and rotten, disagreeable words will drop off my young body like flies during the crucial period to come! It is worth every effort, my future sentence construction quite hanging in the balance!
That conspicuous reference to “that small book, alternately priceless and sheer crap”: could it be meant to suggest The Elements of Style? Harcourt, Brace brought out a trade edition of William Strunk’s book in 1920, just fifty-two pages long. By 1965, The Elements was well known as “the little book.” Seymour’s habits of writing are, as the above passage shows, far from Strunkian. But the target of playful mockery here might more likely be “Strunk and White,” E. B. White’s 1959 revision of The Elements of Style. It’s the 1959 text that condemns Seymour’s pet phrase “in the last analysis” (fourteen appearances in “Hapworth”) as “a bankrupt expression.” And it’s the 1959 text that cautions against over-relying on adjectives and adverbs. Seymour is crazy about adjectives, slightly less so about adverbs, and they make for delightful, hilarious, improbable sentences:
A decent, utterly frank criterion is always of splendid, temporary use to a young person.

*

I am freely saddling you, one and all, parent and child, with a very long, boring letter, quite filled to the brim with my stilted flow of words and thoughts.

*

Oh, my God, you are a risible, amusing kid!
But Seymour’s doing his best to — like the man says — omit needless words:
If the rest of my letter seems a little too brisk and impersonal, please excuse it; I am going to devote the remainder of the letter to economy of words and phraseology, quite my weakest point in written construction. If I sound quite cold and brisk, remember it is for my own practice and that I am not feeling cold and brisk where you, parent and child alike, are concerned; far from it!
That a work of fiction in the form of a transcription of a 1924 letter seems to make veiled reference to a 1959 publication — well, that would hardly be the most extraordinary thing about “Hapworth 16, 1924.” That a work of such exuberance and strangeness met with such a cold and brisk reception baffles and saddens me. Personally, I’m still hopeful that this work and other, hitherto unpublished Salinger works will, in the last analysis, appear in book form in the not distant future.

Related reading
All Salinger posts (via Pinboard)
All Strunk and White posts (via Pinboard)

[It’s the 1959 text that let the common reader know the phrase “the little book”: in his introduction, White mentions it as Strunk’s way of referring to The Elements. New Yorker subscribers can find “Hapworth 16, 1924” in the June 19, 1965 issue in the online archive.]

comments: 2

Adair said...

I remember when this story was about to be published by a small press in Alexandria, Virginia, and how I counted the days---only to be bitterly disappointed when the project was canceled, apparently by Salinger himself. I agree that this story has been treated too harshly by critics, and like you, I cannot wait to see an edition of Salinger's complete works (including all that he produced in his early career and during his later "silence"). Just imagine: new Salinger novels and stories! The thought makes me dizzy. He and Kafka are the first serious writers that I read with complete absorption.

Michael Leddy said...

The almost-publisher told his story after Salinger’s death.