Ken Gordon | Essays

J. D. Salinger: A Cover Story

Let’s judge a book—Franny and Zooey, by the late J.D. Salingerby its cover.

Book covers too often get a bad rap, and I’d like to take a minute to say a word on their behalf. Like “the love of money,” which in our cliché-clouded minds is inevitably married to “the root of all evil,” book covers often are unfairly typecast in our language (if not our culture). “Never judge a book by its cover!” warned Mrs. Cooke in kindergarten, and we believed her. And we’ve never quite stopped. What George H. W. Bush might have called the “never-judge-a-book-by-its-cover thing” has made book covers the symbol of all that is shallow: the skin, the surface, the mere appearance of things. This is just wrong. A cover is the face of a book, and only a person with a crippled sense of literacy would ignore the meanings to be read there because of the vague promptings of a grade school catchphrase.

Franny and Zooey looks like no other book that I know of, except, of course, for Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour—An Introduction, which is its identical twin with a different color scheme.[i] You see the jacket, with its solid blocks of green and white, and you think, “J. D. Salinger.” I do. I don’t know of another style of book design that is so firmly paperclipped to my image of an author (though perhaps that’s because he’s done such a famously complete job of suppressing all other images of himself—with the exception of the square soulful ’50s-looking author photo that appears on both the front cover of In Search of J. D. Salinger by Ian Hamilton and the back of my Heinemann hardcover version of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters). Salinger’s nearly Amish approach to book design is apparent in the classic The Catcher in the Rye jacket: no eye-catching illustrations, no celebrity endorsements, no appeals to alienated adolescents with a little bit of pocket money.[ii] Only the name and title set in tasteful muted colors (mellow yellow letters against a field of rust). But don’t take my word for it. You can feel the influence of the look of his books even in mainstream pop culture: when the eponymous sports agent/hero of Jerry Maguire (1997) writes the rebellious and heartfelt Mission Statement that gets him canned, his voiceover tells the audience, “Even the cover looked like Catcher in the Rye.”

Franny and Zooey is just as spare: white on the front face and on the back, green on the spine. White and green. Why these two colors? My instincts tell me that white is the color of surrender; green, the shade of innocence. Now I may be violating a few big lit crit tenets by (1) letting my instincts take the wheel; and (2) assuming that my instincts have anything to do with Salinger’s—it’s not like I have the Salinger notebooks, in which he might have sketched out the intended effect of this color scheme—but I’m so far removed from academia that it’s nuts to worry about getting tagged for such violations. Actually, that’s not quite fair. My instincts aren’t nearly as innocent as instincts usually are; in this case, they’ve been coached by my critical reading. My color-coated thinking jibes exactly with the jabs that Salinger took for Franny and Zooey: the Glass kids are good and pure, say the critics, and the rest of the world is corrupt and false; and in one way or another most of them decide to drop out—of the school play, college, life—so as not to contaminate themselves. Innocence and Surrender are precisely the sort of crimes that Franny and Zooey, and the people in the audience who identify with them, are accused of in Alfred Kazin’s indictment:

[…] the vast numbers [of young people] who have been released by our society to think of themselves as endlessly sensitive, spiritually alive, gifted, and whose suffering lies in the narrowing of their consciousness to themselves, in the withdrawal of their curiosity from a society which they think they understand all too well, in the drying up of their hope, their trust, and their wonder at the great world itself.

But I’m not going to make too much of this. You could quite reasonably argue that I’ve completely misread the cover and suggest that its color code means vastly different things. For example, various conventional readings of “green” include not just innocence but also Ireland, nature, envy, money, and in M&M’s, aphrodisia; “white” is the color of death and mourning in Chinese cultures, the precise tone of snow, clean tablecloths, and KKK costumes; and together the two colors spell Tic-Tacs, wintergreen Life-Savers, the New York Jets, and the Philadelphia Eagles. Take your pick. Of course, such interpretations would make much less sense to my essay, so I won’t bother to pursue them; I just wanted to point out that though the colors suggest something, and something rather obvious, to me, I can’t feign ignorance about the danger of allegorical readings.

The last thing I want to say here is, actually, the latest thing I’ve noticed about this whole J. D. Salinger business. It happened while I was riding on the “T.”[iii] I looked down at my copy of Franny and Zooey and saw, for the first time ever, the title. I mean, I saw for the first time that the words “Franny” and “Zooey” (and for that matter “Little, Brown,” as in the book’s publisher) were not blocked out in type, but seemed to have been painted on by someone with an Asian calligrapher’s brush, the strokes thick, black, and exact. Surely, I thought, this was no accident; Salinger’s love of Chinese and Japanese culture is splattered everywhere in his later books. And yet I’d never noticed it before. It took me years to recognize such a detail. Does the title’s lettering seem trifling? Accidental? Unworthy of your—or my—consideration? I’m sure our author would disagree. I have no doubt that he would defend the necessity of the observation. He would, at the very least, have appreciated the contrast between the elegant austerity of the brush strokes on the cover and the wordy, vernacular, 11-point material living inside. In fact, he says something about a similar kind of contrast in SEYMOUR—An Introduction (though here he’s discussing Seymour’s Eastern-accented poems):

[…] they were too un-Western, too lotusy. He said he felt that they were faintly affronting. He hadn’t quite made up his mind where the affronting came in, but he felt at times that the poems read as though they’d been written by an ingrate, of sorts, someone who was turning his back – in effect, at least – on his own environment and the people in it who were close to him. He said he ate his food out of our big refrigerators, drove our eight-cylinder American cars, unhesitatingly used our medicines when he was sick, and relied on the U. S. Army to protect his parents and sisters from Hitler’s Germany, and nothing, not one single thing in all his poems, reflected these realities.

But what my friends in grad school might have called “the pre-textual meaning” isn’t limited to the stuff on the cover: the inside flaps are even more interesting, and certainly odder, and I am very fond of them.

First off, Franny and Zooey’s front and back flaps boast (a) what must be the only jacket copy in the history of publishing with copywriter’s name on it; and (b) the first time an author has openly admitted that he’s the copywriter himself (Salinger isn’t the first guy to write his own stuff, but most flapdoodles come in the anonymous tones of a modest third person; compared to this act, I think of, say, Walt Whitman’s uninhibited-but-anonymous reviews of Leaves of Grass as rather sane and humble gestures).

Let’s read.

“The author writes:” writes the author, “FRANNY came out in The New Yorker in 1955, and was swiftly followed, in 1957, by ZOOEY.” Very slick. Salinger knows the conventions of this flap game, the cheap combination of praise and provocation that publishers normally deploy—but he wants no part of this. He wants his book to have something more tasteful and original than your standard book-jacket prose, yet he doesn’t trust the boys in the marketing department to put it together. And so what do we get? J. D. Salinger as a highly skilled but rather unemployable PR man. Which is to say, the flaps are, like much of Salinger’s later prose, extremely aware of themselves, and full of mischief (as we shall soon see).

As everyone knows, the publicity-phobic Salinger has raised the idea of the impersonality of the author (brought to generations of English majors by the firm of Joyce, Eliot, Brooks & Warren) to absurd heights, so this jacket “appearance” should be taken with a grain, if not a mountain, of irony, though not entirely. When he writes, “there is a real-enough danger, I suppose, that sooner or later I’ll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own words, locutions, and mannerisms” and “a writer’s feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second-most valuable property on loan to him during his working years,” he is at once goofing on the disappearing-artist sketch and expressing what was then a mere desire but today has become a fact. The joke here is that the place he decides to finally unveil himself is not in a memoir or an autobiographical essay—contemporary readers take note: this stuff was written for the 1961 publication of Franny and Zooey, long, long, long before the memoir madness that has infected so many readers and writers in recent years—but in the less-than-literary guise of dust-jacket author. Note too that he says “The author writes,” not “J. D. Salinger writes”—which sprinkles a little more ambiguity into this bubbling stew of uncertainty: is it “the author” of the jacket copy or Salinger himself? Are the two people the same? Or is person who signs his books “J. D.” a different creature from the guy we fans have evolved in our minds? We just can’t know—but he sounds like he’s having fun reminding us that when it comes to knowing the “about the author,” we are indeed an audience in the dark.

Shall I draw your attention to the word “swiftly”? Do you think that two years is a long time for a writer to be working on what Salinger calls, on the dedication page, “a pretty skimpy-looking book” that clocks in at just 201 pages? (Of course, he’s playing even here. To describe a book as “pretty skimpy-looking” is very different from saying that it is pretty skimpy. In fact, the “skimpy-looking” intimates that there’s a lot more here than meets the eye, that, in literature, size does not matter, that when a qualified reader gets her eyes on this material it will expand to 100 times its actual size.) The question is: Who is he satirizing? Himself? His editor, William Shawn? His fans? It seems that he’s messing with all of them, but especially with the fans. I like to think of him here as a doubled-over runner at the end of a successful race: he’s smiling and panting, exhausted but also proud, happy that the audience is applauding but annoyed that it’s taken quite so long to finish.

Speaking of Salinger playing to his fans—I’ve read that back in the 1950s, the publication of both Franny and Zooey in The New Yorker, and then in book form, created as much excitement and panic as the day the Beatles landed in America (or something slightly less frenetic).[iv] I like the thought of this, of the publication of a serious work of art churning up that kind of response, though it seems so unlikely today. What kind of furor—short of a story that a Third World theocrat took the wrong way—could literature cause today? On the other hand, he may just be muttering bitterly to himself. Joyce Maynard, who actually lived with Salinger, suggests that he was a nasty fellow (“I would not have believed that a person could ever look more angry than he did the moment he first laid eyes on me.”). All I know for sure about the man’s moods, are, well, from his jacket copy, his dedications, the Hamilton book, the Maynard book, a gossipy snippet from Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers, and some conjecture based on his fiction. In short: not a whole helluva lot. Next paragraph, please.

Two years seems just about right to me. Our copywriter suggests that literature requires both time and effort to construct, that producing it can’t be easily controlled. A work of fiction isn’t, say, a stick of Right Guard Deodorant Anti-Perspirant—you don’t just crank up the machinery when you want more product. He says that treating literature as one more commodity, which is the essential function of flap copy artists, is asinine. (Now, not everyone agrees with this, of course, which is why sitcom stars become best-selling authors.) On the back flap, he uses the language that less-self-conscious editors, writers, and PR people speak to one another during regular business hours:

FRANNY and ZOOEY have already been published in The New Yorker, and some new material is scheduled to appear there soon or Soon. I have a great deal of thoroughly unscheduled material on paper, too, but I expect to be fussing with it, to use a popular trade term, for some time to come. (“Polishing” is another dandy word that comes to mind.)

In fact, this snippet displays one of our favorite novelist’s greatest skills: his ability to net the words real people use in real situations and then display them in such a way as to expose the absurdity of both their sound and sense for us. The paragraph is a willful distortion of the language of publishing, and Salinger steps down hard on the fuzz box to assure his readers that however much he is involved in the big bad book business, he’s really on the side of the reader, on your side. He’s not trying to put one over on you: he is what he is, and so is Franny and Zooey—inside and out.

i And here I mean the original jacket design, the Little, Brown dust jacket that was reissued several decades later. I consider all other versions per-versions of J. D. Salinger’s cover and will not discuss them.

iiI have just consulted In Search of J. D. Salinger and found that while there is no direct mention of Catcher’s design philosophy, there are quite a few anecdotes about how Salinger disliked the size of the author photo on the back (and did eventually get it removed) as well as his aversion to any obvious kind of publicity (sending review copies to newspapers, Book-of-the-Month-Club stuff, etc.).

iii I live in a suburb of Boston and I ride the “T” and I do most of my reading on it. In fact, I had a very interesting J. D. Salinger “T” experience the other night. I was standing in the middle of a car reading Franny and Zooey, when I heard a little foreign-sounding voice ask twice if ours was the D or E train. At the second question I looked up and saw a cute old Russian woman addressing the two yahoos in front of her, who just shrugged their shoulders in response. I jumped to the rescue: “This is the D train, ma’am,” I said. And felt quite proud of myself, quite chivalrous, and went back to my book. About ten minutes later, I happened to take a look around and saw that my friend was writing something down on a scrap of paper. Wow, I thought, maybe she’s a writer! I took a quick glance down and saw the word “Zooey.” Another glance gave up the word “Salinger” and I was more or less ecstatic. I was getting the word around, I was broadening Salinger’s fan base, I was doing what needed to be done!

iv According to Ian Hamilton: “Franny and Zooey, to no one’s surprise, was an immediate best seller, with some bookstores reporting early-morning lines on publication. On Salinger’s instructions, Little, Brown had made strenuous efforts to prevent prepublication sales and special discount offers; it had issued advertisements that simply stated the book’s author and title; and it had refused overtures from all book clubs. Even so, within two weeks the book had sold 125,000 copies; it rose swiftly to the head of the Sunday Times list and stayed there for six months."

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