Saturday, January 30, 2010

THREE CHILDREN OF THE FIFTIES


J. D. Salinger

Vladimir Nabokov

James Purdy

J. D. Salinger The Catcher in the Rye (Boston: Little Brown, 1951)
J. D. Salinger Nine Stories (Boston: Little Brown, 1953)
Vladimir Nabokov Lolita (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1955)
James Purdy Malcolm (New York: Farrar, Straus & Company, 1959)

It’s notable, I believe, that the three major characters of some of the most interesting 1950s American fictions are all children, and that their names represent significant signposts—The Catcher in the Rye appearing in 1951, Lolita appearing in 1955 and Malcolm published in 1959—of American writing in general. Although these three have many characteristics that separate them from each other, it is the similarities that ultimately define them. These three adolescents are, in most respects, still innocents. Although Holden Caulfield, for example, certainly talks a tough line, claiming complete knowledge on all sorts of subjects sexual and sociological, his major failure is that he is and will continue to be an eternal child. Because of his childlike disappointment with both society and individuals he sees everyone and everything as “crumby” and “phony,” and accordingly feels completely alienated from the world at large. He may wish to protect other young people from the disillusionment he has undergone—to become a “catcher in the rye”—but he will clearly never complete school or even help to change the society which has so disenchanted him because he cannot participate in it sufficiently to effect his own maturation and transformation into an adult. Like so many American adolescent men (and a bit like the young Meaulnes of Alain-Fournier’s Le grand Meaulnes), he is doomed to feel a romanticized separation; and we can imagine him, if he survives, years later, as he sits spinning his tales of frustration to other such child-men in some dimly lit bar with all eyes glued to the television presentation of their favorite childhood sports.

Lolita, we discover, is more sexually experienced than she pretends. But one has to recognize her encounter with young Charlie in Camp Q as the sexual grappling of a young teenage girl as opposed to the perverted if comical “flutters and probes” of Humbert Humbert, the sex-starved adult. Lolita is precocious and even appears to have significant sexual awareness, but as many parents know, that is the self-recognized power of girls on the verge of becoming women. I recall my friend Charles Bernstein bemoaning the fact that his teenage daughter, Emma, dressed daily in outfits that at one time our ancestors might have described as undergarments. “We fear for her as she travels the various subways on her way to school. She doesn’t understand that what she sees as provocative in a good sense, might provoke behavior in others that she would find undesirable—and dangerous.”

Performer and poet Fiona Templeton responded that she too, at the same age, had dressed quite outrageously. “It’s the existence of their innocence that allows the young to take outrageous chances.” So too, I suggest, must we comprehend Lolita’s seeming sexual advances. She may look like an experienced seducer to Humbert, but her mind is still trapped in the world of comic books and “lurid movie magazines.”

Malcolm, of James Purdy’s lesser-known novel, has so little sense of self and awareness that it is almost pointless to describe his as an innocent. Like a cocoon enveloped in its protective silkiness, Malcolm is in a state of waiting, the “boy on the bench,” whose sexual force lies outside, in the presence of Mr. Cox (pun intended). And it is only when Cox sends the boy on his way through the maze of psycho-sexual adult encounters that he discovers anything outside himself. Of all three characters, Malcolm is the most extreme, beyond innocence because there is so little awareness of anything else. Unlike Holden, Malcolm can feel little disappointment, only a vague sense of loss from his father’s disappearance. Nearly narcoleptic, he attends to new “friends,” Estel Blanc, Kermit, Laureen, Mr. and Madame Girard, Eliosa and George Leeds, and others with a kind of vague comprehension, often falling to sleep in the midst of their “lessons.”

Innocence, accordingly, is the driving force that binds these three, and which makes them so attractive to adults. And it is, of course, that very quality, along with the beauty of their youth, that makes them so appealing to the predators they encounter along their paths. We can almost forgive Holden’s grandiose sense of being betrayed when he recounts, as he does late in the novel (in an admission I had forgotten from when I read the book as a young man, at almost the same age as Holden) that the sexual advances of his former school teacher Mr. Antolini are not the first he has encountered. “When something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it.”

Although we know that Holden is given to some exaggeration, the fact that he has encountered such sexual advances several times before is more than shocking. The world of the 50s these three novels present is far from that presentation of the mythical clean-cut and tightly-knit nuclear family so often represented as the generational image. We need hardly even speak of Lolita, for her story is infamous. Even if we see her, as Nabokov has himself tougue-in-cheekly suggested, as a picture of a young American debauching old Europe,” it is obvious that Lolita is an abused child. Humbert Humbert himself admits his guilt for having stolen Lolita’s youth and—through her counter-reactions against him—perhaps even her life. As Humbert recalls (standing on a hill and hearing transparent sounds from a small village):

What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that, and so limpid was the air that within this vapor of blended voices, majestic and minute, remote and magically near, frank and divinely enigmatic—one could hear now and then, as if released, an almost articulate spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat, or the clatter of a toy wagon, but it was all really too far for the eye to distinguish any movement in the lightly etched streets. I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.

As Fiona Templeton said, perhaps the truly innocent are sometimes protected by their own lack of recognition of evil. That is certainly what protects Malcolm from the various abuses he undergoes. Madame Girard wants Malcolm, not so much as a sexual object, but as a social one, a member of her traveling entourage of self-congratulators. Mr. Girard wants him as a son. Recognizing that such a total innocent can offer him, in his world of “fag d├ęcor,” very little, the undertaker Estel Blanc demands that the boy visit him when he becomes older. Although Malcolm shares beds with various black jazz performers in George and Eliosa’s house, no overt sexual action seems to take place. No, Malcolm’s predator is of his own age, “a contemporary” as James Purdy puts it, a kind of praying mantis who through her intense demand for sex and the never-ending quantities of alcohol she provides sucks the very life from him. Malcolm is most certainly abused, but not by those of an older generation, simply by one more experienced.

All three of these books of the 1950s, accordingly, are very much centered on issues of innocence and experience. But they also reveal something much deeper: the inherently destructive forces behind our collective desire for that innocence. These three children, all products of the baby boom of the heady postwar years, are destroyed by the very forces from which their parents sought to protect them—or at least sought through their children to protect American culture from: disillusionment, debauchery, violent death—you know, all those things that “The Greatest Generation” (as Tom Brokaw has dubbed them) saw themselves as fighting against. Ironically, of course, the very isolation in which they enwrapped their families, the very lies and myths they told their children and themselves in order to protect, and the very material objects they heaped upon themselves and families to better their world, created the situations of children such as these three, who are unable to grow, to act, to think, even to experience things in the world around. Americans love the idea of being innocent, but as Blake and numerous authors have made clear, innocence is often the most dangerous of forces. As early as 1850, a century before Lolita, Charles Dickens was amused and a bit disgusted by the American riposte: “Well, we’re still a young nation.” There comes a time when one has to recognize that childhood is over, Dickens suggests. I think Graham Greene expressed it best in connection with his novel The Quiet American: “You can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.” If innocence has, in part, protected these children, it has also done them in, destroyed them in the end.

If one can see Holden as an aged child-man, one can just as easily imagine him, like another Salinger figure, Seymour Glass, on the seashore with a young girl who reminds him of his beloved sister, before going indoors to shoot a bullet through his head. Mrs. Richard Schiller, nee Dolores Haze—better known to readers as Lolita—escapes the clutches of Humbert only to face what promises be a dreary marriage with a beer-guzzling inarticulate “lamb”: “arctic blue eyes, black hair, ruddy cheeks, unshaven chin.” Nabokov, perhaps out of pity, kills her off. She dies in childbirth, it is reported, long before the supposed publication of Humbert’s recounting of their life, published purportedly in “the first years of 2000 A.D.” Of Malcolm—a figure at the end of this decade, who, as I have pointed out, has been so encapsulated in the protective shell of childhood that he has nothing about which to be disillusioned and so little sense of existence that he literally sleepwalks through his life—one can question whether or not he really existed; both coroner and undertaker claim no one was buried in his casket. Purdy seems to suggest that innocence so severe actually consumes the individual. Whatever the case, what these three children represented of their generation’s American dreams evaporated before they had a chance to take root.

Los Angeles, August-September 2004
Reprinted from The New Review of Literature, II, no. 2 (April 2005).
Reprinted in My Year 2004: Under our Skin (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2008)

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