J. D. Salinger
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.”
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 décor,” 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.
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)