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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Kenneth Slawenski on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Franny and Zooey

Guest blog post by Kenneth Slawenski, author of J. D. Salinger: A Life and creator of the website Dead Caulfields, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the book Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger

Franny and Zooey was published by Little, Brown and Company on September 14, 1961. The book couples two stories that Salinger had previously published in The New Yorker: the story “Franny,” (January 29, 1955) and the novella, “Zooey” (May 4, 1957). Salinger squeezed another Glass family between these two, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” (also in The New Yorker, November 19, 1955), but that wouldn’t appear in book form until 1963 when it was paired with another New Yorker story “Seymour: An Introduction” (June 6, 1959).

No story revealed Salinger’s quest for perfection better than “Zooey.” He worked on it for over a year and half, agonizing over every word and punctuation. But Gus Lobrano, the nurturing New Yorker editor he had begun working with in 1947 in revising “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” died of cancer in March 1956 and Katherine White’s new regime proved unsympathetic to what Salinger was now doing. They found “Zooey” long and meandering, its characters too precious, and they rejected it unanimously. Editor William Maxwell broke the news, trying to spare Salinger’s feelings by citing the magazine’s policy against publishing “sequels.” Who knows what would have happened to “Zooey” had not William Shawn overridden his staff and decided to work with Salinger himself to cut the novella down? And that’s what they did over the next six months. The intensively edited shorter version published in the magazine is identical with the one published in the book.

Franny and Zooey’s publication in book form prompted a cover story in Time and established Salinger as the leading author of his day. It also generated an onslaught of critical scorn. John Updike, Joan Didion, and Mary McCarthy derided the book for the smugness of its religious content and bemoaned Salinger for displaying an unbalanced love for his characters.

Readers, however, disagreed. The book was an instant sensation and quickly rose to the number one spot on the New York Times Best Sellers list, a distinction never achieved even by The Catcher in the Rye. Today, many readers and critics regard Franny and Zooey as Salinger’s masterpiece and it has remained in print since the day it was published.

The book’s first portion, the short story “Franny,” is the tale of a young woman who questions the values around her and seeks a more spiritual path to happiness. Desperate for insight, Franny becomes enthralled by a religious book entitled The Way of a Pilgrim, the story of a wandering Russian peasant who seeks to fulfill the Biblical exhortation to “pray without ceasing.” As the story progresses, Franny slowly becomes a modern day version of the searching pilgrim. She becomes addicted to the book’s Jesus Prayer, a mantra she repeats until it synchronizes with her heartbeat and becomes self-activating. At the story’s end, Franny collapses from exhaustion, her lips involuntarily mumbling the prayer.

“Franny” is largely a dialogue piece containing only two speaking characters and little change of venue. Yet, Salinger’s manipulation of shifting narrative perspective is so well designed as to make it instantly captivating. When “Franny” begins, a third-person narrator helps guide the reader by revealing the motives and inner thoughts of the characters. Yet once the reader becomes comfortable, the narration coyly pulls away, until by the story’s end it merely relays events, delivering the full responsibility of interpretation solely to the reader. As a story, “Franny”  delivers no conclusion. But it does ask many questions. Perhaps the great question posed by “Franny” is whether or not it is possible to attain spiritual enlightenment in modern American society.

“Zooey,” Salinger’s longest work after The Catcher in the Rye, picks up where the story of “Franny” left off. Debilitated after her collapse, Franny has returned home to her family’s Manhattan apartment to recuperate from her spiritual crisis. She lays inert on the living room couch, decrying the spiritual insensitivity of those around her.

Franny’s older brother Zooey first appears cornered in the bathtub by their mother, Bessie Glass. Bessie persuades Zooey to try to lift Franny up from her malaise. But Zooey is also suffering from a subtler but no less damaging spiritual crisis. He is consumed by a personal struggle with his own ego and his growth has been stunted by a religious upbringing so advanced that it has bigoted him against all others.

Despite Zooey's shortcomings, he attempts to rescue Franny from her dilemma, but the long intellectual argument he uses, rather than spiritual logic, drives Franny deeper into distress.

Relief for Franny–as well as Zooey–comes at the story’s end, a gentle spiritual revelation that readers feel as powerfully as it is experienced by the characters. Containing Seymour Glass’s now-famous parable of “The Fat Lady,” the climax rivals the intangible epiphany that concludes The Catcher in the Rye.

Fifty years after publication, the mystical allure of Franny and Zooey continues to draw readers. Each generation rediscovers the book and embraces the unfading beauty of its probing spirituality while delighting in Salinger’s undeniable gift for impeccable dialogue.

Also of interest:
  • Dead Caulfields includes a chronology of events in the life of the Glass family
  • In 2001 Janet Malcolm wrote an extended appreciation of Franny and Zooey for The New York Review of Books (registration required)
  • "A. J. Liebling, Jean Stafford, Walker Percy, and the 1962 National Book Award for The Moviegoer" (Franny and Zooey was a contender) – a previous Reader’s Almanac post


  1. Someone is going to ask so it might as well be me. When can we expect the LOA Salinger volume?

  2. Needless to say, we'd love to be able to publish a Salinger volume. But at this point, given Salinger's rather notorious and strict protectiveness about the reprinting and distribution of his works, and his prohibition of the publication in book form of his uncollected work, it's unlikely that it will happen anytime soon.


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