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Nine Stories | Context


World War II

World War II was the 1939–45 global conflict between the Allies—France, Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and China—and the Axis powers—Germany, Italy, and Japan. Although the United States managed to remain out of World War II after German dictator Adolf Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939 through the partitioning of Eastern Europe, the bombing of Britain, and the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, finally brought the United States into the thick of the escalating global conflict. In less than four years, American casualties rose to over 400,000, and in 1945 (the last year of the war), there were over 12 million U.S. military personnel in active duty, the majority of them serving overseas.

Because so many people joined the war effort, World War II had an enormous impact on American life and culture. Rationing of food, fuel oil, rubber, tin, and other household goods were mandated; people had "ration books" that allowed them to purchase only so much of each rationed item per month. Moreover, people saw newsreels (short films made on the front lines about the war) every time they went to the movies. Franklin Graff, the brother of Ginnie's friend Selena in "Just Before the War with the Eskimos," comments cynically on the ubiquity of this war mentality when he claims that random passersby are "goin' over to the goddam draft board ... [to] fight the Eskimos"—the implication being that people are so used to having war as part of their lives, they will seize any pretext to get started again.

Due to a bout of rheumatic fever leaving him with a weak heart, the character Franklin served out a tour of noncombat duty in an airplane manufacturing plant. Others, like the narrator in "For Esmé—with Love and Squalor" and J.D. Salinger himself, went to fight on the front lines. Along with other members of the 4th Counter Intelligence Corps detachment, Staff Sergeant Salinger stormed Utah Beach in Normandy, France, on D-day, which led to the Allied emancipation of Western Europe, and spent the next 11 months in and out of combat. By the time the German Army surrendered, he found himself so close to suicide he checked into a psychiatric hospital, becoming one of the millions of World War II soldiers who suffered from some form of "battle fatigue" due to the atrocities of the war.

Postwar Affluence and Anxiety

Following World War II, the United States was the only major industrialized country in the world to emerge with an intact economy. From 1945 to 1960 the country experienced a period of steady growth and prosperity. Legislation passed during the Great Depression (1929–39) strengthened the middle class, and soldiers returned to manufacturing jobs, or attended college thanks to the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, also popularly known as the G.I. Bill. The end of the war also caused a sharp spike in the birth rate, commonly known as the "baby boom."

This period of economic prosperity was not untroubled, however. Ideological conflict with the communist Soviet Union led to the Cold War and an escalating nuclear arms race that forced many baby boomers to participate in regular "duck-and-cover" school drills in case a nuclear bomb dropped while they were in the classroom. Anxiety over the future of a world divided between democratic and communist countries perpetually on the brink of war helped to drive conservative political views in the United States, and fostered a climate where Senator Joe McCarthy was successfully able to blacklist both ordinary and well-known Americans by alleging their ties to communism. Holden Caulfield's hatred of phoniness, evident in Nine Stories's characters like Seymour Glass in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and Eloise Wengler in "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut," reflects Salinger's awareness of America's postwar interest in pushing a guise of uniform happiness and prosperity at the expense of other feelings and priorities.

1950s' Counterculture

In the face of possible nuclear annihilation, a flourishing consumer culture in the West seemed absurd to many intellectuals, whose active revolt against the status quo paved the way for mass youth activism and rebellion during the 1960s. Existentialists like French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre address the plight of an individual with free will in a chaotic universe. Sartre's beliefs were influenced by his time fighting in the French Resistance against Nazi Germany; it was during this time in which he looked for purpose in the meaningless chaos of a life without God.

American writers of the Beat Generation movement, including novelist Jack Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg, sought alternative forms of self-exploration, including Eastern religion and psychedelic drugs, while rejecting conventional material values. They saw themselves as outsiders on the fringes of a society that rejected individualism in favor of the comfort of mass conformity. Still struggling to make sense of the brutal atrocities committed during the war, they saw consumerism as a false and inauthentic gloss over fundamental problems with the human condition.

Salinger's interest in Eastern religion reflects this trend against materialistic 1950s' culture. Salinger viewed the quest for meaning as internal and had no desire to experiment with drugs or take literal voyages of discovery; nonetheless, like these other countercultural figures, he sought spiritual answers outside the mainstream. This need becomes particularly evident in "Teddy," where a young boy represents the highest form of spiritual enlightenment in a society that values designer suitcases and cameras over the meaning of life.

The Glass Family

The Glass family is a cast of fictional characters who inhabit much of Salinger's work after the publication of The Catcher in the Rye. Parents Les and Bessie Glass, former vaudeville performers who live in Manhattan, give birth to seven children, Seymour, Webb ("Buddy"), Beatrice ("Boo Boo"), twins Walter and Waker, and the two youngest, Frances ("Franny") and Zachary ("Zooey").

Several of the stories in Nine Stories involve members of the Glass family. Seymour Glass commits suicide at the end of "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," and Boo Boo Tannenbaum (née Glass) is the young, compassionate mother in the story "Down at the Dinghy." A third sibling, Walt, is mentioned in "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" as Eloise's lost love who dies senselessly when a portable stove explodes while he is serving active duty in the Pacific.

The Glass siblings are neurotic, self-possessed, and brilliant. As children, Seymour and Buddy, the two eldest, appear regularly on a radio quiz show, "It's a Wise Child," and Seymour enters Columbia University at age 15. There is also a strong strain of spiritualism in the family. Seymour and Buddy are interested in Eastern mysticism, and the least-known brother, Waker, is a Catholic monk living in the seclusion of a monastery. Buddy, born in the same year as J.D. Salinger, eventually becomes a college professor who lives in rural upstate New York. He is often considered an alter ego for Salinger. In a later work, Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, the narration reveals that Buddy has written two of the pieces in Nine Stories, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and "Teddy." The fictional Buddy Glass narrates all of Salinger's stories about the Glass family, and even takes credit for writing The Catcher in the Rye.

Salinger's self-protective attitude toward and obsession with the Glass family characters led many critics to become frustrated with his later work, finding it pretentious and too self-referential. Other readers wondered whether Salinger left behind manuscripts dealing with the Glass family when he died. There is a curious lack of finality in Salinger's treatment of the Glass characters—one seems to catch a series of unfinished glimpses of them rather than conclusive portraits—making it seem likely he planned on writing more. However, if there are further manuscripts, they have yet to be released.

Vedantic Philosophy

When Salinger returned from World War II, he became a lifelong practitioner of a form of Eastern philosophy called Vedanta, centered on the Hindu Vedas. His spiritual journey began with regular visits to the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York on East 94th Street, near his parents' Manhattan apartment; he was in contact with the swamis there, beginning in the later years of the 1940s, for the rest of his life. Beginning with Nine Stories and the characters of Seymour Glass and Teddy, Salinger uses his fiction to present his spiritual beliefs, including his belief in reincarnation and the transient nature of human life. If the reader views Seymour's suicide in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" after his interaction with Sybil Carpenter from the Hindu perspective, Seymour's death is not final; he simply has more incarnations to go through before he achieves a higher plane of enlightenment. Various characters in Nine Stories continue Seymour's journey for him, trying to heed their children's naive perspective and do better. This process occurs in "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" and "Down by the Dinghy." Perhaps not coincidentally, these stories also contain members of the Glass family. The Glass children, Seymour and Buddy in particular, are also believers in reincarnation.

Along with Buddhism (which Vedanta resembles in many respects), Vedanta is a foundational Indian spiritual belief based on the study and practice of four ancient gospels, or Vedas, said to be a direct revelation from God about the true nature of existence. Vedanta is the oldest spiritual system in India, dating back to the dawn of civilization. Its core belief is that because God is everything, self-realization brings one closer to spiritual enlightenment. While there is a cosmic creator named Ishvara who applies the law of karma (the idea that actions in life have consequences in the next incarnation), the ultimate reality, which exists outside of time and space, is the absolute, or Brahman.

In some ways it is a paradoxical belief system. The universe comes into being the moment a person exists, yet at the same time, because all living creatures pass through a number of incarnations on their journeys to God and enlightenment, any given life is transient, and the universe is an ever-changing illusion. Bridging the paradox is the concept that consciousness is divine. People can learn to recognize their divinity through yoga, karmic service, self-knowledge, devotion, and meditation. The ultimate goal is to achieve enough enlightenment to either ascend to a higher incarnation in the next life or be released from samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth.

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