This year marks the 60th anniversary of J. D. Salinger’s short story “Franny”—best known as the first half of Salinger’s 1961 book, Franny and Zooey. But there has been no widespread celebration of “Franny’s” January 29, 1955, debut in The New Yorker.
It’s an understandable oversight in a year when The New Yorker is busy making the most of its 90th birthday, but there’s nothing remote or minor about Franny Glass. She is as emblematic of her times as Henry James’s Isabel Archer and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan are of theirs. The most difficult thing to imagine about Franny is what she would be like today as she enters her eighties.
“Franny” is a story so dependent on dialogue that it could almost be a play. The story begins on the Saturday of the Yale-Princeton game. Franny has taken the train from her unnamed eastern college to be with her boyfriend, Lane Coutell, a Princeton student who can’t wait to tell her about the “A” paper on Flaubert that he has written. Franny, by contrast, is preoccupied with the book she is reading, The Way of the Pilgrim, the 1884 story of a Russian wanderer who wants to lead a sacred life and is teaching himself to say the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) continually so that it can become an un-self-conscious part of his life.
The result is that Franny and Lane quickly find themselves at cross-purposes. Lunch, at which Franny orders a chicken sandwich and Lane has snails and frogs’ legs, turns into a disaster. Franny can’t abide Lane’s self-involvement, and Lane has no interest in learning about Franny’s growing obsession with what it means to lead a sacred life. Lunch ends with Franny leaving the table and collapsing in the restaurant’s restroom.
When Franny is revived and brought into the manager’s office, Lane assures her that she will be fine if she gets some rest. He refuses to acknowledge that she is having a breakdown and still hopes that they can sleep together that night. “Too goddam long between drinks,” he not so subtly tells her as he leaves to get a cab for them.
Franny ignores Lane, and in the concluding scene of the story, we see her lying on the floor in the manager’s office, saying the Jesus prayer to herself. “Her lips began to move, forming soundless words, and they continued to move,” Salinger writes.
It is not until “Zooey,” published in The New Yorker in 1957, that we get a full picture of all that lies behind Franny’s breakdown, but the brevity of “Franny” did not stop readers from admiring it. As Kenneth Slawenski has pointed out in his J.D. Salinger: A Life, at the time it was published, “Franny” generated more mail for The New Yorker than the magazine had received for any other story in its history.
The Salinger honeymoon did not last. By 1961 and the publication of Franny and Zooey, Salinger’s success had made him a writer for reviewers to bring down. Critics from Mary McCarthy to Alfred Kazin savaged him for being too fond of Franny and her Glass family. Salinger’s style, so perfectly attuned to conversational nuance, was now considered excessive rather than a hard-won achievement.
In this concerted attack, nobody was more insistent that Franny and Zooey deserved to be sneered at than Joan Didion. Writing in William Buckley’s National Review, she concluded her review, titled “Finally (Fashionably) Spurious,” by observing of Franny and Zooey: “it emerges finally as Positive Thinking for the upper middle classes, as Double Your Energy and Live Without Fatigue for Sarah Lawrence girls.”
As someone who has taught at Sarah Lawrence for many years, I was not surprised that the college’s liberalism—on matters ranging from sex to politics—made it a target of opportunity for a young critic trying to win favor in the conservative National Review. But what’s so irritating about Didion’s review is its smugness.
It’s clear that Didion never took the time to read The Way of the Pilgrim and notice how the pilgrim, with great good humor, speaks about the difficulty of praying without ceasing because, as he puts it, “a man has to concern himself with other things also in order to make a living.” But what’s equally apparent is that Didion never bothered looking closely at the text of Franny and Zooey. What she offers her readers instead of serious analysis is plot summary followed by vitriol.
In the course of “Franny,” Salinger, who once gave a reading at Sarah Lawrence and by his own admission “enjoyed the day” he spent there, pokes fun at the college rather than indulges it. He depicts a “Bennington-Sarah Lawrence type” on the train to Princeton looking as if “she’d spent the whole train ride in the john sculpting or painting.”
More important, rather than being confident, let alone arrogant, about her pursuit of a sacred life, Franny constantly wonders whether such a life is possible for her. She apologizes at least three times to Lane for being too serious on what is supposed to be a fun weekend, and on another occasion she says of herself, “All I know is I’m losing my mind.”
What’s so courageous about Franny is that, despite not having the answers to most of the questions she is asking herself, she is prepared to say “no” to the false stability around her. It’s this risk taking—equivalent to that of a tightrope walker without a net—that makes Franny so complex and vulnerable when she says, “I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s.”
Eight years later in Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical, 1963 novel, The Bell Jar, we find a similar depth in Plath’s narrator, Esther Greenwood, who, like Franny, experiences a breakdown when she rejects the boyfriends, jobs, and careers that are supposed to make her happy. Franny’s legacy has not, though, been an easy one to take up, especially in recent years.
Nothing makes that clearer than when we compare Franny to the twenty-something, post-college women of Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls. They are smart and funny, but rarely, if ever, are they concerned with arriving at truths that go beyond themselves. They constantly settle for mediocre, as well as unfaithful, boyfriends, and they are desperate to win approval for whatever they are doing, whether it’s writing a story or composing a song. How utterly out of place Franny would be in their company!
Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College. His most recent book is Every Army Man Is with You: The Cadets Who Won the 1964 Army-Navy Game, Fought in Vietnam, and Came Home Forever Changed.