Some Brief Thoughts On “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” is another fragment of J. D. Salinger’s dearest literary project: the Glass family.  I’ve talked briefly about the Glass family over on our main blog Snippets in a post about literary characters I’m in love with.  It’s a short story written from the perspective of the second Glass child, Buddy, who happens to be the “writer” of all the Glass-family-fiction.

It’s a short story that takes place in 1942.  Buddy is on leave from the military in order to attend his brother Seymour’s wedding in New York.  The wedding doesn’t occur, on account of Seymour not showing up and instead eloping with his fiancee Muriel.  This leaves Buddy to awkwardly take a cramped limo ride with several grumpy guests (from the bride’s belligerent side of the family), the most prevalent being the insufferable Matron of Honor who is unrelenting in her criticism of the groom.  When a parade interrupts their ride to the would-be reception, they jump ship and all walk to an apartment that several of the Glass family children share in the city.  There, Buddy plays awkward host to his rag-tag and rude group of guests.  By the end, the guest leave to meet up with the rest of the wedding party while Buddy grows irritated and far too drunk, realizing his annoyance with insensitive and overly critical people (phonies, we might say?).  Throughout, Buddy remains quietly (and at times, hardly quiet at all) defensive and even reverent of his older brother, at one point even going so far as to say, “…not one Goddamn person, of all the patronizing, fourth-rate critics and column writers, had ever seen [Seymour] for what he really was.  A poet, for God’s sake.  And I mean a poet.  If he never wrote a line of poetry, he could still flash what he had at you with the back of his ear if he wanted to.”

As a stand-alone short story, it’s not altogether exciting.  Without understanding the overarching context of the Glass family, “Raise High” honestly doesn’t amount to much.  We just have a sensitive guy who worships his older brother and gets sad when people don’t do the same.  But when it comes to Salinger – and especially the Glass family – you have to consider what has and what will happen.

In Catcher In the Rye, there is a detail early on that is easy to miss but vastly important.  When Holden Cauffield’s roommate guilt-trips Holden into writing a generic descriptive essay for him, with no specific prompt whatsoever, Holden’s wearily depressive mind drifts right to the baseball glove of his dead brother Allie.  In Catcher, Holden’s enter experience and spiritual funk is him raging against God, the Universe, and everyone: why did his brother have to die?  Life loses its meaning, and every person that doesn’t understand why is labeled as a phony.

When we look to the Glass family, the similar pivotal event is the suicide of Seymour.  In “A Perfect Day For Bananafish”, now included in Salinger’s collection Nine Stories, Seymour spends the day at the beach while his then wife, Muriel, talks to her mother on the phone about Seymour’s bizarre behavior.  When Seymour returns to their room, Muriel is asleep.  He retrieves a gun from his luggage and kills himself.  It’s a tragic act by a deeply troubled human being.  Seymour himself seemed incapable of understanding why he did it.  It’s this occurrence that not-so-subtly sends the youngest Glass children, Franny & Zooey, reeling in their own two self-titled short stories.  In much the same way that Holden grew depressed over Allie’s death, Franny and Zooey’s lack of concrete faith leave them incapable of coping with their brother’s suicide.

“Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” is simply another piece to an immensely compelling family drama, one that climaxes in the later half of “Zooey”.  When we go into “Raise High” knowing what is to become of the newlyweds, Buddy’s reverence for Seymour pains us that much more.  How can anyone ever comprehend such tragedy in their lives?  If you like Salinger, especially if you’ve only ever read Catcher in the Rye, I urge you to look into the Glass family stories.  I think they are much more worthwhile!

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