Tuesday, November 27, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 31 - Franny

A literature professor at Princeton could put ten numbered sentences on a blackboard and expect no one to question that this told you what a book meant, what it really meant. And the students sat there in their tweed or Oxford gray jackets, smoking Camels or Phillip Morrises, looking at the professor sometimes as if he were a boring fool and sometimes as if he partook of the divine.

And so on an exam I could write a nonsense essay parroting back those ten points. It was not necessary to read the book. Reading the book could be a disadvantage, since real literature, like all real art, gets into mystery, and to these professors there was no mystery. I was do discouraged with them that I stopped taking English courses. But some of the boys in my class were the stars of the English department. They won the prizes for critical endeavors, and might parlay this nonsense into Rhodes Scholarships before making entering the corporate world that was so honored at this gray place.

Would anyone ever understand what was wrong with these English professors? They were like the people Sinclair Lewis called "men of measured merriment,” but they has power for they were the official critics of Lewis and so many more of their betters.

And then suddenly there was a ray of hope. And again the hope came from J.D. Salinger, whose The Catcher in the Rye had been so welcome when I was in boarding school. And now he had done it again with his new New Yorker magazine story “Franny.”

Franny, this warm and sexy and brilliantly empathetic girl. In the story she is coming from her women’s college to a place which is surely this college that I am in. Coming for a visit, since no girls study and no women teach here. She is coming for a weekend, a goddamn football weekend. And Franny’s date, who meets her at the train, is one of these English Department stars. He is talking on and on about the meaning of this book and that book and why that other book is deservedly out of style, and about how his life is a constant series of triumphs against people who have no feel for correct literary theory. He is a boor.

Franny starts to complain about her own gray academic literature teachers and their followers. And he dismisses her words as error. And Fanny is feeling faint. Does faint. Throws up. Faints again. Which seems to me an appropriate reaction to her date and his world.

My twin brother at this time is in the city at Columbia. He is in a fraternity and his roommate is Lou Cornell who was at Taft when we were at Holderness. Lou was one of the people who gloated with me when The Catcher in the Rye arrived. And also Lou is part of our summer world – the Cornells and Pooles in their big formal houses in the White Mountains.

Lou has decided that he will not enter the family business. He is majoring in English at Columbia. He plans to be a professor.

I called Peter about Franny and Peter was strict with me on the phone. He said I obviously had misread the Salinger story. What was clearly happening in the story, he said, was that Franny was pregnant. Her reaction to correct English department people had nothing to do with it. And far more important to both Peter Poole and Lou Cornell was that Lou’s formidable mother, Mary Cornell, had already pronounced upon it. There was family authority behind the she’s-pregnant explanation. So, Peter was letting me know, English departments had nothing to fear, and neither did Pooles and Cornells– for a summer colony matriarch had certified Franny’s pregnancy and thereby dismissed her heretical views.

The lines back then between warring worlds in family and school could be exceedingly thin.

(Years later Salinger, who almost never went public on anything, issued a public statement that Franny was not pregnant.)

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