The obituaries and tributes to J.D. Salinger, the seminal novelist who died last week at 91, have tended to ignore one important feature of his life and work: for many readers, especially young seekers of truth in the 60s and 70s, he was a kind of guru figure. Like the Somerset Maugham of The Razor's Edge and Herman Hesse (Siddhartha and others), his fiction drew explicitly from Eastern spirituality; and Salinger, being American, contemporary, and wildly popular, had a much bigger influence than the others. I was one of many who turned to his work for not only esthetic pleasure and insight into modern existential dilemmas, but also for spiritual lessons.
A determined seeker and a practitioner of the spiritual arts, Salinger studied Zen after his traumatic service in World War II, and segued to the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism in the early 50s after publishing The Catcher in the Rye, that masterpiece of youthful yearning for higher meaning. He was a regular at the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where the great mythologist Joseph Campbell also learned important lessons early in his scholarly career.
"Teddy," the last short story in the famous collection Nine Stories, introduced thousands of readers to reincarnation, non-attachment, and other concepts that Salinger was imbibing from Swami Nikhilananda at the Vedanta Center. In that tale, the 10-year-old title character says the only reason he was incarnated again was because, in his previous life, "I met a lady, and I sort of stopped meditating." (According to his daughter Margaret's memoir, Salinger himself was relieved to find out that married life could be a legitimate pathway when he read Paramahansa Yogananda's classic "Autobiography of a Yogi.") The story ends, famously, with Teddy calmly, even cheerfully, walking to an accidental death that he's foreseen--clearly Salinger's attempt to depict his understanding of an enlightened soul's attitude toward death, based upon the Vedantic comparison of discarding a body to the shedding of a garment.
Eastern mysticism--and to some extent the Western variety--becomes more explicit and more sophisticated with each subsequent work, beginning with Franny and Zooey. The sibling stories about two siblings, originally published in the New Yorker and then together in the 1961 book, introduce Salinger's immortal Glass family and foreshadow the journey that thousands of baby boomers would soon embark on: a smart, precariously sensitive college student sinks into an existential crisis, tries to unlock the secrets of an esoteric text, and climbs out of her dark night of the soul with the help of Eastern wisdom delivered by a representative of a guru lineage. In this case, the "ashram" is the Manhattan apartment Franny grew up in, and the spiritual guide is her older brother Zooey, who imparts the teachings of the next oldest sibling, Buddy, who in turn is the chief "disciple" of their late brother Seymour, the family sadguru. Seymour is the author's attempt to portray an enlightened being who is trying to negotiate life in the modern world. Along the way, readers learn about karma, Atman, chakras, and various yogic imperatives, such as acting without attachment to the outcome and seeing everything, even the remedial chicken soup of a fussbudget mother, as consecrated.
Franny and Zooey was followed in 1963 by Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, two stories that round out Salinger's portrait of swami Seymour and his sibling disciples. The Glass offspring don't run off to ashrams in India, as many of their fans were about to do; they are karma yogis, trying their damndest to live authentic spiritual lives while performing their dharmic duties with dignity. They may be precocious kids, ridiculously sensitive adolescents, and bizarrely eccentric adults, but they speak in modern vernacular and struggle with the same neurotic concerns as anyone who's ever wondered what it's all about or why the world is filled with phonies and sleepwalkers. Salinger's answers, delivered mainly through Seymour, are invariably lifted from Vedanta or a sister school of perennial wisdom.
Salinger completed his Glass chronicle with a prequel in the form of a letter from camp by the seven-year-old Seymour. Published in the New Yorker in 1965, it was the last work the author made public during the long seclusion that he kept to the end. It contains repeated references to past lives, which the character calls his "appearances," instructions for a yogic breathing technique, allusions to tantric sexual practices, and an homage to Swami Vivekananda, founder of the Vedanta Society, whom Seymour calls "one of the most exciting, original, and best-equipped giants of this century."
I have learned that a surprising number of serious spiritual practitioners found early inspiration and direction from Salinger's post-"Catcher" work. And it still has the power to illuminate. A few years ago, I was asked to contribute to You've Got to Read This Book, a collection of essays about books that changed people's lives. I wrote about Franny and Zooey's impact on me as a young seeker. When the book came out, I received a thank you e-mail from a woman whose 18-year-old daughter had been wallowing in a Franny-like spiritual funk. My essay led her to Franny and Zooey, which showed her daughter that she wasn't crazy and not alone.