- Street Games in J. D. Salinger and Gerald Green
One of the main issues, it seems to me, in defining what it is to be American is the issue of conformity vs. nonconformity. This issue is especially problematic for those people who by definition are "different": racial or religious minorities, immigrants—people who are forced to confront the question of how much of their previous culture they can preserve, hang on to, and how much of it they have to give up in order to "melt" into the American pot. Although in its idealistic moments America celebrates uniqueness, idiosyncrasy, individualism, and nonconformity, in its more practical, realistic, and mundane—and much more frequent—moments, it produces unrelenting pressure to conform. A look at the treatment of street games by two contemporary novelists, J. D. Salinger and Gerald Green, shows two diametrically opposed responses to this pressure. (I call Salinger "contemporary" even though he's been literarily "dead" for twenty years because he's still alive and, reports have it, still writing; he's just not publishing.)
Both novelists use street games as an important device in establishing a central character's sense of self in relation to society: in the case of Salinger's Seymour Glass in Seymour: An Introduction, the ultimate individualist; in the case of Albert Abrams in Green's To Brooklyn with Love, [End Page 65] a character who desperately wants to be like everybody else, to fit in.
Other critics (Alan Guttmann, Eric Solomon) have dealt with the theme of sport and games as a means for Jewish assimilation into American society. I want to deal with a related but slightly different issue, one that may be seen as, on the one hand, more personal, and, on the other, as more universal. By setting their stories in a context of second- or later-generation Jewish-Americans (and in Salinger's case, only half Jewish), both writers deemphasize the issue of identity based on one's cultural group (ethnicity, religion) and emphasize instead the issue of personal identity, one's identity as an individual. More personal, then, in that each character, Seymour and Albert, is seen not so much as a specific example of a group problem but simply as an individual case, in and of itself. But more universal, too, in that the problem is presented not as one that is limited to a specific group, but rather as the universal human dilemma of trying to find or establish one's identity as an individual human being. Both of our characters are sensitive, intelligent, even intellectual, and conscious of their individuality, their differences from those who are theoretically their "peers." One chooses to celebrate that difference, the other to damp it down or even destroy it.
From its very beginning, Green's To Brooklyn with Love stresses its twelve-year-old hero Albert Abrams' sense of difference, of alienation. And not because he's Jewish—most of the kids he feels so self-consciously different from, and wants so much to be like, are also Jewish and, like him, second- or third-generation. The novel's prologue scene shows Abrams visiting his childhood neighborhood some twenty years after the action of the novel itself and finding the area so changed that he barely recognizes it, is unwilling to claim it as his own. Only in retrospect—in writing this novel?—does he realize that as a child he wasn't nearly as alienated as he then thought he was.
But the novel's action stresses just that note of alienation. As his parents argue over his father's gift to him of a new Softball, he wonders, "Did they take twelve-year-old boys in the French Foreign Legion? He would enlist tomorrow—anything to escape" (8). He agonizes over conflicting claims on his loyalty from both parents. Leaving the house, "he had a poignant longing for tough, indifferent Polack parents, like Teddy Ochab's. . . . In that household, he reflected bitterly, kids don't sit around worrying about who gave the alligator and who gave the paint set" (9). Albert's parents, despite their poverty, despite his father's rough spots, are...