Vadim Olshevsky. On the Role of the Ashtray in the Books of J.D. Salinger

Also in Essays:

Salinger 580943915263186_3014949750813803857_n
J.D. Salinger and his ashtray. November 20 1952. Photo: San Diego Historical Society
Vadim Olshevsky. On the Role of the Ashtray in the Books of J.D. Salinger


Just a minute ago, lost in thought, I descended to the kitchen, set a large kettle to boil, and scooped some tea into a small infuser. That’s when I heard a book fall from a shelf in the next room, the library. Judging by the sound, it was a single book that had fallen; it must have been lying at the very edge of a shelf, not lined up with the others. Judging by the sound, again, the book first hit the floor at an angle, then flipped and landed flat, fully open. I peeked cautiously into the library, and indeed, there lay the book on the floor, wide open.


Allow me to digress from the tale of the fallen book to share a relevant fact. When I was about 12, my mother used to astonish me with her fondness for solitaire.

“Don’t disturb me!” she’d tell the family, “I have to submit material to the editorial office tomorrow!”

Then she’d curl up on the sofa, balancing her portable Colibri typewriter on her knees, feeding a sheet of paper into it, and swiftly, without hesitation, type a headline. Mother worked for a children’s newspaper The Young Pioneer *, and its headlines, in my opinion, were very expressive. Like, “How’s Life, 5th B?,” or “Wish I Had a Peek…,” “Making People Happy,” or “Go, Boys!”

After typing the headline, she’d usually pause, take out a deck of cards, and lay out a solitaire.

“Hmm,” she’d say to herself, “So, a long journey and a state house, interesting.”

Then she’d play another solitaire, then another, and then another. To my twelve-year-old self, this seemed utterly wrong. Who needs these solitaires? Could anyone, in our pioneer times, still believe in them? And why ask everyone not to disturb her work, just so she can sit and waste hours on this pointless, monotonous divination?

When she didn’t have a deck of cards handy, she’d tell fortunes with books. She would open a volume of Shakespeare and read, “Fear not, my knight! Today I shall treat you to a goblet of wine at the wedding feast!” Then she would look at me with clear eyes as if I shared her belief in divination, and ask, “Well, what does that mean?” Mother used to say that a poet’s caliber could be determined by how well their verses lend themselves to divination.

“Take Blok, for instance,” she would tell me. “Open his book and read, ‘And the heart of the unworldly maiden will hear the passionate words,’ and it’s clear. It’s clear that a maiden’s heart will hear the passionate words. Yes, Blok is perfect for fortune-telling. Pasternak, Mandelstam are good too, Akhmatova – to a lesser extent. But contemporary poets are completely unsuitable. They create such fog that nothing is clear! Initially, their poems seem fine – moods, images, metaphors, technique. It all seems good! But try divining with their poetry, and you instantly realize there is no fate in them, no vision of the world. The future cannot be predicted from their words!”


From what I’ve just said, the perceptive reader would undoubtedly infer that my rush to the library was not without purpose. As a faithful son of my mother, I rushed to discover what fate intended to tell me, by not only dropping a book on the floor but also by opening it on a particular page.


Picking up the book, I saw that it was open on “Everybody’s Favorite,” Alfred Kazin’s essay about J.D. Salinger, on page 45, where I read that Salinger’s strength lies in his depiction of minor, mundane details, which set him apart from many American novelists of his time. “For instance,” Kazin wrote, “even a simple ashtray is mentioned repeatedly in many of his stories. It is conceivable,” Kazin joked, “that someday there will be learned theses on The Use of the Ash Tray in Salinger’s stories.”


Reading Kazin’s phrase, I was, to put it mildly, astounded, because I had long considered it my duty to write a dissertation, or at least an essay, on the ashtray and Salinger.


Which I’m going to do now, right after I brew my tea. Since fate has ordained so in the library.


One of Salinger’s finest stories, “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” is about the two poles of our fleeting existence: war and death on one hand, and on the other, the world of a child (or a young adolescent) for whom death is an extraordinarily distant and abstract concept. In the world of children, death does not exist. This dichotomy, this dualism (Childhood – Death), is visible to some extent in many of Salinger’s stories.

The short story “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” (about a soldier’s conversation with a young girl) is autobiographical. Salinger fought in Europe, and according to his daughter Margaret, the gas chambers and crematoria for Jews in Auschwitz made the strongest impression on him. “The smell of ash, the smell of burnt human flesh, is something you can never forget,” his daughter quoted Salinger. Ash is death. Life is when you’re still unaware that you will die. Life is innocence, it’s infantilism. In this dichotomy, this scheme, adult life is the recognition of death, it is dying, burning, slowly turning to ashes.


One of Salinger’s stories, “Pretty Mouth and Green my Eyes,” is about an ashtray and ash. Here is a summary of it. Lee, a man with ash-colored hair, lies in bed with Joan, when Arthur, Lee’s coworker and Joan’s husband, calls. Arthur asks Lee if he’s seen who Joan left with after the party. Lee talks to Arthur and smokes, with an ashtray between him and Joan. At one point, Joan, also smoking, tips the ashtray over on the bed, then gathers the butts back into it and tries to shake the ash off the sheets. Later, Lee lights up again, picking the longest one out of the pile of cigarette butts. At the end of the story, when the phone call is over, Joan tries to brush the ashes off Lee, but he stops her abruptly. (By the way, in “Pretty Mouth and Green my Eyes,” Salinger takes this motif of ashes to an extreme degree, a technique he already tried in his first published story, “The Young Folks,” now withdrawn from publication by Salinger himself.) Here, the ashes create a sense of uncleanness and accompany sin.


Salinger is not a moralist, and the frailty and emptiness of human existence do not evoke in him a straightforward condemnation symbolized by cigarette ash. On the contrary, this ash in his works is often quite cheerful and endearing. Often, the characters Salinger paints with apparent sympathy, such as Eddy Berwick from “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” are shallow, one-dimensional figures who chain-smoke one cigarette after another, burning away their inconsequential lives.


Speaking of “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” it’s worth quoting the ending: “My last guest had apparently left the apartment on his own. Only an empty glass and a cigar in a tin ashtray were reminders of his existence. I still think that the cigar stub should have been sent to Seymour then and there – all wedding gifts are usually meaningless. Just a cigar stub in a small, beautiful box. Perhaps a blank sheet of paper could be included instead of an explanation.”

This ending seems mysterious and meaningless to many, but I will return to it after discussing Salinger’s story “Zooey.”


“Zooey” begins with a scene in which a naked Zooey lies in the bathtub, reading a lengthy letter and smoking. An ashtray stands on the edge of the tub. Zooey takes a few drags, and the ash falls on the letter, on his chest, and into the water. This strongly resembles the beginning of “These Lips and Green Eyes,” where the characters also lie naked in bed, smoking, and there are ashes everywhere.


After the bath, Zooey dresses, lights not just a cigarette as before but a cigar, and he smokes cigars throughout the rest of the story. The word “cigar” appears in the story 24 times. At the end, Zooey wraps the phone receiver in a handkerchief to disguise his voice and calls his sister Franny, pretending to be their brother Buddy. Franny, delighted by Buddy’s call, starts complaining about Zooey, saying, “And when he’s quiet for a moment, he smokes his stinking cigars all over the house. The cigar smoke makes me so sick I could just lie down and d_i_e.” “Cigars are just ballast, my dear,” replies Zooey-as-Buddy, “mere ballast. If he didn’t cling to a cigar, he would float away from the earth. And we’d never see our brother Zooey again.” Thus, the cigar is ballast, anchoring the mortal body to the earth.


Salinger, in his youth, studied Buddhism and later took up Hinduism, therefore the search for Eastern allusions in his work is common; it is a subject of hundreds of articles. Hindus cremate the dead and scatter their ashes. Furthermore, burning incense is a widespread practice among Hindus, both in prayers at the temple and at home. The smoke rises to the heavens, while the fleeting ash falls to the ground. The smoldering cigar in Salinger’s works is most likely a symbol of life, of life burning away fast. A cigar smoker (unlike the more frivolous cigarette smokers) understands the transience of human existence.


For a complete picture, one should write a second essay, on the role of the little girl as a symbol in Salinger’s books. Even those once close to him, like Joyce Maynard, failed to understand this. Once, The New Yorker published a story by Joyce Maynard, then still a schoolgirl, and featured her photograph on the cover, in her school uniform. She wore huge watches on her wrist. Remember in Salinger’s story “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” how Esmé gifts the author a large watch? Joyce was the illustration for that story.

After the publication in The New Yorker, Maynard received thousands of letters a day, so many that she even stopped opening them. But one letter accidentally fell on the floor, and she picked it up and opened it. It was signed: Love, JD. It was a letter from Salinger. And in it was an orange bus ticket to Cornish, to his house. She went and stayed there for a long time.

However, after several years, they parted ways, and the breakup was not amicable. They were vacationing in Florida where the story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is set. Yet again, Maynard brought up the topic that a recluse’s life was not for her. Salinger drove her to the airport and bought her a ticket home. “You love life too much,” he told her at parting.

Joyce Maynard took this hard. She spied on Salinger, trying to find out who he was with. Once, she even went to Cornish and rang his doorbell.

“What was it all about?” she asked.

“What role did I play in your life?”

Salinger was still angry with Maynard. He wanted to live a recluse’s life, he couldn’t live otherwise. And she, in secret, publicized some details of their life. Once she gave his phone number to the wrong publishers, and they started calling. Salinger was furious. He was rather temperamental. In short, Maynard turned out to be nothing like Esmé, as he had initially thought.

“What role did I play in your life?” Maynard asked.

“You don’t deserve to know,” replied JD.

In summary, if another book falls from a shelf, it would be interesting to write an essay about that, about the role. About the other pole of the dichotomy. But this essay is only about the ash, the burning.


And to conclude – a passage from Mandelstam:

Whoever you have been, deceased Lutheran,
Lightly they buried you and lightly sang.
The eyes were fogged over with decent tears
And with reserve above you church bells rang.
And then I thought: I need not proselytize.
We are not prophets, not preachers if I may,
We don’t like heaven, hell we do not fear,
We shine like candles in the middle of the day.**


* A young pioneer – member of the Young Pioneers. The Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization, abbreviated as the Young Pioneers, was a compulsory youth organization of the Soviet Union for children and adolescents ages 9–14 that existed between 1922 and 1991.

** Osip Mandelshtam’s “The Lutheran” (last two stanzas). Translated from Russian by Ilya Shambat.
The essay was orginally written in Russian and translated into English by the author.

About the Author:

Vadim Olshevsky
Boston, Massachusetts

Vadim Olshevsky was born in Kishinev (Moldova) and lives in Boston where he works as a math professor.

Vadim Olshevsky Вадим Ольшевский.
by Ian Probstein

A new collection of poems by Ian Probstein. (In Russian)

by Ilya Perelmuter (editor)

Launched in 2012, “Four Centuries” is an international electronic magazine of Russian poetry in translation.

by Ilya Ehrenburg

Ilya Ehrenburg (1891–1967) was one of the most prolific Russian writers of the twentieth century.  Babi Yar and Other Poems, translated by Anna Krushelnitskaya, is a representative selection of Ehrenburg’s poetry, available in English for the first time.

by William Conelly

Young readers will love this delightful work of children’s verse by poet William Conelly, accompanied by Nadia Kossman’s imaginative, evocative illustrations.

by Maria Galina

A book of poems by Maria Galina, put together and completed exactly one day before the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is Galina’s seventh book of poems. With translations by Anna Halberstadt and Ainsley Morse.

by Aleksandr Kabanov

The first bilingual (Russian-English) collection of poems by Aleksandr Kabanov, one of Ukraine’s major poets, “Elements for God” includes poems that predicted – and now chronicle – Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

Three Questions. A Documentary by Vita Shtivelman
Play Video
Poetry Reading in Honor of Brodsky’s 81st Birthday
Length: 1:35:40