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James T. KeaneMay 02, 2023
J.D. Salinger and Swami Vivekananda (Wikimedia Commons)

A symposium late last week sponsored by the Free Library of Philadelphia marked the occasion of the 130th anniversary of the arrival in the United States of Swami Vivekananda, a young Hindu monk from Kolkata who toured the country and spoke at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, Ill. A devotee of the Indian Hindu spiritual leader Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda gave many Americans their introduction to Hinduism and some of its practices (including yoga), and historians often mark his speeches in Chicago as the beginning of American interest in that faith tradition long before immigration from India and East Asia made it more common in the United States.

Vivekananda became a sensation in Western literary circles. William James invited him to speak at Harvard; Gertrude Stein and Leo Tolstoy were fans, with the latter calling him “the most brilliant wise man” and arguing that “it is doubtful in this age that another man has ever risen above this selfless, spiritual meditation.” In later decades, everyone from Carl Jung to Joseph Campbell to Nikola Tesla to Henry Miller to Christopher Isherwood to Aldous Huxley were enthusiasts of the teachings of Vivekananda.

In a 1953 letter, Salinger mentions that he made the title character in his short story "Teddy" slightly cross-eyed because Sri Ramakrishna considered the condition to be an unfavorable spiritual sign.

No historian should look to America in its first five decades of publication for any sense of American interest in Hinduism, as it was rarely mentioned—and sometimes negatively if so, as in the 1931 review of the book Hinduism Invades America. (Why is someone always invading America?) That has changed for the better in recent decades, particularly with the work of Francis X. Clooney, S.J., who has written numerous times on Hindu-Christian dialogue for America, including a 1996 essay on Ramakrishna and world religions and a 2013 introduction to Vivekananda and his teachings.

A look through America’s archives, however, uncovers another, more curious connection to the Hindu guru, and it involves an America poetry editor.

John Moffitt served as poetry editor of America from 1963 until a month before his death from cancer in 1987, one of the first lay people to serve as an editor and also a pioneer of working from home, since he lived in a small town in West Virginia for most of his tenure. He was an accomplished poet himself, publishing five collections of verse and seeing his work appear in The Atlantic, The Saturday Review and The New Yorker.

“It is clear that Moffitt carefully looked at and listened to what was around him so that no false ego of his would usurp a deeper self,” wrote America literary editor Patrick Samway, S.J., in a 1993 remembrance. “He believed, moreover, in the eloquence of nature, and felt that his task as a poet was not to commit the pathetic fallacy of imposing feelings or emotions on an object beyond what the object and one’s relationship with the object warranted. Like Gerard Manley Hopkins, someone who clearly influenced his poetry, Moffitt felt that the poet not only participates in the divinity but sees the world as a manifestation of the fullness of the Godhead.”

As a young man, Moffitt had been drawn to Hinduism, and prior to his conversion to Catholicism and his hiring at America (first as a copy editor) in 1963, he spent over 25 years as a member of an Hindu monastic order and lived at the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York City. (His story can be read in full in his 1972 book on the kinship between Hindu and Christian beliefs, Journey to Gorakhpur: An Encounter With Christ Beyond Christianity).

Moffitt, known in those days as Swami Atmaghananda, was only the sixth Westerner to be granted the title of swami, an honor that usually followed an apprenticeship of between five and 15 years, and he carried on a prodigious correspondence with others interested in the Vedanta Hindu philosophical tradition specifically and spirituality in general.

Salinger later gave Nikhilananda an inscribed copy of Franny and Zooey, confiding that he had left a trail of clues about the Vedanta philosophical tradition in the book.

One such literary acquaintance was a fellow devotee of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, a writer he addressed simply as “Jerry,” and they corresponded off and on from 1953 until 1965. It was J. D. Salinger, whose 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye had propelled him to literary fame and who was regularly publishing short stories in The New Yorker in the years following.

In one 1956 letter, Salinger complained to Moffitt about “his own relationship with another Hindu monk, most likely Moffitt’s spiritual guide, Swami Nikhilananda. Salinger felt that Swami Nikhilananda had considered him outside the fold, thus putting a strain on their relationship,” Samway reported. “But perhaps the feeling came from Salinger’s own sense of impudence, a facet of his personality that he admitted seemed to be growing each year. Salinger believed that the only way to deal with this situation was to write himself out of his dilemmas.” Salinger later gave Nikhilananda an inscribed copy of Franny and Zooey, confiding that he had left a trail of clues about the Vedanta philosophical tradition in the book.

The letters between Moffitt and Salinger offer some tantalizing literary tidbits as well. In one dated Feb. 15, 1953, Salinger mentions that he made the title character in his short story “Teddy” (published in The New Yorker on Jan. 31, 1953) slightly cross-eyed because Sri Ramakrishna considered the condition to be an unfavorable spiritual sign. Salinder also wrote that “the story mixed Vedanta, Zen Buddhism, Taoism and perhaps other religions.” In his last published work, the 1965 short story “Hapworth 16, 1924,” Salinger’s alter ego Seymour recommends two of Swami Vivekananda’s books to his parents:

Raja-Yoga and Bhakti-Yoga, two heartrending, handy, quite tiny volumes, perfect for the pockets of any average, mobile boy our age, by Vivekananda of India. He is one of the most exciting, original and best equipped giants of this century I have ever run into; my personal sympathy for him will never be outgrown or exhausted as long as I live, mark my words; I would easily give ten years of my life, possibly more, if I could have shaken his hand or at least said a brisk, respectful hello to him on some busy street in Calcutta or elsewhere.

While Salinger kept up a correspondence with Nikhilananda for many years, Moffitt felt his own letters tended to focus on Salinger’s interest in Hinduism, and that Salinger lost much of his interest in writing to Moffitt once Moffitt had left the monastic community. However, in the years following his conversion to Catholicism, Moffitt wrote and lectured frequently on Hinduism and Christianity, leading him to a correspondence with another famous writer: Thomas Merton.

The two only met in person once, at a conference on monasticism in Bangkok in December 1968, where Merton, Moffitt and two others shared a four-person bungalow. Merton died of electrocution in that bungalow on Dec. 10, 1968, and Moffitt was one of the first upon the scene. In future years he would be asked to recount his eyewitness report of the moment as well as his thoughts on Merton—but that is a topic for next week’s column.

In Salinger's last published work, the 1965 short story “Hapworth 16, 1924,” Salinger’s alter ego Seymour recommends two of Swami Vivekananda’s books to his parents.

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Crossing the Jordan,” by Brooke Stanish. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

The priests and politicians of Edwin O’Connor’s novels

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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