Senior explores religion in the works of J.D. Salinger

By Lara Sokoloff

 ”I love writing English essays,” Mary Rose Fissinger ’11 said, and that love is what inspired her to do an independent study. Fissinger has worked with English teacher Jeremy Michaelson to produce an extensive paper analyzing the theme of religion in J.D. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey.”

Fissinger was inspired to do an independent study after writing her final essay on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” in her 11th grade English III Honors class.

“I spent a ton of time on it and made it perfect,” she said. “I just worked really hard on it and it was really long, and I remember thinking that I had even more to say.”

“I thought if I could pick a book I really love, spend as much time as I wanted on it and write a really long paper that just said everything I wanted to say, that would be amazing,” Fissinger said.

Fissinger approached Michaelson, her English teacher at the time, early in the second semester of her junior year about doing an independent study. Fissinger knew she wanted to concentrate on American authors in the 20th century but was not entirely certain what her specific focus would be, she said. She and Michaelson compiled a reading list of possible novels she could write on, and over the course of the summer and the first semester of her senior year she read a series of American novels including Fitzgerald’s “The Last Tycoon” and William Faulkner’s “Absolam Absolam.” She decided on “Franny and Zooey” while writing one of her college essays, she said.

“One school asked me to write about my favorite book,” she said. “I just started writing about Franny and Zooey, and I just realized I had to do my independent study on Salinger.”

The majority of the work was individual, Fissinger and Michaelson said. Towards the beginning, Michaelson provided more direction, assigning readings and encouraging Fissinger to keep a journal of notes on the novels she read. They met weekly, discussing Fissinger’s thoughts and possible direction for her study.

“I might ask some pointed questions in light of some of the ideas she has just to make her think about things she hasn’t considered,” Michaelson said. “I try to be helpful, but it’s an independent study, so the onus is on the student. You try to guide, but with a light hand.”

Fissinger said she chose to focus on religion because it was what had struck her most when she first read the novel in sixth grade.

“It just made me re-evaluate my faith when I was this sixth grader,” she said.

Fissinger focused on Salinger’s message that “you don’t necessarily have to find religion in traditional means,” she said.

“The wisdom and comfort with yourself and motivation to be good that religion usually provides doesn’t have to come from the Bible … you don’t have to look up to someone like Jesus or Buddha, but you can find that in the people around you in very tangible ways.”

Once she began to write, Fissinger would write five to ten pages a week and turn her work into Michaelson for editing.

“It was hard…you have to do a lot,” she said. “But it got to the point where it was really fun, where I didn’t want to stop working on it.”

Holding the end product and feeling the weight of her 36-page paper is what Fissinger enjoyed most about the project, she said.

“It felt great,” she said. “I’m so happy with it. I kept making random English teachers hold it so they could see how heavy it was.”