Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno
Originally published in The Weekend Australian, September 28-19, 2013
“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about,” said Oscar Wilde, “and that is not being talked about.” It would be an unusual writer who didn’t find that paradox amusingly true. J. D. Salinger, who was an unusual man all round, wouldn’t have found it funny at all. For him, nothing was worse than being talked about.
After the success of The Catcher in the Rye, his first and only novel, Salinger turned himself into the most famous recluse in the world. Holed up in his cabin in Cornish, New Hampshire, he issued a trickle of increasingly sterile short stories. Finally he fell silent altogether. When he died in 2010, at the age of 91, he hadn’t published a word in forty-five years.
As long as he remained alive, Salinger made things notoriously hard for would-be biographers. Since his death, the floodgates have opened. In 2010 came Kenneth Slawenski’s rather amateurish J. D. Salinger: A Life Raised High. In early September we had the vigorously hyped documentary film Salinger, directed by Shane Salerno.
And now we have the biography of the same name, co-authored by Salerno and David Shields, and billed as “the official book of the acclaimed documentary film.” What the word "acclaimed" is doing there is a mystery: when the film was released, it didn't receive much acclaim at all. Indeed it was reviewed like the plague – and quite rightly, too. Given the quality and fate of the film, the tagline of the tie-in book begins to sound a bit ominous. You fear the arrival of a 700-page turkey.
But the book is far better than you might expect – as long as you don’t expect it to be a literary biography in the classic sense. It is an oral biography, more or less, although it draws on written sources as well as original interviews. Occasionally the authors provide a bit of context or commentary. Otherwise their book is a vivid collage of third-party opinions and recollections, with plenty of pictures sprinkled around to complete the scrapbooky effect.
There are moments when the absence of an authoritative and discriminating central voice gets you down. Also, infuriatingly, there is no index. But in other respects you can’t fault the authors’ diligence. If you want all the available facts about Salinger, including the icky ones, this biography is a big and raucous one-stop shop.
We open with a scene right of Saving Private Ryan. The year is 1944; Salinger, aged 25, is storming Utah Beach on D-Day. Back home in New York, he has already acquired a reputation for his clever short stories. Now, drafted into the US army, he is headed for some of the most horrific engagements of the war. After Normandy he will see action in the Hurtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. Finally he will be present at the liberation of Dachau, where the survivors can scarcely be told apart from the corpses.
One of the book’s main arguments is that Salinger’s hair-raising war experiences account for most or perhaps even all of his later eccentricities. It’s hard to dismiss this thesis. The smell of burning flesh, he once told his daughter, never leaves the nostrils. While still in Germany he suffered a nervous breakdown. He committed himself to a civilian hospital to avoid a psychiatric discharge.
Back in New York, as restored to health as he was ever going to be, Salinger completed a novel whose early chapters he had lugged with him around Europe. Entitled The Catcher in the Rye, the book was published in 1951. Its 16-year-old narrator and star was Holden Caulfield, whose slangy, profane, and unforgettable voice made young people feel that Salinger could read their minds.
By 1961, the book was selling a quarter of a million copies a year. (Its total sales now number 65 million.) The novel's success turned Salinger into an icon, which was the last thing he wanted to be. He hadn’t even wanted his photograph to appear on the book’s back cover. Suddenly, however, he found himself hurled into America’s turbulent and frightening mainstream – the moronic inferno, as Saul Bellow called it.
Two years after Catcher’s publication, Salinger began his retreat from society. Fulfilling a wish of Holden Caulfield’s, he bought his cabin in the woods. Then he built a large fence around it. He began to shun worldly things. He kept writing, but stopped publishing his manuscripts. Although unwell, he became averse to using any form of medicine that was known to work. He embraced Buddhism, macrobiotics, Scientology, homeopathy, Christian Science, and ultimately Vedanta Hinduism. He drank his own urine in a bid to purify himself.
Salinger couldn’t have been clearer about his wish to be left alone. But many a busybody, loner, and scoop-seeker construed his silence as a come-on, a tease. They fondly imagined that he might be pleased to see them, even if he wanted to see nobody else. So they camped at the bottom of his driveway. They staked out the post office where he collected his mail. They staged bogus car crashes outside his house and lay down on the road, having smeared themselves with fake blood.
If Salinger wasn’t paranoid to start with, such encounters must have helped him get that way. By the end of his life he could be more than a bit crabby. His former nanny recalls dropping by his cabin to collect J. D.'s annual Red Cross donation. Salinger was waiting on the porch with his gun. He threatened to shoot at the ground if she came a step closer.
Millions of sane readers, of course, read and loved Salinger’s novel without interpreting it as an invitation to hassle him, or to do something even worse. But it can’t be denied that the book has always been a magnet for ratbags. The biggest ratbag of all was Mark Chapman, the murderer of John Lennon. Chapman managed to convince himself Lennon was a “phony”, of the kind so lavishly despised by Holden Caulfield. Chapman took a copy of the novel to the crime scene. After the shooting, as Lennon lay dying, Chapman sat down and read the book silently – and no doubt with strenuously writhing lips – until the police came. John Hinckley, the would-be assassin of Ronald Reagan, was another of the novel’s more unhinged devotees.
Shields and Salerno devote an unforgivably large chunk of their biography to Chapman, Hinckley, and other assorted freaks and nutbags who claim to have taken their homicidal cues from Salinger’s novel. Tastelessly, the authors assert that such psychopathic readers evince a “frighteningly clairvoyant” understanding of the “blood-soaked violence buried” in the text. They’d have been better off remembering Lichtenberg’s dictum that a book is a mirror: if an ape peers into it, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.
Salinger came to regret having written Catcher, or at least having published it. But by the time he did, it was too late. His efforts to make himself unfamous only made him more famous, until he was better known for his silence than his work. The authors quote a writer who, happening to find himself in Salinger’s neighbourhood, considered swinging by for a chat. Somebody asked him why. Was he a big fan? “No, but he’s J. D. Salinger.” There it is in a nutshell. The man was famous for not wanting to be famous. So why not drop in on him?
Reading this new book, or indeed any biography of Salinger, you sometimes feel like an intruder yourself. Salinger made an explicit decision to stop being a public man. So how much do we deserve to know about him? Everything? Nothing? Just the early things? Among their other scoops, Shields and Salerno reveal that Salinger had only one testicle. Are we entitled to know that?
Previous and better books about Salinger have incorporated such questions into their fabric. Ian Hamilton’s In Search of J. D. Salinger, published in 1988, was starved of facts, partly because Salinger sued to prevent Hamilton from using his unpublished letters. But Hamilton, making the best of things, turned his book into a self-searching meditation on the ethical questions raised by Salinger’s case. Information-wise his book is now obsolete. But it was written with a degree of tact and discernment that no subsequent biography has yet been able to match.
In this new book what you mainly have is a babble of unfiltered voices – some of them tactful and discerning, some of them not. Before long you hear your own voice in the mix, asking questions the authors don’t try to answer, and throwing in more than the odd yelp of profane dissent.
But the book’s weakness is also its strength. It piles up all the available data about Salinger, good and bad, and lets you draw your own conclusions. Sometimes this isn’t easy. What are we to make, for instance, of Salinger’s pronounced interest in young girls? You can’t miss this motif in his fiction: in stories like “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” or “For Esmé – With Love and Squalor,” damaged war veterans encounter little girls who function as symbols of purity and innocence.
In Salinger’s private life, the theme is more unmissable still. He was, the authors rightly say, “obsessed with girls at the edge of their bloom.” At the age of thirty, he became interested in a fourteen year-old named Jean Miller.
Miller, who goes on the record here for the first time, reveals that Salinger courted her in an almost naively old-fashioned way. He told her parents he was going to marry her. As she got older she came to his house and slept beside him, but he didn’t touch her. Nothing inappropriate happened – apart, of course, from the whole thing.
In the end it was Jean herself, at the age of eighteen, who took things up a notch by kissing Salinger in a taxi. A few weeks later they had sex, once. Salinger ditched her the next day. He wanted nothing more to do with her.
Why? In any Salinger biography, there is always a voice missing: Salinger’s own. So we have to be ready to tolerate ambiguity. In this case the mystery is solved, perhaps, if we accept the authors’ contention that Salinger’s emotional growth hit a wall during his late teens. Maybe he was a case of arrested development: “no more than the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school,” as Norman Mailer called him. Maybe his later life can be read as a protracted adolescent sulk: he slammed the door of his bedroom at the age of eighteen, and he never came out.
It should be conceded, though, that as Salinger aged, he acquired a taste for older women: not older than himself, mind you, but older than fourteen. At the age of 68 he developed a thing for the Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg, who was then aged 26. A fan of trash TV, Salinger would pursue his favourite actresses by letter and telephone, using his standard pick-up line. “I’m J. D. Salinger and I wrote The Catcher in the Rye.” It didn’t work on Oxenberg, but it was well worth a try.
Somebody complains, late in the present book, that Salinger did things that “an actual recluse or mystic” wouldn’t do. But if J. D. Salinger wasn’t a true recluse, then who was? Howard Hughes, the twentieth century’s other great shut-in, was an even more committed womanizer than Salinger. Nobody, it seems, can do without human contact altogether. Until very late in his life, Salinger made regular appearances at the local church’s weekly $12 roast beef dinners. But his third wife – who was forty years his junior – would always come along with him, and would repel any townsperson who dared to try approaching him.
Nor, it turns out, was Salinger religiously opposed to the concept of publication. He just didn’t want to be around when it happened. Shields and Salerno, saving their juiciest scoop for last, reveal that Salinger completed five major works after withdrawing from society, including a war novel, a religious manual, and a Holden Caulfield prequel. He left instructions for these to be published between 2015 and 2020.
Will they be any good? Only the most spirited of optimists would expect them to be up there with The Catcher in the Rye. Even before he quit the literary scene, Salinger's work was already getting pretty hard to love. The last story he published during his lifetime was the widely panned “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which appeared in 1965. Its narrator was the verbose seven-year-old Seymour Glass, boy genius, pain in the neck, and vocal champion –as it happened – of the very religion that Salinger was currently practicing himself. The fiction had become, as Shields and Salerno trenchantly say, a “wisdom delivery system.” Surely it would be idle to hope that his later work rose above that level, instead of sinking deeper beneath it.
“He was rich, famous, and sought after: the American dream," the authors write. "And he walked away from it.” No doubt he walked away from it too far, until his renunciation began to seem a bit American too – a bit overdone, even a bit grotesque. But artists, even retired ones, test our assumptions. Salinger’s story should make us wonder if the dream itself, especially the part about fame, isn’t a bit grotesque to begin with.