Stalking J.D. Salinger
This image released by The Weinstein Company shows author J.D. Salinger, left, after the Normandy invasion with his fellow counterintelligence officers from the film "Salinger." (AP Photo/The Weinstein Company)
This image released by Starpix shows director-producer Shane Salerno at the New York premiere of "Salinger," in New York. The film, a documentary about the late author J.D. Salinger, opens on Friday. (AP Photo/Starpix, Amanda Schwab)
When I first started work at the Valley News I had a desk near the front door, which let me in on the conversations initiated by people who came in to pitch story ideas or complain about not getting their papers. It was distracting, but there were some interesting characters. Windsor veteran Arthur Grosjean, rest his soul, brought his sidearm in and set it on the counter at least once, and there were a couple of garrulous route drivers who always seemed to have a pent up monologue to deliver when they came in to pick up their checks.
In the episode I remember best, although not as clearly as I would like, a young filmmaker stopped in about a decade ago and announced that he was going to make a film about J.D. Salinger, that it would be a great story for us and we should go with him. He seemed young and full of energy, but was on the sort of errand we didn’t want to fool with. Good luck pal!
Thinking back on it now, with a copy of Salinger, this ugly slab of a book on my desk, I wish I had been in a more playful frame of mind. What if I had tagged along with the young filmmaker around the backroads of the Upper Valley? Could this have been Shane Salerno, the guy who made the recent documentary and co-authored the fat book about the nation’s most famous recluse? I could have come away with a funny story, at the least, or a modest scoop, had the eager young man been Salerno himself.
At the same time, I’m just as happy I stayed away. Thanks to a huge publicity campaign, the world now knows about Salerno’s movie and accompanying book, co-authored by David Shields, both of which promise new revelations about Salinger, who spent his last five or so decades holed up on a hilltop in Cornish.
Instead, what Salerno has given us is the latest and perhaps most glaring example of the cognitive dissonance that characterizes American mass culture. In this version, Salinger’s authorship of The Catcher in the Rye, his widely read 1951 novel, and his subsequent seclusion in Cornish, justify Salerno’s nine-year inquiry into the most private details of his life, a search that digs far deeper than mere interest down into the darker realm of prurience. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote in a review that Salerno’s film is “less a work of cinema than the byproduct of its own publicity campaign.”
Although the authors tout their new material and the 200 people they interviewed, Salinger the book breaks little new ground. The vast majority of it comprises snippets taken not only from earlier work published about Salinger, but from sources that set the scenes of Salinger’s life. Descriptions of his experience in World War II comes from books by men who survived the horrific Battle of Hurtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge, but few of those men knew Salinger. Shields and Salerno contribute pieces that often are unattributed, which makes them hard to believe.
Worse still, the prose for which the authors are responsible bespeaks incompetence. The second sentence is so bad that I had to put the book down for a few minutes in disbelief: “Before (The Catcher in the Rye) was published, he was a World War II veteran with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder; after the war, he was perpetually in search of a spiritual cure for his damaged psyche.” Despite their parallel structure, those two clauses have nothing do with each other. Salerno and Shields have neither the material nor the chops to craft a real narrative, and their book is a heap of fragments that mislead readers with their lack of context.
Two of the authors’ key assertions negate each other. They contend that Salinger completed five more books, which will be released by a trust he established starting in 2015. They also argue that Salinger’s immersion into the Hindu philosophy of Vedanta “provided the comfort he needed as a man but killed his art.” If so, why should any thinking person care whether more books are forthcoming? A nuanced work by a pair of literary detectives this is not.
The portrait that does emerge in Salinger is of a troubled man who indulged in serial romantic attachments to much younger women, who continued to write without seeking an audience and who was a sort of recluse in name only, a man who shied away from the limelight only when its glare was too harsh or unflattering. While Shields and Salerno promise a lot of new information about Salinger’s last 45 years in Cornish, there wasn’t much that would be news to Upper Valley residents. Most of what they unearthed has to do with Salinger’s writing habits and the existence of additional manuscripts.
Where these haphazard biographers wander farthest off course is in their equation of Salinger’s life with his work. The book’s central idea is that Salinger was deeply scarred by his military service, and that The Catcher in the Rye was a book about war and grief. In this view, it was Salinger’s war-damaged psyche that led him to leave the world behind and settle in Cornish.
Isn’t it more likely that Salinger just wanted to live someplace with a simpler way of life? The authors contend that Salinger wanted to have it both ways. For at least part of his life in Cornish he wanted recognition without engagement in the world. He wanted love and adulation, but only on his very limited terms.
Readers, critics and scholars have always had trouble separating the works from the author. Hemingway was a drunk and a womanizer. Elizabeth Bishop, a favorite poet of mine, also struggled with alcoholism. We don’t want to hear about a great artist’s flaws, for fear that they will somehow diminish the power of their work. How we read a work is a question of the attitude of the reader.
In a recent essay in The American Scholar, Phyllis Rose, a professor emerita at Wesleyan University, cites Marcel Proust, who said that “The person you chat with at a party and the person who writes a novel are not the same person.”
Rose continues: “We are all interested in writers’ lives, but a deep-rooted and sophisticated tradition says we’re wrong to be. That tradition says that a writer has no life except what is in the work. Everything you have to know is in there. The writer is one place, and the human being is somewhere else.”
Salinger isn’t much different from other writers like Harper Lee, Joseph Heller or Jack Kerouac, each of whom wrote a book that became central to American literature, but who either never published much else or whose subsequent work never reached the same heights.
The question that looms over Salinger is this: Why do people think they deserve more than what a writer is willing or able to produce? There is more to Salinger’s story, of course, and if there are more books from him, fine. Even if all we ever got from him was The Catcher in the Rye, shouldn’t that suffice?
This, I think is what Salinger found (indeed what all of us find) in the Upper Valley: a culture that doesn’t ask of us more than we can give. As Robert Frost put it, “I’m for the hills, where I don’t have to choose.”
A few of the interviews in Salinger reflect a note of sanity regarding the writer’s seclusion. Life magazine photographer Ted Russell, who was assigned to photograph Salinger in 1961, got what he was after, but not without regret.
“I’ve always felt somewhat bad about intruding on Salinger’s privacy,” Russell said. “I did it because it was a challenge; it was an assignment that I’d been given. ... But I always had pangs of conscience.”
If Salerno and Shields expressed such pangs, I must have missed them. They come from a culture in which fame is a currency few who possess it are willing to give up. I sent an email to Colleen Salinger, the writer’s widow, asking her if she’d be interested in talking about the book and film. She didn’t write back, which neither surprised nor disappointed me since anything she had to say would instantly become grist for the mill turned incessantly by Salerno and the like.
Which brings me back to that young filmmaker. I suppose I felt territorial, and in tune with the Upper Valley’s guiding belief: People don’t live here because they want to be pestered.
The voluble young man, whoever he was, announced his intention to head out the door, our loss that we wouldn’t be going with him. And Salinger, he said, he lives in Corinth, right?
Yep. Best of luck and godspeed.
Alex Hanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3219.