This question was posted all over New York City — on subway platforms and the sides of buses, in bright caps-locked letters. It was advertising the new documentary by Shane Salerno and David Shields about the ever-elusive writer. It also worked to promote the companion oral biography by the same name, Salinger. By adding no byline or description, the title sounds authoritative and definitive, it promises new insights into the author’s life and never-before-seen accounts by friends, ex-lovers and contemporaries.
The book is written in a cut-and-paste format familiar to readers of Shields’s “manifesto” Reality Hunger, a jarring style for a biography. The book is made up of pieces from Shields and Salerno’s own research as well as interviews conducted by other people, and — dominant in the book — accounts taken from other publications — the memoirs, biographies and letters already printed about old J.D. The style creates a sort of Salinger-history montage. An In Case You Missed It! of Salinger studies in the past several decades.
Most of the so-called new revelations in Salinger are well known to dedicated fans of the writer. His experience in World War II was detailed extensively in Kenneth Slawenski’s 2011 biography and his questionable experiences with younger women have been told countless times, most notably in Joyce Maynard’s memoir At Home in the World. That Salinger was not the most dedicated father or husband is no mystery to anyone who’s even heard of his daughter Margaret Salinger’s account in her own memoir, Dream Catcher. Salinger’s earlier fiction and the content of his letters is available to anyone with transportation to Princeton’s Firestone Library in New Jersey. While certainly not known to the average reader, these sections of the biography are hardly new discoveries.
To Salinger’s credit it does manage, between the stitches of its frankenstein format, to show a different, and quite clear, picture of Salinger’s life. All together, the fragmented accounts work as snapshots that create vibrant scenes of the experiences around and with J.D. Salinger. We hear the chatter and smell the cigarette smoke in the Stork Club as cameras flash to capture a moment in the life of Oona O’Neill, the Debutante of 1942 and sometimes-date of Salinger. Later we find ourselves waist-deep in water storming Utah Beach, surrounded by shellfire and chaos. In one of the final scenes of the book we see two photographers for the New York Post blocking in Salinger’s car in a grocery store parking lot, snapping photos and yelling harassment at the 69-year-old author.
Yet in all of the scenes in Salinger, through all the vivid color and sound, we see only what is going on around Salinger. The man himself is left in the shadows, remaining just out-of-frame. There is no moment, excepting the few quotations from Salinger’s own work or letters, when he feels present at all. The biography manages to circle in the air around old J.D. without ever hitting center.
There are attempts to fill these holes and reassert Salinger in what should be a story about him, but these feel rushed and speculative. Interviewees, and even Shields at times, insert statements that begin with “Salinger probably thought” or “Salinger must have felt” — and these instances feel like neighborhood gossip, not the work of literary biography.
After finishing the book I found myself with the same question that I began it with: What happened to J.D. Salinger? He appears absent in his own biography — a ghost, as Shields calls him several times. But this is the same Salinger we’ve seen, or rather haven’t seen, since he moved himself up a mountain in New Hampshire in 1952. He maintains, after death, the same elusiveness regarding his motives, his intentions, and his feelings, as he did for the last half century of his life. We have, instead of answers, a list of possible culprits for Salinger’s reclusion: heartbreak over Oona O’Neil, post-traumatic stress disorder from the war, and dedication to a Vedantic way of life which, we’re told rather adamantly, “killed his art.” These postulations fall short and don’t satisfy Salinger readers any more than previous accounts of his life had done.
So if this new project, hyped as one of the great literary reveals of our time, cannot help us find Salinger, what can?
Most striking in Salinger is the repetition of Salinger-seekers who went on to write or be interviewed about meeting the author, who didn’t expect their personal stories to elicit the attention and publicity that they received. Whenever news of Salinger was revealed, throughout his lifetime and especially after he ceased to publish, it was met with a flurry of public interest. Salinger has managed to not only maintain a readership through new generations, but to instill the same kind of devotion and excitement that once had readers rushing to newsstands the morning of a new New Yorker story.
Scholars, critics, everyday readers — everyone wants answers about (and from) Salinger. Many of the accounts in Salinger are from fans who decided that they needed, were even entitled, to an audience with the recluse, and they showed up at his doorstep only to be disappointed.
Michael Clarkson, the subject of the book’s first “Conversation with Salinger” section, drove 450 miles to meet the man he instinctually, and without permission, called Jerry. “I wanted to ask him, ‘Where do I go from here? What’s the next step?’” Unsurprisingly, Salinger was exasperated at being sought out as a guru to a stranger, to countless strangers, who showed up in the town that was supposed to be his santuary. Clarkson claims that he felt a certain obligation to Salinger fans to tell his story, and could not fathom that Salinger did not feel such a loyalty himself.
There’s something about Salinger that touches readers unlike any other 20th-century writer — he actually made people believe, in all sincerity, that he understood them, and truly cared. “There are few writers in this century,” Adam Gopnik is quoted saying, “who find or forge the key that enables them to unlock the hearts of their readers and their fellow people. And Salinger did that.”
He created his own small living room universes, revolving around three families — the Caulfields, the Glasses, and the Gladwaters of his early war stories who are mysteriously absent in the Shields/Salerno project — who struggled, as all people do, to reconcile that the world is full of suffering and horror, but no less full of beauty and hope. I can’t help but wonder why, for the fans who banged down his door, the fiction Salinger already gave us wasn’t enough.
In the 1959 New Yorker novella, Seymour: An Introduction, Buddy Glass, speaking as character and creator, says “I must reveal that my reputedly heart-shaped prose has knighted me one of the best-loved sciolists in print since Ferris L. Monahan, and a good many English Department people already know where I live, hole up; I have their tire tracks in my rose beds to prove it.”
Salinger fans, it seems, are forever leaving those tire tracks, trying to peek through the window. Perhaps his prose invites it — after all Salinger wrote the sort of books that, when you’re all done reading them, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours. For a lot of readers this instilled an entitlement for answers from the man who had already given them so much in those four slim volumes.
This, in part, feels like the premise of Salinger — that this writer, who we once dearly loved, abandoned us, and we deserve answers. The book seeks to answer not what happened to J.D. Salinger, but what was J.D. Salinger’s problem, anyway? It seeks answers like a child seeking an absent father.
So where do we go from here? With all of the information compiled in these new projects, the what’s, where’s, and when’s of Salinger’s life — what is there left to find? The why’s and how’s interest us most of all.
I believe the only way to fill these blanks is by returning to the beginning. To re-read The Catcher in the Rye with PTSD in mind. By reading Franny and Zooey, knowing that “Franny” was written as a wedding present for Salinger’s second wife Claire — a marriage that faded away as the Glass family grew more and more defined. Return to “For Esmé”, knowing that all of its hope and fragile beauty were created by a man present in many of the bloodiest battles of World War II and witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust. He managed to not only convey the numbing desolation of shell-shock, but to put the pieces back together again.
It’s time to not only return to his books, but to go back even further to his early stories — of Vincent Caulfield (later D.B.) and his brother Holden, each of whom die in the war and are resurrected in Catcher. To discover the Gladwater family, friends of the Caulfields, whose siblings Babe and Mattie mirror the relationship we see developed more fully between Holden and Phoebe. For those too far away from Princeton’s Firestone Library, the library at the University of Texas in Austin, or the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England — many of Salinger’s old stories can be found in library archives or, less reputably, transcribed online.
To read Salinger with new awareness of his experiences, retaining the grains of salt which must be taken alongside the Shields/Salerno projects, a new Salinger just might emerge. Now is the perfect time to revisit Salinger’s work and breathe new life into a body of critical work that is lacking at best. The conversation about him is re-starting and the readers who have remained quiet, holding their collective breath, for new Salinger material, can come out of hiding.
Perhaps we’ll even be rewarded with something truly new. There is not, for anyone who has read his final interviews or, better yet, read his letters, any doubt that Salinger kept writing. Salinger wrote his old friend Donald Hartog in 1991 that he kept busy writing, “fiction, as always.” In 1997 he noted, with great relief, that the fire which scorched a good part of the house, including his study, had spared his writing. After, he invested in a fireproof safe to protect his writing from future disasters, showing that Salinger didn’t only write for himself, but he actually took pains to preserve his work. If this doesn’t indicate an intention to publish, Shields and Salerno have word from “two independent and separate sources” that there are five works approved for publication beginning in 2015.
What awaits Salinger readers in the vault? Maybe more of the ecstatic prose of Seymour: An Introduction, or spiritual healing of “Zooey”. Perhaps, even, he continued in the direction of “Hapworth,” which so bewildered his critics. We may only speculate until the works are actually released but, whatever the outcome, new Salinger writing would help fuel the of renewed interest in the writer’s work and perhaps even relieve some of the bitterness that marks the better part of the Shields/Salerno project and so many other seeker accounts besides.
Whether or not Shields’s sources have any validity will be seen in time. It’s telling that Colleen O’Neill and Matthew Salinger, the two executors of the writer’s estate, both refuse to make a statement one way or the other. It will be impossible to gauge what the result of new Salinger fiction could have on the way that we view his writing as well as how we come to judge his reclusive years.