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More Tire Tracks in the Rose Beds: On David Shields and Shane Salerno’s Salinger

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What happened to J.D. Salinger?

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.

Letter of the Law: On J.D. Salinger, Unpublished Works, and US Copyright

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In the acknowledgments for Salinger, the new biography that accompanies the documentary about the reclusive lion of 20th-century literature, the authors state: “Most biographies include photographs of and letters to and from the biographical subject, but as in the case of someone as secretive as Salinger, photographs of Salinger and letters from him were extremely difficult to come by.”

David Shields and Shane Salerno are not the first Salinger biographers to be hampered by the author’s shadow life. In fact, current U.S. copyright law is bolstered by a former biographer’s clash with Salinger over access to the author’s unpublished letters. In the 1980s, Ian Hamilton excerpted from a slew of Salinger letters that had been donated to the archives of Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Texas at Austin. The letters were quoted extensively in a draft that went out to reviewers and that was planned for publication by Random House. When Salinger’s agent, Dorothy Olding, passed along an uncorrected proof to the author in late 1986, he formally registered his copyright in the letters and told his lawyer to object to the publication of the book until all contents from the unpublished letters had been removed. Hamilton acquiesced and revised many of the letter excerpts into close paraphrases. For example, “like a dead rat…grey and nude…applauding madly” became “resembling a lifeless rodent…ancient and unclothed…claps her hands in appreciation.” The artfulness of such paraphrases aside, they didn’t appease Salinger and he sued Random House for copyright violation, breach of contract (Hamilton had signed copyright forms at the archives in question), and unfair competition (it was sometimes ambiguous as to whether the words were Salinger’s or Hamilton’s; why would consumers buy actual books of Salinger letters?)

The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York decided Salinger had enough of a case to issue a temporary restraining order pending an appeal. In any determination of fair use or copyright infringement under U.S. law, a judge looks at four factors: the purpose and character of the use; the nature of the copied work; the amount and substantiality of the use; and the effect of the use upon the work’s value.

In 1986, the Court of Appeals ruled in Salinger’s favor and thus began a new era in U.S. copyright law. Not only were unpublished works on their way to becoming covered under the fair use constraints and privileges, but a bright line was also drawn around unpublished letters. In subsequent copyright case law, a distinction was made between the vehicle of a letter (the paper it’s written on or the virtual notepad of an email) and the expression of the words themselves. This same logic is applied to unpublished creative works.

Here’s how it works: Say I write you some letters or stories in college and then go on to become famous. Years go by and we fall out of touch. One day you’re cleaning out your attic and you find a stash of my pithy dispatches from the dorms. You decide to sell them to an archive and they happily buy them and make them available for researchers studying my oeuvre. What the archive has actually bought are the pieces of paper and single-serving rights for researchers to consume them. The words themselves, my use of vocabulary and vivid imagery, these continue to remain my property. Not only that, but for up to 70 years after my death, my estate can continue to control the ownership of those words.

Given the impact of the Salinger case on copyright, for some years there was uncertainty about whether or not a writer could quote at all from unpublished letters, regardless of where they resided. In Wright v. Warner Books, a subsequent lawsuit, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals clarified that some amount of quotation from unpublished works, including letters, could qualify as fair use. The Copyright Act was then updated to include unpublished materials.

Unlike Hamilton’s biography, which was shelved and then reworked as In Search of J.D. Salinger, the new book by Salerno and Shields breaks new ground and pushes the boundaries of the sometimes rigidly imposed set of U.S. copyright rules. Salinger contains excerpts from dozens of the author’s unpublished letters. There’s a hint in the book that cooperation from Salinger’s children was part of the project at one point, though later withdrawn, so we can’t know for sure what kinds of permissions were granted. But given the secretive, almost hostile nature of Salinger and his subsequent estate’s relations with the wider world, it would be fair to assume that none of these excerpts came with the express permission from the author or his heirs. Depending on how you look at it, including extensive excerpts from those letters is either an invasion of Salinger’s privacy or a coup for fair use, a boon for biographers working in archives everywhere.

With an abundance of caution, I recently sat with the Salinger archive at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. For a novelist treading water in the middle of a draft, an archive is both an escape and a frustration. It might be fun to see the prosthetic eye Denis Johnson wore during his walk-on role in the film adaptation of his book Jesus’ Son (yes, the Ransom Center owns that motif from “Emergency”), but it doesn’t get me any closer to the end of my own book.

There are two Salinger archival boxes, both nondescript and smelling faintly of old typewriter ribbon. The reading room rules forbid you from removing more than one folder at a time from the document boxes, so the hungry archival researcher is forced to observe a measure of restraint. At most, you can walk briskly back and forth between the cart where the boxes sit and the well-lit wooden desks where you can plumb the sleeved documents for their secrets. I decided to skip the letters from Salinger to long-time friend Elizabeth Murray, from 1940 to 1963. According to the finding aid, they dwell on such things as the breakup of Salinger’s first marriage and his relationship with Oona O’Neill, daughter of Eugene O’Neill and the fourth wife of Charlie Chaplin. Instead, I went straight for the story manuscripts.

The first was the manuscript for an unpublished story named “Birthday Boy,” about a young man in the hospital for depression who is visited by his girlfriend on his birthday. Apparently from the early 1940s, the story is fledgling and uneven, as if Salinger hasn’t quite found his stylistic swagger. On the top right hand corner of the first page are some notes in red pencil. They’ve been partially erased and then crossed over with a regular lead pencil. I can’t be sure, but the red-penciled letters look like the rejection comments of an editor.

The second manuscript was for an early draft of a story called “I’m Crazy,” which eventually appeared in the December 1945 issue of Collier’s. It was also the literary debut of Holden Caulfield, who would go on to become the endearing and angst-ridden protagonist of Catcher in the Rye.

Despite the fact that some degree of quotation from unpublished works has won legal ground under fair use, most archives insist that no quotation is allowed without permission from the estate and the archive. If you follow this line of reasoning, as Hamilton was forced to do, even paraphrasing too closely is an infringement. According to this notion of copyright, I may report facts and ideas, but not expression. As one archivist put it in an email: “only if you are speaking generally about the manuscripts (supplying a description, for example)” do you not need permissions.

Curiously, though, under all three sets of rules — copyright, fair use, and most archive policies — I am free to use my iPad to take good resolution images of unpublished manuscripts so long as I don’t share them publicly. Who can say if this extends to the privacy of my own home where I might convert an unused closet into a Salinger shrine? Such is the fickleness of U.S. copyright law.

Although I won’t or can’t or shouldn’t quote directly from the unpublished manuscripts, nothing prevents me from describing them in general terms. So I can, for instance, tell you that in the fledgling draft of “I’m Crazy” in which Holden appears for the first time, the narrative is in third person. When it is published in Colliers, the narrative stance switches to first person. And by the time Holden crosses the transom into Catcher, as we all know, he’s found his full-blown voice, a blend of angst and innocence that has captured readers for generations. (The book continues to sell about half a million copies a year.) That Holden first walked onto the novelistic stage in third person might come as a profound shock to Salingerites — it did to me. A simple point of view switch is par for the course in many burgeoning novels, but this one is particularly momentous. Here, in the archive, we see Salinger before he’s broken through. We might have assumed that Holden had come to Salinger fully formed, as if through a divine channel, but the sobering news — and the glimmering gift of such archives — is that he emerged fitfully and through a series of false starts.

Perhaps one day soon the morass that is U.S. copyright law will be simplified. At the very least, maybe more of us will understand it. In preparing to write this piece, I reached out to an award-winning novelist, a respected journalist, an academic, and a staff member of an archive. They all chimed in with slightly different answers about whether or not unpublished letters and creative work could be quoted, paraphrased, or described in general terms. If writers and researchers can’t absorb the law, then the lay public has very little chance. Chances are, though, the reading public could care less about the fate of unpublished stories and letters when so much new Salinger work is allegedly about to hit the streets. Salerno and Shields assure us that between 2015 and 2020, we’ll see, among other things, five new Glass family stories and fiction that further fleshes out the story of Holden Caulfield. That’s better than waiting for the clock to run out on Salinger’s copyright on former work. I’ll take that over a first run of “Birthday Boy” in the pages of The New Yorker in the year 2083 any day.

Times: New Film and Book Claim Five New J.D. Salinger Books to Be Published Starting in 2015


The Times is reporting that a new film and companion book (Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno) “include detailed assertions that Mr. Salinger instructed his estate to publish at least five additional books — some of them entirely new, some extending past work — in a sequence that he intended to begin as early as 2015.” One of the books is said to include a retooled version of Salinger’s unpublished (but available at the Princeton library) story “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans.” Kristopher Jansma (The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards) wrote about the story for us in 2011. Bonus Link: Garth Risk Hallberg on Salinger’s legacy.

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