Friday, May 30, 2014

To Know an Author: The Salinger Perplex

J.D. Salinger in 1952. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Antony Di Gesu/San Diego Historical Society)

Back in the late 1970s, after I’d first read The Catcher in the Rye and was getting seriously infatuated with the novel and its author, there was scant information to be found on the life and doings of J.D. Salinger. All that existed in the way of biographical sources on the “famously reclusive author” who lived on a New Hampshire hilltop and had once dispatched his long, Zen-drenched stories to The New Yorker from a paramilitary bunker were a few pieces from old news magazines – combinations of celebrity profile and journalistic stakeout that were tantalizing but at that time close to 20 years out of date. A few books of Salinger criticism existed; but criticism is structured opinion, and the new fan’s first hunger is for fact. (Even rumor will do, for rumor, as we know, is nothing but fact waiting for confirmation to catch up.)

Things have changed. Now there are more biographies, biographical studies, memoirs, parts of memoirs, and long and short magazine profile-stakeouts devoted to Salinger than there are to many authors who have not studiously repelled publicity and litigiously opposed the public’s right to know everything about them. I count, previous to last year, three biographies; two memoirs, one by Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, the other by his ex-lover, Joyce Maynard; and more magazine and newspaper articles than can be collected by any person not paid to do so full-time. Now there are two recent and important additions to the catalog. Salinger (Simon and Schuster; 698 pp.), by Shane Salerno and David Shields – textual companion to last fall’s documentary of that title, which was directed by Salerno and televised by American Masters – has major flaws, but is in every sense a major biography. Following it at a respectful distance is Thomas Beller’s upcoming J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist (Amazon; 192 pp.), an entry in Amazon Publishing’s new “Icons” series of short biographies.

Though both publisher and author label it biography per se, The Escape Artist is more accurately a series of impressionistic essays on biographical, and often autobiographical, themes. Its sequence is more whimsical than chronological – e.g., Salinger’s 1972-73 affair with Maynard, then an 18-year-old Yale freshman, precedes his brief post-war marriage to a probable ex-Nazi. Salinger’s life is not comprehensively chronicled but rather is highlighted for what Beller finds to be its most interesting or implicative passages, and these are interspersed with accounts of his own research jaunts – to a Maine summer camp, to the archives of Princeton University, to one of numerous Manhattan apartment buildings. Some of the research is novel (the chapter on Camp Wigwam, where Salinger spent a single boyhood summer, is well-written and interesting on its own terms, like a memorable short story), though Beller’s lingering on the logistics of each journey – as if the preservation procedures of the Princeton archives were rituals laden with cultic symbolism, rather than standard practice in such places – often seems compensatory for an overall lack of intellectual drama. Purely as writing, Beller’s book is eloquent and well-observed, at its occasional best (the visual triangulation of a Salinger prep school, the Central Park skating rink, and a lagoon made famous by The Catcher in the Rye) evoking a hushed winter walk in the snowy footprints of someone many years gone.

But The Escape Artist, while it is the dogged product of an enduring obsession, doesn’t succeed at being what it so clearly wants to be. It’s Beller’s premise and conviction that Salinger’s life overlaps with his own in ways that, if given sufficient musing, will evidence a kind of spiritual or poetic kinship between them – which will in turn reveal, explain, or at least imply something about both subject and seeker, and thence about you and me. The Escape Artist is in that sense an expansion of a piece Beller published in the “City” section of The New York Times in 2001, titled “Holden’s New York.” That article – a revisiting, on the novel’s fiftieth anniversary, of locations crucial to Catcher – begins with Beller relating the novel’s action to his own life: “[Holden] is not just in Manhattan, he is of it, a condition which, for better or worse, I share myself. As I read the book, three versions of Manhattan hovered in my mind: the Manhattan of the novel (late 40’s, early 50’s); the Manhattan of today, and, wedged ephemerally between the two, the late 70’s, early 80’s Manhattan in which I grew up.” But little follows in the way of personal insight beyond an observation of the American Indian tableau at the Museum of Natural History, and of Holden’s fixation on that frozen display as “a perfect reflection of a kind of change fatigue that is likely to hit the native Manhattanite at a young age” – in other words, a syndrome that is far from specific to Beller, and, on its face, far from very interesting.

The Escape Artist is little more successful in locating that poetic kinship between the two writers, let alone making it poignant or meaningful. One chapter focuses on Salinger’s eight-month sojourn in pre-WWII Vienna as apprentice to his father’s ham-and-cheese importing business – mostly, it appears, because Beller’s own Jewish father, who died when the author was 10, had escaped Nazi-infested Vienna shortly before Salinger arrived there. But even with that near-miss – noted, not quite accurately, as an “intersection” – the bond between subject and seeker via Vienna, fathers, and Jewishness is too vague and conceptual to have any power. Elsewhere, Beller visits his mother’s Upper West Side apartment and recalls a friend’s comment, upon first seeing the place, that it resembles an apartment in a Salinger story. This says to Beller that he grew up in an atmosphere infused with Salinger-ness – rather than simply in one of the many thousands of old, dark, overstuffed apartments in New York. It’s offered as significant that Salinger spent a couple of childhood years in a building four blocks away from the mother’s apartment; likewise, the apartment of a friend from whom Beller borrows rare galleys of a never-published Salinger biography is across the street from Holden’s beloved Natural History museum. But the subject-seeker overlap never gets much richer than these accidents of geography – and that’s not terribly rich, since we’re talking about Manhattan, a tiny sliver of island in which countless millions have existed in close proximity in the near-century since J.D. Salinger’s birth. Yet throughout The Escape Artist, the poetic kinship is adduced to just such fleeting commonalities. Which leaves an emptiness at the heart of the book: it banks on our acceptance of, and investment in, a level of personal meaning that is never established, factually or imaginatively. As Norman Mailer once complained in reference to Salinger, Beller “never gives the fish its hook.”

But I hope he goes on trying. Any writer who returns to a subject so persistently (Beller also contributed to the anthology With Love and Squalor: Fourteen Writers Respond to the Work of J.D. Salinger) probably cannot succeed in putting it to rest so easily. Someday Beller may decide that the real connection between himself and Salinger is not one of physical rooms or family stories but something more purely imaginary – a combination of wish and dream existing only in the pages of books written by two men who never met.


One doesn’t justly compare a ruminative, essayistic work like The Escape Artist to a hulking data dump like the 700-page Salinger – which, more than just raising the ante on Salingeriana, may have bought the pot. But the contrast between the two is worth drawing.

Salinger (the book; I haven’t seen the movie) is, as I said, gripped by major flaws, and has been broadly attacked on that account – even by those critics whose primal instinct for some kind of fair play forces them to admit, grudgingly, peremptorily, that the authors have dug up some new and important information. The overwhelming residue of most reviews is that Salinger is an offense against not only taste but nature – the nature of biography, anyway. The choice quotes are strongly worded, if not unvaryingly accurate. The Wall Street Journal Online said the book “never comes together as a story for readers. . . . Biographies are often accused of not explaining enough. Here, however, is an example of one that tells us too much.” “No salacious detail is omitted,” complained the Chicago Tribune. “This oral biography is essentially a clip job of hundreds of sources, the majority cited in other works, others purely inconsequential to the story being told.” From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: “Whatever you think of J.D. Salinger’s writing, his worst literary sin may be that he inspired such a terrible book.” The Los Angeles Review of Books reviled it as “a savage and somehow revengeful disembowelment” that “leave[s] you feeling dirty and a little sick.”

One will not leap to the defense of a book which undeniably has trace elements of all that its detractors ascribe to it. Over in England, the Guardian critic called Salinger “silly, boastful, prurient, intellectually incoherent and basically philistine” – and I wouldn’t suggest that any of those words is misapplied. What I would suggest is that each of those words will, fairly inevitably and to some degree, apply to a large, ambitious biography of an important and troublesome figure of whom very little can be asserted with certainty, and about whom, apparently, no psychological or aesthetic conclusion may be ventured without someone with a laptop and bully pulpit being righteously pissed off by it.

Some of the attack, I have no doubt at all, has to do with Salerno being a screenwriter of minimal artistic attainment (Armageddon is his most recognizable title) who displays, in TV interviews, the spray-tanned self-regard of a Hollywood cherub. He and Shields do themselves no favors by presenting their work with such unbecoming swagger. Salinger’s cover calls it “The official book of the acclaimed film” – a foolish miscalculation, firstly because the book was released before the film had a chance to be reviewed, let alone acclaimed; and secondly because “acclaimed” hardly describes the film’s eventual reception. As scholarship, the book is close to slovenly, its documentary sourcing often confusing or inadequate. (Though to be fair, indifferent citation practice is widespread in trade, as opposed to academic, publishing.) The many speakers are not identified in-line but rather in capsule bios at the end, which necessitates much cumbersome page-flipping. Annoyingly, there’s no index. And the authors repeatedly remind us that they are printing this anecdote or that factoid for the first time – a form of showboating which has never been known to endear biographers to their readers, most of whom will make only so much allowance for even such well-earned bragging rights as these.

Salinger, while not a perfect example of such, is firmly in the lineage of those artist biographies deserving of the phrase coined by Salinger’s alter ago, Buddy Glass, in “Seymour: An Introduction”: “aesthetic pathology.” Meaning, the morbidly preoccupied postmortem of The Artist as Sick Person, and of their art as symptomatic expression of that sickness. (Perfect examples run from the merely malignant – Albert Goldman’s The Lives of John Lennon – to the malignantly brilliant – Roger Lewis’s The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.) Salerno and Shields feel they’ve isolated patterns of neurosis, inadequacy, cruelty, misogyny, and pedophilia in their subject, and they are not interested in leaving those themes implied. Despite the biography being profuse, as biographies will tend to be, with speculative qualifiers like “must have,” “can easily imagine,” and “in some sense,” the authors drive hard to their conclusions and state their claims bluntly.

That bluntness, combined with a need to show psychic torment where it may or may not exist, leads to some overreaching. Of the termination of Salinger’s prewar love affair with debutante Oona O’Neill – daughter of Eugene O’Neill, and future wife of Charlie Chaplin – the biographers write, “this tragedy in Salinger’s life ... [was] to a large degree a fantasy on his part.” But they’ve hardly proven that Salinger, especially in his postwar maturity, placed any tragic importance on the affair: spurned and embittered he was, but eternally haunted? Likewise, despite plenty of persuasive evidence that Salinger was traumatized by the war, the biographers’ assertion that he was “profoundly, suicidally depressed” in its aftermath is not demonstrated to any clinical sufficiency.

The biographers aren’t afraid of contradicting themselves on large points. “The isolation of that bunker and his complete immersion in Vedanta [Buddhism],” Salerno writes, “destroyed [Salinger’s] art.” Yet the unseen and presumably Vedanta-influenced works of Salinger’s silent decades comprise, in large part, the upcoming publications that Salerno and Shields assure us at the conclusion will be “the masterworks for which he is forever known.” Both biographers assert that the war’s ravages compelled Salinger, over the course of his life, “to seek not only transcendence but erasure.” Yet this clashes with their recurrent claims that Salinger was not a “true” recluse but a holy hypocrite who at canny intervals popped into view just long enough to renew public fascination with his absence before vanishing again in clouds of incense and rage.

Understatement, indirection, and sometimes even consistency are not on the menu. Rather than a handsomely trimmed literary biography organized around a lordly authorial voice making measured, incremental claims, Salinger is an unshapely agglomeration of voices and views, an indiscreet and sometimes judgmental dance on an artist’s grave. Yet it is clearly, undeniably, and finally a major piece of work. While their presentation lacks much poetry or finesse, often seeming less bold than merely bullish, the biographers’ research, interpretations, and conclusions, though not invariably persuasive, create a portrait that makes sense in the aggregate, and that multiplies respect for both the artist and the art. It is a coherent mosaic of a man whom no previous study has rendered so palpably contradictory, intractable, anguished, and brilliant. Everything Salingerian to come will need to deal with it, and those critics who have been unwilling to acknowledge the scope of its accomplishment are simply being vindictive – that being, in fact, among the misdemeanors of which they accuse the biographers.

Shane Salerno.
Critics who claim, for instance, that the book’s “most prized ‘find’” (Washington Post) is a story about Salinger’s undescended testicle have to know that they are being asses: the biographers don't put that much emphasis on the (undocumented) asymmetry, though they should have known that to accord it any significance whatsoever was to risk the ridicule of asses. There are, in fact, many new stories here, most of them solidly sourced, others less than ironclad but plenty resonant. One is Salerno’s interview with Jean Miller – the teenage girl whom Salinger first met in Florida just after the war; who was conceivably the model for the title character of “For Esmé – With Love and Squalor,” one of his best stories; who was certainly a Salinger love object; and who had never before gone on the record with her remembrances, despite no doubt innumerable approaches. Elsewhere, Salerno narrates a long, fascinating passage about the journey of the Catcher manuscript through various publishing offices, during which it was fumbled away by Harcourt, Brace in “one of the worst mistakes in publishing history.” The legendary editor Robert Giroux championed the manuscript at Harcourt, and claimed for many years that he left the company the very day it was rejected. But discrepancies in Giroux’s self-valorizing account inspire Salerno to look further (good for him), whereupon he locates a 92-year-old ex-editor who claims Harcourt rejected Catcher because reviewers from its schoolbook division didn’t approve of a novel written from the perspective of a mentally unstable adolescent. (For an added touch of frisson, Salerno suggests the 92-year-old may be “the last person alive who touched the original manuscript.”)

Building on the research of Salinger’s daughter, Margaret – whose 2000 book Dream Catcher was, as well as the embittered but not unloving memoir of a dysfunctional upbringing, a groundbreaking interpretation of her father’s life and work through prisms of anti-Semitism and combat trauma – Salerno and Shields spend much of the book’s first half recounting the horrific slogs of Salinger’s 12th Infantry company through the European campaigns of 1944-45. Salinger, a combat intelligence officer with a sergeant’s rank, fought in D-Day, the Hürtgen Forest, Luxembourg, and the Battle of the Bulge; he was present at the liberation of the concentration camp Kefauvering Lager IV, and interrogated captured Nazis in the months after V-E Day. Salerno and Shields incorporate passages of military history and many eyewitness accounts from those who served in Salinger’s company, or in proximate units. Their attention to these battles, and to the 12th Infantry’s role in them, is beyond extensive, yet the emphasis feels right.

Some critics have responded as if it is only the flimsiest speculation to place the war at the center of Salinger’s life experience, to consider it the trauma that put depth and definition to his art. “[The biographers’] purple prose reeks of conjecture,” we read in the Chicago Tribune. “The wounds Salinger suffered, however, are presented by observers, distant friends and others who intersected with the writer, sometimes tangentially. Scholars have only letters and [a] few interviews, which suggests that anyone attempting to draw conclusions might tread lightly. Instead, this book stomps loudly and proudly, making assertions that are not necessarily new, and are oftentimes frail at best.” This is J.D. Salinger, remember, he whose silence has been variously taken as challenge, affront, inspiration, and riddle by generations of writers, readers, seekers, and stalkers. He is among the most mysterious figures in American literature, and Shields and Salerno have marshaled fact and testimony to plausibly comprehend the psyche inside that mystery – to center that silence on a soul fighting through one human slaughterhouse after another. Yet when asked to accept or even entertain the notion that Salinger’s war experience formed him more than any other, to appraise the litany of carnage and existence of stories like “For Esmé,” some critics have no difficulty in shaking their heads and muttering blandly, “No, I don’t think so.” I'm less convinced by that knee-jerk skepticism than I am by the biographers’ mass of detail, the testimony of those who were there, and the evidence of Salinger’s own work. Deplore their loudness and proudness, but when it comes to the war, Salerno and Shields are stomping on solid ground.

Of the co-biographers, Salerno seems to do most of the legwork, while Shields is the literary head. I’ve not read anything else by Shields (though I know his 2010 book Reality Hunger extolled a cut-and-paste, creative-commons ethic that is more than applicable to Salinger), but on the basis of his interpretive passages here, I would say he is an insightful thinker and disagreeable writer. He has a knack for the felicitous phrase (“the signature of [Salinger’s] work [is] a heart in free fall”), but the gestalt of his prose is one of hipster swivel and run-on blogospherics. In an interpolated essay contrasting Salinger’s prewar writing (mostly stories of debutantes and soldiers written for slick publications) with the work he produced after the war, Shields argues that only through war could Salinger begin to inhabit the emotional abstractions he’d previously exploited to give his fiction a semblance of depth (“a slick magazine writer’s guess as to what such despair would actually feel like”). It is a spree of mashed-up literary criticism and biographical speculation: Salinger “thinks he understands … trying to buy distance … doesn’t love his own psychosis yet … wants you to think … hasn’t figured out yet.” As method and voice, the essay is obnoxious; but in the main, it rings absolutely true. “So far,” Salinger wrote in 1945, “the novels of this war have had too much of the strength, maturity and craftsmanship critics are looking for … The men who have been in this war deserve some sort of trembling melody rendered without embarrassment or regret.” This comes as the head-quote to another freestanding chunk of lit-crit and bio-spec, with Shields reconstructing Nine Stories as “the serial self-portrait of someone committing suicide, or considering it very seriously.” The section is, again, long, labored, and stylistically misconceived. Yet it sparks with insight, gathers speed, pulls back from disaster, and lives up to its subject.

As does the book. Salinger is no trembling melody – more an ungainly, often clamorous symphony opening into passages of lyricism and vision, founded on themes that unify it at best and worst. But certainly, Salerno and Shields have made their mark “without embarrassment or regret.” For all its swagger and sloppiness and offenses of style; violations of unwritten biographical protocol; and lack of critic-pleasing “strength, maturity and craftsmanship,” Salinger is a bold, tenacious, and quite substantial work. It earns the right to irritate: it’s alive where every other Salinger biography has been dead.


Another thing to be said for Salinger is that it sends you right back to Salinger – particularly his postwar work, which seems newly wrought with pain, taut with post-traumatic stress. That corpus is minuscule – one novel, a handful of stories, a few novellas – but you’re eager to see how it refracts in new light.

To this reader, Salinger has grown finer with time. Catcher remains funny, painful, embarrassingly accurate, gorgeously structured, and as impervious to critical revisionism as The Red Badge of Courage. The Nine Stories are consummations of the craft: socially observant and visually specific, with many subtleties in the persnickety prose. The opening of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and closing of “Teddy” – front and end stories about two forms of suicide, pivoting on two kinds of little girl, one involving an ocean, the other an empty swimming pool – describe a circle whose ends meet in death, while the stories between are vivid with the inchoate gestures and mundane epiphanies of people fighting to stay emotionally alive.

The later stories about the Glass family are, as is well known, harder to like. They make a small but unique universe, minutely detailed in sentences combining the loftiest of mysticisms with the compulsion to describe scenes in all their unfurling boredom, their unhurried dust and depth. If we can give in to, even embrace that stylistic OCD, and take as given the author’s often overweening attention to inbred family quirks (as opera fans, say, not only accept but revel in the piercing excesses of that form), we may begin to feel the delights and rigors of something bracingly avant-garde, yet still pleasurable from sentence to sentence – something, as Seymour quotes a Vedantic text, “beautifully difficult.”

The Glass stories culminate in the demented logorrhea of “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which appeared in The New Yorker in 1965, and was the last writing to be published in Salinger’s lifetime. (Salerno and Shields assure us that several posthumous volumes of new and old material are to be issued, on a timeline set out in the author’s estate papers.) Taking the form of a very long letter supposedly written from summer camp by a seven-year-old Seymour Glass to his parents, “Hapworth” is a grueling, stupefying tour de force any comprehension of which must, it seems to me, proceed from the recognition that no seven-year-old of earthly biology could produce such a document, and therefore that the “letter” so faithfully typed from longhand by Buddy Glass is in fact the communication of a displaced E.T., or – more likely – the issue of Buddy’s hagiographic, perhaps unhinged imagination. Beller, unfortunately, has nothing to say about “Hapworth,” while Salerno and Shields devote numerous pages and perspectives to it, managing to reawaken one’s curiosity about even this most punishing of epistolary fantasies.

For all his convolutions of style and thickets of theology, there’s something quite naked about Salinger’s work. His characters, the narrators in particular, have a disarming willingness to appear weak, foolish, deluded, cruel, egotistical, and insular. (Granted, they often are all of those things; but they never seek to hide the fact.) Salinger stood in marked contrast to the Jones-Shaw-Mailer-Bellow-Styron-Roth-Updike mainstream of postwar American fiction, with its layers of rhetorical armor and metaphysical bombast, its elevation of big books and large cocks – excuse me, canvases. Salinger’s nakedness, and his skill in conveying private, even hermetic voices and visions, drew many of us into an unusually intimate communion with the artist who seemed so thinly veiled by his desperate characters. We began to feel we knew him; or wanted to know him; or could never know him well enough.


Salinger, by Shawn McGuan
But at a certain point, some decided they did know Salinger well enough; and they have sought to protect him in various ways, both before and since his death, from being known by others. Obviously, the overwhelming fact of Salinger’s retreat shades the complexion of anyone’s quest to know him more deeply. No one writing a biography of Mailer would feel he or she was breaking some unwritten ethical code by researching such a public artist; but the desire to know Salinger, to find him, either on his hilltop or in his work, has in some cases been replaced by the view that any move in his direction is by definition transgressive. Beller, for instance, repeatedly casts his own hunt for insight as something illicit, even criminal: “A biography of Salinger . . . cannot help feeling like a theft of some kind”; “The aura of trespass is strong around Salinger”; “I felt like a burglar.” To which I can only respond, why, why, and why? It’s as if the merely inquisitive acts of looking at apartment buildings or seeking out publicly accessible archives were tantamount to despoiling a corpse – or, gulp, a holy spirit.

Quite similarly, Ron Rosenbaum visits the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Society in Manhattan, having read several letters Salinger once wrote to its swamis, and experiences an attack of the guilts: “Would I be, in effect, spying on Salinger’s departed soul by entering into his swami’s domain for the worship service about to begin? … [W]ould that cross some line, be a kind of metaphysical/theological espionage? This is the dilemma Salinger’s half-century retreat has always posed, for readers, biographers, critics.” Perhaps Rosenbaum is correct that such qualms are broadly felt; and perhaps both he and Beller are conjuring up a supernatural crisis in the absence of any real conflict here in the temporal realm. But it’s this quasi-mystical oversensitivity, a sense that one must protect Salinger’s protection of himself – while continuing to obsessively read and write about him – that I suspect accounts for at least some of the critical overreaction against Salerno and Shields.

For sure, the Salinger perplex has brought out wayward impulses in some great writers. Rosenbaum, who as a journalist is in a class by himself, can bloviate dreadfully when loosed in the fields of literature, planting flags and claiming critical-historical booty with all the dignity of Long John Silver. A few months before Salinger appeared, he wrote, for Slate, the piece quoted above about the late author’s recently archived letters to a New York Zen center; he then wrote another Slate piece, just after Salinger’s publication, that sought preemptively to correct the “fundamental mistake” Rosenbaum feared would be perpetuated by book and film – namely, the one-to-one equation of Salinger with Holden Caulfield, as if the character were merely the author’s mouthpiece. “Here I thought I’d addressed all the necessary Salinger questions a few months ago,” Rosenbaum sonorously began, affecting an irony that wasn’t really there, “when I discovered the newly donated Salinger letters at the Morgan Library and wrote about . . .”

Rosenbaum, as the Hercule Poirot of American letters (he didn’t discover the Salinger letters; he went to the library where they were already archived and cataloged and read them), has a tendency to believe that he knew everything ahead of everyone else. But his exact esteem for Salinger has always been difficult to gauge. That impression goes back to his 1997 Esquire cover story, “The Haunted Life of J.D. Salinger,” another profile-stakeout that, despite its flutey musings about “the Publicity Industrial Complex” and silence as Salinger’s greatest work of art, was significantly less revealing than Ernest Havemann’s “The Search for the Mysterious J.D. Salinger,” published in LIFE magazine 36 years before; and his 1978 Playboy interview with Bob Dylan, in which, refreshing Dylan’s memory on the premise of Catcher, Rosenbaum said it was about “a lonely kid in prep school who ran away and decided that everyone else was phony and that he was sensitive.” Which seems somewhat reductive.

The redoubtable Janet Malcolmwho in books like The Silent Woman (about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes) and Two Lives (about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas) has crafted a novel synthesis of psychobiography, literary criticism, and present-tense journalism – exhibited, when writing about Salinger for The New York Review of Books in 2001, the fiercely protective and less than discriminate instincts of a lioness shielding a cub. “Justice to J.D. Salinger” was mostly an articulate, ringingly precise defense of the Glass stories, but secondarily a lament for “the pain caused Salinger by the crass, vengeful memoirs of, respectively, his former girlfriend, Joyce Maynard, and his daughter, Margaret.” Malcolm quotes a letter recently printed in The New York Observer and attributed to Matthew Salinger, denouncing his sister’s book. “What is astonishing, almost eerie about the letter,” Malcolm writes, “is the sound that comes out of it – the singular and instantly recognizable sound of Salinger, which we haven’t heard for nearly forty years (and to which the daughter’s heavy drone could not be more unrelated).” Malcolm’s contempt for the two treacherous females with memoirs to peddle and voices that don't sound like Salinger's badly dulls her savvy: did it never occur to her that Matthew’s letter might sound so Salingeresque because his father had written it? Perhaps not, since she doesn’t even suggest the possibility. (Whereas Salerno and Shields, again without embarrassment or regret, assert precisely this ventriloquial relationship between father and son.)

Save Malcolm’s, Salerno and Shields reproduce the most damning judgments on Margaret Salinger and Joyce Maynard, along with the scanty defenses. Critics may have been correct that neither of their books would have been published had they not concerned a famous, and famously reclusive, figure. But then books are hyped every season that have no objective reason for existing but a) perceived public interest in a given subject and, sometimes, b) whatever style or insight the author might happen to bring to that subject. In these two cases, critics, almost en masse, focused on a) and were insensible of b). The excellent Jonathan Yardley, chief book critic of the Washington Post, was so disgusted by the memoirs of Salinger’s daughter and ex-lover that words, as opposed to clichés, threatened to fail him: Maynard’s book was “almost indescribably stupid,” while Margaret Salinger’s was in a separate review called “almost indescribably self-indulgent.” In each case, though, Yardley recovered his wits and his words, and descriptions were somehow managed.

The fact is that we have always wanted to know more about Salinger, of all modern authors in particular, even when we’ve told ourselves we wanted to know less. But we can be curiously reactive about what is revealed, and by whom, and by what means, and in what context. Last fall, three unpublished but publicly archived Salinger stories – one held at Princeton, the others at the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center – were leaked to the Internet, before rapidly vanishing in a flurry of institutional threats. Most Salinger fans probably felt no conflict in getting the stories downloaded while the getting was good, but a small, vocal subset of the faithful asserted their staunch refusal to do so, on the grounds that it would dishonor their man’s memory to covet work he never meant us to see – though the three stories had been placed, with Salinger’s consent, in libraries where they could be seen by anyone able to make the trip. This cadre crowed, in fan forums, comments sections, and elsewhere, about their principled lack of inquisitiveness regarding this important work, at least one piece of which (“The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls”) is already recognized as one of Salinger’s finest stories. It can be only the man’s ascetic aura and cult of privacy that compel some to spurn such a windfall, exemplifying yet again the peculiar responses – both in favor of knowing and against knowing – that abound when Salinger is the subject.

J.D. Salinger, writing in wartime. (Photo: AP/The Story Factory, Paul Fitzgerald)


Salerno and Shields reproduce a dozen or so “Conversations with Salinger,” stories about or soliloquies from those few strangers – fans, reporters, photographers – who managed to engineer some form of close encounter with the recluse. One of these “Conversations,” a rather despicable memoir from one Michael Clarkson – a lost soul who journeyed to Salinger’s hilltop in the late 1970s – gets right to the hostility that coexists with adulation. Clarkson describes his indignation at not being welcomed in for cocoa and ping pong with the man he’d stalked, whose windows he’d peeped, and who he’d insisted substitute for his absentee Daddy: “How dare you turn your back on us? We’re your fans. We’ve paid money for your books. You’ve gotten inside our heads.” Clarkson is pathetic, but his words are the wormy truth. Salinger has gotten inside our heads, and there are as many ways to process his presence as there are crania to cram him into. When we feel deeply reached, even colonized, by a writer, it’s only natural for us to want to lock him forever in that one, very personal place – the better to prevent our own feelings from being contradicted, ridiculed, or otherwise touched by others. Those who have attacked Margaret Salinger, Joyce Maynard, and now Salerno and Shields aren’t protecting Salinger; they’re protecting their Salinger. (As am I, right now – though I’m not as certain as others seem to be of who “my” Salinger is.)

The heart wants what it wants, supposedly, but the critical faculty can be just as irrational in rejecting what it ought to embrace, and finding sustenance in what is objectively repellent. The present case: Salinger is obnoxious but passionate, while The Escape Artist is sensitive but stillborn. The first feeds the art by contextualizing the artist, sometimes crudely, but in a way that engages one’s active intelligence; the second strands art and artist on a cloud of wan thoughtfulness. The repulsion one initially feels at the first is redeemed by cumulative substance, while the sympathy one nurtures for the second is starved by an absence of resonance. We in the peanut gallery must take our prizes and bear our disappointments wherever they come. The critical faculty wants what it wants.

Salinger’s is a legacy that has evolved and will continue to evolve: the books we are told will emerge from his estate in the next few years, if indeed they come – and who isn’t hoping they will! – assure that. New battles will ensue as the more foolhardy speculators blunder into the Salinger sanctum ignorant of the proper etiquette, to be met by the censorious responses of the passionately overprotective. Those battles will take place in the blurry confluence of the artist’s life and art, his literary presence and his physical absence, his refusal to explain himself and our compulsion to do so in his stead – an imaginative outland in which Salinger took up permanent residence long before he died. For some of us the coming controversies will be fascinating to watch, while those who find all such business tiresome – a distraction from the objective, dispassionate, right-minded pursuits of literature, criticism, and history – might take comfort in words once uttered by someone J.D. Salinger met in the war. “Madam,” Ernest Hemingway told the old lady at the bullfight, “it is always a mistake to know an author.”

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is

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