JD Salinger at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, 1961
JD Salinger at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, 1961 © Eyevine

Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno, Simon & Schuster RRP£25/$37.50, 720 pages

The culture of stardom abhors a vacuum: empty celebrity spaces can fill with nothing but mystique. Such was the ironic fate that befell JD Salinger when he tried to withdraw from the conditions of his fame. His silence became as resonant as his writing had once been.

After being catapulted into the limelight with the publication of The Catcher in the Rye in 1951, instantly hailed as an American classic, Salinger continued writing short stories for The New Yorker, which were occasionally reprinted in various books over the next 15 years: Nine Stories (1953), Franny and Zooey (1961), and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963). Eudora Welty, reviewing Nine Stories in the New York Times, wrote: “He has the equipment of a born writer to begin with – his sensitive eye, his incredibly good ear, and something I think of no other word for but grace. There is not a trace of sentimentality in his work, although it is full of children that are bound to be adored.”

That may have been true in 1953 but his voice would unravel into something altogether more prolix, as Salinger’s spiritual interests overwhelmed his art and his writing grew increasingly sentimental, as well as preachy and belligerent. In 1965, Salinger published “Hapworth 16, 1924”, a story many regard as virtually unreadable. And then he never published again.

In “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”, Salinger posed a question that might serve as his own ars poetica: “When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion.” Salinger’s discomfort with the profession of writing, what he saw as its compromises and fraudulences, famously drove him into exile. Refusing to publish, he kept writing, observing his religion and rejecting his profession. Or so he liked to insist. He did, however, keep a close eye on those professional aspects he so detested, controlling everything he could about his public image, while defending his right to privacy. Some considered this hypocrisy; others, an understandable response to a carnivalesque media. But the ambivalence was always there: as far back as 1962, Frank Kermode observed that Salinger “very carefully writes for an audience he deplores”.

Soon after Catcher appeared, Salinger had retreated to rural New Hampshire, where he lived an increasingly reclusive life for the next 60 years. Gossip gradually emerged about experiments in Scientology and various forms of eastern religion, as well as a disturbing penchant for women very much younger than himself. Books emerged claiming that Salinger continued to write, every day: he just didn’t publish. Ian Hamilton tried to write a biography in the 1980s, based on Salinger’s unpublished letters; Salinger sued, but the subsequent trial put many of the letters into the public domain. Hamilton’s eventual In Search of JD Salinger mixed sensitive readings with a feeling of grievance that some found shrill. In 2000, Paul Alexander wrote an unauthorised biography that relied primarily upon interviews with others, and then, just months after Salinger died in January 2010 at the age of 91, came Kenneth Slawenski’s A Life Raised High.

The latest biography, a joint project by film-maker Shane Salerno and writer David Shields, easily surpasses Slawenski’s, although this is not saying much. Its one great virtue is some impressive research: Salerno, whose lucrative day job is writing screenplays for films including Armageddon and the sequel to Avatar, is a self-proclaimed Salinger fanatic. He financed this project to the tune of $2m and spent nine years compiling information, some of it genuinely new. David Shields is a writer best known for his Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010), and together they’ve produced a book that is less a biography than the transcript of a biopic.

Salinger is described on its cover as “the official book of the acclaimed documentary film” – perhaps a trifle optimistic, given that the film had not yet appeared when the book was printed. It reads distinctly like a director’s cut, preserving all the scraps from the cutting-room floor. There is no cohesive narrative voice; the book simply cross-cuts among various talking heads, including Salerno and Shields. Gradually a bewildering, arbitrary list of names resolves into an ensemble cast, some of whom knew Salinger, more of whom didn’t; a great many of these names are not introduced to the reader for hundreds of pages, so that their relationship to Salinger is often obscure.

The book opens with a cinematic montage that is pure Saving Private Ryan: soldiers storm up Utah Beach on D-day, among whom was 25-year-old Jerome David Salinger, late of New York City’s privileged upper East Side. Salerno and Shields quote dozens of D-day veterans: one recalls vomiting on the boats; another remembers being struck by flying body parts; another describes the maddening din of constant shelling. Soon they’ve enlisted other writers who described the second world war: Martha Gellhorn, John Toland. Before long we’ve heard from such noted Salinger experts as actors Edward Norton, John Cusack and Jake Gyllenhaal, all of whom are fans of Holden Caulfield, which is nice. Rarely do we hear from anyone with much of an ear for Salinger’s prose. John Updike and Philip Roth pop their heads in once or twice to make a passing remark; Joan Didion, Alfred Kazin and Lionel Trilling make equally brief appearances to offer much-quoted aperçus.

Instead of a sense of Salinger’s art, we get a deterministic thesis: Salinger was traumatised by the war, and never really recovered. Of the 337 days that American solders saw active combat in the war, Salinger fought for 299; certainly he had some kind of breakdown after his experiences at D-day, the Battle of the Bulge, and the liberation of Kaufering IV, a particularly appalling concentration camp. In 1945 they called it battle fatigue; Salerno and Shields call it post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ian Hamilton was actually the first to propose this interpretation; Slawenski concurred. Indeed, the diagnosis of battle trauma is so persuasive that there is little reason to doubt it and no reason to keep repeating it, insistently, for 720 pages, with such oracular pronouncements as that Salinger was writing “a muted elegy for the innumerable GIs, including himself, lost in the slaughter”, or that “Hapworth 16, 1924” was written “to protect his death-dealing soul”. When Salinger becomes obsessed with Vedanta Hinduism, we are portentously informed: “War killed him the first time; Vedanta, the second.”

But war is not the only trauma that they attribute to Salinger: there is an array to choose from. Whatever Salerno and Shields can’t trace back to the psychic wound of battle, they connect back either to the unsubstantiated claim that Salinger had an undescended testicle, and that his subsequent humiliation helped distort his sexual life, or to the theory that Salinger’s doomed romance with 18-year-old Oona O’Neill, who rejected him to marry 53-year-old Charlie Chaplin, “formatted him forever” with a compulsion to seduce and reject very young women.

Every few chapters, Salerno and Shields intersperse various “conversations” with Salinger, loosely construed. (One describes a biographer who almost met him, but didn’t.) Some of these come from young women whom Salinger seduced, including one of Shields and Salerno’s genuine scoops: they have identified one young lover, mentioned in earlier books only as “J,” as a woman named Jean Miller, who has agreed to be interviewed about their relationship for the first time.

Salinger’s ardent but largely chaste relationships with pubescent women have long been the subject of much speculation and censure. Joyce Maynard was the first to come forward, bitter about her exploitation. Miller is more forgiving, despite the fact that Salinger wooed her for five years, from the age of 14; they finally slept together when she was 19 and he dumped her the next day, never speaking to her again. It was a pattern he repeated consistently, a disturbingly literal performance of Holden Caulfield’s fantasy about catching innocents at the point at which they fall. Shields and Salerno admit the pattern: “Salinger is interested in very, very young women – girls really – but so are a lot of men.” So that’s all right then.

The other “conversations” come from journalists who ambushed Salinger at various points – a considerably less sympathetic bunch, petulant and aggrieved that Salinger wouldn’t give what they wanted. “Don’t you feel you have some obligation to your fans?” demanded one, apparently unable to fathom that Salinger might have felt he’d met any obligations in the writing. One reporter barges in on Salinger’s sister, Doris, and complains that “she acted put upon”, perhaps because she was. That sense of entitlement seems shared by Salerno, who suggests that Salinger was not a “ true” recluse because he sometimes spoke to journalists or responded to criticism. What is a true recluse and how do you tell him from a phony?

Although they often seem not to understand Salinger’s writing, endlessly, reductively interpreting it as nothing but a symptom of Salinger’s war trauma, Shields and Salerno also hyperbolically overstate its importance. It’s true that the story “‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ is, quite simply, the announcement of a new sound in American literature”, as long as we disregard everyone from Mark Twain to Ernest Hemingway. The Catcher in the Rye is “the greatest antiestablishment book of all time” if we discount 1984, The Trial, The Great Gatsby, Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter, and countless others.

In fact, Catcher is very much the descendant of an American vernacular tradition: the plain-speaking narrator who strips away his culture’s hypocrisies. Holden Caulfield is a prep-school Huck Finn, both true prophets rejecting false societies. Salinger owes an equal debt to the tough talking of Ernest Hemingway, and his revelatory use of dialogue; and there is more than a little F Scott Fitzgerald there, too, a writer who is Holden Caulfield’s idol and was one of Salinger’s, with whom he shares a sense of the poignancy that comes from a romantic hope that the critical intelligence realises is impossible.

The book’s closing salvo is the claim that the Salinger estate is going to release some of Salinger’s unpublished writing, including a novella that deals with his memories of the war, and a short-story sequel to Catcher. Salinger’s estate has remained quiet in the face of these claims, but the idea that they might publish is hardly surprising. The question is not of these works’ existence, but of their quality. As Holden Caulfield is fond of pointing out, people always clap for the wrong reasons.

Sarah Churchwell is professor of American literature and public understanding of the humanities at the University of East Anglia


Letter in response to this article:

Trauma of home life with harridans / From Mr Harold Rubin

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