A Biography From David Shields and Shane Salerno
By David Shields and Shane Salerno
Illustrated. 698 pages. Simon & Schuster. $37.50.
By Michiko Kakutani
25 August 2013
Salinger stopped publishing decades ago (his last story to appear in print, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” came out in the June 19, 1965, issue of The New Yorker), but, by some reports, he continued to write nearly every day.
In “Salinger,” Mr. Salerno and Mr. Shields assert that Salinger, who died in January 2010 at 91, left instructions “authorizing a specific timetable” (starting between 2015 and 2020) for the release of unpublished work, including five new Glass family stories; a novel based on his relationship with his first wife, Sylvia Welter, a German he married shortly after World War II; a novella in the form of a counterintelligence officer’s diary entries during the war; a story-filled “manual” about the Vedanta religious philosophy; and new or retooled stories fleshing out the story of Holden Caulfield, known to generations of readers from “The Catcher in the Rye,” the novel that made its creator famous in 1951 as the voice of adolescent angst. The authors of “Salinger” attribute details of these plans to two anonymous sources described as “independent and separate.”
The sharp-edged portrait of Salinger that Mr. Shields and Mr. Salerno draw in this book is that of a writer whose “life was a slow-motion suicide mission” — a man who never recovered from the horrors of wartime combat and the soul-shaking sight of a Nazi death camp filled with burned and smoldering corpses. Salinger, they argue, tried to grapple with his post-traumatic stress disorder first with art and later with religion: “The war broke him as a man and made him a great artist; religion offered him postwar spiritual solace and killed his art.”
This reductive diagnosis of Salinger’s “condition” is accompanied by pages and pages of testimony about how his youthful arrogance (one friend said he dismissed “Dreiser through Hemingway” as “all inferior” writers) and disaffection with his parents’ bourgeois world calcified, after the war, into a deep antipathy, even repugnance for most worldly things and ideas. Eventually, that contempt infected many of his closest relationships, and as depicted in these pages, an observant, Holden-like young man evolves over the years into a blinkered and condescending curmudgeon who is frequently guilty of the same sort of phoniness or hypocrisy his characters so deplored.
Salinger’s family, the authors say, had to compete for his attention with the fictional characters he’d created. One scholar quoted here says that when Salinger went off to his writing bunker, he gave “strict orders that he was not to be disturbed for anything unless the house was burning down.” What’s more, as he retreated from the world, his writing grew increasingly solipsistic and hermetic, his mastery of the vernacular giving way to more and more abstract language.
“Story by story,” Mr. Salerno and Mr. Shields observe, “from ‘Teddy’ forward, Salinger’s work moves from religion as a factor or even a crutch in his characters’ lives, to religion as the only thing in their lives that matters, to the work’s entire purpose being to cryptically convey religious dogma.”
“Salinger,” self-promotingly described on its cover as “The Official Book of the Acclaimed Documentary Film,” is not a conventional biography but a kind of companion volume to Mr. Salerno’s documentary of the same name (to be released on Sept. 6). The book takes a montagelike form: Excerpts from interviews, snippets from books and newspaper articles, letters and photos (some new) and photocopies of documents have all been assembled along with the authors’ own remarks into a sprawling, cut-and-paste collage.
This volume is indebted to earlier Salinger biographies by Paul Alexander (listed curiously as “an adviser to this book”) and Kenneth Slawenski, and it also draws heavily upon memoirs by Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, and his former lover Joyce Maynard, who was 18 when he began courting her. Among the other voices featured in this book are Salinger friends, paramours, colleagues, acquaintances and fans, as well as reporters, critics (including this one) and photographers.
Although Mr. Salerno has done an energetic job of finding sources and persuading them to talk — he says he interviewed more than 200 people over nine years — numerous entries in this volume have been taken not from new interviews but from earlier books and articles, sometimes with and sometimes without real context. Mr. Shields offered a defense of this sort of approach in his 2010 book, “Reality Hunger,” which embraced the validity of “recombinant,” or appropriation, art.
This methodology gives the reader a choral, “Rashomon”-like portrait of Salinger, but it also makes for a loosey-goosey, Internet-age narrative with diminished authorial responsibility. Instead of assiduously sifting fact from conjecture and trying to sort out discrepancies, Mr. Salerno and Mr. Shields are often content to lay back and simply let sources speak for themselves.
This can make for sloppy scholarship with a lot of hedges like “probably thought,” “would have understood” and “might have been,” as well as outright speculation — sometimes by the authors themselves. Mr. Shields and Mr. Salerno even suggest that “Catcher” in some way played a role in the killings of John Lennon and the young actress Rebecca Schaeffer, and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. These terrible acts, the authors write, “are not a coincidence; they constitute frighteningly clairvoyant readings of ‘Catcher’ — the assassins intuiting the underlying postwar anger and violence in the book.”
The authors contend that Salinger “was born with only one testicle” and they argue that this caused him enormous embarrassment — that it was “surely one of the many reasons he stayed out of the media glare” so as “to reduce the likelihood that this information would emerge,” and that it amplified his psychological need “to create flawless art.” This assertion, however, is based on anonymous sources: two unnamed women who the authors say “independently confirmed” hearsay that Salinger suffered from this anomaly.
In another chapter, Mr. Shields and Mr. Salerno discuss outsourcing their research. They write that they “hired the literary scholar, Salinger expert, and German native Eberhard Alsen to travel to Germany to conduct an extensive investigation into Salinger’s year in the European Theater and postwar experience in Germany.” Mr. Alsen then proceeds to say that “utilizing his counterintelligence skills, Salinger forged French identification papers for Sylvia in order to circumvent the nonfraternization law,” and suggests, without hard evidence, that Sylvia “might have been a Gestapo informant.”
Attempting to identify patterns in Salinger’s life and art, Mr. Salerno and Mr. Shields quote sources who note his compulsion to try to control the lives of those closest to him and his appreciation of fiction as a way to orchestrate his fantasies. Innocence and nostalgia, they remind us, were recurring themes in his work, and they suggest that these preoccupations — not unlike his fondness for old-fashioned television like “The Lawrence Welk Show” — represented a desire to turn back the clock, to retreat to the past (before the war, before his hospitalization for “battle fatigue,” before his psyche was horribly scarred).
They also contend that this yearning for innocence — coupled with his devastation at being dumped as a young man by the teenage Oona O’Neill for Charlie Chaplin in 1943 — had something to do with his need to seek out young women: his need to idolize them, seduce them and then abandon them. With Jean Miller — a 14-year-old he met at a Florida beach resort in 1949 and who seems to have inspired the heroine of “For Esmé — With Love and Squalor” — he nurtured a five-year relationship, only to freeze her out the day after they had sex for the first time.
There is something creepy in Salinger’s use of his distinctive Holden-esque voice to try to charm his potential conquests — in a 1972 letter to Ms. Maynard the 53-year-old author describes himself as “perhaps the last active Mousketeer east of the White House” — and his judgmental, Glass-ian impulse to divide the world into us and them, inviting these worshipful young love interests to join his elite little club, only to expel them later with a curt dismissal that they’re merely ordinary or conventional, not special enough for him.
“The problem with you, Joyce,” Ms. Maynard recalls him saying, “is you love the world.”
An explosive new biography of JD Salinger argues that 'The Catcher in the Rye’ was really a disguised wartime novel. Up to a point, says Christopher Tayler.
07 Sep 2013
When JD Salinger died, aged 91, in January 2010, he had been famous for not wanting to be famous for the best part of 50 years. The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951, had quickly made him an uneasy object of public fascination, though he wasn’t considered properly elusive until the early Sixties, when a spate of bad reviews triggered by Franny and Zooey coincided with biographical investigations by reporters from Newsweek, Time and Life. The figure they unearthed – a tall man in a boiler suit who didn’t want journalists near his property in Cornish, New Hampshire – became an emblem of American reclusion when he stopped publishing new work in 1965. By the measure of book sales and cultural mystique, this arrangement worked quite well for him. But his evident rage and terror during ambushes by the press seemed to tell a different story.
In spite of Salinger’s prohibitions, a fair amount of information leaked out over the decades. In the Eighties Ian Hamilton pieced together the outline of his pre-seclusion life (the result has been republished by Faber), and though Salinger’s lawyers managed to have the first two versions of Hamilton’s book pulped, the legal battle made a sheaf of his letters consultable. Later, memoirs by Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, and a former lover, Joyce Maynard, served up reams of material on his emotional and sexual failings. His religious passions – Zen Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, mostly – and obsessions with raw foods, homoeopathy and the like didn’t go undocumented either. So after his death the main questions were: had he really, as claimed, been writing for all that time? If so, would we get to see the results? And would further biographical details help to explain his apparent transformation from wisecracking genius to embittered crank?
David Shields and Shane Salerno think they have the answers, and with regard to the first two questions it’ll be good news if they’re right. Their claim – “verified by two independent and separate sources,” they say – is that there’s a mass of unseen Salinger writings set to be published “in irregular instalments starting between 2015 and 2020”. Better still, these aren’t limited to “a 'manual’ of Vedanta” and five new stories, “saturated in the teachings of the Vedantic religion”, about the Glass family. We’re promised a novel and a novella drawing on Salinger’s experiences in the war, plus an expanded body of fiction concerning Holden Caulfield. Salinger’s literary executors – his son, Matthew, and third wife, Colleen O’Neill – haven’t issued a denial, though they’ve been frosty towards Shields and Salerno and generally seem to have a Salingerian policy towards intruders. (Thomas Beller, the author of a forthcoming biography, also got the cold shoulder.)
Still, it has to be said that this book doesn’t inspire confidence in the Salinger estate’s ability to carry out a master plan. Energetically researched and containing some notable scoops, it’s non-Salingerian in spirit to an almost comical degree: over-emphatic, lurid, Hollywood-inflected and altogether the kind of production that the executors would surely have done better to pre-empt or co-opt. It’s also not so much an oral biography as a multimedia event, being “the official book” of a big screen documentary directed by Salerno, the screenwriter of Armageddon and Aliens vs Predator: Requiem. A well-heeled Salinger nut, he’s said to have thrown $2 million of his own money into the project when not working on an Avatar sequel with James Cameron. Shields, an admired novelist turned non-fiction writer, has been brought on board to add some highbrow credentials as well as literary know-how – with mixed results.
From the start, it’s clear that the story they want to tell has been shaped as much by dramatic beats (as they’re known in the movie business) as it has by a feeling for Salinger’s life. It begins with an account of the D-Day landings designed to leave the reader in no doubt that there was this thing called the Second World War and that it was a big deal. Salinger took part in the landings and the book repeatedly pictures him wading ashore with the first six chapters of Catcher in his kitbag. But since his only direct account of these events runs, “I landed on Utah Beach on D-Day with the Fourth Division”, we’re clobbered with endless imaginative quotations from military historians (“The men felt their muscles tighten as the word was whispered back that the coast was just ahead”) and non-Salingeresque paeans to the fighting spirit. “Saving Private Caulfield” seems to be the aimed-for effect.
Salinger’s beginnings as a half-Jewish prep school kid from a posh Manhattan neighbourhood get less coverage, partly, perhaps, because they’re less impactful than the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of the Kaufering IV concentration camp, both of which are dealt with in greater depth. To be fair, the emphasis on the war is in line with one of the book’s main arguments: that Salinger’s psychic difficulties were partly caused by his experiences of combat and the Holocaust. This isn’t a crazy notion, and it even makes sense to speak – as Shields and Salerno often do – of Catcher as a disguised war novel. But they want the idea to do too much. Salinger was in counterintelligence: that’s why he was secretive! The landscape around Cornish looks a bit like the Hürtgen Forest! It doesn’t help that they insist on translating “battle fatigue” into “post-traumatic stress disorder”, a way of thinking about war damage that emerged only after Vietnam.
Women provide the book’s other main key to what it terms, a bit weirdly, Salinger’s “death-dealing soul”. (Shields, in his frequent imaginative reveries on Salinger’s psychology, often sounds like a profiler going to work on Hannibal Lecter.) Again the basic argument – that his emotional life was arrested – is hard to disagree with: until late in the day he was mostly interested in Ivy League undergraduates with literary ambitions and alarming little-girlish looks. Sex, though, wasn’t high on his agenda and often seems to have persuaded him, when it happened, that women were phoneys.
The book is impressively non-judgmental about all this but puts too much weight on a theory that Oona O’Neill, a socialite he dated before the war, “formatted him forever”. It puts a similar weight on a theory that Salinger’s cardinal tragic wound was an undescended testicle, a theory based on what one witness said he remembered hearing Salinger tell Hemingway in 1944.
Shields and Salerno have pulled off several coups, such as tracking down a former teenage lover previously known only as “J” and persuading her to go on the record. They’ve hoovered up startling gossip from earlier biographers – a story, for instance, that Salinger became infatuated with the actress who played Amanda Carrington in Dynasty – and supply an interesting perspective on the cult-like world of William Shawn’s New Yorker. Against that, Shields’s musings often seem a little unhinged (he’s big on the present tense and gnomic assurance, as in: “He’s learning to aim the gun at himself”) and there are some surprising critical voices in the mix: John Cusack, Ed Norton, Jake Gyllenhaal. The book relentlessly hypes its own claims. The “torrid love affair with a Gestapo agent” turns out to mean that Salinger might have suspected his Franco-German first wife of having been an informer, though there’s no evidence that she was. He also spoke of being in telepathic contact with her.
The best parts of the book deal with Salinger only tangentially. These are the testimonies of the snappers, wily hacks and obsessed fans who, over the years, got a few words or images out of him. As well as introducing a range of vivid chancers, these inter-chapter episodes serve as a reminder that the Salinger myth was largely driven by the fame industry’s enjoyment of watching itself go to town on a refusenik. Treat him as a riddle to be solved and you end up with a pretty commonplace figure: he probably wasn’t the only American man of his generation with bad memories of the war, a thing about co-eds, a selfish way with wives and children, grumpy spiritual yearnings and a dislike of being quizzed by strangers. The trick would be to explain the way such a guy once developed the ear for dialogue and control of tone that got us interested in the first place, but that’s hard to do and affords limited opportunities for a killer montage.
695pp, Simon & Schuster, Telegraph offer price: £23 (PLUS £1.35 p&p) 0844 871 1515 (RRP £25, ebook £12.49)
Five new JD Salinger books on the way
Titles expected between 2015 and 2020, according to new biography and documentary film
An unseen story told from the perspective of JD Salinger's Holden Caulfield and more tales of the recurring character Seymour Glass could start appearing as early as 2015, film-makers revealed at the world premiere of documentary Salinger, at Colorado's Telluride film festival.
Five new Salinger books are expected between 2015 and 2020, the Daily Beast reports. They include The Last and Best of the Peter Pans, a 1962 short story featuring the Catcher in the Rye protagonist Caulfield, and A World War II Love Story, which is based on Salinger's brief marriage to Sylvia, a Nazi collaborator.
The other highly anticipated new works include A Counterintelligence Agent's Diary, based on the writer's experience interrogating prisoners during the final months of the second world war, and A Religious Manual, about Salinger's relationship with Advaita Vendanta Hinduism.
An unseen collection of short stories, The Complete Chronicle of the Glass Family, tells more of Salinger's recurring character, Seymour Glass, who is often said to be a self-portrait and who appears in A Perfect Day for Bananafish and in several novellas.Salinger, a documentary by Shane Salerno and David Shields, took 10 years to complete.
The documentary film on Salinger and a related book suggest the late author instructed his estate to publish at least five posthumous books, authorising a specific publishing timetable that would run from 2015 to 2020.
The book's co-authors Shane Salerno (who is also the film's director) and David Shields write in its introduction that they had three goals: "we wanted to know why Salinger stopped publishing; why he disappeared; and what he had been writing the last 45 years of his life".
After Salinger withdrew from public life in 1951, following the publication of Catcher in the Rye, rumours have swirled about what he was working on, but no one would break the secret. So far, no agent or publisher for the new works has been confirmed and Salinger's closest family have not formally contributed to the latest retelling of his life.