‘J. D. Salinger: The Escape Artist,’ by Thomas Beller
“J. D. Salinger: The Escape Artist,” by Thomas Beller, is a story of echoes. In this short, sensitive and irresistible biography, echoes ricochet from Salinger to Beller and back, bouncing off a word, a phrase, an accent, a memory, a chat with an acquaintance. Beller grew up in Salinger’s far-reaching shadow, that cool, shady place so many kids have discovered in “The Catcher in the Rye”: the overwhelming relief of shared anxiety. He also grew up in New York. The sidewalks, the gravel paths of Central Park, the elevators and white-tiled bathrooms that figure so prominently in Salinger’s work are part of Beller’s vocabulary, too. He writes about New York in both his fiction and nonfiction with intimacy and patience and wonder. New York City is a unifying theme in “J. D. Salinger,” almost as much as Salinger’s life itself, almost as much as Salinger’s work. It is in New York, the fictional, literary city and the actual city, where the two writers truly meet.
Salinger, Beller notes, writes about New York landmarks like Grand Central Terminal or the Museum of Natural History in an “offhanded way. . . . They are not monuments to be ogled, they are part of the landscape through which his characters move.” Beller writes about New York in the same easy, familiar way. He has also found a way to write about J. D. Salinger, surely a literary monument if ever there was one, without ogling. Salinger, like New York, becomes inevitable, a landscape.
Being the biographer of an icon (this series of biographies is, in fact, called “Icons”) is usually a partisan affair. But in the case of Salinger, simply to contemplate a biography is a provocative act. This is a famous recluse whose iconic status rests to some degree on his severe privacy and litigious rage against biographers. Even a sycophantist hagiography is seen as an assault by many Salinger fans. As for the other camp, there is plenty of ammunition already, firsthand. Salinger’s disturbing icon-sullying behavior has appeared in memoirs by his daughter (describing a selfish urine-drinking monomaniac) and by Joyce Maynard (revealing an unsavory penchant for women so young we really do have to call them girls). So what is Beller trying to do here, anyway?
He’s trying to understand. His treatment of Salinger’s obsession with secrecy as well as the media’s obsession with Salinger’s obsession with secrecy is a marvel of calm and clarity. Beller has no interest in shooting down his iconic prey or placing him, stuffed, on a shelf to worship and defend. Instead, he is listening. And looking. And thinking. The result is both lyrical and precise, a writer’s experience of another writer’s letters and stories, handwriting, hallways and editors, women and girls, family, finances, trauma and enduring legacy.
He begins with an anecdote of the 4-year-old Salinger. Sonny, as he was then called, dresses in full Indian regalia, complete with feathered headdress, packs his suitcase with toy soldiers, and runs away — then waits in the lobby of his apartment building until his mother gets home. “Mother, I’m running away,” he said. “But I stayed to say goodbye to you.”
From that faint but resonant echo of Salinger’s story “Down at the Dinghy,” Beller moves on to Camp Wigwam in Maine, where Sonny spent the summer of 1930 when he was 11. Beller heads straight to a cabin called Comanches, an echo from another story, “The Laughing Man,” and feels himself caught up in a “lovely circuit” of the camp’s happiness as it flowed to Salinger, then to his work, then to his young reader, now biographer.
His search through the landscape called J. D. Salinger is modest and intense, like all of Beller’s work. What could have been just the old literary biography game of matching Salinger’s life with his fiction is, instead, a walk through a vibrant, historical, contemporary world. Beller has long run a website called Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, filled with stories of New York. This biography is a kind of Mr. Salinger’s Neighborhood. It examines what surrounds its subject as much as, sometimes more than, the man himself — as a book of echoes must.
One of the many endearing qualities of the book is Beller’s obvious enjoyment at including the perfect, irrelevant anecdote. In the chapter about Whit Burnett, Salinger’s writing teacher and the publisher of his first stories, Beller relates the moment Burnett met the woman who would become his wife and collaborator, Martha Foley. Arriving at his new job at the San Francisco newspaper where Foley worked, he told her he’d had to work his way out on the train from New York. “His job was to ride standing in the cattle car and pick up the cows when they fell over.”
Because Beller gets New York with all its nuances of class and money, he understands the Salinger family’s triumphant rise from Upper Broadway to Park Avenue and what it must have meant not just to the proud parents, but also to a boy leaving the familiar Jewish West Side for the WASPy Upper East Side. Beller bestows on his insights an invigorating physicality. As he stands in Central Park one cold, blustery day facing the now defunct private school Salinger entered in 1932 (and was expelled from in 1934), he says, “A lot can happen in the interval between school and home, especially when school and home are two points at opposite corners of Central Park.” With that simple observation — that Salinger made his way across the park twice a day, five days a week, often getting home just in time for dinner — the park’s prominence in “The Catcher in the Rye” and other Salinger works takes on a new poignancy. But the park and the city are there, Beller says, “in all kinds of ways that are less quantifiable.” A writer’s influences can be “nonliterary and often unconscious. The street lamps in Central Park at dusk, or the gray hexagonal-block sidewalks that line the perimeter of the park, which look the same today as they did when J. D. Salinger was a kid, are present in his writing without ever being mentioned. The city is itself a worn and used thing, the stones smoothed by a million heels pounding on them like tidal waves on rocks, its landscape unforgiving but also a refuge to which one can adapt, and within which one can, at least for an afternoon, disappear.”
One reason Beller’s book is so engaging (and it is, even for a Salinger agnostic like me) is that Thomas Beller is himself so engaged. There he is examining the layout of the walls in the apartment where Salinger spent his teens, or scrutinizing the typeface of the stationery and the salutations of the letters Salinger wrote over a span of decades. His book is so alive that even something as cerebral as the act of editing has its own particular smell: “the smell of omissions, of brush having been cleared.” He sniffs this especially once Salinger begins publishing in The New Yorker, where he was edited by Gustave Lobrano from 1948 until Lobrano’s death in 1956. “The more I researched,” Beller writes, “the more I realized that the leap in Salinger’s work that occurs in 1948 is attributable to Lobrano’s editing.”
Beller’s amused account of his “nearly hysterical” urgency as he pursues Lobrano’s skeptical daughter for an interview is typical of the tenor of the book and the enterprise as a whole. He is not scrounging for scraps of gossip somehow overlooked by previous biographers. He is celebrating an insufficiently recognized editor! He simply wants to, needs to, let people know: “Here was this enormously important figure who had not gotten his due.” “J. D. Salinger” is the story of the resonance of its subject, but it is also the story of a generous, humorous, sensitive writer, which is to say, Thomas Beller. Not much escapes him.
J. D. Salinger: The Escape Artist
By Thomas Beller
181 pp. New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $20.
What do you recall about your first experiences reading Salinger’s work?
I read him in eighth grade, and recall more about the teacher, Mr. Colan, and the atmosphere he created, than the book. He had this fateful charisma about him. He treated literature like it was some kind of explosive device that needed to be handled carefully.
You write that there’s been a “long and undistinguished history of people getting excited about investigating Salinger — they always sound like self-aggrandizing burglars.” How did you set out to avoid that problem?
The paradox of writing a biography about J.D. Salinger is that to have any affinity with his work, and by extension any interest in the man who wrote it, is to know that Salinger was vehemently opposed to a biography. My approach was to make this paradox, which itself has a Salinger-like sense of koan, central to the writing process.
That is why Ian Hamilton and his ill-fated biography feature so prominently. Hamilton wrote to Salinger informing him of the project. Salinger wrote back attempting to dissuade him from his biography. The letter serves as Salinger’s manifesto against the whole biographical industrial complex, which he saw stretching from the tabloids to academia. To say this sentiment of his gave me pause is an understatement. It paralyzed me. Then I realized that this emphasis on burglary, this obsession with privacy and purloined objects had been present in Salinger’s work from the very beginning. His first published story, “The Young Folks,” ends with an unseen theft that the reader is left to imagine. The obstacle became a portal.
Is there any evidence that Salinger realized at some point that his chosen mode of escaping media attention may have actually exacerbated the problem?
“Realized” suggests that he might have regretted the way he conducted himself in his relations with the press. And while I hesitate to presume, I strongly doubt he had any regrets along those lines, or any doubt of the correctness of his position. His desire to avoid publicity was not a reaction to publicity; its roots predate “The Catcher in the Rye”’s publication. After it came out, when it first started to sell, he lobbied for the removal of his author photo. By the third edition it was gone. I think his demand for the right to have a private life was valorous, utterly justified and prescient, given our era’s headlines. As for its effectiveness — I call my chapter on the subject “The Miscalculation.”
You say that “callow youth” was the “age for which he seems to have the most effortless empathy and whose music he hears most clearly.” Why do you think that was?
The rhythm in his writing, his dialogue, is like that of a good dancer — light on their feet, able to lead with a light touch, receptive to cues. He heard that youthful sound, was able to get it on the page. What is interesting is that his ability to get it on the page commenced around the time he stopped being a callow youth. His first published story was written in the last months of his teenage years. He was particularly good at a certain brassiness I associate with conversation of the forties, when everyone spoke as if everyone else was hard of hearing. But then I have this impression, in large part, from reading J. D. Salinger.
Why didn’t Salinger address World War II in his writing?
He did address it. But the stories that deal with the war most directly were not collected into a book and are therefore outside the four books that comprise the Salinger canon. Most of the work he wrote during the forties circles the war — most pointedly by evoking mothers who are scared to death about their sons’ prospects. “A Boy in France” unfolds in a foxhole, but after some vivid scene-setting the action narrows, the soldier pulls out a letter from home, and the foxhole may as well be the bathtub containing Zooey Glass. And then there is “For Esme — With Love and Squalor,” probably his most famous work outside of “Catcher,” and very much about the effects of the war.
In one chapter, you emphasize the importance of the New Yorker editor Gustave Lobrano, who “helped shape” Salinger’s writing voice. How did he change the work?
Lobrano’s sensibility was incredibly in sync with Salinger’s, but in one key respect it was at odds: Lobrano had minimal patience with obscurity. This seemed to apply both on the page and in life. He developed friendships with his writers, took them to lunch, played tennis with them, organized softball games.
Roger Angell gets his own chapter in my book, partly because he grew up a few blocks away from Salinger and could talk about the landscape at the time, partly because he was present at the New Yorker throughout Salinger’s career as a contributor, and partly because he himself was edited by Lobrano. Roger wrote to me at one point that “ ‘Always think of the reader’ is the best advice for a young writer.” I can’t help but think that this echoes Lobrano’s point of view, as well. That Lobrano has not been recognized for his contribution to Salinger’s work is due in part to the fact that he died young. His daughter, Dorothy Lobrano Guth, who had worked at the New Yorker herself, was a major source for my book. She shared letters that Salinger wrote her father, never before seen, that give an excellent sense of that relationship. The whole book is, in a way, preoccupied with fathers, and Lobrano and his relationship to Salinger is central to that theme.
How do you think “The Catcher in the Rye” holds up? Jennifer Schuessler wrote a piece in The Times five years ago, with evidence that young readers “just don’t like Holden as much as they used to.”
The key to understanding a decline is understanding the point from which it is declining. “Catcher” was an anthem for several generations of readers, and there’s no shame if its audience narrows a bit. It has certainly not vanished.
When I read the book in my twenties I was pretty down on it, perhaps disappointed by how it compared to my memory of it, or to the hype around it, and maybe impatient with a time of life I was eager to move beyond. But reading it again more recently I thought it was great, especially as a guide to the experience of an individual moving through the city, the parallel movements of the inner and outer landscape. Since so many people read “The Catcher in the Rye” when they are young, it becomes the occasion for this revisiting, which deepens the experience of reading him. At least it did for me.
Did you finish writing the book feeling significantly different about any particular aspect of Salinger’s personal life or work?
Yes! The part of Salinger’s life that I was most excited to learn about and contemplate was his family life — the relationships with his mother, father, and especially his sister, Doris. I found the details of his movement from being a child to being a writer fascinating. The locus of that transition was the period of time when he awoke, almost literally, in Whit Burnett’s classroom at Columbia in 1939, and started producing writing whose voice and style was immediately recognizable as that of J. D. Salinger. What led up to that transition and the almost immediate ascent into the realm of being a promising, well-published short story writer?
I came to feel, in the course of this project, that too much time and energy has been devoted to the least interesting, least productive part of his life, those years of silence up in Cornish, N.H., while the most interesting and productive part of his life, which includes the period in which he wrote all the books for which is famous, has been underserved. My book seeks to redress that imbalance.