JD Salinger gets the biography he didn’t want
A revealing new biography of JD Salinger raises an important question, writes David Free. How much are we entitled to know about a man who didn’t want to be known?
‘ THERE is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about,’’ said Oscar Wilde, ‘‘ and that is not being talked about.’’ It would be an unusual writer who didn’t find that paradox amusingly true. JD Salinger, who was an unusual man all round, wouldn’t have found it funny at all. For him, nothing was worse than being talked about.
After the success of The Catcher in the Rye, his first and only novel, Salinger turned himself into the most famous recluse in the world. Holed up in his cabin in Cornish, New Hampshire, he issued a trickle of increasingly sterile short stories. Finally he fell silent altogether. When he died in 2010, aged 91, he had not published a word in 45 years.
As long as he remained alive, Salinger made things notoriously hard for would-be biographers. Since his death, the floodgates have opened. In 2010 came Kenneth Slawenski’s rather amateurish JD Salinger: A Life Raised High. Earlier this month there was the release of the vigorously hyped documentary film Salinger, directed by Shane Salerno.
And now we have the biography of the same name, co-authored by Salerno and David Shields, and billed as ‘‘ the official book of the acclaimed documentary film’’. When the film failed to attract much detectable acclaim, that tagline started to sound ominous. One feared the arrival of a 700-page turkey.
But Salinger is far better than you might expect, as long as you don’t expect it to be a literary biography in the classic sense. It is an oral biography, more or less, although it draws on written sources as well as original interviews. Occasionally the authors provide a bit of context or commentary.
Otherwise their book is a vivid collage of other voices, with plenty of pictures sprinkled around to complete the scrapbooky effect.
There are moments when the absence of a discriminating central voice gets you down. Also, infuriatingly, there is no index. But you can’t fault the authors’ diligence. If you want all the available facts about Salinger, including the icky ones, this biography is a big and raucous one-stop shop.
We open on a note out of Saving Private Ryan. The year is 1944; Salinger, aged 25, is storming Utah Beach on D-Day. Back home in New York he had acquired a reputation for his smart short stories. Now, drafted into the US Army, he is headed for some of the most horrific engagements of the war. After Normandy he saw action in the Hurtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. Finally, he was present at the liberation of Dachau, where the survivors could scarcely be told apart from the corpses.
One of the book’s main arguments is that Salinger’s traumatic war experiences explain most of his later eccentricities. It’s hard to dismiss this thesis. The smell of burning flesh, he once told his daughter, never leaves the nostrils. While still in Germany he suffered a nervous breakdown. He committed himself to a civilian hospital to avoid a psychiatric discharge.
Back in New York, as restored to health as he was ever going to be, Salinger completed a novel whose early chapters he had lugged with him across Europe. The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951. Its 16-year-old narrator and star was Holden Caulfield, whose slangy, profane and unforgettable voice made young people feel Salinger could read their minds.
By 1961, the book was selling a quarter of a million copies a year. (Its sales to date number 65 million.) It turned Salinger into an icon, which was the last thing he wanted to be. He hadn’t even wanted his photograph on the back cover. Suddenly he was pitched into America’s turbulent and frightening mainstream — the moronic inferno, as Saul Bellow called it.
Two years after Catcher’s publication, Salin- ger began his retreat from society. Fulfilling a wish of Holden Caulfield’s, he bought his cabin in the woods. Then he built a large fence around it. He began to shun worldly things, such as publication and medicine that worked. He embraced Buddhism, macrobiotics, Scientology, hom0eopathy, Christian Science and, ultimately, Vedanta Hinduism. He drank his own urine in a bid to purify himself.
Salinger couldn’t have been clearer about his wish to be left alone. But many a busybody, loner and scoop-seeker construed his silence as a come-on, a tease. They fondly imagined he may be pleased to see them, even if he wanted to see nobody else. So they camped at the bottom of his driveway. They staked out the post office where he collected his mail. They staged car accidents outside his house, having smeared themselves with fake blood.
If Salinger wasn’t paranoid to start with, such encounters must have helped him get that way. By the end of his life he could be more than a bit crabby. His former nanny recalls dropping by to collect his annual Red Cross donation. Salinger was waiting on the porch with his gun. He threatened to shoot at the ground if she came a step closer.
Millions of sane readers, of course, read and loved Salinger’s novel without interpreting it as an invitation to hassle him, or do something even worse. But it can’t be denied that the book was a magnet for ratbags. The biggest ratbag of all was Mark Chapman, murderer of John Lennon, who convinced himself Lennon was a ‘‘ phony’’ — Holden Caulfield’s gravest term of abuse. Chapman took a copy to the crime scene. While waiting to be arrested, he silently read it. John Hinckley, would-be assassin of Ronald Reagan, was another of the book’s more unhinged devotees.
Shields and Salerno devote an unforgivably