Salinger Betrayed: On Shane Salerno’s "Salinger"

By Cornel BoncaSeptember 15, 2013

Salinger Betrayed: On Shane Salerno’s "Salinger"


I.  What Salinger Would Have Thought 

THE MOST UNEQUIVOCAL THING you can say about both the film documentary Salinger, directed by Shane Salerno, and the “official book of the acclaimed documentary film” Salinger, compiled and edited by Salerno and David Shields, is that J.D. Salinger would have hated every single word and frame in both of them. Hated them, felt enraged, betrayed, flayed by them. That will either matter to you or it won’t. It’ll matter if you believe, as Salinger did, that people — even a writer whose most famous novel has sold over 65,000,000 copies — have the right to their privacy, and that stitching together a biography of a man who strenuously guarded that privacy once The Catcher in the Rye made him a household name — who instructed those close to him to keep absolutely mum about him to reporters, paparazzi, academic moochers, obsessed fans; who in a myriad of direct ways pleaded with those who invaded his life to leave him alone — necessarily results in a distorted and unjust portrait, painted disproportionately by those who, for whatever reason, have axes to grind and scores to settle. It won’t matter if you believe, as Salerno, Shields, and most of American culture appears to believe, that this is the fucking 2010s, that privacy is a quaint throwback, that public figures are deluded to think they can evade media scrutiny, and that — to give you just one instance — the discovery that Jerome David Salinger lived his life with one descended testicle gives one carte blanche to speculate wildly, irresponsibly, without evidence, and with no credible medical or psychological expertise, on how the undescended testicle must have affected his life and work.

Not that one can’t be conflicted about this. People have the right to write or create film biographies of public figures who don’t want their lives investigated: the subject doesn’t get to dictate the terms of the portrait. Furthermore, the fragments that have emerged over the years about Salinger’s life are admittedly captivating: it’s hard to be even a conventionally curious human being and not be roused to fascination by a man who created, in The Catcher in the Rye, the most intimate author-reader relationship of the 20th century while scorning any real-life relationship to his audience; who stopped publishing in 1965 but apparently continued to write — eight or 10 or 12 hours a day — for the next 45 years; and who coupled the charming portraits of young girls in his fiction with a real-life proclivity, acted out well into his 50s, of cultivating romantic relationships with girls in or barely out of adolescence.

So it all depends — as it always does when it comes to author biographies — on how you go about your business, on your passion and sensitivity to your subject, on your insight into the man’s work. On your ability to take masses of material — in this case, hundreds of interviews, previously published memoirs, biographies, criticism, and works of historical context — and make them cohere into a persuasive, honest narrative. And for me, while I’m deeply appreciative of some of the results of their nine years of research into the man — uncovering, for instance, that Salinger’s previously documented nervous breakdown in 1945 was the result not just of unrelenting battles from D-Day through the Battle of the Bulge, but from being one of the first American GIs to walk into the carnage of a Nazi concentration camp — I think that Shields’s and Salerno’s attempt to make sense of the life and of the work of this mysterious man is not just objectionable but in many instances appalling. They’ve crowbarred the manifold complexities of Salinger’s life into a Procrustean bed — a simplistic schematic borrowed from Salinger’s beloved Vedanta teachings — and they’ve interpreted Salinger’s work with blustery overconfidence, essentially reducing four of the most vulnerable works in American literature to aesthetic products of posttraumatic stress disorder. Shields is a fiction writer of considerable talent and sensitivity himself: how he could take the blunt scalpels of his sometimes harebrained psychological insight and rip into Salinger’s work like this is alarming — it amounts to a savage and somehow revengeful disembowelment of a writer that surely says more about Shields than it does about Salinger.  

II.  What We Can Be Grateful For 

The Salinger book — an elaborate cut-and-paste job consisting of transcripts of longer, less edited interviews and other written material that fed into the movie — is, at 698 pages, bloated; nonetheless, it’s stuffed with lots of good raw information and compiled in a way that offers a clear, often compelling narrative. It’s thickly documented, and contains strong helpful appendices, including a mouth-watering one entitled “Lost Stories, Uncollected Stories, and Published Letters” made up of a list of 24 stories Salinger wrote, 20 of which were “never published and cannot be found anywhere now” and four of which are available if you want to take the trouble to go to the special collections rooms of libraries at Princeton or the University of Texas, Austin. Early sections of the book present a vivid, comprehensive, grueling, and very moving narrative of the nine months Salinger spent in World War II. They take us through his landing with the Fourth Infantry Division at Normandy Beach on D-Day, on into the barbaric battle of Hurtgen Forest (during which Salinger’s division lost 3,000 men while gaining only three miles of ground), the even more ferocious and costly Battle of the Bulge during the brutal winter of 1945, before climaxing horribly when Salinger and his fellow soldiers walk unawares into the Kaufering Lager concentration camp, a subsidiary of Dachau. Eberhard Alsen, a Salinger scholar who helped research the book, sets the scene:

As Salinger and his driver drove up to the camp […] they saw the almost one hundred corpses lying in the area between the camp and the railroad crossing. Then, entering the camp, they saw stacks of emaciated corpses. Salinger and his driver continued into the camp and found the source of the terrible smell: there were three barracks buildings, nothing much more than large doghouses, half underground, and these buildings the Nazis had nailed shut with the sick people inside and set on fire. Salinger and his driver saw the burned bodies still smoldering in these ruins.  

No previous biography makes such a strong case for how the war transformed Salinger from a talented but essentially callow writer for the “slicks” — The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Colliers — into a writer whose work is deeply informed by suffering and mental breakdown — “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” “For Esme — With Love and Squalor,” and of course Catcher.

Then there is the biography’s Big News, the information that many of us had longed dreamed of hearing: Salinger left behind five complete manuscripts of mostly new material, and there are plans afoot to publish them in book form, one a year, starting in 2015. The Salinger estate has not confirmed anything, but Shields and Salerno assure us that the “information was provided, documented, and verified by two independent and separate sources.” It gives one pause that these sources refuse to identify themselves — the book and film openly identify 99 percent of the sources of the rest of their material — but the news is such a bombshell that Shields’s and Salerno’s reputations clearly ride on it: if these books don’t see the light of day, Shields and Salerno will look like Geraldo Rivera opening up Al Capone’s vault. Assuming they’re on the level, though, this is the biggest literary “get” of the American 21st century. The books include a World War II novel featuring Sergeant X from “From Esme,” the most intriguing character outside Holden and the Glass family that Salinger ever created. It includes a novella, in diary form, written by a World War II counterintelligence officer — Salinger’s job during the war — “culminating in the Holocaust.” Given Salinger’s war experience and his painstaking writing process, these two works could conceivably add up to a contribution to American World War II literature on a par with the work of Mailer, Jones, Heller, and Pynchon. A third manuscript is, we’re told, a “manual of Vedanta,” a book explaining Vedanta Hinduism (and presumably, its relation to Salinger’s work), “with short stories, almost fables, woven into the text.” Finally, there are two compilations, one entitled The Family Glass, gathering all the published Glass stories together with five new stories about Seymour, the last of which “deals with Seymour’s life after death.” Given that once Salinger got going on the Glasses, his “stories” inevitably metastasized into novellas, this book is likely to be a real tome, and might conceivably be the greatest contribution Salinger makes to American letters, dealing as it must, with the question of how to live a genuine spiritual life in a postwar, post-Holocaust world. Then there’s the final book, which Shields and Salerno describe as “a complete history of the Caulfield family,” gathering Catcher, six previously published (and I would imagine, wholly rewritten) Caulfield stories written in the early-to-mid 1940s, as well as new stories featuring, presumably, Holden, Phoebe, Allie, and D.B. Caulfield. Five new Salinger books! Doubtless, they will make us entirely reconceive Salinger’s current oeuvre. If the books are even close in quality to Catcher or Franny & Zooey, they might reroute the course of late 20th-century American literature.

III. But …

Despite all these revelations — and many others as well — both the book and the Salerno film leave you feeling dirty and a little sick. Perhaps it’s because they make us participants in the Chasing The Recluse game — countless episodes in the book and film are about nothing so much as people trying to get a glimpse of a man who doesn’t want to be glimpsed: Salinger is forever telling people to please leave him alone; he is forever being photographed trying to avoid being photographed, forever enraged at the 500th invasion of private space that he made no secret he needed in order to do his work.

What’s galling about this is that the book and film — and for this we can point, ultimately, to Paul Alexander, a key advisor to the project and the author of a deeply unpleasant, critically clueless biography of Salinger in 1999 — often analyze Salinger’s encounters with fans and reporters as planned passive-aggressive strategies designed to enrich his myth. Why would Salinger contact The New York Times to talk about bootlegged copies of his uncollected stories, Shields and Salerno ask, if he didn’t want to reinsert himself into the literary conversation a decade after he stopped publishing? (Perhaps because he wanted the public to understand his reasons for suing the bookstores hawking those books? No — too simple.) Late in life, why would he go to the $12 roast beef dinners at the First Congregational Church in Hartland, Vermont, and then keep to himself, talking to no one except his wife, if not to enact an “Approach. Avoid. Attract Attention. Spurn it” stratagem that helped him sustain his mystery to the world at large? (Maybe because, writing all day, he wanted to get out a little, but still remained justifiably wary of what could happen when he did? Again, no — too straightforward.) Shields and Salerno twist themselves into knots avoiding the most obvious conclusions: maybe a guy who keeps telling people over and over that he craves his privacy — that the fame that came to him so quickly and so early in his life was devastating to him — well, maybe he means it.

But these are, in a way, quibbles. Much worse are the overly simplistic schema Salerno and Shields use to explain the complex arc of Salinger’s life. In the book’s intro, we get this: “World War II destroyed the man but made him a great artist. Religion provided the comfort he needed but killed his art.” Later, we’re told that Salinger’s life is explicable by means of the four steps of “the Vedantic Way”: apprenticeship, family life, withdrawal, and renunciation. We’re told that from the late 1940s onward, Salinger “bases virtually every decision of his life on Vedanta’s tenets.” What our compiler/editors/interpreters don’t do is supply sufficient evidence or reasons to believe that any of these brash statements are true. One wishes they had attended to Aristotle’s dictum that one should expect no more certainty about a subject than the subject itself warrants. And Salinger as subject — because of the vast unknowns about him, because neither he nor the people who were closest to him (his second wife Claire Douglass, his third wife Colleen O’Neill, and his son, Matthew Salinger) agreed to participate in this project — warrants extreme gingerness of judgment.

For instance, in what sense did World War II “destroy the man”? The war gave him a nervous breakdown, gave him a debilitating case of PTSD, and certainly changed his outlook and his fiction, but “destroyed”?  By no means. There’s ample evidence provided in the book that he maintained friendships, raised a family (though he was clearly neglectful here), and kept a wide and friendly correspondence with many people. And what can it possibly mean that religion “killed his art”? That Salinger’s later fiction is indebted to Vedanta Hinduism is undeniable — as he is indebted to Tolstoyan Christianity, Zen Buddhism, Kafka, Kierkegaard, and many others; Salinger’s influences are ecumenical). But, to take only one example, “Zooey” is no mere dissemination of Vedantic theology: it’s a fully rounded, intimate, strange, warm, and very beautiful portrait of a family in crisis, a “love story, pure and complicated,” as the narrator insists, not a religious story. And even if you think “Zooey” is not a strong piece of fiction (Salerno and Shields don’t; they think the last decent Glass story is “Franny”), how can you, on the one hand, say religion “killed his art,” and then in the biography’s triumphalist conclusion, trumpet the five unpublished books as “the masterworks for which he will forever be known”? Which is it, Mr. Shields and Mr. Salerno? This sort of stark contradiction contributes to the blindly hyper-dramatizing nature of both film and book. The film, in fact, ends with the announcement of the newly discovered works, the titles on the screen backed by orchestral music so absurdly dramatic they could be heralding the second coming of Jesus Christ. 

But even Shields’s and Salerno’s brash, ham-fisted interpretation of Salinger’s life pales in comparison to what they do to his fiction. Two examples will have to suffice. In one section of the bio, Salerno does a reading of The Catcher in the Rye that begins: “That voice is Salinger, direct and unfiltered by the artifice of third-person camouflage. It’s his life, his thoughts, his feelings, his rage, his big beautiful middle finger to the phonies of the world.” One hardly knows where to begin. Holden is not Salinger — Catcher is written by a man reflecting, with an unerring ear but with enviable emotional distance, on who he was as an adolescent. (If Salinger’s adult voice comes through clearly in the novel, it’s in the character of Mr. Antonelli.) Further, the novel is not a big middle finger to the phonies of the world. How could it be? The last line of the novel tells us that Holden “misses” all the phonies he’s told us about, and the whole thrust of Holden’s final revelation when he sees Phoebe going around the merry-go-round is that he must give up sacralizing innocence and embrace precisely the world of adulthood, including all the phonies, that he’s spent his novel castigating. Such a thesis makes a reader want to beg off the rest of the essay, but if one continues, one comes upon further jaw-droppers: Catcher is “a war novel;” when Holden dances with his sister Phoebe, this is “flirtation with the girl-child’s body”; “Kids are potentially the adult dead. They need to be homeschooled by the sage of Hurtgen” (that would be Salinger). Finally, Catcher is not only “the first novel of the counterculture (plausible) but “the last novel of the war” (which effectively erases Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Gravity’s Rainbow from literary history). Salerno gathers up all these bits of critical effluvia into a thesis supplied him by one Andy Rogers, from whom he copiously quotes but whose book on Salinger and the war isn’t included, for some reason, in Salinger’s bibliography. When I Googled it, I discovered that the book was published by VDM Verlag, a German academic vanity press most noted for its republication in print-on-demand book form of articles from Wikipedia.

Shields’s take on Nine Stories, in a critical essay ostentatiously plopped in the midst of the ongoing narrative, reads like the breathless emanations of a man in full thrall to an idée fixe.  The idea is this: “Nine Stories is the serial self-portrait of someone committing suicide, or considering it very seriously. Follow the bullet.” The stories are not about the stories: they’re about Salinger’s death wish in light of his PTSD. Seymour in “Bananafish” is Salinger; the little boy in “Down in the Dinghy”: Salinger; the cuckolded husband in “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes”: Salinger.  Flailing over “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” Shields wonders why Seymour shoots himself. “Why do you do this? Why does the room smell of calfskin luggage and nail-lacquer remover? Why do you look first at your wife? Is it [sic], in some sense, Sylvia, the enemy combatant you [Salinger] married, and by marrying, hoped to heal yourself and unify the world, and whom you now want to punish by traumatizing forever?” Who knows the answer to any of these questions, because all Shields does is throw them out there, enticingly and confusingly. (The question of why Seymour kills himself is a necessary one, of course: it underpins the whole Glass Saga. Since Shields is lost, let me suggest the following: Seymour may have killed himself because he was trying to wake his wife Muriel from her spiritual slumber. That is to say, perhaps he shoots himself in front of her sleeping form so that she will awaken to the shock of her husband’s sacrifice. He will give up his extraordinary life for her very ordinary one: a real life zen koan for her, and for all of us, to contemplate.)

Shields’ essay is a wonder to behold: when he has trouble fitting a story into the thesis, he simply starts paraphrasing the stories, often for whole paragraphs, counting on the charisma of his knotty, paradox-ridden prose to pull a reader along. He hints, he jokes, he speculates, he insinuates, he uses the sort of critical sleight-of-hand that wouldn’t get past a professor in a sophomore English class, he works himself into the kind of interpretive lather that has almost no bearing on the works at hand. After a while, I gave up underlining dubious passages and writing fierce objections next to them, and just wrote “What The Fuck?” next to a whole page. Imposing a coarse biographical template over nine very different stories, he violates their aesthetic essence. It’s a triumph of critical badness; I can’t imagine Shields ever wishing that this kind of hackery would be visited upon his own work.

Both biography and film possess the high gloss of professionalism — give these guys props for doing their homework, for doing their years of legwork in assimilating all these disparate voices into book and film. But finally what comes through, it seems to me, is anger: anger at a man who refuses to be known, who in his obstinate silence mocks their attempts to understand him. Anger, plus a desire to climb on board Salinger’s reputation and ride it for as long as they can. It’s ego, finally, Salerno’s and Shields’s, that undoes their work. Ego, ego, ego — what Salinger always railed against, what he himself was surely guilty of from time to time. Nine years these guys worked on these projects, and they blinkered themselves to Salinger’s greatest lesson. Another koan for us all to contemplate.   


Cornel Bonca is Professor of English at California State University, Fullerton.

LARB Contributor

Cornel Bonca is a professor of English at California State University, Fullerton. He is the author of Paul Simon: An American Tune, and a longtime contributor to LARB.


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