J.D. Salinger is mostly famous for two things:
He wrote the 1951 novel “Catcher in the Rye,” in which central character Holden Caulfield became a symbol of adolescent alienation and loss of innocence. More than 65 million copies have been sold. It still sells a quarter of a million copies a year.
Salinger spent the rest of his life trying to avoid public scrutiny. He became famous as a recluse who rejected the trappings of fame.
Before “Catcher in the Rye” came out, he made his publishers agree that they would not send him any reviews of the book and that he would do no publicity on behalf of it. Salinger believed those things would have a negative impact on his writing. He secluded himself in a rural New Hampshire farmhouse. He and second wife Claire had daughter Margaret, then son Matt there before their marriage ended in 1967.
By 1965, he was so angered by how his writing was received and how the publishing game worked that he simply stopped publishing. He always claimed, however, that he did not stop writing. More on that later.
Now comes a documentary Salinger surely would have hated, filled with speculation about his writing, his private life (particularly his sexual proclivities) and the possible reasons he rejected publicity.
“Salinger” opens Friday at Film Streams. It has commentary from famous admirers who never knew him, such as actors John Cusack, Edward Norton and Philip Seymour Hoffman; and from writers John Guare, Robert Towne, Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal, E.L. Doctorow and Pulitzer winners A. Scott Berg and Elizabeth Frank.
Reviews of the movie, quite mixed, note that it dwells on the salacious: Salinger’s apparent romantic fixation on young women; the fact that Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin, John Hinckley Jr., and John Lennon’s assassin, Mark Chapman, had personal copies of “Catcher in the Rye” — Chapman hid his gun under it before firing; and so on.
The movie even suggests Salinger shrewdly avoided publicity in order to generate more of it.
I haven’t seen the film. But I did read the Paul Alexander biography “Salinger,” which the movie credits as source material.
Jerome David Salinger was born Jan. 1, 1919, in New York City. His father, Sol, was the son of a Chicago rabbi. Sol made an excellent living managing a meat and cheese import business. J.D.’s mother, Marie, was a Christian who changed her name to Miriam.
J.D. washed out of prep school in New York. Dad decided to toughen him up at a military prep school. His writing improved more than his grades. He tried two different colleges. Except for a love of writing, that didn’t take either.
His father then sent him to Europe in 1937 to learn the meat and cheese business. He hated it, but he became fluent in French and German and began submitting short stories to upscale magazines: Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker. He began to be published in 1940.
He romanced Oona O’Neill, 16-year-old daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, when he was 23. It was the first of many times he would take up with a girl on the verge of womanhood. That romance ended when Oona began seeing eventual husband Charlie Chaplin.
Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Salinger joined the Army. His fluency in French and German landed him in counterintelligence. He helped storm Utah Beach on D-Day. He interrogated French locals and German prisoners of war. He marched into Paris when the city was liberated and met Ernest Hemingway. He was in bloody Hurtgen Forest as part of the Battle of the Bulge. He helped liberate a concentration camp. What he went through was so horrific, he was hospitalized for what was then called combat fatigue. Today it might be called post-traumatic stress disorder. Or a nervous breakdown.
His writing never stopped, but it did become darker. He married a German woman, a Nazi sympathizer, but it lasted less than a year. One of his short stories, “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” became a movie, “My Foolish Heart,” written by the screenwriters for “Casablanca.” He hated it. That probably explains why “Catcher in the Rye” has never become a movie.
His only other published books were collections of short stories that had been in magazines.
So far, that is. The makers of “Salinger” are now saying he left instructions to publish, between 2015 and 2020, a Holden Caulfield short story; a World War II love story based on his marriage to the Nazi collaborator; a counterintelligence agent’s diary, based on his World War II experience interrogating prisoners; and a religious manual about Advaita Vendanta Hinduism, of which he was an avid student.
Salinger, who died in January 2010 shortly after his 91st birthday, may have more to say that will shake up — or confirm — his biographers’ hunches.