Next week marks the release of a new biography and documentary about J.D. Salinger, whose decades of secrecy and litigiousness makes these kinds of things into major moments. Any new Salinger information is also, for obvious reasons, a cause for worry.
Anyone who loves Salinger wants to believe that he is that author Holden described in Catcher, “a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Any new revelations have the potential to shatter that possibility, especially if the people delivering it focus on the rumors and speculation that have followed their eccentric subject. On the other hand, there is the risk of ignoring the fact that Salinger probably wasn’t always a nice, well-balanced guy.
A Salinger bio is an easy thing to screw up. Fortunately, there are reasons for hope about this latest attempt.
Shane Salerno, who is driving the project, has worked on Salinger for nearly a decade. This is an unlikely commitment if the only payoff is going to be a bunch of scandalous personal details. Nor do I think the Weinstein Company would have invested in making and marketing the movie if there wasn’t more to it than tabloid revelations.
Speaking of the marketing, for a movie about Salinger’s secrets the publicity has so far avoided playing to lower denominators. Mostly, it has consisted of a few tasteful and previously unreleased photos of the author: Salinger as a soldier in World War II, his most important and influential historical context; Salinger in New Hampshire looking every bit a normal, happy person rather than a hermit of the mountains. The theatrical trailer is a bit intense — but what trailer isn’t? A revelation that Salinger was supposedly born with only one testicle, an arguably pointless detail, was told by reviewers who read it in the book, and not part of a PR campaign. The most important new information, that Salinger scheduled at least five new pieces of fiction to be published after his death, emerged in measured announcements through credible sources.
Not everything has worked, especially the cartoon image of Salinger coyly holding a finger to his lips, encouraging people not to spoil any secrets revealed in the book and movie. For an author who resisted publicity to the point of refusing to have his image printed on his books, this is a special and multi-faceted kind of affront. Though it will probably sell books and tickets. But for the most part, the new book and movie seem to be focused on important things that matter, not trying to gin up attention with unsavory speculation. The documentary is, after all, scheduled to air on PBS and not TMZ.
That’s the good news. I do, however, have one lingering worry. This worry has to do with the involvement of a writer named Paul Alexander. Alexander is a former Time reporter and a biographer who has written on subjects as wide-ranging as Sylvia Plath, Andy Warhol, John Kerry and Karl Rove. In 1999, he published Salinger: A Biography. Alexander is listed as “an adviser” on the forthcoming book, and his own biography is the “based on” source for the Salinger documentary. My concern is that Alexander’s book is the single worst Salinger biography around today.
Salinger: A Biography is a relatively straightforward piece of beginning-to-end life story, and is informative in a lot of ways. It has much more relevant content than the only previous attempt at a Salinger biography, Ian Hamilton’s In Search of J.D. Salinger. Stymied by a lawsuit, Hamilton was reduced to writing about his detective work to uncover Salinger’s history, and explaining why he was unable to share what he found.
Alexander adds more to the circumstances of Salinger’s childhood, his education and war experience. He also interviews a number of people about Salinger (it is my hope that this is the one tenuous connection between Alexander and the new projects, both of which appear to rely heavily on outside interviews). Alexander does a reasonable job of filling in the space around Salinger and giving a better view of the author himself. (FYI — If you’re looking for a solid Salinger biography, Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life fits the bill.)
The problems emerge when the details can’t be filled in, and Alexander takes troubling liberties. He often wanders into loaded speculations about his subject, creating the experience, as one reviewer put it, of “skimming every stale, Googled rumor in chronological order.”
Take, for example, Alexander’s conjecture about Salinger’s exile. Throughout the biography, Alexander repeatedly theorizes that Salinger used his seclusion to sustain his fame and boost sales. Early on, he claims that the long-silent Salinger “has often gone out of his way to let the public know he was continuing to write.” He fails to explain how Salinger has done this. After listing Salinger’s sales numbers, Alexander claims that this success was “helped considerably, at least from the standpoint of promotion, when in 1953 Salinger became a recluse. By cutting himself off from his audience, Salinger ensured that any contact he did make with the public merited coverage by the media.”
As an example of this “contact” Alexander notes “a photograph in Time of Salinger going to the grocery store.” Presumably, Alexander is referring to a photograph taken in 1988, when two freelance photographers from the New York Post traveled to Cornish to get a picture of the aging Salinger. When, they caught him exiting a Windsor Post Office, he approached them and said, “Listen, I don’t want to be interviewed. I don’t want any part of this.” A few days later, as Salinger was leaving a local grocery store, the photographers pulled up and blocked his car. When one of the young men stepped out of the car, the 69-year old Salinger went after him with his shopping cart. The picture that eventually appeared on the cover of the Post is of Salinger raising his fist to hit the other photographer, who was still sitting in the car. Time covered the event a month after the Post cover was printed.
This hardly seems like calculated public relations. Nor does another incident Alexander cites, the aborted release of “Hapworth 16, 1924.” In 1996 the small, almost reclusive Virginia publishing company Orchises Press made plans to publish Salinger’s last printed story — not new material, but the first activity from Salinger in over three decades. It is believed that Salinger decided to call off the operation when Michiko Kakutani from the New York Times dug up “Hapworth” in a 1965 New Yorker back issue and panned the story in a preemptive review. Through Alexander’s lens, this is yet another example of Salinger’s tantalize and withdraw strategy:
By cutting himself off from the public, by cutting himself off the way he had done, he had made sure the public would remain fascinated with him. By refusing to publish any new work, by letting the public know he had new work he was not publishing, he ensured a continued fascination in the four books that were in print. But that was not enough. To guarantee that there was no way the public could forget him, he periodically surfaced in the press by doing something that was sure to attract publicity…the way Salinger handled the publicity he said he did not want was a bit too contrived to get attention itself. Salinger became the Greta Garbo of literature, and then periodically, when it may have seemed he was about to be forgotten, he resurfaced briefly, just to remind the public that he wanted to be left alone. The whole act could have been cute or whimsical; only, it felt as if it were being put on by a master showman, a genius spin doctor, a public-relations wizard hawking a story the public couldn’t get enough of. (emphasis his)
Alexander is not wrong that these effects are, in part, a result of Salinger’s exile, but post hoc is not exactly ergo propter hoc.
Alexander also devotes significant space to Salinger’s interactions with younger women. This is one of the most contentious and troublesome issues around Salinger, and something no legitimate biography can ignore. In fact, the new book and movie are said to include another example of Salinger with a much younger woman, who was the inspiration for Esme, and who Salinger broke off contact with after their first sexual encounter. Salinger’s other relationships included Claire Douglas, who Salinger married in 1955 when she was still a student at Radcliffe. (This was, awkwardly, the same year Lolita was published.) Five years after his divorce from Claire, Salinger had a brief but high profile relationship with Joyce Maynard, who he contacted after reading a story she wrote for the New York Times Magazine titled “An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back On Life.” Salinger was more than 30 years older than Maynard.
Alexander pushes beyond the evidence at hand. He digs up a letter Salinger sent to Ernest Hemingway, about a girl Salinger met in Vienna when he was 18 years old. Salinger remembers an afternoon of ice skating with the young woman, in particular, kneeling down to help her on with her skates. Alexander — relying on the free-associative value of the words “Salinger” and “young girl” — uses this as his pivot. He takes pains to transform not only a tenderly related memory, but one confirmed by primary source data, into evidence for sordid rumors surrounding his subject:
At eighteen, he was about the same age as she was. What is telling about his life, however, is that as Salinger grew older, even when he was well into his middle age, the ideal object of his affection would always be about the same age as the young girl in Vienna. In many ways, this simple fact would turn out to be one of the defining qualities of Salinger’s life and work.
For some reason, Alexander feels it’s compelling to invoke a relationship with a girl about the same age as Salinger to raise the specter of little girls in Salinger’s stories.
When examining Salinger’s divorce from Claire Douglas, Alexander raises the question of whether the split had something to do with Claire’s growth into a mature woman. He writes that, “In looking at Salinger’s life up to this point, there was certainly evidence that he felt an attraction to younger women. In his fiction, as he said in one contributor’s note after another, he was interested in writing about ‘very young people.’” Not only is this an uneven leap from a tumultuous divorce to an observation about Salinger’s fiction, it is also riddled with factual inaccuracies. “Salinger’s life up to this point,” i.e. 1967, when he and Claire were divorced, had given very little evidence that he felt an attraction to younger women — at least nothing beyond the norms of the era. Almost 25 years earlier, Salinger was briefly involved with Oona O’Neil, the daughter of the playwright Eugene O’Neill. Oona was 17; Salinger was 23. If it serves as any indication of normal behavior at the time, Oona was friends with Carol Marcus, a fellow 17-year old who was engaged to the 36-year-old author William Saroyan. Oona and Salinger parted ways when she left him for Charlie Chaplin, a man more than 35 years older than her. Beyond this and Salinger’s marriage to Claire, who was 14 years younger than him, there is none of Alexander’s “evidence.”
Alexander is also wrong about the contributor’s notes. Salinger’s 1949 “Backstage” paragraph in Harper’s is the only note to mention his focus on “very young people.” He was quoted, in 1951 when The Catcher in the Rye was being censored and decried as vulgarity, as saying, “Some of my best friends are children. In fact, all my best friends are children. It’s almost unbearable for me to realize that my book will be kept on a shelf out of their reach.” Neither of these statements counts as incriminating. In fact, these are unlikely public statements of someone looking to hide an obsession.
I don’t want to let Salinger off the hook for something he shouldn’t have done simply because I admire other parts of his life. His love life was dysfunctional — but from the evidence at hand, it’s hard to say it was any more dysfunctional than many other May-December romances. Salinger’s relationships look, from the great distance we all must view them through, like any normal lopsided encounters, whether the imbalance is one of money, fame, physical attraction, or age.
I also offer what should always be Exhibit A with Salinger: his writing. Specifically, Jane Gallagher, Holden’s friend in The Catcher in the Rye, a girl who had “practically lived next door” to him. At the opening of the novel, Jane is on a date with Holden’s roommate, the “very sexy bastard” Stradlater. Holden recalls Jane’s dog, and talks with affection about the way she used to keep her kings in the back row while playing checkers. He also remembers her stepfather, a drunk who walked around the house naked when Jane was there. Later, Holden remembers a time when Jane’s stepfather comes out onto the porch where she and Holden are playing checkers. The stepfather asks Jane if there are any more cigarettes and she won’t answer. When he leaves she begins to cry.
It is because of Jane that Holden tries to fight Stradlater, and because of Jane that he leaves Pencey Prep when he does. Holden’s attempt to protect a young girl from an inappropriate sexual advance, one that called to mind in some way the possible sexual abuse from her much older stepfather, is what initiates the events that set the novel in motion.
Two years after publishing his Salinger biography, Paul Alexander began co-hosting a radio show on New York’s WABC. The general subject of the show was conspiracies, and opened with an examination of the John F. Kennedy assassination. Alexander’s co-host was John Batchelor, a writer who had proposed in the late 70s that Thomas Pynchon was actually J.D. Salinger in disguise.
Alexander’s biography is, in places, useful for learning a few more things about J.D. Salinger. Too often, though, he panders to the worst speculations that have grown up around the writer and his fiction over the years. His book has the potential to leave readers cynical and jaded about their author, without any actual reasons for why they should feel that way. I’m holding out hope that Alexander’s involvement with the forthcoming book and movie does not lead them to repeat the same mistakes.
– Michael Moats