In Search of J. D. Salinger, by Ian Hamilton, Faber and Faber, 222 pp, £12.00, ISBN: 978-0571269273
In the Information Age, the surest path to celebrity is the long-term, single-minded effort to avoid it. For writers of serious fiction, who function best while keeping the world at bay yet depend on publicity to develop a readership, the paradox of contemporary fame is particularly perilous. For them, the work is all; yet nothing – except perhaps a fatwa – diverts attention from a book as thoroughly as a successful author’s insistence on utter privacy.
Of course most writers pass their careers completely unnoticed by the general population, and many of those who toil anonymously welcome any attention that might sell a few books. But the inexorable advance of media technology continues to hone fame’s double-edged sword, to shorten the shelf-life of the work itself and to ensure that huge swathes of the public become familiar with the images and names of renowned authors they will never read. Those writers who refuse to fan the fire of celebrity are the first to be devoured by its flames.
Nowhere is this more true than in the United States, where the cult of celebrity holds a special place for authors and relentlessly cycles their work and personae through what Don DeLillo calls “the all-incorporating treadmill of consumption and disposal”. Though American literary life has had no shortage of self-aggrandisers willing to play the publicity game – Hemingway, Mailer, Vidal – the media is agitated most by those who play hard to get. DeLillo and his post-modern predecessor Thomas Pynchon are recent examples. But the gold standard of American literary isolation is JD Salinger.
Salinger’s death in January this year brought down the curtain, if you can say that, on a half-century of wilful seclusion that defines his literary personality and indelibly colours interpretation of his slender published output. “It is my rather subversive opinion,” he wrote in 1961 for the dust jacket of his book Franny and Zooey, “that a writer’s feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him during his working years.” That arch “second most” is a classic Salinger diversion. The real question is: Valuable how? For the hermetic atmosphere these feelings generate? As a testament to purity of motive? As a method of focusing on what’s most important? With Salinger it is difficult to say, because in 1965, after a twenty-five-year career that had produced over thirty stories, three story collections, and one of the most popular novels ever written, he opted to transform avoidance of publicity into the ultimate literary silence by refusing to publish another word for the remaining forty-five years of his life.
Which is not to say he wasn’t writing. In a rare 1974 interview with The New York Times, Salinger said, “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” According to Joyce Maynard, who had a year-long relationship with Salinger in 1972, he had finished two new novels to that point. His daughter Margaret, in her 2000 memoir, Dream Catcher, described how her father filed his unpublished manuscripts with a red label for those works that could be published after his death “as is”, and a blue one for those that required further editing.
It will be interesting to see if Salinger’s executors allow any of this work to appear. If the arc of his current oeuvre is anything to go by, his progression towards elliptical, self-conscious, self-reflexive narrative, which had reached fever pitch in his final published stories, might well make any new material near unreadable. Though perhaps we’ll never know. In the meantime, the obsession with his public persona, shaped, whether he liked it or not, by his seclusion, jogs alongside more purely literary assessments of the influence and quality of his work. Inevitably, the jostling of these twin interests blurs the big picture and can lead to confusion – not least for critics themselves – though it can also offer clues to the meaning of literary fame in the US, and the stubborn stand-off between American fiction and the forces of mass culture it feels obliged to oppose.
Ian Hamilton’s 1988 study, In Search of J. D. Salinger, reissued by Faber & Faber in April, holds a distinctive place in the history of this blurred pursuit. A serviceable account of Salinger’s extant work and a decent summary of what was known of his biography at the time, Hamilton’s book would have been a solid but unremarkable contribution except for its own unique and, well, self-reflexive history. Starting out life as J.D. Salinger: A Writing Life, the book was first delivered to Random House in 1985, set in type, and sent in bound-galley form to reviewing publications. Salinger got a copy of the galleys and did not like what he read. “He was displeased with my use of his unpublished letters,” Hamilton wrote; subsequently Salinger contacted Random House, insisting that “unless these quotations were removed forthwith, he would take all necessary legal steps to have the book enjoined”.
Culled primarily from collections at Princeton and the University of Texas (and all publicly accessible), the letters were central to Hamilton’s biography. After all, little else of Salinger’s direct speech was in existence. Instructed by Random House to reduce the amount of direct quotation, Hamilton “hacked and juggled” the Salinger quotes in his book so that not more than ten words remained from any single letter, a percentage, it was thought by the publisher’s lawyers, well within the concept of fair use. Salinger remained unhappy. The case came before a New York district court, which ruled in favour of permitting publication but left the door open for immediate appeal. Salinger did appeal and the decision was reversed, the appeals court ruling that, as Salinger had the right to protect the “expressive content” of his letters, the book could not be published with even the briefest excerpts.
Undaunted, Hamilton rewrote and retitled the book, removing the offending quotations and adding a chapter on the lawsuit. The result was a different and better work, given depth and scope by the account of the legal tussle. Hamilton’s narrative of the case revealed more of Salinger’s character than the letters ever would have. His robust efforts to enjoin the original book offered a perfect example of the lifelong paranoia Hamilton’s “search” had consistently explored, and was also an object lesson in the perils of the famous trying to protect their privacy. In one of the keenest ironies of the case, Time magazine, The New York Times and other major American publications, in reporting the suit, did exactly what Hamilton was forbidden to do: they quoted freely from Salinger’s letters, ensuring that a far broader readership than Hamilton’s book would ever have commanded had access to the very words the writer’s lawsuit had suppressed.
Hamilton’s troubles were typical of those suffered by authors who have taken on the Salinger myth. Yet, as he noted at the beginning of his search, Salinger has always been an irresistible subject:
He was, in any real-life sense, invisible, as good as dead, and yet for many he still held an active mythic force. He was famous for not wanting to be famous. He claimed to loathe any sort of public scrutiny and yet he had made it his practice to scatter just a few misleading clues. It seemed to me that his books had one essential element in common: Their author was anxious, some would say overanxious, to be loved. And very nearly from the start, he had been loved – perhaps more whole-heartedly than any other American writer since the war.
This love is prompted by the unique seductive power of Salinger’s first book and sole novel, The Catcher in the Rye, which has sold sixty-five million copies (and counting) since its publication in 1951. From its famous opening sentence, the voice of its narrator and protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is engaging, sympathetic, and pitch-perfect in its evocation of the blend of innocence and aggression that distinguishes adolescence:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Young readers in particular have a sense that Holden is confiding in them, that in spite of the novel’s best-selling history each has discovered Holden’s charming cynicism for the first time. The knowing hyperbole, the obsession with authenticity, the distrust of social roles – Holden’s attitudes, tightly wrapped around his aching vulnerability, have turned him into a perennial emblem of adolescent fragility and discontent, brought to life by Salinger’s unerring stylistic touch, which is thoroughly of its time and place and yet durably resistant to datedness.
Yet rereading the novel at several decades’ remove from my own teenaged earnestness, I am struck less by Holden’s naiveté than by Salinger’s. Knowing what we do of the author’s self-imposed isolation, it is hard not to read The Catcher in the Rye as, in part, an expression of Salinger’s impatience with society and an extension of his own desire for escape. Holden’s hatred of phonies, his obsession with childhood innocence and his distrust of change condemn him to what Michael Greenberg calls “a hell of second-guessing” where “every motive is potentially corrupt” and purity “is impossible because it opposes the basic machinery of human nature”. Yet Holden sees no escape from this philosophical cul-de-sac apart from fantasy. “How would you like to get the hell out of here?” he asks his old girlfriend, Sally Hayes.
“Here’s my idea. I know this guy down in Greenwich Village that we can borrow his car for a couple of weeks. He used to go to the same school I did and he still owes me ten bucks. What we could do is, tomorrow morning we could drive up to Massachusetts or Vermont, and all around there, see. It’s beautiful as hell up there. It really is.” I was getting excited as hell, the more I thought about it, and I sort of reached over and took old Sally’s goddam hand. What a goddam fool I was … “We’ll stay in these cabin camps and stuff like that till the dough runs out. Then, when the dough runs out, I could get a job somewhere and we could live somewhere with a brook and all, and, later on, we could get married or something. I could chop all our own wood in the winter-time and all. Honest to God, we could have a terrific time!”
Holden interrupts his speech to admit to the reader that he is deluding himself. But his creator? On New Year’s Day 1953, eighteen months after the publication of The Catcher in the Rye and in the first frightening flush of lifelong fame, Salinger did flee to rural New England, moving into a small cottage in Cornish, New Hampshire that lacked electricity, running water or a furnace, where he did chop his own wood and carry water from a spring. And there he remained for the next fifty-seven years, skirmishing with the media, with potential biographers, with rubber-necking fans, and eventually even with the townspeople themselves.
This retreat to the country coincided with a conversion to Eastern mysticism that had a profound effect on Salinger’s life and work. The teachings of the nineteenth century Hindu mystic Sri Ramakrishna provided him with the first of many philosophical frameworks for his increasingly ascetic weltanschauung. Ramakrishna believed in the authenticity of all religions and the need to renounce the material world in order to obtain a vision of God. Hamilton is good on this critical period of Salinger’s life, especially in his analysis of how these life changes were prefigured in the fiction:
The yearning for childlikeness that has run throughout his fiction from the beginning has seemed all the more potently sorrowful because its imagined outcome is a kind of blank: flight, early death, or madness. A skilled missionary might have perceived in all this Salinger’s susceptibility to swift conversion … Up until 1952, the order he aimed to belong to was an order based on talent and on the disciplines of art. From now on, though, he will speak of “talent” as if it were the same thing as “enlightenment” and will seek in the curricula of holy men a way of dissolving what has all along been for him an irritating, hard to manage separation between art and life.
One of Hamilton’s interviewees who knew Salinger during this time, the author Leila Hadley, remembers him writing down for her the titles of the ten best books on Zen and telling her that “he was against all descriptive writing. He couldn’t see the separateness of things … so why bother to describe them?”
The impact of conversion on Salinger’s aesthetic perspective is evident in his second book, For Esmé with Love and Squalor (entitled Nine Stories in the US), which was published four months after his move to Cornish. The stories in this volume were written over the five years leading up to the book’s publication and appear in the order in which they were composed. Though most of the pieces are technically accomplished and dramatically even, by the end of the collection Salinger’s focus on enlightenment and oriental mysticism has begun to overshadow the realistic portrayal of character and event. Almost every story in the collection features children or childlike characters who embody innocence and vulnerability in contrast with the adult world, which is inevitably shallow and false, if not downright corrupt.
The book does include several small masterpieces, including the opening story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, which so impressed The New Yorker’s editors upon its submission in 1947 that they sought and secured right of first refusal on all Salinger’s future work. The piece balances wonderfully oblique dialogue with economic action, macabre humour and a shocking ending. The title story, which draws directly on Salinger’s experience as a soldier in World War II, has a warmth and resonance that his later fiction fails to capture, and uses the conceit of childhood purity to full effect. But the final story in the book, “Teddy”, about a child genius returning home by ship from England with his father, mother and younger sister, fails to sustain these heights. Most of the narrative relates Teddy’s conversations about Eastern religion and philosophy with a young graduate student – conversations that go on for too long and sap the narrative and its surprising ending of significant dramatic power.
For the most part, however, For Esmé with Love and Squalor is a solid collection, and its stories, all but two published in The New Yorker, confirm Hamilton’s judgment that the magazine’s high standards and careful editorial stewardship marked a turning point in Salinger’s career:
Without access to the magazine’s files, we cannot know what was done to these manuscripts by The New Yorker editors. We can guess that quite a lot was done … It can be no accident that the slackness and vulgarities that disfigured even Salinger’s best stories of the [previous] decade contrived a sudden disappearance in this year … Salinger, it seems, had at last entered a world in which his own fastidiousness would be honored, and perhaps surpassed, by that of his editorial attendants.
The earlier stories were limp partly because he was simply learning his craft, but also because they were written for the “slicks”, high-circulation and high-paying magazines that fed a pre-television American market for commercial short stories in the thirties and forties. Before cracking The New Yorker, Salinger had written twenty stories for Collier’s, Esquire, the Saturday Evening Post and other glossies. These stories remain uncollected, and attempts over the years to reissue them always met with stiff resistance from the author. “I wrote them a long time ago,” Salinger said, “and I never had any intention of publishing them. I wanted them to die a perfectly natural death … I’m not trying to hide the gaucheries of my youth. I just don’t think they’re worthy of publishing.”
For the most part, he’s right. Here is a passage from “Young Folks”, published in Story in 1940:
“Well. I gotta beat it. See ya later, you two!”
“Take it easy!” Edna called after her. Then, “Won’t you sit down?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Jameson said. “I been sitting down all night, kinda.”
“I didn’t know you were a good friend of Jack Delroy’s,” Edna said. “He’s a grand person, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, he’s alright, I guess. I don’t know him so good. I never went around with his crowd much.”
The dialogue is cumbersome and dated, as if from a mediocre movie of the time. Compare it with this assured passage from “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut”, published in The New Yorker in 1948:
“Oh, listen! You know who I saw last week? On the main floor of Lord & Taylor’s?”
“Mm-hm,” said Eloise, adjusting a pillow under her head. “Akim Tamiroff.”
“Who?” said Mary Jane. “Who’s he?”
“Akim Tamiroff. He’s in the movies. He always says, ‘You make beeg joke – hah?’ I love him … There isn’t one damn pillow in this house that I can stand. Who’d you see?”
“Jackson. She was – ”
“I don’t know. The one that was in our Psych class, that always – ”
“Both of them were in our Psych class.”
This exchange rings true, capturing the cross purposes of real-life conversation even as it carefully arranges itself in a stylised depiction of empty afternoon chat. Salinger’s apprenticeship in the forties had paid off, as The New Yorker’s editors realised, and the stories the magazine published vindicate John Updike’s judgment that Salinger “really opened my eyes as to how you can weave fiction out of a set of events that seem almost unconnected, or very lightly connected”.
Yet this fecund period of five years or so at mid-century (which also included the composition and publication of The Catcher in the Rye) was not sustained after the flight to Cornish. “Teddy” presages a slide into self-indulgence that was to characterise Salinger’s writing as he grew more and more obsessed with his privacy. The epigraph to For Esmé with Love and Squalor is: “We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?” In the early fifties, this Zen koan may well have had a glow of mysticism that has since been lost in the mists of cliché, but it does serve as an apt metaphor for the progress of Salinger’s career from this point.
Post-1953, Salinger’s public output was a grand total of five stories, all published in The New Yorker: “Franny” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” (1955), “Zooey” (1957), “Seymour: An Introduction” (1959), and “Hapworth 16, 1924” (1965). The first four also reappeared in book form. These stories are populated exclusively by the Glasses, a fictional family consisting of two retired vaudeville performers and their seven precocious children, all of whom had starred on the fictional radio quiz show It’s a Wise Child (Teddy is their precursor). In a sense, the Glass saga starts with “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, which narrates the final hours in the troubled life of oldest child Seymour and hints at the extensive family history that Salinger was to piece together meticulously over the next two decades (and beyond – who knows what Glass material lies in the executor’s files?). But in another way, this early story is the endpoint, as the later work all points to Seymour’s death, the defining moment in the family narrative.
Perhaps predictably, all the Glass children we meet are interested in Zen Buddhism and the Hindu concept of Vedanta, the goal of which is a state of cosmic consciousness that cannot be described in language. Paradoxically, the more deeply Salinger explores this concept, the longer and more convoluted the stories become, culminating in the twenty-six-thousand-word “Hapworth 16, 1924” (the story made up an entire issue of The New Yorker), which purports to be a letter home from summer camp by a wildly precocious seven-year-old Seymour and which the novelist Jay McInerney described as “an insane epistolary monologue, virtually shapeless”.
The elaborate history of the Glass family is accompanied by a retreat into formal experiment and radical self-reference. “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”, “Seymour: An Introduction” and “Zooey” are narrated by Buddy Glass, the second oldest child in the family, who suggests at points in these stories that he is also the author of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, “Teddy” and even The Catcher in the Rye. Critics usually suggest that Buddy is Salinger’s alter ego, but Buddy’s claims make more sense as examples of postmodern self-reflexiveness. The inward-looking, highly self-conscious sense of form reflects the solipsism of the Glass family itself, and the rarefied atmosphere of the stories they inhabit.
More relevantly, these characters and their stories also betray Salinger’s own alienation. The fiercer his rejection of the world at large, the more complex and hermetic his fictional world – and his place within it. And the world was playing its role as if scripted. As Salinger took longer and longer to produce each story, straying further from the narrative qualities that marked his best work, the assault on his privacy reached absurd proportions. The fame created by The Catcher in the Rye had mushroomed as the book moved from simple best-sellerdom to cult status, propelled by growing media consciousness of fifties teenage rebellion. “Between 1956 and 1960,” Hamilton noted, no fewer than seventy pieces (on The Catcher in the Rye alone) appeared in American and British magazines … Salinger had a new version of himself to cope with. He had originally chosen Cornish as a retreat. From now on it would seem to him more like a fortress.
In the early sixties, Newsweek, Time, Life, and the New York Post sent investigative journalists to Cornish. Their sleuthing, and the features that resulted, established a pattern for decades to come: Salinger would refuse to be interviewed; the journalist would speak to townspeople, take photographs of Salinger’s jeep or mailbox, or peer over the six-and-a-half-foot fence around his property; the interviewer might get as far as speaking to Salinger’s wife, Claire, or even meeting the recluse himself, only to be rebuffed; a story would follow that described Salinger’s shopping routine or eating habits and speculated about the reasons for his seclusion. The interest was anything but literary, and the tone was gossipy and hypocritical ‑ just the thing to entrench Salinger in his anti-social attitudes.
Salinger’s last published story, “Hapworth 16, 1924”, gives us a peculiar snapshot of his self-conception at the point where he abandoned publishing. In his long letter from camp, seven-year-old Seymour prophetically describes his brother Buddy working in the present day – that is, 1965 – in a surrounding much like Salinger’s skylight-topped study in Cornish:
It is all his youthful dreams realized to the full! … He will be overjoyed when he sees that room, mark my words! It is one of the most smiling, comforting, glimpses of my entire life, and quite possibly with the least strings attached. I would far from object if that were possibly the last glimpse of my life.
And with this badly written passage readers have been left with their last glimpse, so far, of Salinger as a working writer. In the long, blank years to come, the eccentric defence of his privacy became the sole reason he was in the public eye, from his legal action against Hamilton in 1986 to the teasing agreement in 1997 to have “Hapworth” reprinted by a small literary press (the book never materialised) to his attempts in 2009 to prevent publication of an unauthorised sequel to The Catcher in the Rye by Swedish publisher Fredrik Colting. The evolution from writer to recluse was complete. Nothing happened in the last twenty-two years of his life to modify Hamilton’s concluding words on Salinger’s fiction:
In “Hapworth” the reader is blithely disregarded: “Take it or leave it” is Salinger’s unmistakeable retort to any grumbles from the nonamateurs among his audience and he seems fairly certain (indeed makes certain) that most of them will leave it. The boy Seymour really is writing to his family. The Glass family has, in this last story, become both Salinger’s subject and his readership, his creatures and his companions. His life is finally made one with art.
Salinger’s fear of publicity was intensely personal. His metafictional techniques are not, as they are in other American novelists who have moved beyond realism, a means of exploring a world where media saturation, technology and consumerism have, in their view, debased language and compromised the ability of traditional fiction to depict contemporary culture with the force and incision great art demands. The wariness of Pynchon and DeLillo with the media is a direct expression of their unhappiness with the destruction of meaning in advertising, popular entertainment and reportage, which in turn fuels their search for fictional forms that challenge those versions of reality. Their reluctance to be interviewed or otherwise filtered relates directly to their vision of what fiction should achieve. In a different way, much of Philip Roth’s formal experimentation, his blurring of fact and fiction, arises from his oft-expressed belief that because America’s reality is so bizarre its writers struggle to construct fictional worlds that allow us to suspend disbelief (though Roth has never been shy around the media). For these writers and many others like them, criticism of contemporary culture is a component of the intellectual energy that drives their work.
Salinger, on the other hand, consistently took the media’s bait. At times manipulative himself, he was in turn manipulated, and his response to this fruitless give and take was often counterproductive. In the end we have to ask if his quest for privacy, his narrative choices and his long silence did not spring from a single personal source: his Holden-like distrust of all adult behaviour and his ambiguous relationship with society. It was fate’s cruel joke to make the writer of The Catcher in the Rye the kind of person least able to deal with its success. A man who was frightened of his own ambition.
In the long story “Franny”, Salinger subjects Franny Glass to a trial by fire when she visits her boyfriend, Lane Coutell, at his college. Over an interminable lunch, their conversation unveils an unbridgeable gap between Lane’s bluff worldliness and her impending spiritual crisis. Much of Franny’s argument sounds like Salinger rationalising his own overwhelming tendency to withdraw from the conventional arenas of success:
“All I know is I’m losing my mind,” Franny said. “I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It’s disgusting – it is, it is. I don’t care what anybody says.”
Lane raised his eyebrows at that, and sat back, the better to make his point. “You sure you’re just not afraid of competing?” he asked with studied quietness. “I don’t know too much about it, but I’d lay odds a good psychoanalyst – I mean a really competent one – would probably take that statement – ”
“I’m not afraid to compete. It’s just the opposite. Don’t you see that? I’m afraid I will compete – that’s what scares me. Just because I’m so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else’s values, and just because I like applause and people to rave about me, doesn’t make it right. I’m ashamed of it. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.”
This passage, like many others from Salinger’s late work, raises an essential question: was his long silence an act of courage to be a nobody or a failure of courage to be famous, not for shunning fame, but for writing fiction? Maybe the unpublished stories, if they ever see the light of day, will help us find an answer.
Kevin Stevens is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on literature, history and jazz.