Salinger

(Documentary by Shane Salerno, 2013)

(The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, 1951)

The consolation of philosophy.  That gave Salinger some peace from his war-borne PTSD, his difficulty with close relationships, his hankering for younger women, his feather-like sensibilities and his disdain for almost any other living writers. It also gave us his best book, Franny and Zooey (1955), but regretfully, it conferred upon him an unwholesome permit to abjure the world, retreat to a snow-bound hut and write for the sake of writing. Alas, he may have been clapped-out by the time he perfected his Unabomber impersonation – his 1965 story, Hapworth 16, was widely viewed as a career-end shocker.

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In this well-made but pretty conventional documentary, we learn that J.D. was a recluse – but not a recluse.  A charmer – but fairly cantankerous. A family man, who allegedly, according to his daughter, called her “nothing but a neurotic malcontent.”*  A writer who spurned the phoniness of publishing for fame, acclaim and riches, but hoarded a trove of unpublished work, apparently, to preserve them for fame, acclaim, and riches.**

This doco is watchable but wan, evocative yet glib, factual but empty. You could pick a well-known author out of a hat and render it to a like piece (OK, perhaps some young female scribbler wouldn’t gush about receiving a note of career advice from Count Tolstoy or Franz Kafka). Salinger was really a wealthy insider who grew grumpier with age. Fancy. He remained fairly free to do his own thing for 45 years, which is a neat trick in anyone’s book.  The documentary suggests that 5 important new works are in the charge of Salinger’s literary executors, for publication between 2015 and 2020.** Yet as far as The Varnished Culture is aware, nothing has appeared so far. In 1992, Salinger referred to a hoard of 25 years’ worth of unpublished writing surviving a fire at his home, yet his literary agent declared in 2011, “There is no J. D. Salinger archive anywhere.”

It would be wonderful, of course, were this to be proved untrue, and it would allow a fuller assessment of his place in the Canon.  Personally, we would look forward to more on the edgy and neurotic Glass family than a sequel to The Catcher in the Rye.

Holden Caulfield is a psycho, of course, but a lovable one (if that is possible).  He is like the lad from Bigger Than Life, albeit a bit more grown-up and more damaged.  The 1950s don’t come out too well from Holden’s account of his long weekend frolic, but in retrospect, Salinger might have realised it would be all downhill from there.

Anthony Burgess wrote perceptively about Catcher:

The Catcher in the Rye was a symptom of a need, after a ghastly war and during a ghastly pseudo-peace, for the young to raise a voice of protest against the failures of the adult world. The young used many voices – anger, contempt, self-pity – but the quietest, that of a decent perplexed American adolescent, proved the most telling.”

For a nice mini-thesis (albeit a tad ironic) on The Catcher in the Rye that accords with our view, more or less, see this scene from Six Degrees of Separation (1993):

[*Margaret A. Salinger, Dreamcatcher (2000), p. 416.] [**The documentary suggests that the new books will be:

  1. A counter-intelligence agent’s diary (nb: Salinger reputedly left his first wife when he learned that she had links to the Gestapo);
  2. A World War II love story;
  3. A religious manual re the Vedanta;
  4. The complete chronicle of the Glass family (including 5 new stories); and
  5. ‘The Last and Best of the Peter Pans,’ an updated account of Holden Caulfield.

It’s a Wise Child who would put a bet on publication missing the proposed deadline.]

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