Brain Pickings

Salinger and the Architecture of Personal Mythology

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How “a broken soldier and a wounded soul transformed himself, through his art, into an icon of the twentieth century and then, through his religion, destroyed that art.”

In 1951, The Catcher in the Rye catapulted J. D. Salinger into instant literary celebrity and the 65 million copies sold to date have stirred generations of dejected adolescents. Despite having spent his entire adult life aspiring to become a successful author, Salinger found himself unprepared for the avalanche of attention with which the novel swarmed him. He withdrew into himself, publishing new work less and less frequently, until in 1965, without warning or explanation, Salinger silently disappeared. But he kept writing every single day for the remaining forty-five years of his life.

What happened? Where did he go and why? What filled those private pages, and how did he fill his days?

That’s precisely what writer David Shields and screenwriter, producer, and director Shane Salerno investigate in Salinger: The Private War of J.D. Salinger (public library) — a masterwork of inquiry into the literary legend’s inner world, nearly a decade in the making, straddling Salinger’s death with five years on one side and three on the other.

J. D. Salinger spent ten years writing The Catcher in the Rye and the rest of his life regretting it.

Before the book was published, he was a World War II veteran with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder; after the war, he was perpetually in search of a spiritual cure for his damaged psyche. In the wake of the enormous success of the novel about the “prep school boy,” a myth emerged: Salinger, like Holden, was too sensitive to be touched, too good for this world. He would spend the rest of his life trying and failing to reconcile these completely contradictory versions of himself: the myth and the reality.

[…]

The critical and popular game over the past half-century has been to read the man through his works because the man would not speak. Salinger’s success in epic self-creation, his obsession with privacy, and his meticulously maintained vault — containing a large cache of writing that he refused to publish — combined to form an impermeable legend.

Landing at Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

But the legend, it turns out, was composed largely of fanciful half-truths — half-truths deliberately and systematically architected by Salinger himself who, like Freud and unlike Joyce, engineered his own myth:

Salinger was an extraordinarily complex, deeply contradictory human being. He was not — as we’ve been told — a recluse for the final fifty-five years of his life; he traveled extensively, had many affairs and lifelong friendships, consumed copious amounts of popular culture, and often embodied many of the things he criticized in his fiction. Far from being a recluse, he was constantly in conversation with the world in order to reinforce its notion of his reclusion. … Much has been made of how difficult it must have been for Salinger to live and work under the umbrella of the myth, which is undeniably true; we show the degree to which he was also invested in perpetuating it.

Shields and Salerno’s claim to difference is that, unlike previous biographies — which they divide into the distinct trifecta of inferior categories: “academic exegeses; necessarily highly subjective memoirs; and either overly reverential or overly resentful biographies that, thwarted by lack of access to the principals, settle for perpetuating the agreed-upon narrative” — this one turns to nearly half a century’s worth of never-before-seen letters to and from Salinger’s friends, lovers, wartime brothers-in-arms, spiritual teachers, and other previously untapped sources from his inner circle, many of whom had refused to speak with biographers until after Salinger’s death.

Salinger at McBurney Prep School.

This biography’s quest, Shields and Salerno note, is three-fold: To understand why Salinger stopped publishing at the height of his success, why he disappeared, and what he spent the last forty-five years of his life writing. That understanding is anchored to two turning points in the author’s life, at once conflicting and osmotic — the brutality he witnessed during World War II and his submergence into the Vedanta religion branching out of Hindu philosophy — presenting a poetic, if heartbreaking symmetry to Salinger’s own inner contradictions. They write:

This is the story of a soldier and writer who escaped death during World War II but never wholly embraced survival, a half-Jew from Park Avenue who discovered at war’s end what it meant to be Jewish. This is an investigation into the process by which a broken soldier and a wounded soul transformed himself, through his art, into an icon of the twentieth century and then, through his religion, destroyed that art.

'The Four Musketeers': (L–R) J. D. Salinger, Jack Altaras, John Keenan, Paul Fitzgerald.

Paul Fitzgerald and J. D. Salinger with their beloved dogs.

And yet, without diminishing the remarkably rigorous research involved, it’s hard not to wonder whether Shields and Salerno, while sneering at the myth-weaving of previous biographies, are simply weaving a myth of their own — a story that is undeniably different from the commonly perpetuated mythology of Salinger’s life, but one that remains a story nonetheless, one driven by that ineffable yet palpably toxic desire to be right rather than to understand, to paint rather than to penetrate, to reduce the complexity and richness of a human being to a cultural currency of possibly shocking facts. As if to know one in life weren’t hard enough, to know one in death seems especially presumptuous. There’s an ever-so-slightly objectionable omniscience with which Shields and Salerno approach Salinger — not of his circumstances, but of his self; not of his biography, but of his being — to a point where he himself begins to read like a character:

Profoundly damaged (not only by the war), he became numb; numb, he yearned to see and feel the unity of all things but settled for detachment toward everyone’s pain except his own, which first overwhelmed and then overtook him. During his second marriage, he steadily distanced himself from his family, spending weeks at a time in his detached bunker, telling his wife, Claire, and children, Matthew and Margaret, “Do not disturb me unless the house is burning down.” Toward Margaret, who dared to embody the rebellious traits his fiction canonizes, he was startlingly remote. His characters Franny, Zooey, and Seymour Glass, despite or because of their many suicidal madnesses, had immeasurably more claim on his heart than his flesh-and-blood family.

Compounding those twinges of dramatization for effect, rather than inquiry for truth, is the fact that the biography accompanies the release of a documentary directed by Salerno, billing itself as “the motion picture event of the year,” complete with a Hollywood suspense-score and a thespian trailer:

And yet, though the trailer promises to reveal “the biggest secret of [Salinger’s] lifetime,” the book admits that there isn’t one — at least not in that dramatic, box-office-ready way:

Salinger’s vault, which we open in the final chapter, contains character- and career-defining revelations, but there is no “ultimate secret” whose unveiling explains the man. Instead, his life contained a series of interlocking events — ranging from anatomy to romance to war to fame to religion — that we disclose, track, and connect.

Creating a private world in which he could control everything, Salinger wrenched immaculate, immortal art from the anguish of World War II. And then, when he couldn’t control everything — when the accumulation of all the suffering was too much for a human as delicately constructed as he to withstand — he gave himself over wholly to Vedanta, turning the last half of his life into a dance with ghosts. He had nothing anymore to say to anyone else.

This begs a question about the direction of cultural debt: When someone swells into celebrity, does he owe the world the innermost contents of his life and private self as the price of public acclaim, or does the public owe him the right of privacy and integrity of self to which every human being is entitled?

That, perhaps, is the most valuable takeaway from Salinger, which, questions of motive aside, remains an exquisitely researched and beautifully engineered piece of storytelling about one of modern history’s most enigmatic personas. What Shields and Salerno give us, above all, is an unprecedented look at the elaborate blueprint of a masterful architect of personal mythology.

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