Along with Shane Salerno’s new documentary about J. D. Salinger, he has co-written a book about the enigmatic author with my friend and teacher, David Shields. The book is called Salinger, just like the film, but it is filled with ten times more material than the documentary and is ten times better. The book reads like an oral biography, but is much more like a documentary on paper. Like a collage, David and Shane artfully pasted together interviews, letters, and material from J. D.’s books and stories. The result is an insightful and spooky portrait of a recluse who didn’t necessarily desire a total eclipse from the limelight. J. D. renounced publishing because it didn’t fit with his religious beliefs and, possibly, because his work became less admired as his beliefs made their way into his writing.
J. D. Salinger was the son of a butcher, but he learned early on that carving up meat wasn’t the life for him. He fell into writing and drama in high school (later he would think of himself as the only one who could play Holden Caulfield, even after he was well past his teens). After high school, he attended two of my alma maters: NYU in the late 1930s (he dropped out) and Columbia where he worked with Whit Burnett. His early prewar writing had a style indebted to F. Scott Fitzgerald, with debutantes and aimless young characters. When he went to war, however, everything changed.
Before J. D. left to fight in WWII, he hooked up with Oona O’Neil, the daughter of the great American playwright Eugene O’Neil and a pretty and smart socialite. J. D. was in love with Oona and wrote letters to her from the front. J. D. would brag that she was his girlfriend because she was a model and her image appeared in ads in the magazines the GIs received overseas. Those same ads would haunt him when Oona left him for the most famous actor at that time—Charlie Chaplin. She didn’t even send a letter telling him they were kaput. Instead, he had to learn about her wedding with Charlie in the press. At the time, Oona was 17 and Charlie was 54. Friends said that even if Charlie had never entered the picture, J. D. and Oona probably wouldn’t have made it as a couple. He was all about his writing, and she was all about socializing. But because he lost her on the eve of war and his own possible demise, she became his ideal woman. His relationships after her showed him trying to capture Oona’s type and age right before he lost her. He was trying to capture the lost innocence of his moment with her.
War changed everything for J. D. He landed on Utah Beach on D-Day and fought in what was basically the same campaign as Echo Company in Band of Brothers, which took him across the fields and towns of France to the Battle of the Bulge. J. D worked in counterintelligence and witnessed face to face the war-ravaged locals. Then, to add to everything, he entered a liberated death camp and saw burned piles of bodies, which were still writhing in pain. All the while, he was writing early drafts of The Catcher in the Rye and corresponding with his new acquaintance, Ernest Hemingway.
David and Shane see Catcher as J. D.’s war book. Although it’s masked as a coming-of-age novel, to them it is about a character dealing with PTSD. In this reading, Holden is J. D. Salinger, dealing with his loss of faith in humanity and all of the death and atrocities he witnessed. There is even a story told in the book that J. D. wept when his editor said that Holden was crazy because J. D. felt the editor was unintentionally saying that he was crazy. And in this way, writing Catcher was J. D.’s solace. It was his way of healing the wound that opened when he lost his first love and witnessed the relentless and bottomless destruction man is capable of. The book was an instant success, and grew exponentially in popularity over the years. It has sold over 60 million copies.
J. D. liked young women and after losing Oona he pursued many others. His pattern was to befriend teens (even when he was in his 30s and 40s) and share his life and wisdom with them. This could go on for years. Eventually, he would sleep with them and their relationship would end. It was as if he were the catcher in the book who was protecting them from going over the cliff of experience, but eventually his physical desire would turn him into the one who would push them. And after they lost their innocence in his eyes, he lost all desire for them. The whole thing is pretty icky and reminiscent of Michael Jackson with slightly older companions. But it’s not a surprise that the man who was obsessed with youth in his work would be obsessed with youth in his life.
David and Shane’s final major contention is that J. D. lost his ability to write effective stories as his religious beliefs took over as his primary approach to dealing with his trauma from the war. If Catcher was his first attempt to heal, Buddhism and renunciation of the worldly and the ego were later attempts. The stories and the later novels all increasingly bear more of J. D.’s religious beliefs so that they become more like vehicles for such beliefs and less like deep character studies. J. D. needed to write because he loved the process, but as religion took over and Catcher’s sales rose, he felt less of a need to publish. He believed that publishing fed the ego. But David and Shane also show that J. D. possibly pulled away from publishing because he didn’t like the criticism that his later books received. Either way, he was writing all those years in seclusion and there will be a bunch of new books within this decade, possibly new Glass-family material, and some religious parables.
By the way, did you know that J. D. Salinger’s son was an actor in Revenge of the Nerds? He is one of the nerd-hating Alpha Betas, but not Ogre. He also played Captain America in some 90s shit, too.
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