Monday, August 11, 2014

Salinger *** (2013)

The documentary Salinger went in search of the man who wrote The Catcher in the Rye.  Interviews with former friends, colleagues, and writers shed some light on an enigmatic personality seemingly nowhere and everywhere on the corners of the American conscience.

Who was J.D. Salinger?  As the troublesome son of a wealthy Jewish family, he gained a reputation for trouble and found himself in military school.  The structured setting of the school unleashed a desire to write.  Obsessed with getting published in The New Yorker, Salinger aspired to write prose on the level of Fitzgerald and Hemingway,

He served in the Second World War as a counter-intelligence officer in Europe. He took part in the landings at Normandy and saw some of the harshest fighting following the invasion.  Later he helped the liberate the death camp at Dachau.  These experiences in the war shaped his writing and forever haunted him. In a bizarre episode following the war, he fell in love with and briefly married a former Nazi, a women he claimed had telepathic powers.  Their marriage fell apart when they returned to the states.

Salinger probably suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. It may have explained his erratic behavior and penchant for cruelty to those around him - usually directed towards women.  

Accounts differ on Salinger as a husband and father.  His daughter wrote a wrenching memoir of a neglectful father who ignored his family.  He would disappear for weeks in his writing shed.  Writer Joyce Maynard who lived with Salinger in the early 70's recalls a sentimental, but spiteful personality.  His neighbors remember Salinger as friendly, but distant.

After the war Salinger emerged as major voice in American literature.  The publication of "A Perfect Day For Bananafish" in the New Yorker imagined an encounter between a little girl and a traumatized veteran.  The story's themes of innocence and trauma instantly connected with readers.

In 1950, he published his first novel, The Catcher in the Rye.  Without a doubt, it's the most read and controversial American novel of the 20th century (many school districts banned the book).  The 16 year old protagonist Holden Caulfield served as prototype for the rebellious anti-hero the counterculture would embrace.  Several commentators noted Salinger's ability to create a mystical intimacy between reader and writer.  Nevertheless, a few disturbed fans saw the book as a justification for violence against the "phonies" walking among us.*

The overwhelming success of The Catcher and the Rye seemed too much for Salinger. He abandoned the New York literary world and settled in Cornish, New Hampshire. Interviews and public appearances came to a halt.  His output sputtered, there's strong evidence he left a vast archive of unpublished work behind.  Much of the writing appears to follow the saga of the Glass family, who appear in several of his short stories.

Salinger adopted Zen Buddhism in the late 1940s, which influenced his approach to work.  Unfortunately the film neglected his spirituality, which may be a major part of the mystery.  Cynics see Salinger's "reclusive writer act" as a public relations ploy, but I detect something more complex was afoot.

Questions are raised such as: Should a gifted writer share their work with the world?  Does great art require commercial and critical success to be considered as such?  Many writers would give anything for recognition.  Quite possibly, his spiritual beliefs influenced his decision. Salinger certainly is and will remain part of the conversation of 20th century American literature, despite his small amount of work. His choice not to publish either reveals a massive ego or an astounding act of humility.  Probably both.

With any writer, regardless of their eccentric personas, all that matters in the end is the work.  Charisma only goes so far.  Over the next five years the film promises the vaults will be opened.

Despite the inclusion of celebrities and other non-literary experts, Salinger is a fine biography and speculation on a difficult, but fascinating subject.

*The deranged fan who killed John Lennon and the man who attempted to assassinate President Reagan both claimed their interpretation of The Catcher in the Rye justified their acts of violence.

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