J.D. Salinger Unbound and Unbowed: “There Is Monumental Work To Be Done In This Appearance”
J.D. Salinger’s refusal to publish anything in the 45 years between the June 19, 1965, issue of The New Yorker and his death at 91 in 2010 was disappointing, to say the least. It was also frustrating, weird, unaccountable, and downright demoralizing if, like me, you’d been looking forward to the major work that could be intuited from “Hapworth 16, 1924,” a novella-length, flagrantly misunderstood tour de force, and the previous Glass family stories, Franny and Zooey (1961), Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963), not to mention “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” the piece of literary dynamite from 1948 that launched the series. Still, there was something awe-inspiring, even heroic, in Salinger’s sustained resistance to publishing, whether perceived as evidence of his respect for the discipline of Vedanta, his determination to focus on his work, or as a symbolic rejection of the distractions and follies of the book world.
And now here comes David Shields and Shane Salerno’s heavy-handed blockbuster Salinger (Simon and Schuster $37.50), which is hyped on the front cover as “The Official Book of the Acclaimed Documentary Film” that currently has a rating of 40 on Metacritic, only a point above “Generally Unfavorable.”
One problem Shields and Salerno (hereafter S&S) had to deal with was that they’d been beaten to the press by a thoughtful, fully researched biography by Kenneth Slawenski highlighting one of their big selling points, Salinger’s wartime experience. So, the first thing S&S did was suck up the sour grapes and make a lame attempt to discredit Slawenski, the author of the first biography of Salinger since 1999, a book S&S undoubtedly used and then brazenly left out of their 35-page-long bibliography. That piece of bad form alone should make readers wary of the claims made and the information offered in S&S’s slipshod, almost 700-page-long hodgepodge of oral history, rumor, and negatively calibrated, shoot-from-the-hip criticism of Salinger’s life and work.
Presenting only the façade of a legitimate biography, S&S go all-out in the direction of a tabloid exposé, playing up the psychic damage of Salinger’s World War II ordeal, needlessly including five graphic photographs of concentration camp horrors. Besides making the most of Salinger’s consensual relationships with women who were often considerably younger than himself, they flog the absurd idea that The Catcher in the Rye was somehow complicit in the assassination of John Lennon, and they save a place of revelatory honor for the singular, unsubstantiated shocker of The Undescended Testicle.
And what’s the really big news S&S have going for them, news so many of us have been waiting for, news exciting enough to link the film and book to an event of worldwide literary significance? It’s the announcement by way of anonymous sources that J.D. Salinger actually produced a substantial amount of work during his years of silence, work scheduled to be published beginning in 2015. To burnish the revelation S&S boast that the new books will be “the masterworks for which he is forever known.” My italics are to emphasize the fact that earlier in their cranky opus S&S claim that Salinger was “destroyed” as an artist years before he could have written those masterworks. In the chapter ludicrously titled “Seymour’s Second Suicide,” S&S claim that the “one constant in Salinger’s life, from the early 1950s until his death in 2010, was Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, which transformed him from a writer of fiction into a disseminator of mysticism, destroying his work.”
Those are my italics again. How else to express the absurdity of so presumptuous a contention about a writer whose lifelong constant, even on the battlefield, was his work? At the end of that same chapter, S&S say it again: “His commitment to Vedanta was, by far, the most serious and long-lasting commitment of his life. His religious devotion … wound up being his second suicide mission. War killed him the first time; Vedanta the second.”
My italics again. What can you say? Salinger must really be some kind of sainted being, to come back from the dead to write The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Nine Stories (1953), two classics of American fiction, only to be killed again by Vedanta, and come back from that death-in-middle-and-old age to write the Glass stories. But let’s be fair. Surely S&S don’t really mean what they’re saying; all that stuff about being “destroyed” and “killed” is some heavy figurative rhetoric to put a charge into their product. If you want to hold the reader’s attention, you have to resort to sweeping negative generalizations, never mind that you contradict yourselves in the process and expose the essentially bogus, hypocritical nature of your enterprise.
Misreading Holden Caulfield
But why stop there? Why not rewrite The Catcher in the Rye according to your war-damaged-writer thesis? Since Slawenski’s biography beat them to the news that Catcher was partly written on the battlefield, S&S upped the ante and said that to get all that post-traumatic repression out of his system Salinger created a hate-sick psychopath called Holden Caulfield, the subject of a narration rife with incitements to violence, an assassin’s handbook. The subtext of mayhem S&S are suggesting about a book beloved by millions for exactly the opposite qualities reminds me of Charles Manson’s reading of violence and insurrection into “Blackbird,” one of the most beautiful songs Paul McCartney ever composed.
In 1997 Salinger was about to permit the publication in book form of “Hapworth 16, 1924” when one of the publishing world’s most illustrious trolls couldn’t wait and attacked seven-year-old Seymour’s unthinkably long and literate letter from camp before it was even published. Salinger was testing the water and a piranha named Kakutani bit him on the toe.
S&S introduce this advance on the “masterworks” to come with a hail of brickbats — “impossible to believe and created to be unpalatable to the public and critics,” “a disaster,” “a total cessation of talent,” “almost as if the mental acuity of Salinger is diminishing right in front of you,” “an act of literary suicide.”
David Shields outdoes himself, recycling the terms of his travesty of Holden: “ ‘Hapworth’ just seemed dead on arrival …. He wants to maim or kill all his critics … ‘Hapworth’ careens wildly between murderous rage and a desire for peace.”
Even as I type those words, it’s hard to fathom how anyone could read “murderous rage” into a text intoxicated with love and wonder. No doubt Shields is thinking of young Seymour’s low opinion of certain camp counselors whose “heartless indifferences” to the “heartrending young campers” have him “secretly wishing” he “could improve matters quite substantially by bashing a few culprits over the head with an excellent shovel or stout club.” While it’s possible Salinger was sending a subliminal message to certain critics of his work, my guess (never having been a camper myself) is that this is pretty standard stuff according to the content of letters sent home by campers of any age and any era.
One of the most humorous aspects of “Hapworth” exposes an essential blind spot shared by Salinger’s critics and biographers, which is to read with a dead straight face a playful, at times mischievous writer who can be, and always has been, very funny. Here in a camp called Hapworth run by a young couple Salinger names Mr. and Mrs. Happy, young Seymour confesses to his parents that “this cute, ravishing girl, Mrs. Happy, unwittingly rouses all my unlimited sensuality” (“Considering my absurd age, the situation has its humorous side, to be sure”). It’s an amusing reversal for the writer whose predilection for young girls and women is made so much of in Salinger — now he’s rousing the ire of Michiko Kakutani because his seven-year-old letter writer speaks “like a lewd adult” and expresses “lustful feelings about the [22-year-old] camp matron.”
Seymour’s Quirky Poetry
By stressing Salinger’s spiritual dedication at the supposed expense of his work, S&S unwittingly signal the magnitude of his mission and the portion of it so far most powerfully accomplished in “Hapworth,” where Seymour tells his parents of his “karmic responsibility” but promises not to “harp on the subject, knowing and quite sympathizing with your disdain.” Ms. Kakutani’s “peevish,” “lewd,” “deeply distasteful,” “obnoxious child,” who lusts after Mrs. Happy, dares to “condescend” to his parents when in fact (and fiction) he’s writing to them from the other side of his life: “I for one do not look forward to being distracted by charming lusts of the body, quite day in and day out, for the few, blissful, remaining years allotted to me in this appearance.”
Perhaps someday someone will be able to do full justice to Salinger’s accomplishment in “Hapworth.” Various terms and tropes out of Vedanta have given him a rich resource from which to forge a style unlike anything in his previous work. Seymour’s quirky poetry should charm any reader able to come to the story without some preconceived notion of fictional reality. And his precocious spirituality (among the books he wants sent to him are Vivekenanda’s Raja-Yoga and Bhakti-Yoga) enables him to see others, including his own parents, with a kind of supernatural objectivity, as if they were all children. So, referring to Mrs. Happy, Seymour can say, “God bless this gorgeous kid’s heart!”
In his fictional life-span, Seymour will bow out at the age of 31, but when he tells his parents and readers, “There is monumental work to be done in this appearance, of partially undisclosed nature,” it’s tempting to picture Salinger busy in his New Hampshire bunker with 45 years remaining and “monumental work to be done.”
Admittedly, Shields and Salerno bring some valuable information to bear on Salinger, including anecdotal insights and excellent photographs from the author’s wartime buddy and lifelong friend, Paul Fitzgerald. To their credit, S&S also include responses from a few readers who “get” Hapworth, namely novelist Leslie Epstein and radio personality Jonathan Schwartz, who says that once you have a seven-year-old boy at summer camp “writing in an adult voice, asking for the most abstruse books to be sent to him … you can’t go back to the conventions of realistic fiction again. You’ve crossed a line …. In my opinion, if he’s written anything since, he’s moved ‘Hapworth’ forward. To me, that’s thrilling.”