I was in college when I first read The Catcher in the Rye. I know that was late, and I don’t know why I waited so long. I think I would have loved it in high school. I still loved it in college, but it is not the growing-up book for me that it is for many other people. I loved Franny and Zooey even more. The Glass family caught me. I know many people didn’t like Seymour: An Introduction. I did, because I was hungry for anything to do with the Glasses by the time I read it. I don’t know if it would stand up to my expectations now, many years later, but I loved it back then.
All of this is to say that I became a little obsessed with Salinger. Not crazy obsessed, really, and I knew that he was not the person everyone wanted him to be. Not a great role model. But Salinger as a writer, rather than as a man? I loved him.
So, when David Shields and Shane Salerno released Salinger, generating an astonishing amount of hype for a book unrelated to Harry Potter or John Green, I could not wait to read it. I got it for my birthday soon after publication and then…let it sit on my shelves for almost three years.* (Because, again. This is what I do.)
But I finally read it! I didn’t love it, but I’m glad that I read it. The structure of it surprised me. I was expecting a straightforward narrative, but Salinger is a variation on an oral biography. A benefit for the authors—I think a drawback for the book overall—was that they could rely on this structure to make assumptions without having a lot of firsthand knowledge about Salinger. Because he was so secretive, so private, and kept his friends so close, Shields and Salerno played a game of six degrees of separation in order to collect enough material to finish their book. I think this would have been more effective as a biography if it had been less discursive. I think it would have been a more successful book overall if they had not defined it as a biography.
Following accounts of what he “would have” experienced during WWII, the longest and most descriptive accounts in this book come from the women who had been a part of Salinger’s life. His treatment of women and girls is particularly abhorrent; I had not known before how far some of his relationships went. I appreciated that Jean Miller, Joyce Maynard, and his daughter, Margaret, all contributed.
The women could have said worse things about Salinger, and the authors could certainly have been more critical of him. They included a quote from Geraldine McGowan which treats his opinion of women much too kindly, but I tagged it because I thought it provided at least the beginnings of understanding where Salinger went wrong:
…Salinger always treated women like they were unbreakable. He has this idea that little girls especially can be leaned on by adult males. It’s a bizarre, bizarre thing to think. But he does, and in the fiction it’s almost like he’s writing an urban Heidi or an urban Pollyanna. These little girls, who come in and save the world, don’t need any help from anybody, no matter what they’ve suffered. It’s a fairy tale, of sorts. Women have a fairy-tale quality in his work. (335)
That’s a romanticized way of putting it, and the romantic side of it goes out the window when Salinger applies that view of girls to the world outside his books. His relationships seemed to be a mess. But even this book, which at times came across as a tell-all, did not allow anyone to completely eviscerate him. It is amazing how fictional characters outlive and overshadow the character of the man who created them. It amazes me that, even though I was cringing at most of the things this book shared about Salinger, even when he was a young man, but even more when he was an older one, I know I will still buy anything that comes from his alleged vault.
I also felt a great deal of sympathy for him because he was traumatized by the War and its aftermath and then destroyed by the fame he sought so ardently, and it is extremely sad to think of the life he could have had if he had been able to live it quietly from the start, living in the woods and publishing without too much fanfare. A question Shields and Salerno keep coming back to is whether he would have liked that life, or if his hermit-ness was simply a very dramatic and lasting publicity stunt. It’s impossible to know, of course, what Salinger thought, but people are complicated and can want very many contradictory things at once. He may have wanted both intense privacy and immense fame.
Most of this book did not surprise me—I was spoiled for the authors’ “big reveal” by the buzz that surrounded this book when it was first published in 2013, and I knew going into the book that Salinger was not the man the world wishes he was. The biggest flaw here was whenever the authors decided to include their own opinions. Anytime I saw “Shields:” or “Salerno:” followed by a block of text, I automatically tensed. The people they interviewed, the articles and criticisms and letters they excerpted, all had individual arguments to make about Salinger and his writing. Shields and Salerno curated what they included in order to support their theses, but the way they themselves expressed those theses within the book came across as juvenile and sloppy.
On the same page as the quote above about Salinger and the way he fairy-tailed young women, Shields is quoted:
David Shields: It’s as if he is pulling an immense blanket over himself: from now on he will keep himself warm by the heat of this impossibly idealized, suicidal, genius, alternative family. This will become his mission: to disappear into the Glasses. (335)
This is not scholarly language. This is not a researcher making an argument; this is a person looking at a hero and trying to understand his life. It’s esoteric to some extent and impossible to prove. The argument of this book, an attempt to solve and define the mystery of Salinger through ten “conditions,” including “Anatomy,” “Oona,” “Wives,” etc., misses the mark, or it did for me. It’s a kind of psychology that doesn’t work, because this book is not about Salinger, himself. It’s about the world outside of Salinger and how it shaped around him. What the world did to Salinger was only ever on the periphery—what he did to the world was central to the book.
If the authors had made an argument about how outsiders were affected by Salinger, they would have been more successful. As it is, they attempted to map an unforthcoming man who had never been public in any way, and I think they failed. I liked this book more for its historical details than anything else. The authors certainly had ambition and a vision, but they went too far in their attempts to prove their thesis and ended up losing their man among all the myths of him.
*A hint that this review was originally written in 2016. Why, yes, I am still working through my backlog of blog posts. Thanks for checking.