Oral history on J.D. Salinger gets Hollywood-style hype

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson served as a foreign correspondent in Moscow and Paris before moving to New York to manage the global network of journalists for McGraw-Hill. He now writes from Bordeaux, France. 30.09.2013

The demand for gossipy detail on writer J.D. Salinger’s private life seems to be a bottomless pit. Reporters, aspiring writers, marketing men and other public nuisances will still be digging at it long after we are all gone, trying to get to the heart of the great enigma that was Salinger.

A new 698-page oral history, Salinger (Simon & Schuster, 2013) is a collection of raw material, like research notes, and is being sold as a tie-in to a film documentary based on the same material. Red flags flew when I read that. 

Film tie-in? That seems a bit downmarket for America’s most popular author and one of its most distinguished writers ever, the man who gave us The Catcher in the Rye , Franny and Zooey, and other long-lasting titles, plus a treasury of short stories.  Predictably, Harvey Weinstein of The Weinstein Co. is the packaging mastermind behind it. Millions of dollars will be banked.

The book is undergoing the kind of gaudy commercialization that would have sent Salinger running for his shotgun if he had not died three years ago at 91. Unseemly, voyeuristic and indecent are some of the descriptives that come to mind. Repetitive, overlong and unnecessary are a few more. I really don’t care that he had only one testicle or that he drank his own urine or liked girls’ basketball. The most indiscreet stories have long since been published in book form by his daughter Margaret and one of his rejected lovers, Joyce Maynard.

More than 200 people contributed to this work, mostly journalists, editors and other publishing people, 150 of whom appear in the film. Many declined to violate what is left of Salinger’s privacy but others shared their admiration, ground their axes or pushed their careers, and spilled everything they could remember about the publicity-shy Salinger. Maynard could not stop talking, even 40 years and two marriages after her brief affair with him.  For this project she unburdened herself of fact and opinion, mostly a rehash of her tell-all book, for 18 hours over two days of interviewing.

The compilers, movie director Shane Salerno and novelist David Shields, too this pile of quotes, sliced it, diced it and shoveled it all in without much discrimination. They were excited – no, breathless -- to be on the trail of anyone who had had even peripheral contact with the writer. Salerno says he worked on the material for nine years.

The hype is everywhere. In his introduction, Salerno boasts letters “never seen before”, material “never published before” and again “private letters and never-before-published documents”. Okay, we get it. But quantity, alas, does not equal quality.

The tone adopted by many of the contributors struck me as offensive. Salinger is portrayed as selfish, egocentric, dishonest and possibly crazy. Shields and Salerno interject their own opinions throughout the text, sometimes offering pseud-psychological insights. At one point Shields explains Salinger’s poor record in human relations: “”The damage inflicted feels intentional. It’s punishment on Salinger’s part – punishment for being alive.” 

Elsewhere, the compilers opine in a particularly tangled passage that “Salinger didn’t love the world – he loathed himself, which he reframed as hatred of the world – and he needed the world to prove that it was unworthy of his love.”

Yes, Salinger could be offhand and cold-hearted with people who entered his orbit.  But the simpler truth is that he had decided to devote his life to writing, and nothing else mattered much to him. He is not the first writer to lose himself in his work. 

Much is made in these pages of Salinger’s damaged psyche dating back to his World War II days. He is chided by various observers for retreating into Eastern philosophy and doggedly refusing to make himself available to strangers. In fact, ne never stopped producing, as Salerno finally gets around to telling us on page 572, the beginning of the final chapter, “Secrets”. Readers who get this far into the book will learn that he actually was writing, not just hiding, in that concrete bunker of his in Cornish, New Hampshire. We will eventually see the last of his archive trickle into print in “irregular installments” between 2015 and 2020.

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