It wasn’t hard to see it coming. No matter how long the project gestated inside Shane Salerno’s obsessed head, his documentary film “Salinger” couldn’t help but be Exhibit A of everything J.D. Salinger loathed and renounced in 1965 when he stopped publishing altogether and removed himself completely from public life.
From then on, the author of “The Catcher in the Rye” would be a fugitive from celebrity in the mountains of Cornish, N.H. – probably the leading self-exile from literary America. The world had, quite literally, become too much with him, late and soon.
I’d argue that Salinger’s total and uncompromised withdrawal from literary fame was his greatest artistic act. It’s the reason why a counterreaction as vulgar and obsessive as Salerno’s “Salinger” exists. It was, too, I’ve come to believe, a bloodcurdling act of prophecy. It’s as if Salinger in the mid-’60s had divined the grotesquely denatured world of renown and publicity to come – where sensitive and brilliant writers and Kardashians both endure stalkers in a devil’s parody of democratic mingling. And, back then in his clairvoyance, Salinger simply and irrevocably opted out.
He never stopped writing – it’s publishing or dealing with the public he refused to do. The fame he had, and that others might have envied, had become to him a grotesque burden.
I’m of two minds about the film “Salinger.” I heartily recommend the companion book that Salerno put together with brilliant co-writer David Shields, for all its faults. I don’t feel the same way about the film, about which the current hype is that new things have been added since its first released version a couple weeks ago.
Maybe so. But this version is shorter than that one. Among those things dropped from this version were reported interviews with the sort of Hollywood eccentrics (John Cusack, Danny DeVito) Salerno was comfortable with, no matter how little they belonged in a documentary about J.D. Salinger. David Milch, of “Deadwood” and “NYPD Blue” was also reportedly interviewed for the film but isn’t in this version, either, even though as a former Yale professor influenced by Salinger early on, he clearly belonged in it.
Almost every public representation of Salinger, then, is an invasion of his passionately constructed privacy, to which one must always ask the elemental question: “Why?”
That is the value of Salerno and Shields’ importantly informative book but it simply isn’ answered significantly in the movie. There is crucial information in both – especially particulars about Salinger’s service in World War II. He landed on Utah Beach amid the slaughter of D-Day. And he was one of the first Americans to see Dachau.
Salinger’s wartime trauma – and the ensuing “nervous breakdown” we now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder – is, according to Shields and Salerno in the book, the origin of both his subsequent failures as a man and his brilliant triumphs as a writer. That’s why the book begins in a war which is close to swallowed up in the film, for all the length of the sequence.
It’s among the greatest of literary ironies. Both film and book, to that extent, serve a purpose in making it plain: Dropout and decorated soldier J.D. Salinger told the great teacher and editor Whit Burnett that he carried part of his prep school truancy novel “The Catcher in the Rye” with him on D-Day. Norman Mailer – who wrote what some think one of that war’s two biggest novels, “The Naked and the Dead,” and then turned himself into one of fame’s most regrettable macho blowhards – spent “most of his twenty-five months of active duty” with a “reputation [that] was that of a detached, quiet observer,” according to J. Michael Lennon in his upcoming Mailer biography. Macho Mailer’s experience in World War II wasn’t entirely literary, to be sure, but it was vastly less than Salinger’s.
There are important things to be seen in the film that no book could give you – amazing footage of soldier Salinger receiving gifts from French women after France’s liberation; an elderly old war buddy of Salinger’s choking up when he tells of war terrors he still has as an old man that he never even told his wife.
The long interview with the woman who was, as a young girl, the model for Salinger’s great story “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor” is both a first anywhere and important. Salinger’s idealization of female innocence may be very dicey in our current moral climate – troubling here especially when you hear from Joyce Maynard, whose own book about her relationship with “Jerry” has been, perhaps, the most infamous violation of everything Salinger sought to preserve. (She was 18 when it began. He was an older man.)
And yet some of Maynard’s harshest comments about Salinger’s treatment of her aren’t here. Too many of these interviews give far too many smart people short shrift. When, for instance, E.L. Doctorow suggests that Salinger’s reclusiveness was a strategy for fame, it sounds fatuous, which is more than a little appalling. Doctorow is, most emphatically, not a fatuous man; it is gruesome to edit him so that he sounds like one.
Note one important thing: Of Salinger’s two children, there is no evidence in this film that his son, Matt, cooperated at all. All we see of his daughter, Margaret (called Peggy), is a “Today” show conversation with Katie Couric that was hyping her “tell all” about her childhood and her life with her father. It’s not easy to know, but the absence of much contemporary information from Peggy may well indicate a change of heart, at the very least, about how much cooperation she’ll now give to any Salinger industry to come.
The literary world truly needed a great deal more information about J.D. Salinger for understanding’s sake. A great deal of information has now come out of Salerno’s long-term obsession with Salinger. We should be grateful to him.
But I say read the book. The movie says far too much but understands far too little.
Which underlines the basic question: If you’re going to invade J.D. Salinger’s privacy you had jolly well better have a crystal clear answer to the all-important question: Why are you doing it? Unlike the book, this cut of the movie doesn’t begin to have one.