There will be many obituaries and tributes to J.D. Salinger, who died yesterday. I said my piece about him in a review of his daughter’s memoir, which ran in the National Post on Sept. 10, 2000. Here it is:
DREAM CATCHER: A MEMOIR
By Margaret A. Salinger Washington Square Press, 436 pp., $39.95
Although he keeps flunking out of school, Holden Caulfield, the hero of The Catcher in the Rye, is a smart kid. For a 16-year-old he can make surprisingly useful literary distinctions, for example noting that only some good books make us curious about the author. “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”
Caulfield’s creator, the novelist J.D. Salinger, is one of those rare writers who has the gift of intimacy. Read him for a few pages and you feel like he knows your deepest thoughts. So successful is Salinger at giving voice to the awkwardness and alienation of adolescence that there have been millions of readers who wished they could phone him “whenever [they] felt like it.”
As Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, notes, his “rising fame” in the late 1950s fed into the frenzy of people wanting to be near him. “Occasionally we glimpsed reporters sneaking about … There was no way of knowing if these men were kidnappers, escapees from Windsor Prison across the river, plain old perverts, or reporters. It fanned the pervasive odor of fear and skittishness around the house almost to the chocking point.”
Before this happened Salinger was already a bit of a loner, writing fiction filled with dreams of escape. Being swamped by an intrusive media culture made him ever more protective of his privacy. “It’s a goddam embarrassment, publishing,” he told a friend. “The poor boob who lets himself in for it might as well walk down Madison Avenue with his pants down.”
By 1965 he had stopped publishing altogether and maintained only minimal contact with the outside world. No wonder Margaret Salinger uses metaphors of military siege and prison life to describe life in her childhood home in New Hampshire.
Margaret Salinger wrote her memoirs out of a desire to move beyond the dank claustrophobia of her youth. She grew up under “a conspiracy of silence, an unspoken agreement not to talk about vital parts of our history,” but now wants to open up the windows her father closed for her family. Since the life she shared with her father belongs as much to her as to him, it is churlish to accuse her, as some reviewers have done, of betrayal.
Yet Margaret’s life is only of interest because of who her father is. Most readers will read this book for the light it sheds on J.D. Salinger and his work, and as such it is a mixed bag.
Margaret is good at situating her father in his larger family background. J.D. Salinger was born in 1921 to a Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother — the lingering family tensions of this mixed marriage are well caught.
Margaret is also sensitive to the pervasive anti-Semitism of the 1930s and ’40s, which shaped her father’s sense of being an outsider. As a counter-intelligence officer, Salinger was among the first Americans to witness the liberation of a German concentration camp in 1945. “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live,” Salinger once told his daughter.
The post-war America that Salinger returned to has often been portrayed as a land of blissful nuclear families living in trim standardized homes. Yet this cliche belies the anxieties of the era that just emerged from a world war and lived in fear of nuclear annihilation. “I swear if there’s another war, they better just take me out and stick me in front of a firing squad,” Holden Caulfield sardonically muses. “Anyway, I’m sort of glad they’ve got the atomic bomb invented. If there’s ever another war, I’m going to sit right the hell on top of it. I’ll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will.”
Even in the early 1950s there were many Americans, especially teenagers, who felt like misfits and oddballs because they could not live up to the antiseptic ideals of normality. It was Salinger’s genius to give voice to this discontent, perfectly caught in the snarky irony of Holden Caulfield. The main reason that Caulfield is such a convincing character is that Salinger is a master at mimicking English as it is actually spoken in the United States. Apart from Mark Twain, no U.S. writer has taken such joy in the poetry of slang and dialect.
Today teenage revolt is old hat; but in 1951 Holden Caulfield was prophecy: The Catcher in the Rye anticipated the mood of the next half-century, prefiguring everything from James Dean to hippies to raves.
Salinger’s discontent was deeply spiritual. Finding no comfort in the materialism of a booming consumer society, he searched for solace in a wide variety of off-beat religions such as “Zen Buddhists, Vedanta Hindus, Yogananda’s Self-Realization Church, Christian Science, Ron Hubbard’s Scientology … and a hodgepodge of practices including drinking one’s urine, speaking in tongues, and sitting in a Reichian orgone box.”
Salinger also looked for salvation in intense personal relations. Again, he was in tune with the times, albeit on a strange level of intensity. Far from being an ancient institution, the tight families of the 1950s were a response to disorderly times. Many used the nuclear family as a shelter from a nuclear world.
In the words of Holden Caulfield, an ideal life would be to have enough money to build “a little cabin somewhere … I’d meet this beautiful girl that was also a deaf-mute and we’d get married. She’d come to live in my cabin with me … if we had any children, we’d hide them somewhere. We could buy them a lot of books and teach them how to read and write by themselves.”
In 1953, the 34-year-old Salinger asked Claire Douglas, then 19, to marry him. Although not a deaf-mute, Claire was clearly not the dominant partner in the relationship. They had been courting since 1950, when Douglas was about 16 years old.
According to his daughter, Salinger’s main motive in the proposal was to bring Caulfield’s cabin dream to life. “In a scene straight out of The Catcher in the Rye, where Holden on an impulse asks Sally Hayes to run away with him to the sunny cabin he imagines right on the edge of the forest, [J.D. Salinger] asked Claire to drop out of school and come live with him in Cornish.”
The couple married the following year, moved into rural New Hampshire, and had two children, Margaret and her younger brother Matthew, who were initially taught at home.
Not surprisingly, Holden Caulfield’s dream fell apart in real life. According to Margaret, Salinger ran his household like a cult- leader, demanding total obedience. Claire Salinger was often suicidal — on one occasion she seems to have tried to burn the house down. (She denies this, but her husband and daughter had their suspicions). More generally, Claire took out her unhappiness on the children, whom she mentally abused.
The marriage ended in divorce in 1966, although Salinger continued to look for salvation through intense personal relations with much younger women. In 1972, Salinger had a fling with the 18- year-old Joyce Maynard. More recently Salinger married a nurse half a century his junior. Along the way, Salinger frequently struck up pen-pal relationships with teenage girls. Sadly, Salinger’s empathy for teenagers seems to have left him a permanent adolescent.
Since neither J.D. Salinger nor his other surviving family are given to gut-spilling autobiography, this book is as honest and intimate an account of the author as we are likely to get.
Yet to get to the useful recounting of J.D. Salinger’s life, readers will have to struggle through the jungle of Margaret Salinger’s prose, which is thick with portentous foreshadowing, therapeutic jargon, unnecessary literary allusions and coy self- involvement. Here are Margaret’s thoughts on death: “It occurred to me that if I ever die (!) — yes, I just wrote that — I mean if I’m scared when I’m dying, which I most probably will be, I hate going anyplace strange (my son was playing with our cheap folding closet doors yesterday and said, ‘It’s just like we’re on an airplane, Mommy’ — they were, indeed, like bathroom doors on a plane, site of several whopping panic attacks, and just the mention of it made me run to the bathroom to empty my gripping bowels. No, I won’t be going gently into the night I think).” At moments like this, one yearns for the b.s.-free clarity of Holden Caulfield.
Moreover, Margaret’s very closeness to her father prevents her from offering a balanced judgment of his writing. She views all his fiction through the prism of biography, which can be illuminating, but ignores the craft that went into his prose. Being too close to the flawed father, she cannot see the marvellous writer. To put it another way, Margaret can never have the common experience of reading The Catcher in the Rye and wanting to call up the author.