I sat Wednesday night in the otherwise empty Canal Place Theater watching the new documentary film Salinger, which had been so recently re-edited that this last-minute screening was hastily announced to view the new footage. Being a boomer, writer, sociologist and student of history, it was almost impossible not to project my own feelings onto the life of the infamous author whose major work, The Catcher in the Rye, told the story of the 1950s.
Jerome David Salinger’s life was revealed through old video clips, actors on symbolic stages and pounding on vintage typewriters, in personal interviews with former colleagues, girlfriends and war buddies and in still photographs taken in nightclubs and resorts, on beaches and battlefronts. Salinger is a fascinatingly complex tale that will leave you questioning your own youth, career ambitions and compromises.
Like his 16-year-old protagonist, Holden Caulfield, Salinger was born in the Northeast where he attended boarding school. After enrolling at a couple of colleges, he dropped out, finally studying short story writing in a Columbia University night school class where he learned his craft. Salinger scoffed at traditional morés, cynically calling authority figures “phonies.” Many believe Salinger was his own character, Holden Caulfield.
Salinger’s singular goal was to be published in the The New Yorker magazine, considered to be the epitome of good writing, but his repeated submissions were returned with politely written rejection letters. “Not right” for the magazine, wrote editors, who considered his early work too clever.
Salinger’s romance with Oona O’Neill, daughter of the Pulitzer prizing-winning Irish playwright abruptly ended after he was drafted into World War II. Just 18, she married Charlie Chaplin, the silent film star, then 53 years old. For the rest of his life, Salinger would become involved in a series of immature relationships with much younger women drawn as much to his literary genius as he was to their innocence. When the relationships intruded upon his writing, however, they quickly ended.
The war exposed Salinger to horrific sights. He witnessed the carnage of the Normandy Invasion and Battle of the Bulge and then entered a Nazi detention camp where prisoners had been burned alive. After victory, Salinger became an interrogator, ferreting out war criminals for prosecution. More than 200 consecutive days of traumatic events brought him to a brink of nervous breakdown.
Returning to the United States after the war, Salinger became a critical success with published stories and The Catcher in the Rye. His notorious literary perfectionism was seen to be a result of the pain suffered in the war.
His coming-of-age novel was an overnight sensation, but caused Salinger to retreat more and more from society. He had longed to write a great book, not a popular one. Salinger believed writing should be its own reward and the public had only the right to know an author through his works. Curious fans relentlessly pursued him.
Catcher had other unintentional consequences, including inspiring the murder of Beatle John Lennon. Salinger turned to Hinduism and isolated from his family in a separate cabin for long periods to write.
The New Yorker published a new short story on June 19, 1965, the 25,000-word “Hapworth 16, 1924” — the last work published during his lifetime, though he continued writing.
Salinger set up a trust to protect all rights to his literary works. The legal document specifies the exact dates his writing of the past 40 years can be released, at specific intervals, starting in 2015. For those with enough patience or curiosity, you might have more to learn about Salinger and yourself.