“There is a marvelous peace in not publishing … I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”
– J.D Salinger, interviewed by the New York Times, 1974.
On paper a documentary about JD Salinger, known for being the most reclusive author of all time, would seem to be a very limited and potentially dull film; how much can we really know about a man who was so insistent on privacy? However Shane Salerno’s 2013 documentary Salinger turns out to be a compelling and thorough look at the author of one of the quintessential Great American Novels.
Jerome David Salinger is most well-known for writing The Catcher in the Rye; at a rate of 250,000 sold per year it’s one of the best-selling books of all time (sixty million copies to date). In addition to Catcher, he also produced three other works: Nine Stories, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, and Franny and Zooey. Salinger was convinced of his own talent, saying that he and Melville were the only two good American authors and publicly dismissing everyone else including Drieser, Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway (even though Hemingway was in fact his literary hero and his encouragement of Salinger was one of the great moments of Salinger’s early career).
The documentary gives a fascinating account of his experiences in the Second World War. Salinger was in the Counter Intelligence Corps and his first day in combat was D-Day, landing on Utah beach. He was present for the liberation of Paris and part of the company that liberated the Dachau concentration camp.
As a result of the trauma and suffering he witnessed, he was hospitalised for combat stress reaction for a few weeks. Many veterans talk about difficulties relating to those who have never seen combat and how their war experiences stayed with them for the rest of their lives. Salinger was in all likelihood no different which perhaps partly explains his later need for isolation.
The tone of alienation and disaffection prevalent in Salinger’s work and typified by Holden Caulfield was a direct result of his experience in the war, which he also used for subject matter. After seven years of repeated rejections by The New Yorker, Salinger finally achieved his literary goal of publication in the magazine with ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, a story about a veteran struggling with the emotional aftermath of combat.
Salinger believed that an author should be known only through their work therefore he refused to do book tours and even asked that his photograph be removed from the cover of The Catcher In The Rye. The impression is that his work was the only important thing in his life and he needed peace and quiet to do it; publishing did not matter, the literary glitterati were of zero interest, and he hated being recognised. He began to retreat from public life in 1953 and from then until his death in 2010 he was seen very rarely. In his later years he was frustrated by fans from all over the world who hounded him, seeing him as a counsellor, a wise man, the only one who truly understood them. Salinger was often impatient and told them that he was ‘just a fiction writer’, demonstrating his staunch refusal to buy into his own myth.
The documentary is an impressive exploration of Salinger’s life and work. As well as interviewing many people who knew him (including the woman who was the inspiration for the character of Sybil in ‘…Bananafish’), it also contains interviews with celebrity fans including John Cusack, Martin Sheen, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Frank, Edward Norton and Judd Apatow. As regular Multiverse readers know I love watching documentaries on writers and this is one of the best I have seen. Definitely one to watch.