How do you solve a problem like J. D. Salinger?
Born a century ago this year, the author of The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Franny and Zooey (1961) was a man of considerable contradictions. Let us begin with some bare facts: One of two children born to Sol and Marie Salinger, Salinger’s young adulthood, though free of major catastrophes, was sufficiently unsettled to result in his being enrolled in Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania. After the completion of a term in the army during World War II—a source of significant trauma, according to his biographers—Salinger married three times, but two of the unions failed; the first, to a German woman named Sylvia, ended under mysterious circumstances, the second, to a British woman named Claire, ended in divorce.
With his second wife, Salinger was the father of two children, but he was unable to remain on equally good terms with both. His son, an actor named Matt, helps manage his literary trust, but the final disposition of his relationship with his daughter, Margaret, is unclear; during her father’s 81st year, she emerged from an otherwise obscure life to produce a largely hostile memoir of her childhood. In between his marriages, Salinger is known to have gotten involved in a series of troubled and troubling romances, including an affair with then-18-year-old Joyce Maynard (in which he conducted himself ungallantly); and a quixotic pursuit of Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg (in which he is reported to have made something of a fool of himself).
No less complex was Salinger’s relationship with his readers. He spawned multiple generations of fans whose eager book-buying habits furnished him with enough income to enable him to write without feeling compelled to publish. Yet his interactions with his followers could be fraught. In an interview earlier this year with the New York Times, his son Matt said that his father referred to fans and journalists in search of interaction with him as “wanters”—a most uncharitable term for the very group that made possible his life of affluent solitude.
Enough of these details have seeped out—primarily in his daughter Margaret’s book, Dream Catcher: A Memoir (2000), and in David Shields and Shane Salerno’s fascinating but disorganized oral history, Salinger (2013)—for us to come to some conclusions: Salinger, who died in 2010, led a very flawed life. To which you might say: So what? Plenty of great writers of the last century were parties to failed marriages or parents to unhappy offspring.
Here comes the seemingly contradictory part: The fresh-faced brilliance of Salinger’s writing is at odds with a man of such abundant flaws and hang-ups. In his best stories, Salinger celebrates the nobility of characters who perceive the world through eyes unclouded by cynicism. In “For Esme—with Love and Squalor,” a jaundiced, blasted soldier, Sergeant X, finds fortitude in his recollection of a fleeting encounter with a pair of British siblings, a precociously sensible adolescent, Esme, and her quick-witted little brother, Charles; just as Esme’s voice led her fellow church choristers in a hymn, the memory of it will lead Sergeant X back from the cliff of despair. In “The Laughing Man,” another nameless male protagonist—this one called the Chief—comes as close to being a paragon of true-blue manliness as any figure in modern fiction. A one-time Eagle Scout and runner-up All-American tackle, said to resemble a mix of Buck Jones, Ken Maynard, and Tom Mix, the Chief serves as the chaperone of a group of sports-loving, adventure-seeking boys known collectively as the Comanches.
For many readers, it is difficult to close the gap between the decency, the virtue of Esme or the Chief and Salinger, whose public image—solidified by a series of late-in-life snapshots taken surreptitiously by intrepid photojournalists—was that of a cranky white-haired man with befuddled eyes and a downturned mouth.
Yet, when read closely, Salinger often seems to be redressing the disappointments and inadequacies of his life through the act of writing. He presents on the page characters with attributes he might wish to have and a world he might wish to live in. Consider this: Salinger, a boy who grew up with one sibling, spent decades documenting the bursting-at-the-seams combustibility of a big family—that of fictional erstwhile vaudevillians Les and Bessie Glass. In stories such as “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “Down at the Dinghy,” gathered in the still-stunning collection Nine Stories (1953), Salinger attended to the comings and goings of a clan that—at its peak, before several of its members met premature ends—swelled to include seven children: Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, Walt, Waker, Zooey, and Franny. What’s more, Salinger—the man who had so little patience for media attention—provided the Glass offspring with a peculiarly public claim to fame: The kids were featured players on a quiz show broadcast on the radio, It’s a Wise Child.
About Salinger’s second wife, Salerno wrote, “Claire must have dreamed about a life with Salinger and a family in the quiet woods of New Hampshire, but she quickly learned that he already had a family: the Glasses.” Of course, Salinger was free to people his fictional alternate universe with characters who—in their shrewdness, sensitivity, and spiritual questing—were exempt from his disillusionment.
One could arguably see in Salinger’s writing a kind of atonement for his standoffishness towards his readers—his refusal, indeed, even to furnish them with new works after the publication in 1965, of “Hapworth 16, 1924.” In the classic story “Zooey,” Salinger recounts the efforts of the next-to-youngest Glass sibling, the titular Zooey, to persuade the youngest sibling, Franny, that her moony aloofness is a bad look. Zooey reminds Franny that the reason the brood went on the radio was for the benefit of a metaphorical figure that Seymour called the Fat Lady, a kind of stand-in for those anonymous listeners tuning in from coast to coast. “He never did tell me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time I ever went on the air again—all the years you and I were on the program together, if you remember,” Zooey tells Franny. “Don’t you know that goddam secret yet? And don’t you know—listen to me now—don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself.”
Whether or not Salinger secretly considered his readers to be Christlike figures, stories such as “Zooey” suggest a writer doing battle against his own instincts: a solitary man yearning for the din and clamor of domestic life; a dissatisfied husband longing for a partner of charm and substance; a hermit who harbored the secret goal of being popular with the masses. Because Salinger was so scrupulous in what he was willing to publish, notoriously declining to authorize the recirculation of numerous tales from early in his career, the version of himself he memorialized in print was not his worst self—the version described by Salerno and Shields, or, to some extent, by his daughter Margaret—but his best, most generous self.
Although much of Salinger’s writing seems to concern adolescents in angst-ridden states, it is his empathetic treatment of such characters—in other words, his generosity—that is more notable than the angst itself. As it turns out, Salinger was not the forebear of John Hughes but the descendant of Booth Tarkington, who, in his 1918 novel The Magnificent Ambersons, presented a genuine precursor to Holden Caulfield. In Tarkington’s novel, a son of Indianapolis high society, George Minafer Amberson, speaks dismissively of those who enter predictable professions such as law, banking, or politics. “What do they get out of life, I’d like to know!” George says to a pretty companion. “What do they ever know about real things? Where do they even get?” And, when asked what his own career aspirations consist of, George gives a decidedly Holden-esque reply: “A yachtsman.”
Just as Tarkington let his high-flown hero have his say, Salinger possessed a deep well of understanding for characters, Holden not least among them, put off by displays of blitheness, complacency, or conventional wisdom. In “Franny,” the title character’s current beau, a supercilious lad named Lane, is shown to be engrossed in gobbling frogs’ legs while his sweetheart ponders the Christian text The Way of the Pilgrim; this is the situation that gives rise to Franny’s angst in “Zooey.” And in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”—a classic Glass family story revolving around the wedding-day chaos resulting from the elopement of Seymour and his bride, Muriel—Buddy delights in dressing down wedding guests who speak condescendingly of his brother. Writing 40 years ago about Salinger in the New York Times Book Review, the critic John Romano put it as well as anyone ever has: “Some of us founded not only our literary taste but also a portion of our identity on Holden Caulfield or on Franny Glass: we were smart kids in a dumb world or sensitive kids in a ‘phony’ one, and Salinger was playing our song.”
Yet, for all his sympathy for outsiders, Salinger was also surprisingly attuned to the appeal of the mainstream currents of life. Again in “Raise High,” Seymour admits to being charmed by Muriel’s uncomplicated life goals—as he puts it, her “primal urge to play house permanently” and desire to acquire maternity clothes and curtains. And, in the dazzling, impressionistic “Seymour: An Introduction,” Buddy describes Boo Boo as having full claim to the Glasses’ ragtag showbiz background, but he also concedes that she is “a fully landed suburbanite, mother of three children, co-owner of a two-car filled garage.” As with Salinger’s loving depiction of the playful hierarchies that emerge within large families—“If you’re an older brother in a large family . . . and you either cast yourself or just not very advertently become cast in the role of local tutor or mentor, it’s almost impossible not to turn into a monitor, too,” Buddy says in “Seymour”—it often seems as though the author longs for that which he does not have.
In the end, when readers of Salinger’s fiction are confronted with the everyday realities of his life, they are placed in roughly the same position as the Comanches in “The Laughing Man”; the boys’ idealization of the Chief screeches to a halt when he stops being their best buddy and allows his attention to turn towards a young woman he has a hankering for. Of course, the Chief has a right to fall in love, and Salinger had a right to live his life as he saw fit. What gives the Comanches—or we readers—the standing to object? All the same, Salinger’s work at its best expresses ideals so appealing, and portrays characters so sensitively drawn, that his personal failings become magnified. His works call up a mental picture of their author as a kind of noble comic saint, but as Salinger himself knew all too well, sainthood is a rank rarely attained—unless your name happens to be Esme, Franny, or Seymour.