Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature
and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for
several journals and is the author of Clifford
Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter,
Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham
New Yorker at Sea. Nick’s reviews are available
anyone who has spent decades perusing the periodic news features
written about J.D. Salinger, Shane Salerno’s new documentary
film on the writer’s life will provide a surprising exegesis.
The wholeness of the film superintends the journalistic history
accumulated through the years and a different picture of the
man and his work emerges -- more complete and more comprehensive.
The scandalous or disturbing impressions of the secretive author
that have arisen due to abortive incursions into his life and
then reported in the press seem to fade as this film develops.
This experience recalls the Aristotelian comparison of fiction
to factual chronicling that I examined in my last A &
O piece (cf. Vol.
12, No. 4).
themes develop in the film and with them come some answers to
celebrated questions. Why, thousands have inquired, did Salinger
behave so erratically and cryptically? The answer develops steadily
as the expertly edited film traces the life of the controversial
involvement in WWII is well-known, but the shocking particulars
of 299 days in combat beginning with his D-Day landing on Utah
beach are eye-opening. Whole battalions are reduced to ashes
in the days following the landing. After this debacle, he finds
himself in the middle of the Battle of Hürtgen Forest,
less publicized than other struggles, but the scene of 33,000
American casualties. Salinger writes, “I dig my fox holes
down to a cowardly depth . . . am scared stiff constantly.”
His 12th Regiment of the 4th Infantry division is being steadily
decimated; then comes the murderous Battle of the Bulge. By
April of 1945, the German surrender is imminent but Sgt. Salinger
soon stumbles upon the insanity of Dachau. After enduring the
uncanny apparitions there, he suffers a nervous breakdown and
is hospitalized in Nuremburg and treated for “combat stress
reaction.” If there was ever a euphemism for war-time
mental destruction, this is it.
of these tortures are verified in the film in emotional interview
appearances by Sgt David Roderick and buddy Werner Kleeman who
fought alongside Salinger. But interestingly, Kleeman also
adds his observances of a resolute Salinger writing in foxholes
during Nazi attacks and also protecting his confidentiality
by forging the signature of a censoring officer-- early evidence
of his writing ambition, determination and his mania for privacy
. Accompanying these accounts, there is a telling first-time
published photograph of Sgt. Salinger holding manuscripts of
Holden Caulfield’s speeches written during these deadly
the film documents the terrible experiences Salinger endured
during the war, it becomes much easier to understand how his
combat torture could produce extended psychological damage and
how it shaped his writing (he publishes I’m Crazy,
narrated by Holden Caulfield in Collier’s magazine
in December of 1945). The film’s lengthy chronicling of
this horrific chapter in his life also sheds light on the themes
of two of his later short story masterpieces: A Perfect
Day for Bananafish and For Esmé —with Love
and Squalor. Biographer David Shields states that Salinger’s
war experiences permeate the entire corpus of his writing. “The
war is the ghost in the machine of all the stories.”
questions that have long been asked are deliberated in the film.
Why is his prose preoccupied with themes of adolescent alienation?
(“I almost always write about young people” he once
said). Why does he fail at three marriages and other relationships
and always with much younger women? And why did he so tenaciously
pursue isolation and reclusivity? The film provides more answers
to these questions than most of the aforementioned journalism
ever has by connecting, in strategic sequences, his personality
traits, his romantic pursuits, his retreat from publicity and
his aesthetic focus.
documentary allusions to Salinger’s early publishing life
(he published The Young Folks and other stories at
age 21 in Whit Burnett’s Story magazine) reveal
the innocence and childlike imagination of an individual out
of a Wordsworth ode. (Mr. Salinger’s work deals with innocence
and starts with innocence . . . he has a loving heart”
– Eudora Welty). This preoccupation with innocence and
its loss are subsequently the major focuses of Holden Caulfield
and Seymour Glass. Joyce Maynard, a writer who lived with Salinger
when she was very young, says “he was indulging in a fantasy
of innocence.” Others go further suggesting that he writes
of the Caulfields and Glasses as if he is living his descriptions
of those lives himself.
Salerno delivers an extended account of Jerry Salinger’s
love for Oona O’Neill only to have his heart broken when
the 18-year-old debutante marries 54 year old Charley Chaplin.
This is the first romance with a young woman but it is followed
by many more. The older he gets the younger do his companions
become. When he meets Joyce Miller he is 31 and she is 14; when
he meets Clare Douglas he is 34 and she is 19. Salinger
intimates that his attraction to these young girls is principally
motivated by his continuing search for innocence. The absence
of sexual pursuit is notable. Indeed, he seems to be indulging
in an idealized form of courtly love with Joyce Miller. It is
she who initiates the first physical contact by kissing him
in a cab. Swiftly, after their first sexual experience his attraction
fades. Soon, because of some plane cancellations, she rejoices
because it means they can spend the next days together, but
he quickly withdraws. The fact that she will intrude on his
private writing time is unthinkable. “My work comes first
with me,” he later writes to her. This strict adherence
to writing over liaisons continues his whole life.’
film skillfully juxtaposes his relationship problems with his
extraordinary writing discipline and obsession for perfection.
We see his outrage at William Maxwell, a New Yorker
editor, who mistakenly inserts a comma into one of his published
stories. We watch him destroy his lifelong friendship with A.E.
Hotchner because the latter’s fellow Cosmopolitan
editors decided to change the title of his story Scratchy
Needle on a Phonograph Record to Blue Melody.
violations of his craft lead to more instances of mistrust and,
after the gigantic publicity he receives upon publication of
The Catcher in the Rye (1951), he becomes aghast at
the loss of his privacy, the betrayal of editors, publishers
and movie producers (Sam Goldwyn destroys Jerry’s Uncle
Wiggily in Connecticut remaking it as the fiasco My
Foolish Heart) and the intrusion of the world into his
orb of innocence and idealism. As we watch him storm out of
a press reception after Catcher is published and abruptly
head for New Hampshire and a long life of solitude, our sympathy
for his struggle that the film has engendered intensifies.
film also provides opportunity for some revisionist history.
Years of clichéd reports of his eccentric reclusivity
evaporate when we view accounts of Salinger in New York as a
young writer playing poker with the guys, networking with editors
and publishers at Chumley’s and hanging out at The Blue
Angel. Later, during his life in New Hampshire, he attends countless
fairs, parties and receptions, is described by the whole town
as a sociable, amenable guy whom they truly like. His connection
to New York is constant and we see him in his 70s driving down
to Gotham to visit with literary friends at the Algonquin Hotel.
So much for the image of him as an eremite.
humanity comes across the screen as we watch accounts of his
ego at work (Hotchner describing his sense of self-importance),
his pride of accomplishment (he makes an issue of telling Jean
Miller that he has published in The New Yorker), and
occasional snobbishness (he derides Joyce Maynard’s publications).
Conversely, he is embarrassed when fans constantly invade his
New Hampshire residence seeking out the author of Catcher who
they are convinced will solve all of their social and psychological
problems. “I am a writer of fiction . . . I am not a counselor”
he states with a prescient sense of himself.
are always aware that these scenes, interviews, reconstructions,
musical accompaniments, edits and research are commandeered
by a veteran film maker. Shane Salerno is a screenwriter, producer,
director and NYT bestselling author. His credits include
Armageddon, Savages, the forthcoming Avatar 4
(with James Cameron) and a host of TV shows.
most intriguing question that scribes, fans, gossip writers
and most of the world have asked is: Did Salinger create any
more writing magic in his long years in hiding? Salerno answers
with resounding affirmation and carefully lists specific titles
of works still to come with descriptions of their contents at
the end of the film. He provides impressive substantiation that
Salinger wrote prolifically and powerfully in New Hampshire
on subjects such as his work in counter-intelligence after the
war, his first marriage to Sylvia, and his interest in Vedanta
(a Hindu synonym for the Upanishads). Remarkably, he indicates
that we will hear (between 2015 and 2020) once again the voices
of Seymour Glass and Holden Caulfield.
goal of Vedanta is for the seeker to have the direct expe¬ri¬ence
of his or her true nature, and it is held that each and every
one of us is qual¬i¬fied to have that high¬est illu¬mi¬na¬tion,
if we are will¬ing to put forth sin¬cere and intense