Time for the Salinger Estate to Come Clean

Scrutinizing culture.
June 27 2013 7:32 AM

Salinger, the Swamis, and the Secrets

New letters shed light on J.D. Salinger’s spiritual life—and reinforce the need for his estate to come clean about what, if any, works remain locked in the vault.

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Nor are Salinger’s religious views. For one thing, one would like to be able to sustain a secret ironic reading against the apparent Eastern earnestness, but one would like to know what one is up against spiritually if, in fact, he was attempting to put Westerners off the wisdom of the East. Zooey in his “masterpiece” claims Seymour and his henchman-narrator brother Buddy made the younger children in the Glass family “freaks” with their incessant recitation of Bartlett’s Familiar Koans.

But if, on the other hand, it was deeply ingrained in his soul and he offered it up in earnestness and reverence to readers ... blame Hitler.

In any case, having made all the caveats and excuses I could think of, I crossed the line and entered the Ramakrishna Center. (The service was open to the public.) I did it for you, dear reader. Let me say first what I did not find there. No Hare Krishna–type chanting of mantras by wide-eyed devotees. Instead a rather sedate crowd, more than half subcontinental, mostly in Western garb, looking serious. A calm disquisition on the metaphysics of transcending the self, delivered, yes, by a swami swathed in saffron robes.

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As the Center’s literature puts it, “it does not deal with the occult or the sensational and offers no easy shortcuts.” There are large images of Ramakrishna and someone known as “the Holy Mother” on the front wall, but little other signs of a cult of personality.

In the end, I had to respect Salinger for his choice of a deeply serious version of the Eastern mysticism he assaults readers with in the late fiction. Maybe that was the problem. For all his disclaiming of the Mind—in the Morgan letters he warns against “mind” as if the Mind were a beast in the jungle waiting to devour the devout—he was seduced by the sheer intelligence he found herein. Because I believe, of his own sheer intelligence.

Leaving the Ramakrishna Center, I found myself thinking of another contemporary American artist and cultural icon, and finding an instructive comparison—and contrast—with Salinger’s religious conversion.

I’m thinking of the way we almost lost Bob Dylan to Jesus for three years when he became a born-again Christian in 1978. There are similarities between Dylan and Salinger: the sneering at the “phonies,” which, indeed, Dylan may have picked up from Holden Caulfield, a big influence on him, he told me in a ’78 interview; and the fabled reclusiveness—not so much anymore for the ever-touring Dylan. And then the trauma that preceded the conversion, the Hürtgen Forest for Salinger, for Dylan a shattering divorce from his “mystical wife,” as he once sang of her.

But unlike Salinger, Dylan came out of it. After a three-year period of writing songs that self-righteously preached and scolded the infidels, he gradually let Jesus go. Not without loss, however. Whatever you think of his post-Jesus work—and there’s a schism over it, the way there is over late Salinger—he lost much of the impact he had on the culture, something he ruefully acknowledges in one of his best late songs. I’m speaking of “Mississippi,” a song that he seemed to want to draw attention to by including no less than three versions of it on his recent Tell Tale Signs official bootleg. Perhaps because in it he sings, "You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.”

Dylan came back, at least part of the way. Some say more. J.D. Salinger didn’t come back at all, not as far as we know.

This is why I'm urging the Salinger estate and his literary representatives to end their silence. Prove me wrong. Remind us of why we cared. Tell us there's coherent Salinger to come, and when and how. You are doing irreparable harm to his legacy—and perhaps to American literary culture—by denying us any information. Or if you can't, if he's forbidden you to speak, tell us it's his wishes, not just your marketing ploy. Because after a while that's what it's going to look like.

So sad. I miss the guy.

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