Salinger on Trial
Note that J.D. could be a sweet father as well as one who was impossible to please. He was by turns an uncondescending playmate, a wiseacre older-brother type, and a lively travel companion. But Peggy's all-too-human needs proved too much for him, as they did for her mother, and when the daughter reached eighth-grade the parents (now divorced) parked her at boarding school. She obtained the rest of her secondary education away from home, bouncing from school to school. She grew wilder every year, more lost and disorganized. She tried without success to find stability in boyfriends and their families. Before she graduated from high school, she was living on her own in Boston, though she had little idea how to go about it. The chapters of her memoir detailing her grown-up years are both sad and oddly encouraging: Peggy had a way of stumbling into menial jobs and bad marriages and mysterious bouts of ill health, then extricating herself and winding up in places like Brandeis, Oxford, and Harvard Divinity School on scholarship.
Now a lay minister, Margaret Salinger writes like someone who has been through years of therapy and religious training, which is to say, with a processed knowingness and unprocessed rage, as well as an almost fulsome joy in the small things of this Earth. Her recollections of her childhood range from the refreshingly specific to the ramblingly self-involved to the outright whiny. When she sets out to correct the record, she can be pedantic and obvious. She reviews practically the entire history of anti-Semitism in America in order to argue that her father suffered from it more than has been realized. This is undoubtedly true, but the overview is unnecessary. She dwells at uncomfortable length on authority figures she thinks mistreated her. There's more to this book than navel-gazing and score-settling, though. There are Margaret's insights into her father's hermetic literary universe, and for those who want to re-evaluate it, she can be an indispensable guide.
Who else has had to live with the late Seymour Glass, with his "preternatural omniscient knowledge" and his fine disdain for bodily matters? (According to Margaret, asceticism tinged with misogyny was the one constant in J.D.'s ever-changing array of spiritual impulses. He tried out nearly every religion that came into fashion, from Vedanta Hinduism to Dianetics, settling ultimately on a mélange of macrobiotics, homeopathy, and acupuncture.) "I always distrust someone who claims to have a hot line to God," she says of Seymour. Likewise, she loathes the moral and intellectual perfection of Salinger's other prodigies. "Holden's beloved sister, Phoebe, got it just right, every time," she writes. So, she notes, does "my father's ideal reader." She quotes Holden at the jazz club, luring his audience into his superior in-group of one: "You would've puked. They went mad. They were exactly the same morons that laugh in the movies at stuff that isn't funny. ... People always clap for the wrong things."
Imagine trying to cram yourself inside the skin of a Salinger character, and you begin to get a sense of how claustrophobic a place that is. "I dwelt in his magical world of stories and wild mushrooms and hotel breakfasts, where no grownups, with their phony rules and conceits, were allowed," writes Margaret. "But the price of admission was steep. To enter his world, a girl had to become, in a sense, fictional and split off from the depth, complexity, and imperfection of a real, three-dimensional person."
Of course she had to become fictional! you may object. J.D. Salinger wrote fiction, after all. And indeed, on the face of it, Margaret's complaint is so much meaningless psychobabble. No one made her conform to her father's mildly pedophilic fantasies, particularly since all he did was write them down for a living. But there is something evocative about her critical method--interpretation through failed emulation--unorthodox as it is. Because of the intensity of J.D. Salinger's following, which reached its peak in the early 1960s but remains strong to this day, his characters have the status of something almost real, psychosocial Platonic ideals that have imposed themselves on the world to less than happy effect. It is not irrelevant that Catcher in the Rye is the handbook of choice for confused adolescents who turn into assassins: Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley, Arthur Bremer (who shot George Wallace). If Salinger's work is satire--and it's doubtful they took it as such--it's satire without a plausible vision of how things might otherwise be. Stripped of the bitter jokes, the book comes off as the sulk of a man who wants nothing more than to retreat into the sacred circle of the self. Indeed, Holden looks like an extrovert when you compare him to Salinger's later fictional offspring, the Glass children, five former quiz-show stars who can hardly bear to leave their parents' Manhattan apartment for fear of the vulgar hordes.
No wonder Salinger's daughter hates them all! The only question is, why don't the rest of us?
Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.