Salinger on Trial

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Sept. 21 2000 12:39 PM

Salinger on Trial

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Photo by MANDEL NGAN

Ladies and gentlemen, the jury has filed back into the room, and a verdict has been announced. J.D. Salinger is the victim of a literary crime. His daughter, Margaret Salinger, is the guilty party. (This time, that is. Last time it was his ex-lover, Joyce Maynard.) Dream Catcher, Margaret's memoir of her life as the problematic daughter of the most misanthropic author in America, strikes "a blow beneath the belt," critic Jonathan Yardley says. Another, Sven Birkerts, charges that Margaret Salinger has broken two laws of nature. The first of these is the father-child bond, whose "ontological essence" she violates by exposing its intimate details to public scrutiny. (Margaret Salinger reveals that her father drank his own urine, knowingly left her in the hands of a sadistic boarding-school headmistress, and recommended that she get an abortion when, as a married adult, she got pregnant.) The second dictates the proper place of the unskilled writer, which is at a respectful distance from the more accomplished one. "It seems evident that the lesser cannot comprehend the greater," Birkerts writes.

Actually, what seems evident is that if writers adhered to Birkerts' exacting code of conduct, literature as we know it could no longer be produced. The effort of the lesser to comprehend the greater might describe what goes on in nearly all biography and criticism. (Sure it's more fun to read great minds on just about any subject, but for obvious reasons this experience is relatively rare.) As for the parent-child relationship, laying bare its "ontological essence" has been among the most common projects in American writing--fictional and nonfictional--of the past several decades. Margaret Salinger hasn't done anything to J.D. that Philip Roth didn't do to his father in Patrimony, his memoir of his father's death, with admittedly greater skill, or that Dave Eggers didn't do to his parents in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, with more mixed results. It's just that she did it to Salinger, and looking too closely at him has become one of American letters' great taboos.

Why do memoirs of Salinger enrage the literary establishment to the point of illogic, while other authors may be remembered with impunity? One reason is that Salinger commands an unprecedented brand loyalty among American readers. Most people encountered him when they were teen-agers, a period in life when, as all marketers know, we form our most durable attachments to consumer products and cultural icons. Salinger's high-minded if eccentric rejection of all forms of publicity and salesmanship--including book jacket illustrations, which he considers corrupt--also envelops him in an aura of purity. If he really wants to be left alone, the least we feel we can do is let him be.

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I have another theory, though, which is that Salinger's work is cleverly designed to stimulate a protective response. How long has it been since you last paged through Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, or Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenter? If the answer is "at least 15 years," I defy you to read all four books (the entire available Salinger oeuvre) and not see them as a pander to the adolescent in each of us. Every book makes the same point. It is that there are souls so sensitive, so precocious, that their only option in life is to quit it forthwith. Of the two families who dominate Salinger's work, the Caulfields and the Glasses, it goes without saying that the finest and most brilliant members--Holden's little brother Allie and the mystical child prodigy Seymour Glass--die young. The survivors spend the rest of their lives mourning the phoniness of the world the departed ones left behind.

The perverse effect of these stories and novels is to lure us back into the comforting dream of our own unappreciated genius, which most of us have only woken up from with great reluctance. Salinger's characters flatter us by assuming we share their privileged insights; that, in turn, convinces us that their creator is one hell of a guy. We believe in him the way we once believed in that screwed-up kid from senior year, the one who put everybody else down with sharp wit but reserved a special tenderness for us and became a garage mechanic because he was too principled to go to college. Salinger disappeared into the solitude of New Hampshire to escape the taint of the gossipy publishing world. We honor that decision as if it represented lost innocence itself. The possibility that the romantic figure we worshiped at 17 might turn out to be crazy--or worse, a minor writer, mannered and garrulous and enamored to excess with nervously smoked cigarettes and heartfelt "goddamns" and uncannily cute children and self-dramatizing drop-outs--is too painful to contemplate.

Margaret Salinger understands the world's attachment to the myths she's out to dispel. She grew up in their shadow. "I was on a collision course with my father's fiction," she writes. By that she means, at first, that Salinger couldn't tolerate the disruptions to work caused by the birth of his first child. But soon the idea takes on a new nuance. Peggy (as she is called) came to understand that her father wanted her to be a "swell girl," the kind he wrote about in his stories--a child prodigy like Franny Glass or a savior of troubled men like Esmé from "To Esmé With Love and Squalor." What he didn't want her to be--she realizes much later--is a plain old flesh-and-blood female like Peggy's mother, in whom he lost interest as soon as the baby was born. So, for instance, he had a way of making much too much of a fuss over chance remarks of Peggy's that he imagined demonstrated unusual empathy. "I was making a factual observation, not weaving a kind fiction," she says of one such supposed aperçu. "Although I realized he'd misunderstood me, I kept quiet, feeling like a liar."

Before long, she developed a full-fledged rivalry with her father's imaginary children--"my fictional siblings," she calls them. In "Hapworth 16, 1924," the last story Salinger ever published, the 7-year-old Seymour writes a 30,000-word letter to his parents (it took up nearly an entire issue of The New Yorker) in which he asks them to send him the collected works of Tolstoy, Dickens, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Cervantes' Don Quixote; Raja-Yoga and Bhakti-Yoga by the Hindi master Vivekananda; selected books by George Eliot, William Makepeace Thackeray, Jane Austen, and the Brontë sisters. This list continues. At the same age, Peggy was reading the Junior Classics of the Collier's Encyclopedia with the rest of her third-grade class. She knew that her failure to exhibit advanced intellectual curiosity disappointed her father: "[T]here wasn't one of the books on Seymour's list that my brother and I hadn't heard him canonize or declare anathema, using the same language, ad nauseam, I'm afraid."

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