The Two Salingers
How Jerome killed J.D.
Jerome David Salinger died Wednesday in Cornish, N.H. J.D. Salinger predeceased him by several decades and existed as a spectral legend and legendary specter haunting tens of millions of imaginations. The one was born in New York City on New Year's Day in 1919, the other in The New Yorker on Jan. 31, 1948, with the publication of "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," which instantly delivered an apprentice short-story writer unto the canon. Jerome—Sonny to family, Jerry to his friends—died of natural causes at age 91, and if the accounts of family and friends are true, then we might have to ascribe his longevity to a diet of macrobiotics, megavitamins, and his own urine.
Esoteric habits, hermitic habitations: This is where intellectual curiosity and prurient fascination haze together. You can't account for the unfinished career without considering the unconventional life. You cannot properly consider the life because of the nature of its unconventionality. And you must consider the freakish success of The Catcher in the Rye—the powerful "aura around" a book "primarily about paralysis," as the con man in Six Degrees of Separation has it—in the context of authorial behavior that looks freakish indeed from our leering, obstructed vantage point.
Preparing to write this piece, I pulled my copy of Ian Hamilton's In Search of Salingeroff the shelf and discovered two documents among its pages—a 2001 Janet Malcolm piece from the New York Review of Books and a picture that ran in the New York Post in 1998, too dull to call a paparazzi shot, where the writer and his second wife pad across a small-town street in their comfortable shoes. You can't perceive Salinger and the aura around him in any depth without accounting for these two viewpoints, the high-critical inspection and the tabloid leer, in equal measure. It is necessary to give equal weight to examining the young thinker who pursued the mysteries of Zen with a holy passion and the old man who pursued a Dynasty starlet with the fervor of a stalker. The definitive Salinger biography will involve a literary soap-opera inquest: Who killed J.D.?
In one sense, Jerome did J.D. in. When a famous writer silences himself, he is committing a kind of suicide, of course—the death of the author by his own hand. What was the motive? Your guess is as bad as mine. Still, we can frown at the clues and squint at the reasons that Salinger's silence should be so specially dark and rich and resonant. It is no knock against Salinger's craftsmanship or his daring to observe that he produced the least substantial body of work of any American considered a major writer of fiction. (I would guess, for instance, that there are fewer words in Salinger's four published books than in either unprolific Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man or Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, to name two books that engage at length with the history of the country and the minds of adults.) But thinness of résumé serves to make the author look ethereal.
Holden Caulfield speaks to the young reader as intimately as any other character in literature. It helps that the book, though offered as a novel, feels like a dramatic monologue. Or perhaps you prefer Janet Malcolm's angle: "The Catcher in the Rye, though putatively set in an alien nighttime New York, evokes the familiar terrifying dark forest of fairy tales." In any event, Holden's breath is right on your neck when he says, "What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours." The silence of this author—an author who understands you so terrifically well and yet is a friend to no one—is as perfect as the silence of God.
The literary coroner cannot resist trying to establish a timeline. The modest man who wrote Catcher in the Rye was touchy, sensitive, and maybe still feeling a bit rearranged after seeing action at the Battle of the Bulge. It's hardly unheard of for a young writer to resist having his photograph printed on his book jacket. But In Search of Salinger finds this one treading notably farther down the path of self-effacement. Shortly before Catcher's July 1951 publication date, Salinger demanded that there be no publicity for the book whatsoever, including review copies. In the course of settling him down, Angus Cameron, the top editor at Little, Brown, delivered one of the better lines in the history of literary hand-holding: "Do you want this book published or just printed?"
The writer relented, but a force or fear had announced itself. In February of 1952, when it seemed that the novel's run on the best-seller lists was petering out, Salinger wrote that he was "tremendously relieved that the season for success of The Catcher in the Rye is over." In January of 1953, already much taken with the Eastern philosophy that variously buoys and burdens his later work, he moved into his cottage at Cornish. In February of 1958, his British editor, Roger Machell, is in New York City on business and unable to get Salinger to come see him in town: "He realizes books must be published but wishes they didn't," Hamilton quotes him. "I would say he has a profound hatred of all publishers."
There follows a scene from a dinner that Salinger does attend with his publishers. Playing a bizarre joke on his publishers, his wife and her friend sit down at their dinner table at the Stork Club pretending to be call girls, "talking tough and casting sly glances." We're meant to understand this as a hostile comment on the exploitation of artists. It's a pity Jerry thought himself a whore.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Photograph of The Catcher in the Rye by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.