Sad things can happen when an author chooses the wrong subject: first the author suffers, then the reader, and finally the publisher, all together in a tiny whirlpool of pain. Ian Hamilton’s book, In Search of J.D. Salinger, seems to have set in dolorous motion all of the above. The author’s misunderstandings begin on page one, and his groans only a page or so later. And at the end Mr. Hamilton is still wearing his bitterness rather awkwardly on his sleeve, his publisher has become, as Hamilton puts it, “preoccupied,” and the reader doesn’t know which way to look.
The book’s fate certainly has been an unusual one, of a kind that would have amused the Mikado. In the event you have been living in a cave, or conceivably in New Hampshire, the story, plus commentary, goes roughly like this. Four years ago, Hamilton, a lifelong Holden Caulfield fan, wrote J.D. Salinger a pro forma letter announcing a plan to write a book about him. He didn’t expect an answer, partly because everyone knows that Salinger despises literary biographies and publishers too (a position shared by an ample number of writers, though you wouldn’t guess it from Hamilton, who treats Salinger throughout as a man without a species, unique unto himself) and partly because “he [J.D.] was, in any real-life sense, invisible, as good as dead” (joke). Incidentally, there are a lot of (jokes) in this book.
The small but crucial distinction between dead and invisible became sufficiently clear shortly after that when Salinger, who wasn’t supposed to write one dead or alive, fired off a quite vigorous letter rounding on Hamilton for harassing his family (H. had written all the Salingers in the Manhattan phone book, and had winged a couple of relatives) “in the not particularly fair name of scholarship.”
Writers, sad to say, often take this philistine view of “scholarship,” feeling that they don’t owe it anything except their published work: again Salinger was not alone. Hamilton, however, was quite nonplused by the letter as he would subsequently be by almost everything he learned about his subject—a signal, perhaps, that he didn’t quite have a feel for this thing.
One of his friends told him the letter was really a ” ‘come-on’: ‘I can’t stop you’ to be translated as ‘Please go ahead.’ ” (Remember when they used to say that about girls?) Hamilton, being of slightly finer stuff, isn’t quite so sure—although he sounds pretty sure to me. “He [Salinger] said he wanted neither fame nor money and by this means he’d contrived to get extra supplies of both—much more of both, in fact, than might have come his way if he’d stayed in the marketplace along with everybody else.” Yes indeed. There is a light flurry of “on the other hand”s after this, but at book’s end, when the case has achieved a certain notoriety, the theme reasserts itself plangently. “Meanwhile, Salinger was getting more feature-length attention in the press than would surely have resulted from [my] unimpeded publication.” Fancy that—feature length: Salinger could hardly have done better if he’d planned the whole thing himself.
But back to the letter. At that stage, and viewing it solely as a tactic, Hamilton was not altogether without respect for the privacy-for-profit angle. If playing hard to get enhances a girl’s value, even the most lecherous of us can understand that. So, despite forebodings that do him credit, he essentially took his friend’s view that the letter was a challenge; and right to the end he refused to believe that he just might not be Salinger’s type, marketplace or no marketplace. (And by the way, it’s far from a given that Salinger would have been one whit less marketable if he’d hung around with “everybody else”: John Knowles’s A Separate Peace still sells prodigiously every year, and Knowles didn’t go anyplace.)
Since Salinger’s letter was so short, it’s a pity that Hamilton didn’t weigh each phrase more carefully and sense that that one about scholarship was the loaded one. Originally H. had hoped that by declaring himself a scholar instead of a news magazine, he would crack the case wide open. But as it turned out a news magazine could hardly have done worse. After all, from an author’s point of view, a news magazine can only steal your clothes, while a scholar picks among your very bones, and lets the magic out of your plots, plastering the remains with names and dates like graffiti on a tombstone. So Salinger’s hatred of academics may not, as they themselves prefer to believe, be based on graduate school envy at all, but on his own sense of Eros v. Thanatos, and thus a simple matter of life or death.
Hamilton’s Salinger, on the other hand, just doesn’t think like that, and so his creator plunged ahead with a high heart into a swampy area which, expressly because of him, will henceforth be carefully signposted against eager tourists: he appropriated some unpublished letters of J.D. that could be found in certain libraries, and printed them without a by-your-leave from either the libraries or Salinger (he must have thought that rare material was awfully easy to come by in the United States); wrote his book and duly sent it on to Salinger, still hoping, with a goofy ardor worthy of Freddy Hill in Pygmalion, that he would win the latter’s heart, that he would prove the exception, the lucky lecher. Salinger promptly copyrighted the letters and obtained a writ delaying their (and the book’s) publication. Hamilton just as promptly paraphrased the letters, quite excruciatingly (intentionally so, one hopes for his sake), and tried again. And this time Salinger took him to court. And goodness, was Hamilton nonplused.
By this time, Hamilton must have been practically certain he’d got the wrong man. When your subject turns around and bites you—and you don’t expect it—you’ve probably missed a hint someplace. What’s surprising in this instance is that Hamilton’s Salinger, a biliously competitive careerist, sounds quite capable of taking his grandmother to court if necessary: and yet the biographer persisted in thinking the original was just kidding.1 At any rate, the first legal proceeding (nobody just has one any more) went to Hamilton, on grounds of scholar’s rights, but the appeal went to Salinger, largely on the grounds that the letters Hamilton had filched without permission had cash value, hence property value, which paraphrases would tend to diminish as much as quotes would, and that he had gone way beyond the “incidental” use of them allowed by law by citing them on 40 percent of his pages.
Journalism proceeded to have the last laugh over scholarship when several papers printed a legally “incidental” sampling of the forbidden letters, reminding one of their flavor—and reminding this particular reader, who had seen Hamilton’s original manuscript, of how much the new book missed them. Hamilton, if anything, understates the matter when he says of the original that “it had (thanks to the letters) something of his tone, his presence.” On the page at least, Salinger’s tone is his presence to a unique extent, and a book that can’t quote him verbatim might be about anybody.
In a human, as opposed to a legal, sense, it is obviously hard to pick any kind of fight with a man who has, after all, brought a good deal of pleasure at very little cost to anyone, and Hamilton feels quite queasy about it himself. But momentum now required him to proceed in a legal mode, and thus we find him, or at least his lawyers, comparing this superb writer with Howard Hughes, a fellow recluse who also happened to be a public figure. And an anonymous publisher weighs in with this thought: “What if ‘a news reporter discovers Oliver North’s private diary, but can neither quote nor paraphrase from it because it is unpublished’?”
This kind of thing may help to explain why, even in a case ostensibly concerning censorship, Hamilton seems to have so few creative writers in his corner right now (uncreative writers are another story). Whatever the law may have to say about it, this year or next, most writers stoutly refuse to consider themselves public figures in the same sense as Hughes or North, and in fact would probably prefer not to be seen in the same argument with either of them. So if a publisher, however anonymous, and an author can agree for even a moment in granting to a writer’s personal papers the same status as those of a crazed manipulator or a government employee, then authors have no choice but to guard the door against publishers and scholars alike, and Salinger’s alleged paranoia becomes a simple matter of professional necessity.
But in all this, Hamilton is probably just as much a victim of the law’s clumsiness as Salinger. The cast of mind that can lump Oliver North in with J.D. Salinger can easily do the same for scholars and journalists, and thus Hamilton finds himself willy-nilly defending his scholarship with journalistic precedents, and making, or at least passing on, these embarrassing comparisons, even in a book where he is no longer on trial—comparisons that would surely never have occurred to him before the madness of litigation touched him (against his wishes, one should probably emphasize).
In real, nonlegal life, Hamilton has been a good deal more respectful of his subject’s wishes than a journalist would dream of being, accepting, for instance, Salinger’s implicit proposition that a writer who ceases to publish can, by so doing, cease to be a public figure upon the moment, and he has used no material dated after 1965—a condition that would make nonsense of any research relating to North or Hughes. But he has to insist for legal purposes that Salinger was “a public figure” once upon a time, and since the phrase still does not quite fit what scholars do, the old journalistic arguments have to be wheeled out, retroactively as it were, in all their awesome unsuitability, and we’re back with North and Hughes again, for want of anything better.
The common-sense trouble with this is at least hinted at in the relevant statute when it lists, without insisting on it, unprofitability as a desideratum in a work of scholarship. But since the very word strikes at the core of what journalism is about, it follows that, at least to a degree, the very thing that still makes Salinger appealing to journalists (his publicness) makes him unready for scholars: if he sells newspapers, he sells books in a newspapery sort of way, even highminded ones.
And finally, the public figure defense didn’t even work on the law’s own terms, perhaps because the statute doesn’t really know what it is supposed to do about scholars, or indeed what they are doing in there in the first place. To put it too simply: a journalist leaking from North’s diaries will presumably have to violate a trust somewhere along the line, as Hamilton did venially with the librarians (they told him he needed permission, but apparently let him be the judge of whether he had it—henceforth they won’t be so nice), but the journalist can always justify it by invoking the Public Interest. But what precisely is the scholarly equivalent of the Public Interest?
The law, as now written, clearly hasn’t the faintest idea, so herewith a few suggestions from the laity before it comes round again. If, in a case like this, one’s justification is simply a generalized need-to-know where artistic creation comes from, then Hamilton’s book passes cleanly, as indeed would any respectable piece of journalism that stressed the written record (Hamilton cites scraps of juvenilia, yearbook citations, etc., spare but suggestive, like everything else about Salinger): journalism with a college degree, as Mark Twain might put it. But if the test is the better explication of texts—supposing that Salinger’s texts need any explication that can’t wait—well, the book would conceivably have passed again, as it appeared the first time round, if only as a skillfully annotated collection of letters, but might, by a paradox, have more trouble now, when it is legally in the clear. Because, in any but the most literal sense, Hamilton finds it even harder than it need be to link Salinger’s life to his work; and this is where choosing the wrong subject comes in so painfully.
This, mind you, is the same Ian Hamilton who not so long ago wrote a masterly life of Robert Lowell which is so much the right subject for him that one might wish at this very moment to be reviewing that book instead of this one. His Lowell is as much a model of literary biography as this is not, and is, of course, the book that will be remembered.
So perhaps Hamilton’s first mistake was in not realizing in time how much his subject had changed on him. Temperamentally, he seems to have understood Lowell (being English was no handicap in that case), and he knew the ingredients of an academic poet. But with Salinger he has his work cut out even placing him on a literary map.
Thus we find him noting, as if it were a major breakthrough, that “this rigorous, high-minded author had once tailored his prose to please the market.” Well, yes. What might be news would be evidence that he’d ever stopped doing so. To a hardened reader of what Hamilton calls, without sufficient differentiation, “the slicks,” it is immediately apparent that even in his best work Salinger was a recognizable graduate of commercial writing not art writing, a Billy Wilder not a Bresson, and that The Catcher in the Rye itself, which Hamilton says he so thrilled to, is in certain respects of tone and timing, a transcendent Saturday Evening Post story. (Very few classics are that easy to read, or that likable either.)
Hamilton seems to suggest that his lateblooming realization of this made him decide to roll up his sleeves and get to work, but it might have been a good moment to roll them down instead. Because the world of market writing may simply not be susceptible to his kind of scholarship, however hard he sweats it, or his sensibility either, which seems ineradicably disapproving, as if he is making a slight face as he writes; and there are signs in his slapdash treatment of Salinger’s texts that his heart simply isn’t in it.
What he would have preferred to be doing may perhaps be surmised from the following wistful aside: “We need only wonder what Salinger’s writing life would have been like if he had gone to Harvard or Yale” (actually, I don’t suppose it has ever occurred to a Salinger fan to wonder this: nor would the question much interest him now that it’s been raised). And again: “Certainly, his career might have been very different if his first stories had been aimed not at Colliers but at Partisan Review” (not only different, as a matter of fact, but possibly nonexistent, since in 1940, the year Salinger first published, Partisan seems to have run exactly four short stories, by people you probably haven’t heard of; Colliers, on the other hand, ran stories by Faulkner and Cheever that same year).
Well, a Harvard-Partisan man would have been nice: presumably even a mysterious Ivy Leaguer would have yielded more biography than 222 pages worth, including footnotes, acknowledgements, court case, and jokes. But what is there to say about an old Ursinus College and New Yorker hand? “Nothing,” he notes, in his odd manner of defining Salinger by what he isn’t, “in [his] background or temperament, so far as we can tell, would have equipped him to regard a magazine like The New Yorker as frivolous or irresponsible (which is how Partisan Review saw it).”
Bringing in Partisan Review is neat: it keeps Hamilton from having to say it himself, and indeed makes the verdict sound a mite stuffy. But his own summary of the magazine that finally would prove to be Salinger’s literary home is amazingly lofty and perfunctory. The following thumbnail résumé is surely as boorish in its own world as a mistranslation would be in Lowell’s. “A typically ‘stylish’ [Robert] Benchley piece would run as follows: ‘I left All Editions at the end of the first act because I was sick of it and didn’t want to see any more.’ ”
For connoisseurs of this kind of thing, the “stylish” is good, the quotes around it are inspired. In the pages of a later New Yorker, Edmund Wilson would one day attempt to drum the word stylish out of American prose for good, in reference to anything but cheap hats, but even if he hadn’t nobody would ever have applied it to Benchley (rumpled, or possibly baffled, might be closer, except that they sound too calculated). As for “typically,” the mind jams completely. Typical of Benchley? I must have read just about every surviving line of Benchley’s but I never ran into anything like that. Typical of The New Yorker then? But Benchley, by the mid-Thirties, was no more a typical New Yorker writer than Alexander Woollcott was or George S. Kaufman, or any of Harold Ross’s other old cronies of the pre-Thurber-Gibbs-and-White era who continued to contribute. (Benchley’s magazines, if anyone cares, also included Judge, Vanity Fair, and the old Life—but he wasn’t typical of those either.)
Not only is the author suddenly all at sea with his material, such as it is, but he doesn’t seem to think it matters. The whole question of Salinger’s humor, and where it came from, is skimmed over and around in a few cursory phrases (“hard-boiled urban wit” doesn’t quite make it), although humor2 is absolutely crucial to all of Salinger’s effects. “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” for instance, only works because Seymour Glass is so funny; likewise, “For Esmé with Love and Squalor” manages to steer its treacherous course between sentimentality and case history entirely by grace of the narrator’s throwaway lines and Salinger’s own uproarious imitation of Esmé—which incidentally does not depend on his famous italicized dialogue, which is sometimes discussed as if it were his sole comic resource.
So, in lieu of telling us one more time that Tolstoy has always been Salinger’s favorite author, it might have been a good idea at some point for Hamilton to take a closer and more sympathetic look at Salinger’s comic sources, whose influence on his work is somewhat more accessible than Tolstoy’s, and in particular, to have asked himself whether there was ever anything about The New Yorker besides his own natural disadvantages that drew Salinger to the magazine in the first place.
Holden Caulfield’s own favorite humorist (and writer as well) was Ring Lardner, and what he liked best about him were his famous dadaesque playlets, written in pure humor and containing the immortal formulations ” ‘shut up,’ he explained,” and ” ‘married out of wedlock,’ ‘mighty pretty country around there,’ ” and not an awful lot else; so if Holden (named after Salinger’s best friend) Caulfield (his favorite movie actress) singles out these few pages for his deceptively fastidious blessing, he may be giving us the best clue we are going to have to exactly why and how, down to the very phrasing, his ventriloquist master first wanted to write: Salinger in his own voice never told us more.
Lardner and Benchley might both be considered founding fathers of American nonsense wit, which, if humor were literature instead of mock literature, would have to be considered a major movement, and any scholar undertaking to interpret the letters and marginalia of even such nonspecialists of the period as Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald had better be at home in it. Lardner in particular had an incalculable influence on both these men: and since the three of them combine to help round out Salinger’s own canon of favorites, we may have the makings of a school here, good for a hundred dissertations.3 And for Hamilton’s second self, the ash-on-the-rug biographer, we have the quaint coincidence that Salinger, who began life aspiring to Benchley’s job as drama critic of The New Yorker, continued years later to have lunch with S.J. Perelman, Benchley’s proudest disciple, long after he had stopped seeing almost anybody else.
Perelman, a fellow dandy with a chip on his shoulder, lived a life bounded by the same two worlds, show business and The New Yorker, as J.D. and his mythical elder brother Vincent a/k/a Buddy. So it’s instructive to know that he and Salinger still found something to talk about right through the Zen years: it might even give us a notion of whatever became of Salinger’s other side, the kid with the urban wit, a guy you would have bet could never in a million years have wound up living mutely by himself in the country.
Humor is notoriously resistant to criticism, and although Salinger is, of course, much else besides a humorist, he tends to write in the American humor language of the Twenties through Forties, which can make his work hard at times to analyze in a formal lit. crit. way.4 This is particularly true of his letters, which are shot through with variously successful attempts to be ironic. So it is particularly poignant that Hamilton should have made these his final trysting place. Because, lacking the right key, he seems to interpret every word of them quite literally, so that the stage boasts become real boasts and the whimsical self-deprecations turn too often into plain groveling. A man’s ironic version of himself is a sorry sight whoever he is, but that is now the version we’ve got, because Salinger’s own words, in his letters, are no longer around to temper it.
In retrospect, it should have been clear from Hamilton’s own peculiar paraphrasing of the originals that the letters were written in a language quite foreign to him: but in any language he might have guessed that Salinger’s self-advancement letters at least (and we all write them) could seldom have been less than somewhat charming, within the conventions of the situation, and however they read to him today. Surely no author who ever lived has known much more about how to ingratiate himself than the creator of Holden Caulfield, a character who could even reach across languages to Mr. Hamilton himself not so many years after the letters were written. So even as a callow youth buttering up prospective editors, chances are he knew pretty much what he was doing and did not unwittingly reveal all his character flaws for future biographers to seize on. (Hamilton himself notes how convincingly Salinger had rendered the pieties of high school yearbook prose while he was at Valley Forge Prep, and he was even callower then.)
Even in the taboo matter of Salinger’s reclusiveness (and one writes about this man with care) there may be a few non-litigious things to say linking this most impressionable of writers with a tradition of some sort (although I’m not suggesting that Hamilton should have said them, only that he should have said something). Ever since Thoreau at the latest, many American writers besides Salinger have nurtured a generic (and very unEuropean) craving for solitude: naturally enough since that’s what brought people here in the first place. And by chance, Thoreau has probably had no more fervent champion in our own era than E.B. White of The New Yorker, who somehow seemed to blend in his own person and writings a Thoreauvian ideal of solitude with that magazine’s notion of quiet good taste, disappearance being undoubtedly the last word in understatement.
E.B. White made a dash for Maine in his middle thirties (Salinger hit the state next door at thirty-four), and could scarcely be budged after that. Pilgrims could still find him (unlike Salinger) but they couldn’t find much of him: his inner life, which included just about everything, remained nearly as recessive as Salinger’s. And when a biographer came calling at last, he amiably went into a species of dead-man’s float, neither cooperating nor resisting, and getting presumably what he wanted: a bland and deferential biography of a kind Salinger was too proud to angle for.
But then, White was altogether a much milder man than Salinger, of whom it seems temperate to say that he barely knows how to leave understatement alone. Thus, while all New Yorker writers tend to favor plain-looking books, on the safety-first principle that all ornament is a priori excessive, Salinger’s editions are positively monastic, to the point where the absence of frills becomes almost oppressive, like the volumes in a convent parlor. Beware, I suppose, the drastic man in pursuit of solitude. The manic drive that might have sent Salinger spinning off to Hollywood wound up driving him almost further into privacy than privacy will hold; but then one thinks of his near contemporary, Thomas Merton, author of Elected Silence (Evelyn Waugh’s choice of title for the British Seven Storey Mountain), who also chose to put an infinite distance between himself and the trashiness of the 1940s, and who even made an irrevocable commitment to that effect, which would allow for absolutely no change of heart when or if the fever had cooled; and even Salinger went no further than that.
Merton makes an instructive parallel in several respects. Seven Storey Mountain came out in 1948 and Catcher in the Rye in 1951, and both of them took off like thunder, against all conventional expectations.5 The generation they spoke to would later be referred to derisively as “silent,” to which it might well have answered, out of the din of promotion that followed the war, that there was a lot to be silent about right then: Salinger called it “phoniness” and Merton called it “worldliness,” but for most young readers there was only one enemy.
In fact, of course, there were at least two, but only one Zeitgeist, and both men were plugged into it all the way, quite sincerely and without calculation (you can’t do it if you’re not sincere). They were simply alive to their times at every moment with an agitated awareness that fairly screamed for escape. And both, significantly, turned to Zen Buddhism among other things to soothe this torment of awareness.
So once again Salinger has company, and of a kind that should ensure respectability by association, but doesn’t quite, because his sheer facility takes the grit out of the subject and makes it all go down too smoothly: a sort of “Zen Made Easy” effect. I believe the problem is one of technique rather than sincerity. Thomas Merton’s very tone conveyed a spiritual and intellectual authority which made his divagations into Orientalism sound rock solid; but Salinger in those days was still obliged to work with the cap and bells of his profession—by which I don’t mean that he was funny about his Eastern discoveries but that he was doomed to entertain whatever the subject. His story “Teddy” provides a far too slick introduction to Oriental wisdom (the magazines he trained under might have been okay at times for fiction, but they were death on wisdom). But when, in “Seymour: An Introduction,” he attempts to reduce the slickness by stirring some seriousness into the entertainment, his message strains mightily against his style in all its too-perfect shapeliness, causing Buddy Glass to apologize more than once for his helpless wordiness.
So let us suppose the following: that Salinger swiftly became dissatisfied with this half-baked condition, half-slick and half-serious but really not enough of either, but yet was unwilling simply to retreat into his early triumphs, whose high polish might by now even have begun to strike him as a bit phony; so he simply decided to suspend publication then and there until such a time as he found a new style worthy of his subject. And if that should take forever, what is forever to a mystic?
It may not have happened quite like that, but the texts suggest it and the texts are, by agreement, our subject. In any event, a biographer with his eye on a breakthrough should probably try to make all he possibly can out of Salinger’s religious conversion, suspending his skepticism at least long enough to imagine himself as far as his temperament permits into Salinger’s position. Unfortunately, Hamilton seems congenitally unsympathetic to Salinger as such, and cannot or will not imagine himself into the man at any stage of his development, let alone this chic, apparently unearned one.
A similar refusal of imagination also keeps him from making much of anything out of Salinger’s schooling, and the sundering alienation a Jewish New Yorker might be expected to feel in the rather cloddish Wasp schools that his father chose for him. Sol Salinger of Cleveland obviously saw no difficulty about getting his son assimilated overnight, it was just like taking out citizenship papers or getting vaccinated: you simply looked up a school in The New York Times—any school that advertised in that newspaper must be the best—and let the American dream do the rest. Valley Forge for years used to run an ad in The Times under the rubric “Educational Troubleshooters,” and it was that kind of school; “always showing some hot-shot guy on a horse, jumping over a fence,” as Holden Caulfield described it. Later, it would take an incomprehension bordering on genius to find a college quite so inappropriate as Ursinus, Pa., another mailorder outfit in the furthest boondocks, to complete his son’s rout, and ensure that he never would feel at home anywhere.
Such schools chosen in such a way can indeed create a conviction of intrinsic outsideness, both with one’s family for letting it happen, but also with the outside world for presenting itself in such a strange way first time out. Hamilton describes young Salinger’s persona at Valley Forge as being alternately aloof and eager to please: but having been in a similar situation twice myself, I would say that this is exactly how an outsider responds. Although there is no reason to be certain that the inmates at such a place even knew what a Jew was, it’s clear from surviving testimony that they found him a prickly oddity, and this combined with the animal hostility small boys commonly feel at first toward their own species, must have presented an almost impenetrable surface of distrust, that one alternately dreams and despairs of cracking.
Hamilton’s Salinger strikes me at various times as being at once too young and too old. For instance, a piece of early writing that seems to me quite advanced for its age will be dismissed as juvenile; yet when Jerry acts irritatingly superior, it seems to get forgotten that this is a fifteen-year-old boy we’re talking about, in an alien world, and that sometimes burgeoning self-respect demands a show of tusks or answering display of menace. What seems to get overlooked when the words Salinger and prep school come to mind is that while Salinger would finally settle his own differences with a quite spectacular act of reconciliation, namely The Catcher in the Rye, his hero Holden Caulfield has to pay the price of going slightly insane—winningly so to be sure, and eager to please to the end, but nevertheless insane.
As for Salinger’s force-fed Americanization, it seems to have worked almost too well on the surface. When Mailer called him “the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school,” he spoke a greater irony than he knew. Not being able to leave that particular prep school would be a pretty fair definition of hell; and yet it’s true that no writer seems more hopelessly, inexpungeably preppy than Salinger. And it is perhaps a tribute to the art that conceals spleen that Catcher in the Rye is actually considered a celebration of that condition. (In fact, if you attend to the words and not the music, the book is inexpressibly sad.)
Although no one has ever called Salinger an angry young man, the figure Hamilton describes with presumable accuracy sounds made of anger. Grouchy in the army, splenetic at home, and given to tantrums at parties (my only reservation about this being that Hamilton seems to take anyone’s word against Salinger, without ever questioning where, in the useful phrase, the witness is coming from), he seems at all times to be ticking with an explosive grievance over some wrong that has been done to him and that everything seems to remind him of—except, significantly, children, preferably small girls, who are preeminently people to whom things are done, reminders perhaps of himself before whatever it was happened.
Since every second adolescent in the world seems to tick with a nameless grievance, the only excuse for bringing it up now is that Salinger happens to write about youth, so if anything at all can be said about him and his texts, it has to be about that. In his stories any such grievance there might once have been is either coded out of sight (we don’t really believe that Holden went crazy or Seymour killed himself) or sweetened to parody, so we only have a few odd things to go on, such as the fact that Caulfield (and it’s safe to guess, the Glass family as well) cannot abide people who look as if they used to play football in college—in other words, precisely the type of All-American male that schools like Valley Forge delighted in; and that the authorial presence of Salinger has paid excruciating attention to the speech patterns of the kind of brassy rich WASP females that his family’s upward mobility had thrust upon Salinger himself. It is almost as if he or the speaker had been used in some sociological experiment, the uptown equivalent of enforced busing, and something in him had rejected it.
Salinger certainly did not reject America itself—it has always puzzled me that, with his view of things, he hasn’t simply moved abroad for good—or its countryside, which he may have fallen in love with at Valley Forge, as an alternative to the school itself. He just objected (if this conjecture is correct) to the position he’d been put in, in all its raging helplessness.
Hamilton notes the number of times young Salinger used the word “professional” about himself and his ambitions, which might seem puzzling on the face of it because he didn’t need the money in any literal sense; but after Valley Forge and Ursinus and with a future in the sausage business looming, a man in his position might have felt he needed it all right, if only to avoid any more unpleasant surprises ever again.
Although one doesn’t think of Salinger as a Depression writer, it was hard not to be at least a bit of one if you were born into the period. There were very few safe fortunes back then, and even fewer that felt safe. And even though Sol’s sausages were moving well, the Arthur Millers (and Sol must have known families just like them) had gone down with furs and the Irwin Shaws with real estate, and anyway his whole momentum, as he moved his brood downtown in forced marches, argued against taking time out to finance a writer. (On the other hand, he might have had a copy of The New Yorker, that Valley Forge Prep of magazines, on the coffee table: you might impress him by appearing in that.)
For such reasons, American authors of the period tended to embrace the word professional with a fondness alien to England, where it still sounds slightly shabby (as opposed to amateur, which sounds better there than here—it being a question of which class calls the tunes). Not the least of Hamilton’s shocks occurs when he finds the great Salinger providing the court with a cash estimate on the letters, and no doubt he is right to blame the lawyers for this abasement; but when Saul Bellow more recently put the manuscript of Mr. Sammler’s Planet up for a charity auction, it struck a familiar bell. One way and another, American writers do like to know how they’re doing.
But even subtracting the Depression, any writer anywhere who has ever heard some such phrase as “You’ll never earn a living doing that stuff” will henceforth place an inordinate value on his royalty checks, which will look quite different from regular checks, and will fight for his copyright as for his honor. On the professional side of things Salinger has been unremittingly tough from the beginning, demanding all the control over production and promotion that a writer can conceivably be given, short of actually publishing the books himself, and hewing sternly to the professional writer’s code which insists that there is no such thing as a free speech (or presumably letter).
The paradox of Salinger is that most of this toughness appears to have been strained out of his stories and only shows itself in the arduous, word-perfect phrasing (as the paraphrases suggest, Hamilton seems to have no ear at all for Salinger’s prose, or interest in it—a desolate handicap in this particular case). The stories celebrate instead a sort of prelapsarian niceness, a willed return to some golden age of his own—what they call in sports a do-over, as if one could live one’s whole life over again but with the curse taken off it. And perhaps the toughness is simply what stands guard over the playground.
The relevant part of Salinger’s life, his infancy, is as usual unavailable, but this time no more so than other people’s. The primeval happiness of the Salinger family in the days before Valley Forge and all that can only be guessed at from its echoes in the Glass family stories. The Glasses, although chronologically old enough to know better, seem to retain a prepubescent innocence, as if life is only just beginning to hit them for the first time in this particular story: and when it does, there is still a prepubescent shelter to return to (I remember having this exact same daydream myself in my boarding school days). Zooey, shaving as his mother watches him, is enjoying the superior powers of an adolescent in the safest room in the house: a vivid, troubling myth that it seems almost dangerous to dwell on. One escapes almost with relief to Portnoy’s sunny bathroom, with a real mother, and a real world, pounding to get in.
The Glass family innocence even finesses any problems that might pertain to assimilation: they are half-Jewish and half-Irish, but it’s no big deal—the question has never arisen; and in this perhaps one may be reminded for a moment of Sol Salinger’s heartbreaking optimism and senses in that moment that he might have been a nice man, for all his obtuseness.
An artist who wants to impose such a vision has, I believe, a strong case for wishing the rough drafts, the actual life itself, destroyed. When and if Salinger releases from his care the long awaited manuscript-in-exile, he may very well wish that nobody remember anything about him at all, and that his artwork will not be disfigured by little tags of extraneous information: it’s all any artist wishes.
October 27, 1988
The assumption in Hamilton’s corner was that Salinger would not reveal himself in New York long enough to give a deposition, a nasty piece of game playing to pull on one’s old hero, but that’s the law for you. Anyway, it backfired. Although my lips are generally sealed on the subject, it might be appropriate to mention here that I met Mr. Salinger once (nice fellow), both of us far from home, and got the distinct impression that he goes pretty much where he feels like. ↩
One of the minor causes of Salinger’s irritation with Hamilton’s manuscript may have been its own lumbering stabs at humor, which have been sufficiently mocked by other reviewers. I would only add, vis-à-vis H.’s playful attempts to turn himself into two people the better to discuss his project, that this man was never meant to be playful, and that pitch-perfect humorists like Salinger tend to be screamingly intolerant of facetiousness in all forms. ↩
Hemingway actually signed his high school pieces “Ring Lardner, Jr.,” and Edmund Wilson would later link the two names along with Sherwood Anderson’s to describe a distinct American school. As for Scott Fitzgerald, Ring was his neighbor during the germination of The Great Gatsby, a book both startingly better than and different from anything else he wrote: and the difference is not, I believe, incompatible with a brief immersion in Ring Lardner’s world. Salinger can be tied into this nexus in several places, but one might do worse than start with Hemingway’s story “Soldier’s Home” in which the protagonist copes with the inability to feel things “normally” consequent to combat fatigue—Salinger’s subject overtly in “Esmé,” but indirectly throughout the Seymour Glass saga. It could be a significant coincidence that Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut were both present at the Battle of the Bulge, that cruelest of adult surprises (Salinger had already helped Hemingway to liberate Paris. Wasn’t the war over?) and the works of both men, which have been termed respectively “sentimental” and “escapist,” may be read as alternate realities, born of desperation, to the unshakable horrors of the experience. So it’s possible that the youth of two generations has received much of its instruction from two mildly shell-shocked veterans. ↩
Ring Lardner had a similar problem, and it seems to have had a similarly suffocating effect on him. At his zenith, his admirer Edmund Wilson actually admonished him to leave the world of The Saturday Evening Post (sic) behind and “give us the works,” as if there were some superior kind of works that he had been holding back on so far. Perhaps on learning that his best was somehow not good enough and never would be, Lardner didn’t exactly disappear but he did the next best thing: he fell more and more silent, both privately and publicly, and seriously talked of abandoning literature altogether for musical comedy. (For a nonmusical response to highbrow strictures, one might also consider the long silence of Irving Berlin.) ↩
The closest thing to an exception would be the legendary Bob Giroux who believed strongly in both manuscripts, though possibly not in the hundreds of thousands worth. One other link I find between the books may be purely subjective: nothing I have since read has evoked Manhattan c. 1940 more poignantly for this child of the period than these two tales told by refugees. No lover ever made it sound better. ↩