Advanced press about the documentary Salinger promised an “unprecedented” look inside the life of J.D. Salinger, the famously reclusive author of The Catcher and the Rye. But even a cursory search of Amazon turns up four print biographies (and that’s not counting the one co-authored by this film’s director, Shane Salerno) and at least one previous film biography. So, the claim of originality made for this work seems a stretch.
At two hours long, Salinger could be presumed thorough; and there are plenty of fascinating details. But for a feature-length documentary, there are surprising gaps. There is very little information about his family or his relationship to them, despite the fact that—with the exception of a brief enrollment in a Pennsylvania college and his military service—he appears to have resided with parents until he was 32 years old. (This according to independent research done online after the movie’s leapfrog chronology got me wondering.) There was no mention of Salinger’s older sibling, Doris, that I recall, at all.
It is evident that director Salerno regards Salinger’s military service during World War II as the defining period in the life of the author. Given that Salinger landed at Normandy, and saw active combat in the Battle of the Bulge and the legendarily brutal Battle of Hurtgen Forest, as well as later being one of the first soldiers to enter a concentration camp, this is unsurprising.
But it is strange that Salerno skips so hastily over Salinger’s youth. If anything, the gruesome and dreary existence of a soldier during wartime must have been a particularly dramatic change for someone with Salinger’s background: Prior to service, he was living with affluent parents on Park Avenue, he had just been published and he was dating the famously attractive daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. It is as if Salerno made a decision to dismiss those whom Salinger’s most famous creation, Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, dismissed. (Adults are, after all, phonies.)
The details of Salinger’s war service are truly terrible, though. It is almost impossible that he was not tremendously affected by the horrors he witnessed. But unlike those soldiers we are told laughed at their own injuries because they knew it meant they were going home, Salinger volunteered himself for involvement in the post-victory “Denazification” of Germany. Then, weirdly, he married a former member of the Nazi party and brought her back to the States with him. (The marriage did not last, but this—and Salinger’s contention that she and he shard a “telepathic” connection—surely reflects some curious ambivalence about his experience of wartime Europe.)
Though too much can be made of youthful “formative” experiences and the influence and legacy of the family drama, it would have been interesting to hear more about the young Salinger. But given the close identification of generations of readers to Salinger’s iconic antihero, there is the temptation to allow Holden Caulfield to stand in for the real J.D. Salinger. Salerno makes it clear that he has given in to this temptation in a dramatic recreation in which the biographical Salinger flees a publisher’s office after being told that the book is entertaining, but that its protagonist is clearly insane.
The truly unprecedented aspect of this movie, the coup, then, is that Salerno claims to have uncovered, and had verified, the answer to the questions all Salinger fans most want answered: What, if anything, had he been writing in the years since his last published work in 1965? And would such works ever see the light of day?
SPOILER ALERT: Uh, we’ll see.
According to the film, Salinger has completed five separate works that will be released irregularly between 2015 and 2020. But he does not identify the verifying agents nor provide any details about publication. The works include a full history of the Glass family (featured in many of his best-regarded stories), a religious manual and a novella based on his experience with his telepathic Nazi wife.
We’re all really hoping that at least that last is true.