I read Catcher in the Rye in high school, and didn’t get it, so I never became a fan, unlike (I guess) most of the rest of the country. I read his other books too, later on. I don’t remember making much of the short stories, rather liking Franny and Zooey, but not enough to reread them.
I lived in the same general area as he did for more than a decade, and drove through Cornish, New Hampshire every now and then, aware that he lived somewhere there, but not being very interested. I certainly had nothing I wanted to say to him, unlike a lot of other people.
Years before that I had picked up a short book by Joyce Maynard, called Looking Back. She wrote about junior high school (at a time when she was only just out of high school herself), which brought back the experience to me, but she had clearly been much more aware of what was going on around her than I had been when I was a student.
Years later, when I was living in New Hampshire, she wrote a column for the local paper, which I read pretty regularly. It was interesting, but I felt there was something wrong there, I can’t say what, because I don’t remember. It wasn’t that she listened to country music when writing a book, though that wouldn’t be my taste. I’m not sure I knew at the time that she had had an affair with Salinger, nor that she had written the book I read while they were together.
Later I read his daughter’s memoir. I didn’t have a LOT of interest in him, but still some curiosity. This morning I watched a movie about him.
I think it would be fair to say he was a strange man, with a number of paradoxical elements. His father was Jewish, his mother wasn’t, he grew up in a Jewish environment, privileged, but not liking it much. He messed up in private schools, was sent to a military school where, according to the movie, he got himself together.
He seems to have decided early that he wanted to write, and began to be published in the early 1940s. He wanted to be published in the New Yorker, and the magazine had accepted one of his stories, but didn’t publish it because of Pearl Harbor. He was upset about that.
He almost immediately tried to enlist in the army, but was initially rejected. He kept trying, and managed to enlist later in 1942. His first experience of combat was on D Day. He told someone later that he carried a manuscript about Holden Caulfield when he hit the beach, because it was necessary to his survival. Obviously he did survive, and it seems that not much later he met Ernest Hemingway (whom, according to the movie, he idolized) in Paris, got him to look at a manuscript, and that Hemingway loved it. The story is told by one of Hemingway’s grandchildren in the movie, so it may be true.
Paradox: after VE day he had a nervous breakdown, and spent time in a hospital in Germany. But he reenlisted to “track down the bad guys”. He had been in Intelligence with his company, which meant that he talked to citizens of each town they came to to find out where the Germans had machine gun nests set up, where clear areas were that ambushes could be set up, and generally anything else useful. He must have had a clearer than usual idea of local life and how it had been affected by German occupation.
His company also entered a camp in Dachau, so he saw many corpses and a few survivors. This must have made an impression on him, quite possibly especially because he was Jewish. Maybe that’s why he wanted to punish those who had done such things. Which makes it quite surprising that he married a young Nazi woman (clearly against regulations) and brought her back to the United States. The marriage didn’t last long. When he divorced her he said she had misled him.
He pursued his writing after the war, got published in the New Yorker as he had hoped, then published Catcher in the Rye in 1951, which was an almost immediate best seller. Many people identified with Holden Caulfield, the young narrator. Friends say that Caulfield was Salinger. They also testify that he was taken aback by his sudden popularity and loss of privacy, and that he didn’t want to cooperate with the publicity, but wasn’t really a recluse either. He still enjoyed going out to bars and interacting with friends, but didn’t want strangers asking him for things, as he made clear later in New Hampshire, to someone who waited in his driveway to meet him. He had given his work to the public, but said he couldn’t tell anyone how to live.
The latter seems not to have been so true in his private life. After he married his second wife (19 years old to his 34, and with a troubled background) and they had their first child, they settled in New Hampshire and he isolated himself from her and the children much of the time to write. He had apparently been fascinated by her youth and beauty, but didn’t find her so fascinating after she’d given birth. It took some time–she probably lacked confidence–but she eventually divorced him, His daughter Margaret’s memoir (as I recall it) emphasizes that she didn’t feel she could please him. According to the movie, his son disagreed with her portrayal of their family life.
Joyce Maynard’s account of their affair, beginning in the early 1970s is interesting too. He insisted they meditate in the morning after eating uncooked frozen peas (pouring hot water over them to warm them), then writing, for which he donned a jumpsuit. They watched the old movies he liked in the evenings.
She met William Shawn, his editor at the New Yorker, and Shawn’s longtime lady friend in New York City, and apparently said something gauche. She said Salinger hustled her out of the lunch and bought her an expensive coat.
They broke up, she says, after going to the beach with his son. He and his son played in the water, he came back out, and told her he was really tired, that he wasn’t going to have children anymore. She wanted children, so she said she couldn’t stay with him, and he told her she should leave right away. He took her to the airport and gave her some money.
Later, she found that, just as he had with her, he had written letters to a number of young girls–they were always young–one of whom became his third wife. She also eventually decided to write a memoir of their affair, went to his house to tell him, and had him denounce her for it.
He stayed in New Hampshire the rest of his life, and seems to have been well accepted by people there. People who came to town looking for him found that local people weren’t cooperative. They didn’t want to be part of invading his privacy. One writer interviewed a famous man’s widow on just the other side of the Connecticut river from New Hampshire, and remarked that Salinger lived there. She remarked that he did, and that he had sat in the same chair the writer was then sitting in the previous night. She asked him what he would ask Salinger, told him that Salinger was all right, and was writing, and added, So you don’t need to meet him at all.
Why have so many people been fascinated with Salinger? Was his writing that good? For some I guess it was. I suppose part of the fascination may have been that Salinger didn’t behave like other writers in playing the celebrity game, which he easily could have. New Hampshire probably seems like a distant and foreign place to live to many. Actually, it’s not so different from other states, but may have fewer big cities, especially in that area.
Of course his response to fame was unusual, which didn’t make it wrong. He could have moved to New England just to run away, but he continued writing. The movie said that he had added more stories to the series about the Glass family already published, and possibly more about Holden Caulfield as well. According to the movie, these stories were supposed to start being released in 2015. I haven’t heard anything about that as yet. Was that story inaccurate? It doesn’t really make a lot of difference to me, but it seems curious.
He seems to have been convinced he was meant to be a writer, but what did he actually express? How important was it? I must have been too young when I tried reading him, because his stories made little impression on me. I don’t know if he really fulfilled what he was supposed to do.