Somehow, I don’t know how, I managed to make it all the way through my formative high school years without ever having to read The Catcher in the Rye. Amazing, I know! But that didn’t take away the experience of going to see the documentary “Salinger” on Saturday night.
“Salinger” is an intimate, 2-hour portrait of writer J.D. Salinger. I’m kind of shocked at how much I didn’t know about him … and a little pleased at how much I did. I knew, for example, that he was reported to be a recluse. This documentary starts with first-hand accounts from several people of their attempts to speak to, photograph, and ask questions of the recluse himself. I also somehow knew that people did this, that they drove out to the middle of nowhere in New Hampshire and waited at the end of his long driveway to catch a glimpse of him.
The film starts with a man who made this pilgrimage, who left his family and his job to seek out the wisdom of the master. This man was rewarded as Salinger drove down his driveway, got out of his car, and asked the man what he wanted. And when the man told of his quest for meaning, the way The Catcher in the Rye changed his life, Salinger told him something to the effect of “I don’t have any answers, I’m just a fiction writer!”
I have mixed feelings about “Jerry” Salinger after seeing this documentary of his life. On the one hand, he was hot! And apparently he was charming and talented too. As a young man he was idealistic enough not to take no for an answer and ended up petitioning the army to be allowed to join WWII in spite of being given a medical write-off.
In my opinion, WWII both made and destroyed Salinger. Man, he went through a lot! But he was not the only one. (Band of Brothers happens to be one of my favorite mini-series) I don’t think his reaction was unique to those who went through that experience of war either. So many men came back from that war damaged in ways that no one could see, ways that haunted them for the rest of their lives. But what made Salinger different is how he used that, used his fundamental brokenness, to become one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
That being said, I also think that Salinger was a narcissistic jerk who liked little girls. Okay, okay, so they were legal, but they were all still really, really young. And apparently he only liked them as long as he could use them to fuel his creative fires, then they were crinkled up and thrown out with the rest of the typos.
My aunt who took me to the film, by the way, had an entirely different take on his love life. She saw Salinger as a good man in search of romance. My aunt is an optimist.
But that’s kind of the point. Dude was complex! He was driven to be one of the best writers of the century. It wasn’t an accident for him that he ended up where he did. He worked and worked and worked, submitted short stories over and over and over to his holy grail publication, The New Yorker. He put his nose to the grindstone and it paid off!
This is an important lesson for every writer. Salinger didn’t just whip something out and become an icon overnight. He got there through blood, sweat, and tears. The documentary talks about how he always knew that he was born to be a writer, and I can identify with that. But being born to do something and succeeding at doing it are two very different things. The man worked for what he had.
I was also tickled pink to see that Ernest Hemmingway was his beta-reader at one point. That made me smile!
Of course, the mystery of J.D. Salinger is that after the success of The Catcher in the Rye, he “disappeared”. Although he died in 2010, he stopped publishing in the mid-60s. That’s a lot of years to be one of the Great Ones and not to publish! And as the film reveals (and any writer would know in their soul) he did not stop writing. In fact, that’s what he was doing all those years: writing. Writing with instructions to publish all of that work after his death.
In other words, now. Apparently, between 2015 and 2020, a whole mess of J.D. Salinger stuff is going to be published.
And here’s where my big question came up. Is this going to be an awesome, epic event in the history of literature or is it going to be an awkward footnote?
Yes, Salinger was profoundly influential to the yearning, burning youth of the mid-20th century who saw their deepest thoughts in print for the first time with his words. But it’s 2013, and by the time these unpublished works are printed, it will be even later. The world changed while Jerry was up there in the mountains of New Hampshire, tapping away on his antique typewriter. Are the words of this man who was once the voice of a generation relevant anymore? Can they really speak to the modern fears and hopes of a post 9-11 world? Or will they be met with a grin of nostalgia before people go back to reading 100 Shades of Thrones at Twilight?
I don’t know. All I know is after watching the story of his life, I am absolutely sure that J.D. Salinger would hold me and everything I write in absolute contempt. Oh well. I’m still not inspired to read The Catcher in the Rye. But I did enjoy the 2-hour trip into 20th century literature.