Have We Failed J.D. Salinger Again?

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When I first saw the trailer for the new documentary Salinger, about the reclusive and mysterious author, my initial response was one of enthusiasm. I love J.D. Salinger; no, I lerve him. I love him in a "school girl drawing hearts around our initials" way. I can say without hesitation that he is my favorite author of all time ever.

But upon further contemplation, I pondered if making a documentary about the guy and my own consumption of it would by and large make me a part of everything that Salinger hated. Would I be the exact thing that Salinger was running away from? And what is our obsession with him anyway? There have been many other great writers who have stayed out of the spotlight; why do we all want to know so much about this one in particular? Why can't we just leave this guy alone?

I haven't yet seen the documentary, which was released in a limited number of theaters this weekend, and based on the reviews, I probably won't. NY Magazine's David Edelstein, a film critic whose opinion I hold rather highly, literally renounced the movie, saying that if Salinger were alive, he would probably go after the film's director, Shane Salerno, "with a hatchet." Edelstein is in crowded company; overall, the documentary has received quite poor reviews. Reading much of the criticism, you get the impression that these writers are more disappointed than anything else. Are they thinking what I'm thinking? We've failed Salinger again!

Trying to impress Salinger is something that I, as a pre-teen, aimed to do, as unlikely as that may seem now. I first read Catcher in the Rye at the age of 12; it was a gift from my older sister. I didn't just fall for the book, I became obsessed with it (as I assume many others did). I was an angry and confused little squirt and every word that came out of Holden Caufield's mouth was my gospel. He was me, just smarter and more eloquent and empathetic, and, I imagined, really good looking.

I went on to devour every piece of writing Salinger composed. I went to my public library on weekends to find microfiches of his magazine publications. I was 12 and I went to the library on the weekends! I vowed to name my children Franny and Zooey. I made Venn Diagrams of the Glass family with overlapping narratives. I sent away for boarding school applications so that I could better understand my hero and maybe get on the fencing team. I had a red hunting cap that I wore with the flaps down. Yeah, I was a Salinger nut, and he probably would have really hated me for it.

I am not alone in my Salinger-obsession. Writers have taken to their pens and papers and made him characters in their novels. Author W.P. Kinsella created a fictional version of Salinger in his famous book Shoeless Joe -- in the movie version, Field of Dreams. he was turned into James Earl Jones. Musicians have written songs about him and he's even been the subject of fictional movies -- Chasing Holden is a 2003 film about a troubled teen who goes to find Salinger.

With this new documentary, the puzzle that is Salinger attempts to be put together. Why was he like how he was, we all want to know so badly? Perhaps he suffered from PTSD based on his time in the war. Perhaps he had a penchant for little girls that became inappropriate at times. Perhaps, as the movie claims, we will get a chance to read the never before released writings that weren't published during his lifetime because he didn't want them to be. Or perhaps this documentary will just reinforce what we already know: The guy just wanted to be left alone. And once again, we can't just give to him.

We keep failing J.D. Salinger, and if he knew he'd probably still think that we are all a bunch of phonies.


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3 comments
CottonG
CottonG

I recommend seeing the documentary before being too critical of it. I saw it this weekend and really liked it. And I'm a Salinger fan as well.

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

Wasn't it Vonnegut who said you shouldn't finish a book without questions about the author? I would argue the obsession with Mr. Salinger is very much by Mr. Salinger's design. Nothing peaks interest like the rich/powerful/talented who don't want our adulation. When he realized Hollywood wanted his book but not him, Mr. Salinger--like his petulent and unreliable antagonist--dropped out of society.  

End the in, the faithful serve Mr. Salinger best in the terms he dictated. They obsess over a man who cashed the check but otherwise wanted nothing to do with them. Phony indeed.

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