“I put all my genius into my life,” Oscar Wilde once said. “I put only my talent into my works.” But how much of his life did J.D. Salinger put into his works? “Salinger,” a new movie, tries to answer the question, with more biographical focus on the famous (and famously private) author of “The Catcher in the Rye” than you can shake a red hunting hat at, with numerous interviews and plenty of what Salinger’s most famous character might have termed “that David Copperfield crap.”
Even given his reputation as a publicity-shy eccentric, Salinger has been the subject of news stories and multiple biographies. He was, as the director of a new documentary about him notes, a recluse “who frequently came out of hiding to remind the world that he was a recluse.”
The film and response to it prompt some interesting discussions: What do you gain by learning a writer’s story? If you make a documentary about J.D. Salinger and it gets a 30 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is that because No One Is Allowed To Write About Salinger Except As An Idol of Purity and Isolation, or for some other reason? The film has been criticized for focusing on the writer’s life without adequate focus on the works that made us care about his life, but is any more focus on the work possible, given Salinger’s hard-won, tight control over his literary estate? Shane Salerno, the film’s director, has been vigorously defending the work — for instance, in this Esquire piece.
I spoke on the phone with Salerno about the film and the response. How instructive is an author’s life for confronting his work? Is there really some sort of “complete special exemption” for Salinger, a conspiracy of silence around author of “The Catcher in the Rye,” discouraging anyone who tries to tell his story? Are people not allowed to write about him? Is it true that if you read “The Catcher in the Rye” aloud three times in front of a mirror with burning candles, a mysterious woman appears and urges you to assassinate someone? (That last question was an ill-timed joke that we did not actually address in the course of the conversation.)
J. D. Salinger, the legendary recluse — coming to theaters near you!
One of the things that the film and book show in pretty great detail is that J.D. Salinger was not a recluse. There was nothing reclusive about J.D. Salinger. Howard Hughes was a recluse. J.D. Salinger was not a recluse. What he was was extremely private…. And the reason is: he had relationships with very young girls.
People don’t understand that J.D. Salinger landed on D-Day. People don’t know that he was in the four bloodiest battles of World War II. People don’t know that he lost the love of his life to Charlie Chaplin. He was in a love triangle — J.D. Salinger, Charlie Chaplin and the daughter of Eugene O’Neill. People don’t know that he entered a concentration camp and was so traumatized he checked himself into a mental institution. He came out and did what no one else would do: He signed up for more. He participated in the de-Nazification of Germany. In a very Salinger-esque way — he fell in love with a girl, brought her home to his Jewish parents, discovered she was a Gestapo agent, applied for an annulment and never spoke to her again. That was just three years in the life of J.D. Salinger, 1940 to 1943, all before “The Catcher in the Rye.”…
Everyone is so focused on his beautiful, immaculate work, but they don’t understand the extraordinary life that he lived. That’s what my film and book are about, this is about Salinger’s life. He’s not a god; he was a man, a flawed man, a deeply contradictory man…. He turned his back on celebrity before celebrity was celebrity. And I have great admiration for him for rejecting all the things that we are conditioned to seek out, like fame and acknowledgement. He deserves our admiration. But there are moments of his life that were equally troubling….
Isn’t it, though, a false choice between accepting an idealized figure of purity alone in some cabin and probing into all the ways he might have been damaged and even, for want of a better word, phony? Seldom have I read [about] a writer’s life and actually come away with a greater appreciation of his work. Generally you feel almost betrayed — the man who gave you these resonant phrases that you’ve carried around with you was actually a crabby little fellow who was rude to waiters.
Now, in this case, it sounds like he led a very exciting life. You argued in the Esquire piece that this would enhance our appreciation for his work. Is that necessarily the case with all writers or is that just because of his life?
It’s certainly the case with J.D. Salinger. So much of Salinger’s work is autobiographical…. To not understand that is to miss an extraordinary element in understanding his work. [After the film] people immediately go back and read Salinger’s stories and say to us I have a greater appreciation of the work…. “The Catcher in the Rye” is really a disguised war novel. World War II is the ghost in the machine of all Salinger’s work. If it hadn’t been for World War II, we’d never have heard the name J.D. Salinger. It broke him as a man, but it made him as an artist.
But isn’t this just one biographical interpretation? I know there are people who say you can’t understand Shakespeare without understanding that the addressee of all the sonnets was a member of his acting troupe named Willie Hughes. This has subsequently been disproved, but for some people this was the clue to him. Isn’t it possible that this is just one interpretation?
I don’t think so in Salinger’s case. Salinger’s work is so informed by his life that to not understand any element of his life is to miss a huge part of his [work]. And so that’s what I was trying to do. I was trying to tell the story of his life. Within Salinger’s life are the missing pieces to understanding both Salinger and his work. And you know a number of stories where people have asked, why did this happen, why did this character kill himself, why did this character blow his brains out, to understand that that is rooted in his life. Why wouldn’t you want to know that Holden is based on Salinger’s life in New York in the 1940s? Why wouldn’t you want to know that many of the characters in Salinger’s stories experienced exactly what he experienced in his life? There’s a false belief out there that autobiographical details somehow cheapen the value of the work…. I don’t understand this insane philosophy that critics have that no one can make a film about J.D. Salinger. That he is somehow off limits. That the details of his life have a separate and special standard that is different from Oskar Schindler or Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy —
But I would push back against that for a second and say that the reason he’s different from those other people is that he’s a writer and those people are all actors — they’re primarily known through the things that they did in the public sphere…. But Salinger, we’re given these four books, and those are what we see of him. And a lot of people had very interesting lives and fought in World War II or had sort-of-illicit relations with people, but not all those people came out and wrote these books. So there’s certainly a connection, but —
What I would say to you is that J.D. Salinger was a published writer for 25 years. To expect that someone would write a book that would sell, conservative estimates, more than 65 million copies and be as relevant in 2013 as it was when it was written in 1951. In 2010 —
Well isn’t it a curriculum requirement as well, just to be fair? Is it possible that it’s not that it’s resonating but that people are required to read it in their summers?
You would never approach those numbers based on a curriculum requirement… It’s not just here; it’s in every country in the world. Salinger has sold millions of books in Japan, in the U.K., in India, in China. This is a phenomenon that’s worldwide where it’s not part of the curriculum at all. To assume that you can sell conservatively, globally, somewhere between 90 [million] to 100 million copies of all his work and that people wouldn’t want to know about the person who created them….
There are 25 books about J.K. Rowling. There are documentaries. There was a Lifetime movie about J.K. Rowling.
But certainly J.K. Rowling has the advantage of being alive and able to consent to these documentaries —
There’s dozens of documentaries that have been done that she didn’t participate in at all. Biography channel, they don’t have the participation of those people in most cases…. [Richard M.] Nixon certainly wouldn’t have chosen Oliver Stone as the person to make his biography.
And why should you be chosen as the person to make J.D. Salinger’s biography?
I wasn’t chosen. I spent 10 years of my life on this. I spent 2 million dollars of my own money. No one has contested a single detail. We’re three weeks out. There’s not a single thing that anyone has disputed that we found…. A number of books have been written by authors who never spoke to a single person who knew Salinger. Not a single person who knew Salinger. Not a single person who knew him directly.
This has been clearly a big passion project for you, you said you spent millions of dollars. What drew you to this? Was it the book? Was it — what?
J.D. Salinger was a big deal in my house. My mother always talked about Salinger and exposed me to him at a very young age and I was completely in love with Salinger’s work. He was a beautiful artist. A true artist who created this indelible, this immaculate art. But I didn’t know anything about the man….
I think part of the contention in the film is that because he’s a writer for the ages and not just a talented writer of the mid-century, he deserves this kind of treatment and his story needs to be told. Do you think if other people didn’t share your assessment of him as a genius of this magnitude, they’d say why not just respect his request for privacy?
You can’t have a one-way dialogue with the world. It doesn’t work like that. When he reached out to the New York Times for an interview, was he a public figure then? When he through the 1980s pursued actresses that he saw and fell in love with on TV, was he a public figure then? When he sat down and granted interviews with journalists, was he a public figure?…
There’s this Wikipedia view of J.D. Salinger. He wrote one book, “The Catcher in the Rye,” he disappeared, he just wanted to be left alone. I’ve had calls from Pulitzer Prize winners. They can’t believe some of these reviews. They can’t believe how ridiculous some of these opinions are…. There’s no precedent in history for a complete special exemption for one person. No one has ever asked this of anyone. It’s really strange.
Interview has been condensed and edited.