J.D. Salinger would hate this.
He would hate that there’s a soon-to-be-released book called “Salinger” that’s positively thick with previously unreleased photos, interviews and correspondence designed to fling open the windows on, arguably, the most famous American recluse in history. He would hate that the release on Tuesday of this more-than-600-page oral biography of the author of “The Catcher in the Rye” will come just three days before its companion documentary, also called “Salinger,” hits theaters. And, presumably, he really, really wouldn’t care for this article, which will unearth a few of the illuminating nuggets nestled within that forthcoming portrait of the scribe who died in 2010, leaving behind a legacy of celebrated prose and an enigmatic persona that is, apparently, immortal.
Among the Salinger-obsessed, this much-hyped book from David Shields and Shane Salerno, who also directed the documentary, is already being treated like the literary equivalent of the Pentagon Papers. It’s yielded the following major piece of news, first reported in the New York Times and since circulated pretty much everywhere: that five new books by Salinger — including fresh stories about the members of the Glass family, featured in “Franny and Zooey,” as well as the Caulfields of “Catcher” fame — apparently will be released beginning in 2015. The new additions to the Salinger library will also include what “Salinger” calls a “manual” of Vedanta, the Hindu philosophy Salinger followed during the second half of his life, as well as a novel and a novella inspired by his experiences as a member of the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps in World War II. This is certainly the biggest bombshell in “Salinger,” one that seems to confirm that the notoriously moody wordsmith continued to write steadily after the last published short story of his lifetime ran in a 1965 issue of the New Yorker. But that’s not the only revelation.
After a deep dive into the text of “Salinger,” which The Washington Post obtained prior to publication, the following facts also were gleaned, some of which will probably wind up as Gawker headlines or the lead item on a Buzzfeed listicle. (Jesus, Salinger would really hate that.) Note to those who don’t want to read any spoilers about what this tome or the Weinstein Co.-distributed documentary film discloses: There will be spoilers.
●Salinger apparently had only one testicle. Two unidentified women and Werner Kleeman, who served in the Army alongside the author, confirm this information in the book. Shields and Salerno say that physical deficiency explains why Salinger was often drawn to much younger, sexually inexperienced women and may, in part, account for his reclusive behavior: “Surely one of the many reasons he stayed out of the media glare was to reduce the likelihood that this information about his anatomy would emerge.” Readers will have to decide whether they buy into the notion that Salinger sequestered himself for decades in Cornish, N.H., because he was afraid everyone would somehow find out he didn’t have a full pair.
●Salinger allegedly annulled his marriage to his first wife, the half-German, half-French Sylvia Welter, because he learned that she was a Gestapo informant. The evidence the book provides in this regard is speculative, noting that the annulment decree accuses Welter of “false representation.” It also quotes Leila Hadley Luce, a journalist and former girlfriend of Salinger’s, who says: “He said he found out some disturbing things about what she did in the war, specifically with the Gestapo. . . . Jerry said she had lied to him and that when he learned what she had really done in the war he could not possibly remain with her.”
●Salinger had a lengthy relationship with Jean Miller, who first captured his attention when she was 14 and he was 30. Miller — the inspiration for his short story “For Esmé — With Love & Squalor,” speaks about the five-year relationship in great detail for the first time in “Salinger,” including how it abruptly ended the morning after she lost her virginity to the writer. “I think he all of a sudden realized I was a phony, and that’s his word, ‘phony,’ ” Miller remembers, invoking that oft-used Holden Caulfield slur. It’s one of several tales of young women — including, most famously, Joyce Maynard — whose hearts were broken by a man praised for his understanding of the teenage psyche.
There are more details embedded in this Salinger material, of course, some of which reaffirm what was long rumored about Salinger or just add new shades of detail to a picture that can’t really be complete without Salinger’s input.
“Certain things, they should stay the way they are,” Holden Caulfield says at one point in “The Catcher in the Rye.” “You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”
Evidently, with J.D. Salinger, that won’t ever happen. And boy, would he hate that.
Chaney is a freelance writer.