Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Salinger (Story Factory, Weinstein Company, PBS, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the PBS premiere of the documentary Salinger, directed by Shane Salerno (a screenwriter of growing repute who was at least an online contact of my former roommate/client John!) and a portrayal of the long, successful but apparently not too happy life of the writer J. D. Salinger. He was born in 1919 and died in 2010 at the age of 91, and though he had a pretty normal background for an American writer of his time and place — he was born in New York City, the son of a Jewish cheese merchant and a Catholic mother; he realized from an early age that what he wanted to do was write; he gradually worked his way up the ladder of publications as a short-story writer and aimed at the most prestigious outlet in the field, The New Yorker — his life changed dramatically when he enlisted in the U.S. Army (the documentary made it seem like he volunteered, though his Wikipedia page said he was drafted). He began his service in 1942 but didn’t see combat until 1944; he participated in the D-Day invasions and also was part of the company that liberated Dachau. Apparently that experience sent him into a nervous breakdown (what probably would be called post-traumatic stress disorder today), though even before he went into the service he had started to explore teen alienation and had created the character of Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Salinger’s most famous work (and only completed full-length novel!), The Catcher in the Rye. After years of trying to crack The New Yorker he had actually got them to accept his first story about Holden Caulfield when the Pearl Harbor attack occurred and the New Yorker editors decided a story about youthful alienation at home no longer suited the national Zeitgeist. So Salinger’s words didn’t see the hallowed pages of The New Yorker until, after two years’ worth of revisions, they finally agreed to publish the grim story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” in which a 30-year-old man named Seymour Glass picks up an underage girl on a beach, walks with her, has a long philosophical talk, then goes to his hotel room and, for motives only barely hinted at in the story but described at length by Salinger in his later works about Seymour Glass and his family, kills himself. The story was printed in 1948 and became a sensation; Salinger followed it up with other stories in The New Yorker, Collier’s, Cosmopolitan (back when it was a serious literary publication and not a women’s sex rag) and elsewhere, and built enough of a reputation that movie producer Sam Goldwyn bought the screen rights to the story “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” and turned it into a big, blowsy, soap-opera movie called My Foolish Heart. 

Salinger was so infuriated with the results that he decided he would never again allow any of his stories to be filmed — a ban he perpetuated beyond his lifetime by including it in his will — which didn’t stop him from having a sensational literary success in 1951 with The Catcher in the Rye, which not only attracted attention among the literati but got named a Book-of-the-Month Club featured selection and continued to sell for years — in 2004 it moved 250,000 copies, an astonishing number for a 53-year-old novel about such a transitory topic as teen alienation. (Teen alienation may repeat itself generation after generation, but it’s hard to imagine the specific forms of it Salinger experienced in his own teen years and put into his novel having much relevance to alienated teens in 2004.) One thing the Salinger documentary did was dramatize that Salinger not only became famous from The Catcher in the Rye, he became famous in a particularly maddening way; apparently his book spoke to the deepest traumas of so many of its readers that they got the impression that its author knew them better than they knew themselves, and if they could just talk to him, he could give them some sage words of advice that would enable them to solve all their personal problems. There’s more than one story in this film of Salinger in the last 59 years of his life being confronted again and again with people approaching him with their deepest problems, and him responding, “I’m not a therapist! I’m just a fiction writer!” The film also dealt with Salinger’s love life — such as it was; he seems to have been the sort of person so wrapped up in himself and his work that he wasn’t about to let anyone in — and the documentary claims that the great love of Salinger’s life was Oona O’Neill, whom he met in New York in 1941 when she was 16 and dated for two years. Then she went out to Hollywood, auditioned for a movie called Shadow and Substance, and while the film was never made she attracted the attention of its 53-year-old writer-director, Charlie Chaplin, and married him. Salinger realized that she had been drawn to Chaplin because he was already not only a success but a legend, beloved by both the mass audience and the intellectuals, and though Salerno’s film didn’t spell this out I got the impression that in his later years, when Salinger himself was in his 50’s and he was the legendary intellectual with a mass audience, he used that same star attraction to write to teenage girls and lure them to his home and, often, his bed.

Salinger was married three times, the first to a German woman he met in counterintelligence after World War II; the second to Claire Douglas, the mother of his two children; and the third to a young woman who’s barely mentioned in the film — just a brief picture of her and a title under it giving her name and saying, “Salinger’s third wife,” but nothing about her beyond that. The film is more than half over before Salinger writes and publishes Catcher, and the rest of the show describes his reclusive — though not quite hermit-like — existence in the home he bought for himself in Cornish, New Hampshire, where he obtained the isolation he wanted not only from the star-fuckers but from anyone else he didn’t want to see — including a growing enemies’ list since, as described here, he would break with long-time friends at the slightest provocation and without giving them any chance to apologize or explain. Salinger was so determined to maintain his anonymity he ordered his photo taken off The Catcher in the Rye when the book went into its second edition — he simply didn’t want anyone to know what he looked like so they could besiege him with questions and demands that he say the magic words that would solve their problems for them — and the pictures of Salinger that do exist show a man who, though dark-haired instead of blond, otherwise bears a striking resemblance to bandleader Stan Kenton: tall, thin, with a rather craggy face but still openly attractive and charismatic. Salinger never published a full-length novel after Catcher and what little work he released to the public came out in dribs and drabs: two more New Yorker stories in 1955, “Franny” and “Zooey” (these are about two of Seymour Glass’s sisters — the entire Glass family consists of seven intellectually brilliant kids and their parents, who exploited them by getting them on a radio quiz show), plus “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” in 1957, “Seymour: An Introduction” (which is supposedly a work of spiritual philosophy composed by Seymour Glass at age seven) in 1959, and his final publication during his lifetime, “Hapworth 16, 1924” (an extended letter, also full of philosophical and spiritual ideas usually considered beyond the ken of a boy whose age is still in single digits, supposedly written by Seymour to his parents from a summer camp) in 1965. All but “Hapworth” were eventually reprinted as books — and the reviews got more derisory each time; one critic commented that reading about the Glass family was like having dinner with seven J. D. Salingers.

I must admit that I’ve never particularly been a J. D. Salinger fan; in high school my most progressive English teacher read aloud to our class “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and an excerpt from Catcher in which Holden Caulfield loses a set of foils he’s supposed to be carrying for his school’s fencing class (like the real Salinger, Holden went to military school after washing out of several civilian high schools, and hated it). I was impressed but never read any more Salinger until in 1981, at age 27 (probably a decade too old to appreciate it fully), and after Mark David Chapman had told the world that anyone who wanted to know why he had shot and killed John Lennon should read Catcher, I finally cracked it open. I couldn’t believe how weak it seemed, how dull and clichéd (though to his credit it was Salinger who probably created so many of these now-clichéd descriptions of youthful alienation); as I was plowing through page after page of mediocre prose by a writer obviously trying (and failing) to dumb himself down to present his character, I couldn’t believe this work was still considered an edgy literary masterpiece. “Is this the book that launched teen alienation as a literary genre?” I kept asking myself. “Is this the book that millions of teenagers read and said to themselves, ‘That’s me!’” (I’ve sometimes had the interesting experience of reading a book I had avoided getting “taught” in class — my lifelong disinterest in Charles Dickens probably stems from having to plow through Great Expectations as a high-school sophomore and finding Dickens’ style, aside from a few exciting scenes, ponderous and dull — and coming to it later in life. When I finally read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick I had a quite different reaction to it than I did to Catcher — it seemed structurally messy and suffered from Melville’s attempt to write three books in one, an adventure story, an explanation of how whaling worked and a spiritual quest, but it was also legitimately powerful and moved me in ways I hadn’t expected; “Yes,” I thought as I finished it, “this book is as great as everybody says it is.”) The show went into some detail — not surprisingly, given that it was being directed by a Hollywood screenwriter — on how many filmmakers, including Elia Kazan, Billy Wilder, Jerry Lewis (!) and Steven Spielberg, sought the film rights to Catcher and were all turned down — indeed, according to this program it’s in Salinger’s will that Catcher is never to be filmed; though quite frankly, once director Nicholas Ray, writer Stewart Stern and star James Dean came together to film Rebel Without a Cause, a movie of Catcher became totally superfluous. Rebel remains the ultimate movie about 1950’s teen alienation and a work that succeeds where Catcher fails because its alienated protagonist at least admits his need for love and affection from other people, both his parents and his age-peers — and also, quite frankly, when James Dean died the world lost the one actor who might have — not could have, but might have — made Holden Caulfield believable on screen (with one possible exception: the young Sean Penn).

On one level watching Salinger the documentary makes me at least morbidly curious about reading more of Salinger’s work (maybe now Catcher wouldn’t seem so disappointing and I might even be able to appreciate the Glass family, though everything I’ve heard about those later works makes me think Salinger is a prime example of an artist who, by withdrawing from normal humanity, lost his connection with other people that had made him popular and turned inward, creating material that made sense to him but had nothing to offer anyone else; I’ve cited the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut, also the work of a brilliant artist who had lived in seclusion so long that he’d literally forgotten how other people behaved and what they thought and felt, as another example), though I can’t get behind my idea of Salinger as a pathological case, a basket of bizarre experiences and obsessions whose work I’ve lived my life just fine so far without feeling a need to delve into — at times watching this movie seemed like watching a car wreck in slow motion, and I couldn’t help thinking that what James Agee said of D. W. Griffith might also have been true of Salinger: “He lived too long, and that is one of the few things sadder than dying too soon.”