Home > Uncategorized > The “Salinger” Biography: Destroying The Myth

The “Salinger” Biography: Destroying The Myth

September 10, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

David Shields and Shane Salerno recently released a biography and documentary, Salinger, about the famously reclusive writer J.D. Salinger. I have not seen the film, but I just finished the book. Salinger, the result of nine years of research and work, with access to letters, photographs, and interviews previously unavailable, is getting excruciated by many reviewers.


Some have taken issue with their approach, accusing them of a cut and paste methodology, for allegedly inserting comments out of context, and giving the impression that some of those quoted were interviewed for the book when in fact they weren’t. One can question the tactic, but it shouldn’t be an excuse to dismiss the entire work.

In order to denounce what some feel to be a hatchet job, others have pointed to other tabloid like items in Salinger, using them as justification for dismissing the entire work. Did his congenital deformity really impact how Salinger thought of himself? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. Did he appear to have a fascination with much younger women? Certainly.

More than the methodology employed or the inclusion of what some consider unseemly items, in my opinion, though the critics may not admit so, it seems these reviewers are disheartened by the destruction of the Salinger myth. The myth being that Salinger was an artist, a writer, an individual so dedicated to his craft of writing that he would hide himself away from the world to do nothing but write. For those unfamiliar with Salinger’s life, he moved away from New York City to Cornish, New Hampshire at the height of his fame where he became a sort of recluse. Or at least that’s the impression he gave. In 1965, he published his last story, although he was said to have continued writing solely because he loved to write.

This is the myth people love. Salinger was dedicated to his art, to his craft, so much so that he would forsake everything, move into the woods, isolate himself in his cinder block bunker for hours on end, so he could create the perfect stories. He could write just to write without the pressure or expectation or even need to publish. It sounds so pure, so desirable, so noble.

But Salinger’s noble and pure retreat from the world was probably nothing more than a myth. There may have been a part of him that sought to be the noble writer, but there’s more to the story. The problem is we like our myths and we don’t like it when people take a sledgehammer to them.

The fact of the matter, as demonstrated by the authors, is that Salinger was a deeply troubled and scarred man. Reading about his life and experiences, it’s hard to imagine how he wouldn’t be anguished and distressed.

Like many men of his generation, Salinger endured a series of traumatic events that altered and shaped who he became. He served in World War 2 and was part of the infantry that landed at Utah Beach on D-Day. As he descended onto Utah Beach, Salinger saw many of the men he’d trained with as well as many others die in battle. Following the D-Day landing, Salinger was involved in the Battle of the Bulge and the Huertgen Forest campaign, both of which were bloody affairs resulting in the deaths of many more. Imagine going from the comforts of New York to surviving three of the bloodiest battles of World War 2 within the span of a year. Salinger was fortunate enough to have survived all three, but his war experience was far from over. He was also part of a group that liberated a concentration camp. He was said to have often remarked, “You never get the smell of burning flesh out of your nostrils.”

How did the war affect Salinger? He hospitalized himself for combat stress, which some now see, understandably so, as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Salinger returned to the United States a changed and haunted man. While struggling to put together his mental and emotional self, Salinger published The Catcher in the Rye, which garnered enormous success and made him instantly famous. In addition to his war experiences, he struggled to deal with the pressures of fame. To find help, he tried a variety of philosophies and religions, eventually settling on Vedanta. His growing devotion to Vedanta became apparent in his later writings as he included the teachings of Vedanta with greater and greater regularity in his short stories.

The swirling typhoon of his experiences- the war, his marriages and divorces, his inner drive as a writer, and his attempts to grapple with fame- combined to create a complex individual. He could be kind and considerate to some, but unforgiving to others. If Salinger felt a person had crossed him or gone against his wishes, he would immediately and irrevocably cut the person out of his life. His sister is quoted as saying “he was a bastard,” and his daughter is quoted as saying “he was a very, very needy man.”

What the authors have done is what we do so well in today’s society, they’ve shined a spotlight on a famed writer’s clay feet. But they just didn’t shine a light on those clay feet, they took a hammer to the clay and destroyed the myth.

We love the idea, the myth of the pure and noble pursuit of one’s craft, the forsaking of fame and fortune, in pursuit of creating a something great. There is no doubt Salinger was a talented writer. But he was also a man who was deeply scarred by his war experiences and his instant fame. He was no god, he was no angel, he was no superior human endowed with some special character trait that enabled him to dismiss the trappings of society in pursuit of his artistic calling. He was a flawed man, like the rest of us, maybe more than some of us, and with his flaws he tried to make his way through this world and find some measure of peace.

We sometimes prefer the myth because the truth is so hard, so painful. Myths serve to inspire but if they ignore the truth, if they deceive us, if they sell us false hope, we will be worse off, eventually rotting on the inside. There is much to be learned from Salinger. Yes, there is nobility in the pursuit of one’s craft, but there is great danger in war and conflict and chaos, even for those who survive.

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  1. January 1, 2014 at 9:04 am

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