J.D. Salinger’s Failure

At the Economist‘s culture blog, Prospero, Will Wilkinson takes a look at the legal wrangling between J.D. Salinger and Fredrik Colting, author of the Catcher in the Rye parody/satire/tribute/commentary 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye. In the months before his death in January 2010, Salinger vigorously protested the book’s existence, and the case has only just now ended: According to the settlement reached last week, the book cannot be published or sold in the United States and Canada. Wilkinson’s take on the squabble is that it reveals Salinger as more than merely a cranky misanthrope. No, his distaste for other writers getting into his business made him the “preeminent enemy of open culture in American letters,” while his habit of blowing a gasket whenever somebody made an attempt to comment on him and his work for profit revealed a “contemptible failure of generosity.”

It wasn’t that Salinger lacked generosity but that his generosity was, let’s say, unusually focused. I say this after reading Kenneth Slawenski‘s new biography, Salinger: A Life (published overseas last year with the godawful title J.D. Salinger: A Life Raised High). The folk legend about Salinger’s seclusion is that it was a sudden break from the public—his public life essentially ended with the publication of his meandering story “Hapworth 16, 1924” in the New Yorker in 1965. But his split with society at large was a long time coming, and one of the pleasures of Slawenski’s book is how well he lays out the causes for his self-imposed seclusion without overstating the eccentricity of his actions. After all, he was a crank even when he was actively publishing: From the very start of his writing career he was fussy over his words and outraged to see his work manhandled without his permission in the pages of slicks like Collier’s or high-end journals like Story. By the time he was writing for the New Yorker he had sidestepped the usual processes of the fiction department and was working directly with editor William Shawn. Combine that hyperpossesiveness over his words with what Slawenski reasonably speculates was a traumatic experience during the D-Day invasion, plus a growing interest in Eastern spirituality, and you have a recipe for a man who felt stalked by phoniness wherever he went.

Salinger cared little about copyright per se, and he was no enemy of “open culture” in general—he just didn’t want it applied to his own work. What he was passionate about was ensuring his vision of the Glass family would not be tarnished, diminished—and, if the rumors of unpublished novels are true, read—by the outside world. “Salinger did not deliberately choose to withdraw from the world,” Slawenski writes. “His isolation was an insidious progression that slowly enveloped him.” It is a sad story to be sure, but not totally beyond reason. Clearly he loved his invented Glass family too much. By the time his last published book, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour—an Introduction, came out in 1963, Salinger’s interest in writing about the family seemed to be more important than his interest in making compelling fiction about it, and critics had lost patience with the precocious, mordant clan. Slawenski lays out the frustrated response:

[Critics] called for an end to the series in no uncertain terms. The New York Times Book Review accused Salinger of the “self-indulgence of a writer flirting with the depths of wisdom, yet coy and embarrassed in his advances.” But it was Time magazine that boldly revealed the underlying exasperation that many critics felt but were reluctant to divulge. “The grown reader,” Time quipped sarcastically, “is beginning to wonder whether the sphinxlike Seymour had a secret worth sharing. And if so, when Salinger is going to reveal it.”

Slawenski is more fascinated with learning how Salinger wound up in this literary cul-de-sac than dredging up details Salinger’s infamous years of seclusion—a strategy that’s bound to disappoint reviewers hoping for a dishier book. But how much needs to be said about those years? He was a successful writer whose stories became increasingly navel-gazing and who couldn’t abide even the very long leash the New Yorker kept him on. He hid; he wrote; he lawyered up whenever anybody got too close to his creations; he died. Whatever manuscripts are left behind are likely to be just as rambling and insular as “Hapworth.” This is a “contemptible” existence only if you feel an artist is obligated to be happy whenever somebody subjects his or her work to remixing. In Slawenski’s reckoning, Salinger’s life was mostly just lonely—and pitiable for that, because so much of that loneliness was self-inflicted. In 1961 and 1962 Salinger corresponded with a pre-Esquire Gordon Lish, who solicited the writer to contribute an essay as part of a federal program intended to motivate youth. Slawenski describes the exchange:

“You only want me to participate in this because I’m famous,” he charged. “No, no, no,” Lish protested, “it’s because you know how to speak to children.” Salinger paused and then made a startling confession. “No. I can’t,” he said. “I can’t even speak to my own children.”

3 thoughts on “J.D. Salinger’s Failure

  1. This is really fascinating. It’s funny; you here so much writing advice that is along the lines of “write for writing’s sake, not with an eye toward publication, and Salinger’s attitude seems a logical, if extreme, version of that idea. His writing was for him at the end. That’s not somehow wrong or even ungenerous I don’t think, but it does fly in the face of what we understand writing to be about.

    I would love to read the late unpublished novels and consider it a real loss, just for my own pleasure, not to have access to them. But I don’t have any right to them nor is it an affront that I do not. I find I even have a sort of grudging respect for his insistence on control.

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