A new director’s cut of Salinger, Shane Salerno’s critically acclaimed documentary profile of the reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye, makes its television debut tonight as American Masters launches its 28th season on PBS (check local listings, as always).
Some 15 minutes of new material not seen during the film’s theatrical release only serves to enhance the stature of Salinger, which gives ample weight to J.D. Salinger’s literary art, but also explores some of the darker aspects of the author’s personality.
Salinger was known by many friends and associates to be a gregarious, outgoing personality before Catcher exploded on the scene in 1951. The author had struggled unsuccessfully for years to get his saga of 17-year-old phony-hating Holden Caulfield published. The head of one literary agency turned down the book on the grounds that its protagonist was “clearly insane.” If that was true, then just as clearly the world was filled with lunatics, because Salinger’s novel was greeted with nearly universal acclaim when it finally hit bookstores.
Salinger would soon discover that his success was double-edged, however. Many of the readers for whom the book resonated powerfully began to seek out the author, like a guru on a mountaintop, banging on his front door and hoping that he could reveal the meaning of life to them.
Whatever drove Salinger’s fondness for seclusion, it wasn’t low self-esteem. He said more than once that he was the first American writer of any real consequence since Herman Melville. And, when he chose to, he would mingle happily and freely with local friends and neighbors at fairs near his adopted home in Cornish, N.H. As one commentator drily suggests in the film, Salinger seemed to make public appearances just often enough to remind the public that he was “reclusive.” He gave no interviews. If J.D. Salinger wanted to talk to someone, it would be when, where and with whom he chose.
This compulsion to control was even stronger in his work. Even early in his career, Salinger reportedly went into a deep depression when a magazine editor had the temerity to insert a comma into one of his stories, and he became absolutely apoplectic at the liberties Hollywood took with a short story that was adapted into the 1949 Susan Hayward film My Foolish Heart.
He cut no slack with close friends in this regard, either. Novelist A.E. Hotchner was working as an editor at Cosmopolitan – a literary magazine at the time – when Salinger offered him a story on the firm condition that it be published exactly as he had written it. Hotchner personally walked the story through the editing process to ensure nothing was changed, only to discover to his horror when that issue was printed that the fiction editor at the magazine had changed the TITLE of the piece. Salinger raked his old friend over the coals and never spoke to him again.
In his personal life, Salinger always gravitated to much younger women, presumably because at that point in their lives they were more malleable. Jean Miller, whom Salinger met in Florida when Miller was 14, recalls an airline trip the two took together when she was older. During the flight, Salinger was advised that he was going to miss his connection with the next leg of his trip. Delighted that she was going to have her friend with her a little longer, Miller laughed and saw Salinger’s face darken. Their relationship was over.
Salinger wrote 19-year-old college student Joyce Maynard after she landed a cover story in the New York Times Magazine. Salinger was 54, but Maynard moved in with him and the two became lovers – until a Florida vacation when Salinger abruptly and unilaterally decided the relationship was over and pushed Maynard into a cab, stuffing two $50 bills into her hand.
Stories like these would be interesting, not to mention titillating, enough on their own terms, but Salerno’s documentary shines most brightly when it illuminates how these people and events made a direct impact on Salinger’s work. His second wife, the mother of his two children, eventually left him because Salinger more or less abandoned these very real people in his life in favor of spending all his time in a backyard bunker-office, where he obsessively wrote stories about the Glass family, who appeared in multiple Salinger short stories and his best-selling novel Franny and Zooey.
Ultimately, explains estranged daughter Margaret Salinger, her father probably became a writer so he could create his own universe, one peopled with characters who met his lofty expectations. After more than half a century, The Catcher in the Rye continues to speak to readers, but its author, who died in 2010 at age 91, rarely felt truly connected to anyone who existed off the page.