A Gifted Phantom Shunning a Self-Absorbed Society

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I felt like I was sort of disappearing. It was that kind of a crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you felt like you were disappearing everytime you crossed a road.
― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

This is a column of impression, not research.

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The Public Broadcasting System’s (PBS) “American Masters” last night aired Shane Salerno’s startling documentary simply titled “Salinger,” which seems to be the only word you need to introduce a film about an author read by millions of people worldwide over five decades.

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J.D. Salinger: subject of startling documentary.

Back in the ’60s, like those many millions through the years, I had bought, read and been psychically branded by Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Reading it in high school and re-reading it in college, it seemed to me that Holden Caulfield, even in his ramblings, said exactly what he meant and exactly what I was feeling.

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Through the years, I carried Holden’s gallows-humored, heartbreaking view of society with me at some level. But I was too self-absorbed to be concerned about who the human and writer J.D. Salinger was, so never researched him, nor paid much attention. I’d hear glances of phrases about him being a recluse and getting involved with a young girl, but those tosses didn’t make much of an impression.

Last night, Salerno’s documentary did, not in the way digging for data as a journalist would, but in the way a dedicated documentary can meld images to create a greater picture than one sees on the screen.

As one image led to another, and one interview to another, and as the dots connected, I kept returning to that dot-more a tragic blot-called World War II. Everything Salinger did and wrote following his war experience seemed to take me back there. A young man in his mid-twenties, he was thrust into war’s brutal cauldron, which kept bringing back two specific images in the documentary: one, Salinger’s having a nervous breakdown as a result of the war; two, an interview with one of his fellow soldiers years later-the gray-haired man softly telling the interviewer that he would still suddenly, not just see, but experience military assaults in his front yard or living room; but would never tell his wife.

As the film unfolded, I seemed to understand more and more the depths of Salinger’s disturbed character. Millions of people who survived that horrid war remained scarred by it, but only one carried into it during the Normandy invasion-pressed to his chest as others would attach a loved one’s photograph-six chapters of his gestating The Catcher in the Rye. And only one of the scarred millions would crawl out of that bloody morass to finish The Catcher in the Rye, see it published, and surely be shocked-considering his constant and frustrating pre-war experience at New Yorker publishing rejections-by its overwhelming popularity.

It seemed to me that Salinger, warped by war experience-including what seemed an insane marriage to a Nazi beauty who he brought back to America and a quick annulment-could only return to constant heartbreak. After hundreds of days involving war’s insanity-constant brutal assault, maiming, death, a haunting sense that each day could be the last on earth, followed by counter-intelligence work mining for Nazis, then a nervous breakdown and “recovery”-he returned to a capitalistic, materialistic America; a greedy, self-absorbed New York, and a publishing industry of mountainous egos.

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No wonder he’d only briefly nod into a publishing cocktail party or dinner, then silently slip away. While others were sipping scotches and bantering, one could imagine him glancing at braised hors d’oeuvres and seeing charred bodies, or gazing in the face or eyes of someone chatting to him and recalling a fellow soldier he’d watched bleeding to death, or a body of a French adult or child lying by a village road. I don’t recall hearing any of the documentary’s interviewees being sensitive to that. But maybe, in my self-absorbed wandering impressions, I might have missed it.

thCaught up in his past and the writer’s ironic life of meditation and loneliness, he seemed to constantly search for an innocence that didn’t exist. So he retreated from a craving society to try to create his own “Lost Horizon,” a film he loved, and a world of endless innocence and beauty. He seemed to obsess over realizing that innocence and joy of life in relationships with young people, particularly young girls.

But we humans aren’t innocent. We’re guilty. Guilty of romantic and fearful self-absorption in our youth, which may last a lifetime, and guilty of greedy and fearful self-absorption as adults. Most of us seem to survive by working for a balance in learning to care for others, accepting their faults while they accept ours.

Salinger didn’t seem to be able to discover that balance, at least according to interviews with those who tried to be close to him. He would retreat deeper within his New Hampshire retreat to a small concrete bunker where he would spend literally days writing, away from wife, son and daughter. His wives and lovers, except for the last one it seems, despaired and left him, or in some cases, he sent them away. His daughter wrote a memoir of how she suffered. His son, the film noted, contradicted her memoir, though he wasn’t interviewed.

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Still, journalists and fans kept seeking Salinger out, trying to penetrate his fortress of solitude. They were constantly disappointed, and in their interviews seemed to express their frustrations but little understanding of why he chose to avoid society, and particularly them. They also seemed surprised and even insulted that the villagers who lived near Salinger were protective of him, refusing to provide information about him.

I was deeply moved by this documentary portraying Salinger’s brilliant talent, yet sad, scarred life. I was particularly taken by those interviewed, and the film had a lot of interviews, who contrasted Salinger’s pre-war life of a pleasant joiner in high school, to an adult who remained distant from society, but would still share brief, private, meaningful moments with a few people who lived near him. And his attempts to meet briefly with a fan, and then a journalist, who wanted more than he could give them.

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I thought of film characters who seemed to be based on Salinger: Sean Connery’s role in “Finding Forrester,” and James Earl Jones in “Field of Dreams”: two reclusive writers who are drawn out of their retreats by sincere young men who they reluctantly feel they might help. Jones, on meeting Kevin Costner’s character, tells him he can’t give anybody the answers to life. Connery, speaking to a brilliant high-school student, tells him, “We write the first draft with our hearts and the second draft with our heads.”

Salinger, it seemed, could do that in his writing, which he labored over. The agony was in not being able to carry that courageous creativity into his real life. And I’ve found he’s not alone in that. I’m grateful to have learned much about Salinger from this documentary, and even a few things about myself. I hope you did, or will, too.

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