I just saw the movie, “Salinger,” at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival and had a long walk and talk with one of the two co-authors, David Shields, of the companion book on the subject, also to be titled, “Salinger.” Ken Burns did the Talk Back interviews. A VERY powerful film, and the documentary is done in a very intriguing style.
It is a strong probability that sometime between 2015 and 2020 a trust set up by J.D. Salinger, who died in 2010, will begin releasing a series of his new books and manuscripts covering a diverse set of topics for which he had been writing since the 1951 publication of his seminal book, “Catcher In the Rye.”
Since then, “Catcher” has sold over 10 million copies and continues to sell 250,000 a year, yet Salinger chose to stay out of the media and the limelight, concentrating his efforts on new writings set for publication after his death. Salinger’s efforts to construct a literature that goes well beyond “Catcher” were quite intense and, in my mind, unmatched. This may make J.D. Salinger the best and brightest American author since Melville. I have my doubts since he is up against strong competition, dead and alive. We shall see. Nevertheless, J. D. Salinger has already had a huge impact.
One of the subjects covered in the soon to be released documentary is his experiences as a soldier, starting his combat against the German WWII Wehrmacht on D-Day in 1944 and continuing through the gruelling and bloody encounters up to and including the Battle of the Bulge. Later and after the war he was charged as a member of the CIC, the CounterIntelligence Corps, to deNazify Germany. But though he volunteered for army enlistment, he was continuously rejected for medical reasons until later in the war when his persistence took him from the safe haven of the United States to the “meat grinder” of modern battlefields in Europe.
The experience had an indelible impact on his writing. However, how did this writer from a New York posh Jewish home come to insist that he fight against the Nazis? I suggested that Salinger, like other Jews outside of Europe, had watched the Nazis dismember the Jewish communities of Germany for over 10 years and felt compelled to do something about it. Like many who fight in such wars, the experiences changed his thinking dramatically and directed his subsequent writing. Another thing it did was distance him from those people, even close relatives, who could not or would not understand, no, not the war experiences itself, but the depravity and human indignities that are in the capacities of the human mind. Perhaps he not only understood the terrors of war, but the terrors of human politics.
I suggested to the author Shields that it was not some sort of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which explains his reclusive-like behavior and his supposed anti-social attitude as expressed in his written works, “Catcher” being cited by the shooters for the violence directed at John Lennon and Ronald Reagan. Many try to dismiss Salinger’s message and writing as the rantings of a crazy person, but what he was good at was dissecting human social dysfunction as expressed through the human mind. He suffered from combat fatigue, of course, but just maybe his follow-on writings will set the record straight. Since “Catcher’s” Holden Caulfield character came along, what can Salinger tell us about ourselves, as we exist now, updated into the 21st Century social order? That is something I look forward to.
Crazy? Crazy like a fox.