Yesterday’s news that the late J.D. Salinger left instructions to publish five or more new books after his death, possibly starting in 2015 — exactly a half century after the last time any new fiction by Salinger saw print — came as quite a bombshell. Yet it’s just an opening volley for Shane Salerno’s “Salinger,” a book and documentary that share the same title and will be released on September 3 and 6, respectively.
Salerno, a Hollywood screenwriter, knows how to stoke anticipation. Until August 25, the air of mystery surrounding his dual project made it seem more like Madonna’s “Sex” or Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” than twin works of literary biography. Simon & Schuster has kept the print component, a 698-page oral history co-authored by David Shields, under strict embargo. The Weinstein Company has screened the film for only a select few, requiring each of them to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
Then, in Sunday’s New York Times, Salerno artfully tipped his hand as his publicity team revealed just enough information about the unpublished manuscripts to land a photo of Salinger, who died in 2010 at age 91, on the front page. In the Times article, two of the new books are described as collections of stories about Salinger’s most famous fictional families: the Glasses, well known from “Franny and Zooey” and other works; and the Caulfields, who include Holden, the indelible teenage protagonist of “The Catcher in the Rye,” which has sold 65 million copies since it first appeared in 1951.
We’ll know after Labor Day whether Salerno is keeping additional scoops in reserve. Meanwhile, let’s look at five previous books about Salinger, which offer snapshots of the privacy-obsessed author as well as some juicy biographical details that Salerno had to build on:
IN SEARCH OF J.D. SALINGER (1988), by Ian Hamilton. This biography stands out for its clear-eyed treatment of its subject — remarkably, given that Salinger and his lawyers pounced on the book before it was published and forced Hamilton to rewrite it, removing all quotations from Salinger’s letters. SALIENT BITS: In 1941, Jerry Salinger, 22, begins dating Oona O’Neill, the 16-year-old daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. Later, from an army base, Jerry woos Oona with letters, which she gives to her friend Carol Marcus (an inspiration for Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany”). Carol plagiarizes Salinger’s clever phrasing in her own letters to her fiancé, William Saroyan, hoping not to let him “find out what an idiot I was.” The ruse backfires: Saroyan loathes “those lousy glib letters” and nearly calls off the engagement. But they wed anyway (twice). As for Oona, she dumps Jerry and marries 54-year-old Charlie Chaplin. The couple’s age difference fills Salinger with “physical revulsion.”
DREAM CATCHER (2000), by Margaret A. Salinger. A spiteful attempt at a tell-all, this memoir is a chore to get through, but Salinger’s daughter did break new ground in outlining her father’s record as a staff sergeant and counterintelligence officer during World War II. The surprise was the extent of his combat experience, which included both D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge — Salinger was even an early witness to a liberated concentration camp. Like Sergeant X in his celebrated short story “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” he apparently suffered what’s now called post-traumatic stress disorder. SALIENT BITS: While in Germany, Salinger marries a Nazi (Sylvia Welter, described matter-of-factly as “a low-level official in the Nazi party”) some months after arresting her. He brings his bride to New York to live in his parents’ Park Avenue apartment with his Jewish father and Catholic mother. The marriage quickly falls apart.
J.D. SALINGER: A LIFE (2011), by Kenneth Slawenski. Creator of the website DeadCaulfields.com, Slawenski delves into what Holden called “that David Copperfield kind of crap” — Salinger’s affluent New York childhood, his troubles in school. The book then chronicles his journey from writer-about-town to recluse, from drinks at the Stork Club to organic gardening and Zen Buddhism in Cornish, New Hampshire. SALIENT BITS: In 1951, as “Catcher” makes its big splash, 32-year-old Salinger courts 17-year-old Claire Douglas, later the inspiration for Franny Glass. Two years later, he buys 90 acres in Cornish, where he cultivates local teens, becoming “one of the gang.” He and Claire, now at Radcliffe, split over her refusal to quit college, but she finally relents. They marry in 1955, two weeks after “Franny” appears in The New Yorker, and have two children before their divorce, in 1967.
AT HOME IN THE WORLD (1998), by Joyce Maynard. Even before Maynard notoriously broke her silence about Salinger, readers knew the backstory: In 1972, as a Yale freshman, Maynard wrote an essay titled “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life,” which appeared in the New York Times Magazine with a photo of her looking petite and childlike on the cover. The article drew fan mail, including an admiring letter signed “Sincerely, J.D. Salinger,” which began a correspondence. SALIENT BITS: With her mother, Maynard makes a dress that’s “nearly exactly the same as the one I wore to my first day of first grade” for an initial meeting with her pen pal. That summer, she moves in with Salinger, now 53. On Saturday nights, they turn on the TV and dance to Lawrence Welk, but the romance eventually fades. The next year, Jerry coldly sends Joyce packing.
SALINGER (1962), edited by Henry Anatole Grunwald. The essays in this volume, which predates the move to Cornish, offer a clue to Salinger’s disappearance from the New York literary scene — or at least to his decision to dedicate “Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction” to the “amateur reader.” SALIENT BITS: Written by 25 prominent critics, the book contains some praise, but it’s drowned out by vitriol. Alfred Kazin dismisses “Catcher ” as “cute.” John Updike accuses Salinger of sentimentality — of loving his fictional Glass family “more than God loves them.” John Didion describes “Franny and Zooey” as “brilliantly rendered” but “spurious,” a kind of “self-help copy” for the upper middle class.
Four decades later, in the New York Review of Books, Janet Malcolm compared the backlash to “a public birching,” and no doubt it got under Salinger’s skin. Still, the most compelling clues to the writer’s life can be found in his own work: Holden Caulfield’s fantasy of living like a hermit and marrying a deaf-mute; Seymour Glass’s scars from World War II; Sergeant X finding solace in a letter from a teenage girl.
Of course, Salinger’s fiction shouldn’t be reduced to autobiography — as Malcolm says of “Franny and Zooey,” “it remains brilliant and is in no essential sense dated.” But the unpublished manuscripts, said to include a novella about Salinger’s war experiences and a novel about his first marriage, will flesh out the story of this elusive author, assuming they are finally published. And so, evidently, will the book coming out next week.
SALINGER, by Shane Salerno and David Shields. Originally titled “The Private War of J.D. Salinger,” the oral history relies on interviews with more than 200 people, including close friends, family members, lovers and World War II brothers-in-arms. SALIENT BITS: Weeks after Salinger and his war bride, Sylvia Welter, move into his parents’ apartment, Sylvia finds “an airline ticket to Germany on her breakfast plate.” Later, Salinger strikes up a pen pal relationship with Jean Miller, a 14-year-old he meets at a Florida resort. As she recalls, “He told me he could not have written ‘Esmé’ had he not met me.”
One last bit, from an earlier book: Years after Salinger sent her away, Joyce Maynard is at a New York party, where she meets Phyllis Theroux, a fellow writer. Theroux tells Maynard about a girl she hired as an au pair, who carried around a packet that she identified as “my letters from Jerry Salinger.” Maynard later learns that the au pair was Colleen O’Neill (no relation to Oona). Today she is Salinger’s widow.
The title of one of the unpublished Caulfield stories sums it up: “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans.”