The Salinger Affair

Julian Barnes

  • In Search of J.D. Salinger by Ian Hamilton
    Heinemann, 222 pp, £12.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 434 31331 9

Listen to Jeffrey Robinson, American biographer of figures such as Sheikh Yamani, describing how he goes to work:

What I usually do is get two or three months’ research under my belt before I go to see the guy. He may say: ‘I don’t want this biography.’ I say to him: ‘That is not one of your options. This book is going to be written, I have a publisher and I’m getting near being able to write something. Your two options are you co-operate with me or you don’t.’ The next thing is to make him see it’s in his interest to co-operate.

Most of us will probably have no difficulty in finding this crude, pushy and – let’s use the word for a change – wrong.

Now consider a more sophisticated version of the Robinson technique. Ian Hamilton, noted biographer of Robert Lowell, writes to J.D. Salinger and informs him that he has become Hamilton’s latest subject: would the notoriously reclusive novelist mind answering some questions, could he take a visit? Hamilton doesn’t expect an answer; nor does he want one, since he plans ‘a kind of Quest for Corvo, with Salinger as quarry’. Amazingly, and unhelpfully, Salinger replies. He recognises that he can’t stop Hamilton, but asks him not to write the book as he can’t endure any more intrusions on his privacy. Hamilton writes the book nonetheless.

We may not feel too strongly about Sheikh Yamani’s right to privacy (though of course he does, and took Robinson to court), but what about the case of a writer nearing seventy who withdrew altogether from literary life nearly a quarter of a century ago? Before becoming mired in sentimentality and Zen, Salinger wrote the impeccable Catcher in the Rye and several excellent stories. Does our gratitude and pleasure mean that we should respect his desire to be left alone, or the exact opposite? Has Salinger forfeited his rights because the unpredicted success of Catcher brought him fame (which he shows no sign of enjoying) and money (which he shows no sign of wanting)? And if so, at what exact level of success are the biographers – like the VAT-men – allowed to become interested?

Hamilton argues his way round Salinger’s letter with a sort of unedifying honesty. He shows it to ‘one or two of my more sardonic literary friends’, one of whom points out that ‘I can’t stop you’ really means ‘Please go ahead’ (perhaps this particular friend missed a career as a rape-trial judge). What convinces him mostly, though, is the tone of the letter, ‘touching in a way, but also a shade repellent’; it was ‘somewhat too composed ... for me to accept it as a direct cry from the heart’. This self-legitimising complaint sits rather oddly in Hamilton’s mouth, since he admits that his own letter to Salinger had been ‘completely disingenuous’, and that he’d deliberately phrased it in a way which he imagined his subject would ‘heartily despise’. Isn’t there something ‘a shade repellent’ in this? And might not Salinger have spotted something less than ‘a direct cry from the heart’ in Hamilton’s approach?

Having decided to go ahead, Hamilton establishes some ground rules designed ‘to make myself sound decent – not just to Salinger, but to myself’. No personal hassling of the writer, his ex-wife, children or sister; no enquiries about the life after 1965; no nagging of correspondents who choose not to answer; no sudden phone calls; no questing after friends Salinger made since he stopped writing. It is a very curious display of integrity, this. Salinger likens investigation into his life to burglary. Hamilton comes on as that rare thing, an ethically-aware thief (unsurprisingly rare, when you come to think about it), the sort who knocks at your door and says: ‘Look, I think you ought to know I’m going to break into your house, but it’s all right, because I’m only going to steal the things you can see through the window.’ This is equally unsatisfactory for the householder, the burglar and those to whom he subsequently has to fence the swag.

And then after the book is written, more restrictive rules are imposed. Because, of course, ‘I can’t stop you’ didn’t mean ‘Please go ahead.’ Hamilton’s main biographical finds in the course of his research were three caches of Salinger’s letters – whose author naturally held their copyright. As a result of well-reported legal encounters, Hamilton was not permitted to quote, or paraphrase, or even steal ‘the expressive heart’ of these letters. This decision hurts the book deeply, and often renders it comically oblique. For instance, Salinger wrote a letter describing his entry into Paris with the liberating forces in 1944. Hamilton can’t cite this in any helpful way. What he can cite, however, is the official history of the 12th Infantry Regiment to which Salinger belonged, and so we get this contortion: Salinger’s ‘own account of the 12th’s entry into Paris on 25 August is no less ebullient than that of the regiment’s normally unexcitable historian: “The regiment rode in triumphal procession through the Porte d’Italie and down streets jammed wall to wall with thousands of joyous Parisians. Paris was free – the biggest news the world had heard since D Day.”’ ‘It’s possible Hamilton imagines that Salinger in some way emerges badly from the elaborate circumnavigations forced on the book at moments like this, but readers, I’d guess, won’t have the patience to be that sophisticated.

So what we have here is a bizarre item indeed: a literary biography whose writer hasn’t talked to the subject, his wives, children or most of his friends; one where he won’t permit himself to go within a hundred miles of the subject’s house, and isn’t allowed to represent more than distantly the breakthrough letters which are his main discovery. Sol Salinger, the writer’s father, worked for a Chicago firm of cheese importers called J.S. Hoffman, 32 cases of whose Sliced Wisconsin were once seized by the FBI on the charge that they contained ‘faked holes’. With Hamilton’s biography, all the holes are genuine.

These enforced absences drive Hamilton into two technical procedures. The first is a reverse reductivism. Normally, the biographer establishes the course of a writer’s life and then uses it to ‘explain’ the work: such-and-such a character is ‘really’ so-and-so; the feelings aroused by the death of her child in 1927 are transmuted into the emotions given to Anna when she parts from Clarence; the trepanning operation was no doubt influential in the darker, later phase of the work, and so on. With Salinger’s life largely unavailable, or where available obscure, Hamilton finds himself doing the opposite: deducing the life from the work. The stories are trawled in the first instance for what they can tell us about the man who wrote them. Hamilton’s extrapolations from the early, unreprinted stories are well done (if inevitably, and admittedly, hypothetical), but as with normally-directed reductivism, the effect is to diminish. Thus a piece of fairly autobiographical apprentice work will be scanned with greater zeal than a mature but opaque item. ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, one of Salinger’s most elusive stories, is discussed in terms of a. Salinger’s visit to a hotel at Daytona Beach; b. the history and genealogy of the Glass family; and c. the stylistic break it represents from ‘The Inverted Forest’, published a month earlier. ‘Bananafish’, Hamilton records in passing, is ‘spare, teasingly mysterious, withheld’. Sure, but what’s it, well, about? How does it work as a story, what do the bananafish signify, why the suicide? Hamilton merely notes that the ending was to prove ‘a seminar talking point for years to come’, as if the seminarists were wasting their time. He may argue that what he’s writing is, after all, a biography, but since it’s a determinedly abnormal one anyway, you frequently wish that Hamilton, one of our sharpest literary analysts, would play the straight critic more.

The second technique is for Hamilton himself to appear as a character in the unfolding story. With Salinger declining to shuffle on-stage, the biographer is impelled uneasily into the limelight. He solves the publicity problem by splitting himself into a comic double act – the straight man who worries about the ethics of what he’s doing, who lays down the ‘decent’ ground rules, and a ruthless alter ego, conscienceless biographer and prospective sleaze-hound. This works quite well in a gagging sort of way, enabling Hamilton to disconcert traditional, supposedly objective biographical methods and frettingly cast doubt on the validity of what seems to have been discovered. But it’s a self-consciousness without much self-revelation to it: often we want to know much more what Hamilton, there before us, is actually feeling about his frustrating quest, and instead get fobbed off with this double act. As a technique, moreover, it flirts with archness. When Hamilton is allowed to see the dossier Time Magazine assembled on Salinger for their 1961 cover story, the occasion naturally sets off reflection on the differing approaches of journalists and literary biographers:

We weren’t like them, because we didn’t do what they did. We weren’t like them because we had our precious ground rules, our taboos, and because our background and our ultimate intent were literary critical, not journalistic. We didn’t speak up about closetsful of little girls, nor attempt crude life-art link-ups of the ‘search for Sibyl’ type. Even my companion shrank from being bracketed with Time and Newsweek and, you might have noticed, has made little or no effort to roughen the easy superiority of tone that comes naturally to me when I write about the methods of magazines like these.

That last sentence is so barnacled with irony that there seems no way of getting at what is underneath.

‘Easy superiority of tone’: of course, we’re not meant to believe that he means it; or, if we are meant to believe it, we’re also meant to see that Hamilton spots it more quickly than we do, that he calls in the style-police as soon as the typewriter bell rings for the end of the line, and that this makes it all right. Hamilton’s robust unimpressibility has always been one of his strengths as a critic: here there are too many occasions when he yields not just to ‘easy superiority of tone’ but to a sourness, and a snootiness too. He goes back to the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, which he had once ‘mildly ridiculed’ in a TV book programme (‘the usual line about laundry lists, Somerset Maugham’s shoelaces, and the like’), and half-expects an unfriendly reception. But he doesn’t get one, and comments: ‘Maybe my jokes had been too deadpan. After all, if you actually do collect Somerset Maugham’s shoelaces, your sense of the ridiculous must get mildly anaesthetised after a bit.’ Alternative explanations: a. the Center was just being courteous and professional; b. the trouble with Hamilton’s shoelace jokes wasn’t delivery but content – they were more dead than deadpan.

Elsewhere, Hamilton is wryly urban when visiting backwoods Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, and pulls literary rank on the schemes of Whit Burnett, editor of Story magazine, for his cosy anthologising and promotional wheezes. One of these, he tells us, was ‘a Factual Fiction series in which “the facts behind the story” would be printed alongside the author’s “imaginative” text (he hoped to sell this gem to Reader’s Digest).’ At which point the reader can’t help noting that Hamilton’s book isn’t that different from Burnett’s ‘wheeze’, just classier.

Still, the main focus of Hamilton’s disenchanted eye is Salinger himself, and those loyal to him. S.J. Perelman, we learn, was ‘willing to talk unsolemnly about everything under the sun and yet able to fall obstinately silent when asked about J.D.’ – obstinately silent, or just impressively loyal? Salinger’s signals when seeking to deter Hamilton were, it seems, ‘ill-mannered’ – what of Hamilton’s signals, with his entirely ‘disingenuous’ request? The trouble is compounded by the fact that Hamilton is unable to quote directly, which often drives him to summary judgment. Thus Salinger, as a college drop-out, is suddenly labelled ‘surly’ and ‘boastful’ – on secret evidence which the reader can’t test. We are informed of the letter-writer’s ‘cocksureness’ of tone and ‘slick night-clubbing charm’; a letter about Chaplin’s marriage to Oona (whom Salinger had been dating) makes ‘nasty reading’; while another section of the correspondence yields to the ‘eavesdropping’ of the double act ‘almost nothing in the way of human frailty or warmth’. (Is this, then, what he was looking for? Frailty and warmth? It is an uncommon moment of naivety in a narrative of domineering worldliness.)

The portrait of Salinger that emerges – and which largely convinces, even if we take much on trust – is of a touchy, arrogant, obsessive, even paranoid man, damaged by the war, ambitious for literary success and (like his editor) surprised by its sudden arrival; one unimpressed by journalists and publishers, answering to the higher principle, incapable of compromise, for whom No means Certainly Not, and whose final No was addressed to the outside world and the very act of publication. The pattern of his career – early success, extreme brilliance, universal acclaim, reputation for difficulty and arrogance, sudden rejection of the world, seizing of religion, eremitic retreat, refusal to do again (publicly, at any rate) what had earned him his fame – is strikingly reminiscent not so much of other retiring writers as of an American hero from a quite different sphere: Bobby Fischer, last spotted in some obscure fundamentalist community, his chessmen slowly mildewing. Salinger’s is an American story with more than just a literary context.

The first completed version of this book, Hamilton informs us towards the end, was ‘too nervous and respectful’. There’s no danger of anyone applying either of those adjectives to this third version, which is superior and disapproving. It’s easy to forget that Salinger at his best is an extremely funny writer with a stupendous ear, and that Catcher in the Rye is a virtually perfect book, its tone a high-risk, high-triumph balancing-act. Hamilton agreed with this view at the age of 17, and one of the best, most straightforward passages in his book is an account of the effect Catcher had on him at that time (‘It seemed to me “my book”’). So the reader waits for Hamilton to tell us what he thinks of it now. But no – another hole in the Sliced Wisconsin. The novel is discussed as a biographical and sociological event, then we jump-cut to a weary, post-battle conclusion. Perhaps the whole project, Hamilton reflects, began not in ‘literary whimsy’ or ‘mere scholarship’, but in ‘an infatuation that bowled me over at the age of 17 and which it seems I never properly outgrew. Well,’ he concludes with a sigh, ‘I’ve outgrown it now.’

It’s probably possible to read Hamilton’s book in a completely different way. If you think Salinger is on a par in terms of biographical rights with Sheikh Yamani, that his stuff is frankly a bit overrated, that his No means Yes, that money and fame cancel his right to privacy, if you enjoy being told that the chap may have talent (and money and fame) but that he isn’t very nice and is frankly a bit potty – then you will respond differently.

What should Hamilton have done? Not started? Abandoned the project as soon as challenged? Written it off like a bad debt when Salinger took to the courts? This last is difficult on one count – the very stubbornness implicit in Hamilton’s decision to begin isn’t suddenly going to abandon him – and virtually impossible on another. He became caught in the terrible process whereby lawyers replace editors in a writer’s life: he got turned into a test-case on the law of privacy. Money, of course, was also involved, and in this upfront biography which is pretty sardonic about Salinger’s wealth (‘He said he wanted neither fame nor money and by this means [silence] he’d contrived to get extra supplies of both’), we might expect the biographer’s own financial arrangements to be more openly stated.

One ironic result of Hamilton’s project is that Salinger’s letters, whose every word and whose ‘essential heart’ the novelist was in court defending, are now available (by reason of copyright law) for anyone to read on payment of a ten dollar fee. The other result – not at all ironic, but sad and frightening – is a photograph which will undoubtedly become famous.

It was reproduced in large format in the Guardian last July, where it was credited, puzzlingly, to ‘photographers Paul Adao and Steve Connolly’ (how did they both take the picture? Did two fingers hit the button at the same moment, as with game-show contestants?). It seems to have been taken from inside a car, and shows an elderly man being photographed against his will. He is a tall, white-haired, handsome man, whose mouth is open in protest, whose brow is furrowed in alarm, whose eyes are popping with fear. His right arm is held protectively across his body and the hand clenched into a feeble fist. He looks like a man warding off a burglar; he looks frail, alarmed, terrified. This, you think as you examine the photograph, this is what Hamilton – unintentionally, of course, perhaps even well-intentionedly – has done to Salinger: given him that hateful moment.

The burglar analogy is one close to Salinger’s pen when trying to categorise biographical intrusion. Hamilton rejects it as excessive and substitutes gumshoe for burglar: this is a ‘case’ he has to ‘crack’; some of those around the Big Man try to ‘warn him off’; there is ‘lax security’ when a bundle of letters falls into his grasp, and so on. The metaphor begins in jokey self-consciousness and doesn’t really run the distance; by the end of the book Hamilton appears neither burglar nor sleuth. Instead he seems like a man who’s gone badger-hunting with an umbrella. The first time he pokes his weapon into the sett the badger chews off the ferrule. Undaunted – indeed, positively encouraged – by this, he thrusts the umbrella into the hole a second time. The badger, maddened, rips up the fabric, swipes away the spokes and snaps off the shaft. The hunter returns to town brandishing the stump of handle and proclaiming: ‘Look how I licked that badger.’ But there is a wry grin on his face, as if he isn’t sure we’re going to believe him, and isn’t too convinced himself either.