Like everyone else, when I was young I read J.D. Salinger’s famous novel, The Catcher in the Rye, and some of his short stories. I wasn’t as impressed as everyone else seemed to be, but I was impressed by Salinger’s tight innovative prose, which helped me in my early writing.
No, I didn’t find Salinger’s fiction as compelling as everyone else did, but I found his life very compelling.
In the early 1960s Salinger decided that he’d had enough of public life. He was not going to be one of these writers who perform on cue for the rest of us, reading his books on stage, appearing for interviews, signing autographs, etc.
With enough money coming in from his work to date, and maybe some family money, he bought a country house in New Hampshire, and moved out of Manhattan. I don’t think it was an attempt to hide forever from the world, but what happened next led him to hide from the literary/publishing community for the rest of his life.
In the introduction to J.D. Salinger – The Last Interview and other conversations, editor David Streitfeld comments on the strange craving society has to know everything about anyone famous, then describes the public pursuit of Salinger, led by Time magazine. He says:
One day the Time editors set themselves a perplexing problem: What is the deal with this guy Salinger? Why does he resist the embrace of the media? What is wrong with him? …. Time unleashed a vast fact-finding operation – in essence, teams of private detectives – to uncover Salinger’s secrets.
Time published the result in Sept, 1961, as “A Private World of love and Death” – describing Salinger living, supposedly hermit-like, on the hilltop house in the country outside Cornish, NH. Streitfeld includes this quote from it:
Not long ago, when he and his family were away, a couple of neighbours could stand it no longer, put on dungarees and climbed over the 6 1/2 ft. Fence to take a look around.
Then Streitfeld says:
Stop right there. What is the “it” that these neighbours could not stand, that drove presumably law-abiding folks to unlawful entry? Was it not knowing the details of a life they had no right to know? Was it Salinger’s crankiness, his disdain? Time does not say, but “it” proved a powerful force for at least forty years, motivating nosy neighbours, trashy as well as respectable reporters, devout fans, and the merely curious.
But Salinger proved equal to the assaults against his attempt to lead a private life. Few got through.
Time didn’t give up though. They followed him constantly, jumping on the slightest things. For example, commenting on a quote on the back cover of Franny and Zooey, where Salinger said – “I live in Westport with my dog”, they declared “The dark facts are that he has not lived in Westport or had a dog for years.”
Never mind that when high school English teacher/writer/Salinger stalker Greg Herriges (“Ten Minutes with J.D. Salinger”) parked at the bottom of Salinger’s driveway, determined to meet him, three dogs came out before Salinger came out.
One journalist got hold of some private Salinger letters and published them, only to be pursued by Salinger all the way to the Supreme Court, where Salinger won.
Why writers who professed to adore Salinger were so eager to put him down in their accounts of their pursuits of him is not easy to explain, yet they did that over and over.
For example, journalist Michael Clarkson, who published an interview in the Niagara Falls Review, said of Salinger that “he has been known to flee if approached by a stranger”. If you read the various accounts of the many approaches to Salinger, you’ll see that it would be more realistic to say “he has been known to turn his back and walk away.”
Although he never appears to have met Salinger in the street, Clarkson wrote, “On the street, he is a lonely, almost pitiful figure, with fright, not spring, in his walk”, when others had reported Salinger to have a strong gait and confident demeanor.
Clarkson admits that the town people in Cornish liked Salinger, but had to add, “Not everyone approves of Salinger’s lifestyle”, as if a shy lifestyle should be subject to society’s approval.
One of the best chapters is not an interview at all, but a memoir by Joanna Smith Rakoff about a year she spent at Harold Ober Associates, Salinger’s agents, where she was asked to reply to a pile of letters to Salinger. She did, endeavouring to answer them the way she thought Salinger would want them answered. The results are entertaining, partly because she herself is an accomplished writer.
But the best part of the book is the ‘last interview’.
Not an interview at all, it was a legal deposition taken in 1986 in a court case where Salinger was trying to block an unauthorized biography (for which Random House had already paid an advance of $100,000 – maybe $800,000 in today’s money). According to Streitfeld, Random House pushed ahead with the book knowing that the legal action would eventually force Salinger to appear for a deposition. It was a trick that they hoped would produce some new details of Salinger’s life, and information about what he had written during all these years of silence.
As someone who has been interrogated in legal depositions many times, and so knows the skill needed to not fall into the traps lawyers set for you, I have to say that the calm, thoughtful manner in which Salinger fought off the intense interrogation by Random House lawyer Robert Callagy, providing him with almost nothing of what was being sought, had me smiling again and again, until, finally, I wanted to jump up and cheer for this shy hero.
It’s tempting to quote page after mesmerizing page from the deposition, but I won’t.
If you want to read that and the other events in this shy loner’s lifelong battle to live a private life in a world where privacy is now scorned, then you have to read J.D. Salinger – The Last Interview and other conversations. Do that and you’ll understand this quote from the book:
A writer’s worst enemy is another writer.
– J. D. Salinger