People who live in Glass houses
may remain invisible
Patrick Skene Catling
IN SEARCH OF J. D. SALINGER by Ian Hamilton
Heinemann, £12.95, pp.222
0 nce an author has published a book and the public have bought it the trans- action is complete; he and his readers owe each other nothing. As Holden Caulfield, the defiant young anti-hero of The Catcher in the Rye, might have enquired, what's all this 'right to know' crap, for Chrissake?
Some biographers, if their subjects and everyone who ever knew them don't obe- diently open their hearts and minds, un- lock every safe and reveal every diary, letter and laundry list, cry out in a tone of righteous indignation — Censorship! Kid- napping the truth! Call the culture cops! In the United States, where Ian Hamilton prepared the first and second (final) ver- sions of this book about 'The Greta Garbo of American Letters', persons who with- hold information about themselves from biographers are accused of defying the Freedom of Information Act and violating the First Amendment of the Constitution. Worse, such unco-operativeness may ex- pose biographers to the risk of having to return their publishers' advances.
Though I sympathised with Mr Hamilton when J. D. Salinger refused to submit to interrogation, caused his past associates to refuse and legally prevented publication of his letters, thus making it impossible to write an intimate biography in the contem- porary mode, I sympathised more with Mr Salinger. Even if his hermitic way of life in Cornish, New. Hampshire, is a hollow charade, if he is not really engaged in a rigorous programme of literary endeavour and religious contemplation but spends his solitary days only counting his royalties and reading his fan-mail, playing impossi- ble to get and increasing his fame by pretending flirtatiously to be indifferent to it, so what? Why shouldn't he?
Random House, the powerful New York publishing house, the sort of people whom Salinger in his reclusive years has regarded as the enemy, commissioned Mr Hamilton in 1984 to write a book to be called J. D. Salinger: A Writing Life, about his 'life and work', and advanced $100,000 for the project. The would-be biographer wrote Salinger a deferential letter requesting an audience to ask a few questions to help 'set the record straight'. Describing his plan, Mr Hamilton admits that his request was, 'of course, entirely disingenuous'. He says he knew the answer would be no.
At this stage, not getting a reply was the essential prologue to my plot. I had in mind to attempt not a conventional biography that would have been impossible — but a kind of Quest for Corvo, with Salinger as quarry. According to my outline, the rebuffs I experienced would be as much part of the action as the triumphs — indeed, it would not matter much if there were no triumphs. The idea — or one of the ideas — was to see what would happen if orthodox biographical procedures were to be applied to a subject who actively set himself to resist, and even to forestall, them.
Hmmm. Well, maybe. But if Salinger had surprised him by offering total co- operation, perhaps Mr Hamilton would have been willing to adjust his outline, even if doing so had meant sacrificing his preconceptions.
He protests too much. The confession of disingenuousness seems itself to be a dis- ingenuous attempt to present himself as a decent, sensitive, respectful man who de- plores the sneaky gumshoe tactics to which a persistent, hard-boiled biographer has to resort in order to disclose more than a reluctant subject could possibly want dis- closed. Proclaiming his own ambivalence, Mr Hamilton presents himself as two, mutually contradictory selves, amateur biographer and professional, gentleman and player, who confuse their ethical stan- dards and methods and even argue with each other throughout this puzzlingly schi- zoid enterprise.
If he had been able to grit his teeth and commit himself to integrated super- honesty, he would either have abandoned the book or, without complaining, done the best he could with whatever material he had gathered by any means. Here he tries to distance his virtuous self from the biographical rat-race by disparaging such rival intrusive investigators as the reporters for rime, Life and Newsweek — and then eagerly ransacks those magazines' archives and uses what he finds there. He says of biographies that 'unauthorised gives off a smell of sleaze', and then publishes an unauthorised, strenuously resisted biogra- phy which he evidently hopes, in vain, will smell of roses.
What Mr Hamilton has written, in effect, is the autobiography of a thwarted adoring fan — or, as he might say, having picked up the New Yorker's hey-day camp tic of italics, the autobiography. I mean, that's really what it is.
He recalls that when he was 17, about the same age as Holden Caulfield, he closely identified with him and carried The Catcher in The Rye everywhere. 'It seemed to me funnier,' he writes, 'more touching, and more right about the way things were than anything else I'd ever read.' Like many other readers of the countless edi- tions of the. novel, which has been pub- lished in 30 languages and continues, after nearly 40 years, to sell a quarter of a million copies a year, in middle age (50 this year) he still cherishes Holden's ability to distinguish between 'the phony and the true'.
Like a fan who stands in the rain outside a stage-door even though he knows his autograph book may never be signed, Mr Hamilton sometimes seems sulky, even vindictive, but his love endures. His analy- ses of Salinger's work, after it was accepted by the New Yorker and he was thus enabled to repudiate the glib formulas of the Saturday Evening Post and all, are percipient and deeply appreciative. He recognises A Perfect Day for Bananafish, that most perfect Salinger short story (collected in For Esme — with Love and Squalor, Penguin), which introduced
Seymour Glass at his most charming and elusively Salinger-like, as decisively pivot- al.
Salinger's first story published in the New Yorker, `Bananafish', Mr Hamilton points out, is 'spare, teasingly mysterious, withheld. Salinger, it seems, had at last entered a world in which his own fasti- diousness would be honoured, and perhaps surpassed, by that of his editorial atten- dants.' Mr Hamilton pays proper tribute to Harold Ross, the original editor of the magazine, his first successor, William Shawn, and one of their principal assis- tants, William Maxwell. Without them the Glass family might not have proliferated.
In spite of all the fully discussed difficul- ties, Mr Hamilton's assiduous research and careful writing have brought together all the known facts of Salinger's life and literary career — his inconclusive schooling at Valley Forge Military Academy (Hol- den's `Pencey') and Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania (as Ross might have asked, 'What that?'), where Jerry's fellow students regarded him unaffec- tionately as 'a loner'; his dangerous army service in Europe during the second world war; his nervous breakdown immediately after the war; his two marriages, which both ended in divorce; his early admiration of Sherwood Anderson, Ring Lardner, Scott Fitzgerald and William Saroyan; his occasional drinking, his chain-smoking, his embracing Eastern religions, his registra- tion as a Republican, for Chrissake.
Mr Hamilton records how some of America's influential writers predictably attacked Salinger when he had gained the status of a cult figure. There are quotations of characteristically snide comments by Norman Mailer CI seem to be alone in finding him no more than the greatest mind to stay in prep school'), Leslie Fiedler (`Salinger of course speaks for the cleanest, politest, best-dressed, best-fed and best- read among the disaffected (and who is not disaffected?) young') and, 'most vitriolic of all', Mary McCarthy (`Salinger's world contains nothing but Salinger'). Is it possi- ble that the adverse criticism created such an impenetrable writer's block that Salin- ger incommunicado with the world has written nothing at all? Non-writing would explain non-publishing.
The proofs of Mr Hamilton's first draft, which included excerpts from Salinger letters, provoked litigation to prevent pub- lication. Salinger was actually compelled to emerge from hiding to support his suit. Mr Hamilton transcribes part of Salinger's successful deposition as a dreary sort of appendix to the revised book.
Like Mr Hamilton, we are two writers, a reasonable one who regrets Mr Hamilton's
unnecessarily elaborate way of salvaging his 'project', and an emotional one who is bound to confess that he loved what finally emerged. I mean, loved it, really, every word, even the bits that the reviewer realised were bad.