The word "recluse" precedes the name of late author J.D. Salinger so often, you'd think it was his job description. "Hermit" is another popular descriptor for the intensely private creator of The Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield. Some writers bust out "isolato" when they're feeling fancy. In short, three years after his death (and almost a half century after he published his last piece of fiction), many mysteries still cling to the reputation of one of American literature's most famous figures.
Some of them could be demystified soon. Yesterday, Deadline reported that filmmaker Shane Salerno has completed Salinger, a documentary eight years in the making that's being touted as "an unprecedented look into the mysterious life of the author of The Catcher In the Rye." Salerno had finished the film as early as 2009, but shelved the project in order to conduct more revealing interviews after Salinger's death in 2010 at the age of 91. "There were people who’ve been quiet 40 or 50 years, some of whom didn’t want to disappoint him," Salerno tells Deadline's Mike Fleming Jr. "After his passing, it became part of some cathartic release they needed after being quiet so long."
Salinger will air on PBS' American Masters in January 2014, and today Simon & Schuster announced that a biography co-written by Salerno will reach shelves in September 2013. Publisher Jonathan Karp promises that the book will also shed light on previously unknown aspects of Salinger's life, saying in a press release: "Many of us who read The Catcher in the Rye have, at some point in our lives, wished we could know the author better. Now, we finally can."
Of course people like Salerno would try to lure us toward these projects with the bait of new revelations about an infamously eccentric writer. But which questions about Salinger's life could we reasonable expect to be answered at this point? Here's what we still don't know about Salinger, along with some educated guesses about how these new projects might address the gray areas.
What happened during his service in Germany?
Salinger served in the U.S. Army during World War II, storming the beaches on D-Day, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, and getting one of the first looks at liberated concentration camps. Vanity Fair's Kenneth Slawenski writes that the war "would brand itself upon every aspect of Salinger’s personality and reverberate through his work," and many have speculated that Salinger suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Some say his story "For Esme—With Love and Squalor" is a thinly veiled portrait of a soldier suffering from PTSD. While posthumous diagnoses can never be definitive, more insight into Salinger's private life could give us a better understanding of his psychological struggle to process his wartime experiences.
What did he ultimately believe in?
Throughout his life, Salinger adopted new religious practices about as often as people buy shoes. He was raised Jewish, but went on to pursue Zen Buddhism, Catholicism, Vedantic Hinduism, Christian Science, and Dianetics (the seed L. Ron Hubbard later grew into Scientology). So what did he end up believing at the end of it all? The one person who stuck with him until the end, his widow Colleen O'Neill, has been press-averse since her husband's death. So it seems like a longshot to expect Salerno's film to clear up Salinger's shifting religious convictions.
Will we ever see a Catcher in the Rye film?
It's the million-dollar question as far as Hollywood producers are concerned. The author was cantankerously opposed to a big screen adaptation of his iconic teenage angst novel. Sam Goldwyn, Steven Speilberg, and Billy Wilder all ran into brick walls trying to secure the rights from Salinger, who said that he himself was only person who could ever play Holden Caulfield (a bit of a casting problem, considering that the author was then a few decades past his teenage years). But there were hints that Salinger wasn't entirely against the possibility of a posthumous Catcher in the Rye film. In 1957, he wrote: "I toy very seriously with the idea of leaving the unsold rights to my wife and daughter as a kind of insurance policy." The Salinger estate won't divulge whether or not he instructed his trustees to prevent an adaptation. If any of the interviewees in this new project are privy to that information, we may find out whether we can expect a big screen Catcher in the Rye before 2046, when the copyright expires and filmmakers can help themselves.
What was his daily life like in Cornish, New Hampshire?
Salinger lived out his self-imposed exile from Manhattan in this small New England town, and reporters who've gone there to learn about his autumn years haven't been able to get the locals to say much about the author. They insist he wasn't a recluse, and they say Salinger enjoyed socializing with high schoolers when he first relocated there in the '50s. But according to The New York Times' Katie Zezima, we're not getting much else out of Cornishers. "His neighbors would not talk about him," she writes, "reflecting what one called 'the code of the hills.'" The better part of six decades is a long time to while away, and if Salerno's film features interviews from neighbors, we could stand to learn a lot about Salinger's life there.
What was he like as a family man?
In her memoir Dream Catcher, Salinger's daughter Margaret portrays her father as a self-centered, abusive man who nearly drove her mother to suicide. She says that at home he spoke in tongues, drank his own urine, and performed other bizarre spiritual rituals. But Margaret's brother Matt offers a conflicting account, refuting her "gothic tales of our supposed childhood." Aside from his parenting skills, Salinger's merits as a husband have also been a matter of public scrutiny. Joyce Maynard was only 19 when Salinger convinced her to drop out of Yale to carry on an affair with him. She's one of the few women who've written about her romantic involvement with Salinger, and the portrait she paints is one of intimidation. With many of Salinger's exes still alive, it's possible that this documentary could reveal more about Salinger's supposed "predatory, controlling relationships with women."
What's in all that unpublished work?
Though Salinger severed ties with the literary establishment, he never stopped writing. A bunch of his letters came to light after his death, many confirming that Salinger continued writing fiction throughout his life. The papers he didn't burn in dissatisfaction where stored away in a fire-proof vault in his writing studio. Kenneth Slawenski, author of J.D. Salinger: A Life, writes in Salon:
So far, the world has been denied access to Salinger’s legendary hoard of unpublished works and his estate (which legally consists of his widow and son) has refused to acknowledge even the existence of the mysterious manuscripts, much less offer any hope that they will be made available to an anxious reading public. In all likelihood, that decision relies upon Salinger’s last will and testament, the contents of which are rumored to contain a clause requesting that the author’s family wait a number of years before publishing anything new, if only to forestall Salinger’s own fans from dancing on his grave.
Again, we'll have to hope that Salerno was able to ascertain the details of Salinger's will from one of his interviewees if we want to find out about any unpublished entries in the Glass family saga.
Keeping all the above questions in mind, we may at some point have to accept that certain stones in Salinger's life will forever go unturned. In his February 2011 New York Times review of Slawenski's book, Jay McInerney wrote this about the lingering fascination with Salinger's private affairs—and his (mostly) successful efforts to thwart our curiosity:
There will probably never be a definitive biography of Salinger, but our understanding will be modified by the actions of his executors and the release of unpublished material in the coming years. For the moment, at least, Holden’s creator might take some satisfaction in knowing the extent to which his efforts to erase his own story have succeeded.
Inset image: Shane Salerno
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.