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The Bathtub Kabbalah of J.D. Salinger

Two new biographical sketches depict the great recluse as agent of growth, emblem of permanent adolescence, and cipher

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In other words, she is substituting her authority for his own, a bold move made without full consciousness of its implications, perhaps because Rakoff couldn’t have done it if she realized exactly what she was doing. This kind of blundering toward self-realization is the real drama of My Salinger Year, which covers much more than just Salinger. It is even more obvious in Rakoff’s account of her romantic mistakes—throwing over a devoted and loving old boyfriend for a loutish new one—and her practical mistakes—getting into debt, renting an unlivable apartment, all the typical errors of one’s early twenties.

To become an artist, Rakoff comes to believe, might require making these kinds of blunders. Once again, Salinger knows best: “The worst that being an artist could do to you would be that it would make you slightly unhappy constantly,” she quotes from one of his stories. “Right now,” she decides, “I needed to be slightly unhappy constantly.” In this gentle, funny, closely observed memoir, Salinger becomes an agent of growth instead of what he remains to many people, an emblem of permanent adolescence.

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If Rakoff entered upon her Salinger year by accident, Thomas Beller can make no such excuse. He knew when he signed up to write a short biography of Salinger, for Amazon Publishing’s “Icons” series, that he was taking on the most unbiographable of American writers—the only one who famously sued to have a biography pulped, and won. It’s a significant gesture, then, when Beller opens his insightful and thoughtful book with a scene of himself scoring a rare copy of the prepublication galleys of Ian Hamilton’s J.D. Salinger: A Writing Life. That is the book Salinger went to the Supreme Court to stop, on the grounds that Hamilton, an English man of letters, had quoted from his correspondence without permission. As a result, the biography never appeared; instead, Hamilton had to turn it into a book about writing about Salinger, In Search of J.D. Salinger.

Shortly after Beller receives the precious galleys, however, he contrives to lose them: “Almost immediately, once the full panic sets in, I am confronted with the metaphor of the circumstance. In so much of Salinger’s work there is a nearly pathological emphasis on privacy. I do not mean the famous, hermetic privacy to which the man retreated in life, but rather the sense of privacy that permeates the fiction. Really, I thought, trying to calm myself about the loss of J.D. Salinger: A Writing Life, it’s impossible even to contemplate writing a biography of Salinger without getting into the issues of privacy, secrecy, intimacy, and, by extension, betrayal. To read this suppressed book would be a theft.”

This Freudian gesture sets the tone for J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist, which alternately embraces and shuns the duties of biography. Beller makes no effort to penetrate Salinger’s hermitage; he has no revelations to make about what Salinger spent his half-century in New Hampshire doing, and all the facts he lays out about Salinger’s early life are already in the public record. Rather, what Beller does is to retrace Salinger’s steps in the first part of his life, from his middle-class Manhattan Jewish childhood through his checkered school career, traumatic Army experiences, and first attempts at writing. This retracing sometimes takes quite literal forms, as Beller pays a visit to the Maine summer camp that Salinger attended, or, in one of the book’s high points, secures an invitation to see the Salinger family’s former apartment, at 1133 Park Avenue: “I took one step forward, glanced to my right, and saw a hallway, at the far side of which was the open door of a bathroom and the gleaming white bathtub in which Zooey Glass had sat with letter in hand and cigarette smoldering.”

Of course, Beller knows as well as anyone that it’s impossible to see Zooey’s bathtub, because Zooey did not exist; like his bathtub, he was made only of words. But Beller allows himself to succumb, self-consciously and self-critically, to the Salinger mystique, in order to explain it better. On the same day he visits the apartment, he notes, there was a front-page article about Salinger in the New York Times: “I had come here to commune with Salinger and now here he was, but with the complication that a million other people were also communing with him. … This is part of the Salinger genius—even when his audience became, at least for a while, enormous, the work spoke directly to each individual.”

To Beller, Catcher in the Rye will forever be a mainstay of what he calls “the eighth-grade canon,” along with books like 1984 and A Separate Peace. This might sound like a backhanded compliment, but Beller doesn’t mean it that way. On the contrary, as he reveals more and more about his own life, it becomes clear that he has much in common with both Holden and Salinger. Like them, he came from the New York Jewish bourgeoisie; like them, he was kicked out of at least one high school; like them, he is a Manhattan romantic, who knows exactly where Holden must have crossed Central Park when he went looking for the ducks. (The ducks, whose whereabouts during the winter puzzles Holden, appear on the cover of Beller’s book, a low-key allusion and homage.)

Because of these common experiences, Beller is highly attuned to the social and economic nuances of Salinger’s milieu—above all, when it comes to Jewishness. Salinger’s Jewish identity was complicated: He grew up believing that his parents, Sol and Miriam, were both Jewish, but learned as a teenager that in fact Miriam was born a Christian named Marjorie (she changed her name to fit in better with her husband’s family). Beller notes that, as a Jewish teenager in the 1930s, Salinger would surely have been exposed to anti-Semitism at places like Valley Forge Military Academy, the unlikely place where he ended up after flunking out of his Manhattan prep school.

Most strikingly, he explores what it meant to Salinger to be part of the American Army division that liberated concentration camps near Dachau in 1945. What role did this shattering experience play in his impulsive decision to marry a German woman—actually, a former low-level Nazi—and bring her home to meet his parents? And what does it mean, Beller wonders near the end of the book, that Salinger, a Jewish writer, and William Shawn, a Jewish editor, helped to create the arch-WASP mystique of the midcentury New Yorker?

With so much insight into Salinger’s world, and equal understanding of his fiction and its techniques, it’s disappointing that Beller confines himself to the first phase of his subject’s work. Almost all of his analysis is devoted to the early stories of the 1940s, which Salinger refused to collect in a book or republish. He addresses the major works—Catcher, Franny and Zooey, Nine Stories—only in passing; and of course, for the last phase of Salinger’s career, there is only a blank. Persistent rumor has it that Salinger spent all those decades writing at a great rate, refusing to publish but storing up his manuscripts. Four years after his death, new works have yet to appear, but the possibility remains that they will, someday. Until then, Salinger’s silence will continue to provoke other voices to fill the blanks—few of which, it’s safe to say, will be as civilized and sympathetic as Beller’s and Rakoff’s.

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The Bathtub Kabbalah of J.D. Salinger

Two new biographical sketches depict the great recluse as agent of growth, emblem of permanent adolescence, and cipher

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