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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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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine)
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Kabbalah teaches that God created the universe by deliberately shrinking himself, withdrawing into himself in order to leave a space that Creation could fill. This idea, known as tzimtzum, has a weird pertinence to the life and work of J.D. Salinger—but then again, since Salinger himself was a kind of mystic, perhaps it’s not so weird. Nobody seems to know whether Salinger spent any of his years of retreat up in Cornish, N.H., reading Isaac Luria, the 16th-century Jewish sage who invented the idea of tzimtzum. His tastes seem to have run more toward Zen and Hindu mysticism, or even the Russian Orthodox Jesus Prayer, which famously obsesses Franny Glass: “If you keep saying the prayer over and over again—you only have to just do it with your lips at first—then eventually what happens, the prayer becomes self-active. Something happens after a while.”

But whether he knew it or not, Salinger was American literature’s greatest practitioner of tzimtzum. The latter part of his life was a radical withdrawal into himself, going far beyond the mere aversion to publicity that also made a kind of mystery man out of Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon at least continued to publish books, which meant that he had contact with publishers and agents. He might avoid being photographed, but he lives right in the middle of New York City—according to New York Magazine, near the corner of Broadway and 78th, a location that plays an important role in his most recent novel, Bleeding Edge.

Salinger, on the other hand, seemed to want to be out of the world entirely. Yet the more he withdrew, the more space he opened up for creation—in his case, literary creation. Fans, reporters, biographers, even family members and lovers—all filled the emptiness he left behind with their own words. And who could blame them, when no writer has described more poignantly than Salinger himself the longing to make contact with the authors we love? Remember Holden Caulfield, who distinguishes between writers he merely admires, like Somerset Maugham, and those he wants to call up on the phone, like Ring Lardner:

I read a lot of classical books, like The Return of the Native and all, and I like them, and I read a lot of war books and mysteries and all, but they don’t knock me out too much. What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of your and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.

Since Salinger’s death in 2010, the desire to make contact with him has hardly slackened. Last year saw the release of the documentary Salinger with its accompanying book, both of which were widely condemned for their vulgar, gossipy invasion of Salinger’s privacy. That is a charge that cannot be brought against the two new Salinger books that have just been released: J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist, by Thomas Beller, and My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff. (Rakoff was the editor of Nextbook.org, the precursor to Tablet Magazine.) For both of these writers, who are novelists in their own right, writing about Salinger does not mean trying to figure out his secrets but their own. They know that it’s pointless to call up writers you like—that the best way of making contact with them is to imagine them and to imagine yourself in their image.

***

Joanna Rakoff had first-hand experience of the urgency, the desperation, with which more literal-minded readers took up what looked like Salinger’s quasi-flirtatious invitation to become his “terrific friend.” Her book is a memoir of the year she spent working for Salinger’s literary agent, in 1996, at the beginning of her own career. (Rakoff diplomatically declines to name the agent, whom she refers to simply as “my boss,” or the firm, which she calls “the Agency,” but in the age of Google this reticence is only a gesture, since it takes less than a second to discover that it was Phyllis Westberg of the Harold Ober Agency.) When she took the job, Rakoff didn’t know anything about the Agency, including the fact that Salinger was its most famous client. In fact, when her boss first started warning her about how to handle “Jerry,” Rakoff thought she might be talking about Jerry Seinfeld. It wasn’t until she saw the bookshelf full of Salinger editions that the penny dropped. And even then, Rakoff wasn’t especially enthralled, since, unlikely as it seems, she had managed to reach her mid-twenties without ever having reading Salinger.

This kind of naiveté—the special unworldliness of the young literary person, who has reached adulthood without ever knowing or caring much about how the world works—is the real subject of My Salinger Year. The Agency, as Rakoff describes it, was the perfect place for such a person to start her transition to the real world, since it had at most one foot in the present, with the other firmly rooted in its own disappearing past. In addition to Salinger, the Agency represented dead legends like Fitzgerald and Faulkner. Perhaps out of loyalty to their memory, or to its own glory days, the Agency, led by Rakoff’s boss, adamantly resisted anything that might smack of modernization. When Rakoff arrived there, not a single computer was to be found; instead of a photocopier, actual carbon copies were used. When the boss capitulated to the point of accepting a computer in the office, she meant just that—one computer, for everyone to share: “ ‘We’ve put it here, right in the central part of the office, in full view, so that no one will be tempted to use it for personal e-mail or’—she paused, searching her mind for other activities in which one might engage with a computer—‘anything. People waste a lot of time on computers and we’re not going to have any of that.’ ”

One of Rakoff’s duties as an assistant was to respond to the flood of mail that the Agency received for Salinger. This was easy enough to do, since the standing order was that no mail should be forwarded to the hermit; Rakoff simply had to retype a form letter explaining this and send it to each supplicant. But she soon found that the letters for Salinger were so nakedly personal, so undefended in their need for affirmation and recognition, that she felt guilty about simply throwing them out as instructed:

There were what I came to think of as the Tragic Letters: missives from people whose loved ones had found solace in Salinger during their years-long struggles with cancer, who’d read Franny and Zooey to their dying grandfathers, who’d obsessively memorized Nine Stories in the year after losing their children or spouses or siblings. And there were the Crazies, of course, ranting about Holden in smudged pencil. … But probably the largest group of fans were teenagers, teenagers expressing a sentiment that could be summed up as “Holden Caulfield is the only character in literature who is truly like me. And you, Mr. Salinger, are surely the same person as Holden Caulfield. Thus, you and I should be friends.”

This may sound naive, but it’s not an implausible interpretation of the kind of relationship Catcher in the Rye wants to evoke in the reader. The pity of it, for Salinger, is that he evoked this intimacy so successfully that it turned into an avalanche of affection: Tens of thousands of people, from every region of the globe, would write to him seeking a unique intimacy. No wonder he refused to read his mail: In this too he was like a god, one who stopped responding to prayers because it was beyond his power to grant them all.

Rakoff herself was one of the lucky few to actually speak with the great man. Her year at the Agency happened to coincide with Salinger’s plans, eventually and inevitably aborted, to allow a small publisher to bring out a book of his long story “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which had appeared in The New Yorker decades earlier. This meant a fairly high volume of calls from Salinger, whose deafness caused him to yell everything over the phone and made him think Rakoff’s name was Suzanne. Eventually, she gave in and read everything Salinger had published, in a weekend-long binge that left her convinced of his greatness: “It goes without saying, I suppose, that I now understood why the fans wrote to him, not just wrote to him but confided in him, with such empathy and compassion, with such confession. Because the experience of reading a Salinger story is less like reading a short story and more like having Salinger himself whisper his accounts into your ear.”

If Salinger stands at the center of Rakoff’s memoir, however, it is not because she joined the ranks of fans. As an aspiring writer, her feelings toward him were inevitably more complicated: She wanted not to appeal to Salinger but in some sense to be Salinger. That is why, when she begins to write back to a few of his fan letters, the move feels not just foolhardy—as she discovers, a fan who writes to Salinger does not appreciate hearing back from someone else—but distinctly Oedipal. She is not impersonating Salinger, but giving his fans—aging veterans, desperate middle-schoolers—the advice she thinks they need to hear.

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.

***

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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