In Search of J. D. Salinger

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

The unauthorized biography is one of the strange subgenres to emerge in the late twentieth century, along with mystery novels in which fictional characters pursue real-life criminals, autobiographical journalism, and other hard-to-categorize works which suggest a sort of genre meltdown taking place in modern literature. It was formerly considered proper for a biographer to wait until his subject was at least on his deathbed, but things move faster these days, possibly as a subtle by-product of electronic technology. Furthermore, books about a living though refractory subject have proved to have an unexpected advantage over the biographies whose subject is comfortably embalmed: The cries of protest by the living subject can generate valuable publicity.

Special problems arise, however, when a subject, though world-famous, has been shunning the limelight for years. Jerome David Salinger actually turns and runs from interviewers. He is as elusive as the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Ian Hamilton, being British, may have thought that he understood standoffishness, but Salinger gives the word a whole new dimension. Whereas most American writers will do anything short of getting shot out of a cannon to sell their books, Salinger hides behind a six-and-a-half-foot fence at his New Hampshire retreat and outsells most of the competition. (The Catcher in the Rye, 1951, still sells about a quarter of a million copies a year and is read all over the world.) Salinger has often been accused of using a reverse ploy, attracting attention by seeming to shun it. If so, it is a ploy that no other writer has been willing to try.

Hamilton sometimes becomes an unintentionally comic figure in his own book, like a photographer running around with his head under a black cloth trying to snap a picture of a subject who refuses to hold still. Not only is Salinger personally unapproachable, but he also has set up what Hamilton calls a distant early warning network, so that any attempt to penetrate Salinger’s world alerts friends, relatives, and acquaintances to be on guard.

In 1982, Hamilton published a biography of the New England poet Robert Lowell which received generally good reviews. On the strength of that success, he seems to have returned to the New World brimming with confidence not only as a biographer but also as an Englishman with a special understanding of Americans. There is something rather touching about his brisk, no-nonsense approach to the job of gathering material. He knew that Time magazine, with all of its resources, had been thwarted in an attempt to breach Salinger’s defenses for a cover story that appeared in the September 15, 1961, issue, but Hamilton’s attitude seems to have been that these were mere journalists, whereas he is a gentleman and a scholar, a professional biographer with all the social and intellectual advantages of an Oxford education. In addition to his personal qualifications, he was working under the aegis of the prestigious New York publishing firm of Random House.

The reader’s sympathies are divided from the outset. On the one hand, he would like to indulge in the purely voyeuristic pleasure of snooping into Salinger’s private affairs. He would particularly like to know why this celebrated author dropped out of public life and what, if anything, he is working on in his seclusion. On the other hand, Salinger is reminiscent of the last member of an endangered species, and the reader would like to see him left to roam free in the forest of his imagination. Hamilton himself says that his book is—or at least started out to be—a labor of love. He is one of the many people who discovered The Catcher in the Rye at an impressionable age and felt that it had been written especially for him. Salinger was one of those writers who, in Holden Caulfield’s words, he would have liked to call up on the phone.

There is a certain sublime insensitivity about Hamilton that occasionally makes the reader wince. In 1984, he wrote to Salinger, telling him that he proposed to write a study of his life and work and requesting a personal interview “to set the record straight.” He received a reply just as frigid as a knowledgeable...

(The entire section is 1742 words.)