J.D. Salinger, the writer known for The Catcher in the Rye and the shorter works in Nine Stories, vigorously protected his privacy in his later years. He for the most part avoided interviews, stymied attempts to publish his letters and himself published nothing for more than 40 years.
Of course, like Greta Garbo, that made him all the more fascinating to many people and turned any revelations about his personal behavior into major literary events. Both his former lover, Joyce Maynard, and his daughter Margaret published curtain-opening memoirs. Some of those revelations, including ones about Salinger’s fascination with young women and his meanness to some of the people in his life, made him more interesting to the public, especially with his literary output seemingly nonexistent.
Salinger’s death in 2010 has done nothing to diminish the interest, especially since some of his unpublished work may now see daylight. A print biography last year by David Shields and Shane Salerno was a companion to a two-hour documentary by Salerno. That documentary, called Salinger, now comes to PBS’ American Masters with 15 more minutes of footage — making for a long, dishy presentation that offers lots of detail about Salinger’s life but a superficial, overly admiring consideration of his work. The film, which will air at 9 p.m. Tuesday on WVIZ (Channel 25) and at 10 p.m. on WNEO/WEAO (Channels 45 and 49) is also pretty pleased with itself, trumpeting new material even when it’s less than enlightening.
While more should have been said about Salinger as a writer, the documentary — drawing on a decade of research and interviews — certainly has plenty to consider in Salinger’s nonwriting world, even if much of it has been heard before. It follows the privileged young man determined to have a story published in the New Yorker, the World War II veteran overwhelmed by his experiences and the literary sensation whose Catcher creation, Holden Caulfield, spoke to several generations. (It also notes that the young people taken with Catcher included two notorious killers and a third would-be one — Mark David Chapman, who shot John Lennon; John Hinckley Jr., who tried to kill Ronald Reagan, and Robert John Bardo, who murdered actress Rebecca Schaeffer. But beyond pointing that out, the movie has little to say on the subject.)
In far more detail it looks at Salinger’s relationships, including his early courtship of playwright Eugene O’Neill’s daughter Oona, who dropped Salinger for Charlie Chaplin. Salinger’s ensuing relationships could be seen as an attempt to recreate that with Oona, as he pursued young women even as his own age advanced; for example, Salinger was 53 when he took up with 18-year-old Maynard. But women were never as important to him as his writing and his long spiritual pursuits.
The documentary also argues that the frequent references to Salinger as a recluse were wrongheaded — and even his avoidance of publicity was highly selective; when it suited his needs, he knew how to call the New York Times. Still, the reason that 135 minutes is devoted to such quirks is that Salinger was, if not prolific, at least pivotal for anyone who recognized himself or herself in Salinger’s words.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.