The new documentary on J. D. Salinger, timed to appear close to the publication of a new biography, should revitalize interest — if that were needed — in one of the most admired writers of the last half of the 20th century. Ever since the publication of his most famous work, "The Catcher in the Rye," in 1951, Salinger, unlike any other literary figure, inspired something very like a cult among his readers. That book, the film informs us, has sold the astonishing number of 60 million copies all over the world, and continues to sell 250,000 a year, speaking to ever more generations of young people, for whom it holds a special significance.
The picture proceeds in a most familiar contemporary pattern, moving back and forth through Salinger's long life — he died at 91 in 2010 — with dozens of interviews with friends, family, fellow writers, critics, biographers, former lovers, and passionate fans, including several movie actors. It repeats a number of the known facts about the reclusive figure, who withdrew from the world to live in the small town of Cornish, New Hampshire, and though he continued to write, refused to publish his work. That paradox in part accounts for much of the mystery and perhaps the appeal of this strange, brilliant, complicated figure.
His affluent family lived on Park Avenue in Manhattan, sent him to prep schools, where he performed poorly enough to be expelled, until his father enrolled him at Valley Forge Military Academy, of all places, which formed both his character and his literary ambitions. He later studied with the famous Whit Burnett and began sending short stories to several of the many magazines that published fiction back in the 1930's, and hung around with a gang of writers and editors, chiefly A. E. Hotchner, one of the most prominent talking heads in the movie. Although some of his work was published, he sought above all to be accepted by The New Yorker, whose editors systematically rejected his submissions.
His wealth enabled him to mingle with what was known as high society in those days, where he met and fell in love with the beautiful Oona O'Neill, daughter of Eugene O'Neill, who ultimately married Charlie Chaplin. He enlisted in the army in 1942 and served in the Battle of the Bulge, surviving 299 days in combat and consequently suffering a nervous breakdown. The experience of war, the personal encounter with a concentration camp, and his work in the denazification of post-war Germany, according to those who knew him, created his most famous character, Holden Caulfield of "Catcher," and in a sense, created Salinger as well.
All the people interviewed, especially those engaged with literature, admire the man, his work, and his extraordinary integrity, but most confess their own bafflement over his self-exile and his silence. The personal reactions suggest another, not entirely surprising and not entirely attractive aspect of a writer obsessed with innocence and children — romantic attachments to young girls, the most famous of whom of course is the writer Joyce Maynard.
The picture's revelations include the fact of his amazing and quite illegal marriage in Germany to a young Nazi, whom he divorced a short time after bringing her to America. The delicious irony of The New Yorker repeatedly rejecting his stories several years before he became closely identified with the magazine indicates the not-uncommon obtuseness of editors. The utter foolishness of one publisher refusing "The Catcher in the Rye," which almost immediately became a remarkable best seller, praised by critics everywhere, should comfort any writers experiencing the usual difficulty in finding a place for their work.
"Salinger" provides a great deal of previously undisclosed information, which shows the diligence and creativity of its researchers; it also promises that the author stipulated that certain stories and novels, including the whole saga of his famous Glass family and a work on Buddhism, will appear on selected dates. The film may also introduce a major author to a new generation and confirms his place in American literature; it's an important study of an important figure, who spoke to and for millions of readers (I am one of them).