The past two years have bestowed an unfamiliar amount of extra downtime thanks largely to the pandemic as we acquaint ourselves with how to work online. Less traveling, more home-cooked meals. Indeed, time extended its warm hand and indeed, I accepted. As a result, an opportunity presented itself for me to grow my book collection, dust off the shelves and spend more time reading in a pair of boxer shorts sprawled out on the sofa. (not the greatest look I admit).
In these peculiar times where human segregation is the flavor of the month and mental illnesses can take shape easier, I found it so fitting that J.D. Salinger's 1951 classic The Catcher in the Rye would stumble upon my desk once again. The gripping story of an emotionally unstable teenager struggling to make sense of the world holds greater relevance now than it did upon its controversial release seventy-one years ago. While the novel is an undisputed masterly work of art, the account of what happened to the author himself is a tale just as compelling as the one he wrote.
The recluse is produced
Over the course of Salinger's ninety-one year lifespan, he wrote a bunch of short stories and novellas either side of this legendary full-length novel. But it was one full-length book and one only that was published. Shortly after its publication, he went into full lockdown mode and refused to give any interviews moving to a quiet, discrete secluded hamlet in New Hampshire. One could be forgiven for thinking there was a virus on the loose, Although, without running
water, electricity or even a telephone in his lodge, it would have been like quarantine on steroids.
Hermit life had well and truly begun and observing Salinger out in public from here on in would have been akin to detecting the abominable snowman himself. He would confine himself to this secretive little cottage for the remainder of his life. He had become a loner. But what's interesting is how he arrived at this point in time.
Salinger was born into a Jewish family in New York in 1919. He was an average student who got average grades, who eventually became a college drop-out. Soon after, he was drafted into the war following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor where he served for 2-3 years, interrogating the life out of prisoners and fighting in the Battle of the Bridge at Utah Beach. He also had a nervous breakdown shortly after he was relieved of his duties and was omitted to hospital. But his days in the military on the frontline where he undoubtedly was witness to unimaginable atrocities is often the most overlooked aspect of his obscure life.
This is especially true nowadays with a little thing called post-traumatic stress disorder (war-related stress) which came into being in the 1970s. However, back in the mid-forties, anybody displaying associated symptoms perhaps would have been viewed as just somebody who got out of the room side of the bed that morning. Or that you're just plain weird. Assuredly, the moment our man J.D Salinger put on a soldier's uniform, heard the barking of machine gun fire or saw a dead body in the trenches, the molding of the recluse began, before any best-selling novel hit the bookstores.
With The Catcher in the Rye gaining worldwide attention, Salinger scrambled out of the public eye and retreated to his sanctuary in New Hampshire. The media began making comparisons between the book's downcast, isolated, young protagonist Holden Caulfield and the introverted author himself, a claim that Salinger acknowledged. "My boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book, and it was a great relief telling people about it."
Having married a 19-year-old when he was 34, a 21-yr-old in his 60s, an affair with another 19-year old when he was 53 (You can read all about it here in Joyce Maynard's disruptive 1998 memoir At Home in the World.) as well as numerous other examples of Salinger taking a liking to young women and his fanfare gathering momentum, the outside world began drumming up the idea that Salinger could be a pedophile. "It's clear that he has a longing for childlike innocence in a woman. That's not a crime but it's emotional abuse," said Maynard of her eleven month relationship with him in the early seventies. Some saw the publication of her memoir as a means to make a quick buck while others gave it more credence and dismissed it as a smear campaign. Make of that what you will. Either way, he was labeled a womaniser or something more sinister by thousands of people.
We have now already painted a picture of a man who has been dragged through the prickle bush and a sizable one at that, but we're not done. In 1986, he sued a writer, Ian Hamilton for publishing a biography about him that exposed private letters that he never apparently green-lighted. Then there was the rumor that he feasted on frozen peas for breakfast and only possessed one testicle. The hits just kept on coming. Salinger's reclusive nature may have been born long before he escaped to his hideaway in the woods of New Hampshire, but people
seemingly threw more fire on that wood and fueled his unsociable ways as time marched on.
The legend lives on.
Perhaps J.D. Salinger is equally an enigma as the sixteen-year-old character Holden Caulfield he created all those years ago. Or perhaps not. What is apparent however are the insights we gain and the lessons we can learn from studying the life of a recluse. Do we learn to embrace empathy more or do we turn more inward and become more cynical? Either way, I look forward to the spirit of J.D. Salinger The Catcher in the Rye living on. Who knows, we may even be graced with a film adaptation of the novel someday. (if Salinger's private estate ever grants consent). Dream on.