In July 1985, the British poet, editor and critic Ian Hamilton submitted the manuscript for J. D. Salinger: A Writing Life to his editors at Random House. Three years later, in May 1988, after countless depositions, preliminary injunctions, affidavits and court appeals, Hamilton’s truncated In Search of J. D. Salinger was published. This was the “legal” version of his original biography, rewritten and wiped of all quotations from Salinger’s letters that Hamilton had included, and starring now the biographer himself as the main character on a thwarted quest to write the life of America’s most famous recluse.
In Search of J. D. Salinger reads like a small masterpiece of literary detection and biographical knowhow. Hamilton, who went on to write several authoritative and entertaining studies of literary biography (especially Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography, published in 1994), was acutely aware of the mess he was getting himself into, and the book often hilariously betrays the absurdity of the biographical enterprise—here, Hamilton looks for scraps at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania; there, he inspects report cards at The McBurney School in Manhattan. Best of all is his trip to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin to look at a cache of Salinger letters:
While I was waiting for the Salinger file to be hauled up from the vaults, I thumbed through the library’s card index. Needless to say, the first name I looked up was HAMILTON, IAN (1938– ). Even Texas couldn’t be that comprehensive. But it was; to my horror, more than a dozen letters were listed under my defenseless name. Why anyone could just walk in and… My companion indicated that the Salinger dossier was now sitting on desk three.
Such freedom of access is of course what changed as the result of Salinger’s legal action. Hamilton, under the admittedly rickety awning of “fair use,” had quoted from letters donated to various university libraries. When Salinger received a copy of the manuscript he immediately registered the letters for copyright protection and threatened to sue. Hamilton and Random House duly removed large portions of quotations and instead paraphrased much of the effaced material, but not enough to appease a militant Salinger who, maintaining claims of copyright infringement and personal harm, promptly filed suit. When a District Court rejected Salinger’s claims, the author successfully appealed and a United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the original judgment. As Hamilton laconically observed, “Salinger was getting more feature-length attention in the press than would surely have resulted from the unimpeded publication of my ‘writing life’.”
A new Salinger biography is now in the works, the second since the author’s death three years ago at the age of ninety-one. Co-authored by David Shields and Shane Salerno, The Private War of J. D. Salinger purports to be an oral biography comprised of eight years’ worth of conversations with more than 150 people who worked with or knew Salinger personally. Salerno, who is also releasing a PBS American Masters documentary about Salinger, claims that that “the myth that people have read about and believed for 60 years about J.D. Salinger is one of someone too pure to publish, too sensitive to be touched. We replace the myth of Salinger with an extraordinarily complex, deeply contradictory human being. Our book offers a complete revaluation and reinterpretation of the work and the life.”
In what sense their ambition is any different from previous biographers, however, remains to be seen. All biographers, after all, are Pavlovian in this sense: they salivate at the sight of a myth in need of a good tumbling. This accounts for the attractiveness of scandals like that of Dream Catcher, the memoir by Salinger’s daughter Margaret, in which she revealed her father’s embrace of Christian Science and other crackpot philosophies; as well as Joyce Maynard’s recollection of her affair with Salinger when she was eighteen and he was fifty-three. These “revelations” merely whetted the biographer’s appetite, baiting our gossipy desire that the writer’s reclusiveness should mean that he was hiding something. After all, he couldn’t possibly have been living a quiet, normal life. Could he?
The few friends and intimates who came forward after his death testified that he could. They wrote of a rather uneventful private life with the odd trip to London or dinner party with friends in Manhattan; a life that sounded—of all things—non-hermetic. Which of course is deplorable news for the biographer. Hamilton again:
Biographers like to pretend that they are capable of “exploring” their subjects’ inner lives, but in truth they tend to have little patience for sustained episodes of self-sufficiency: a happy marriage, a lengthy convalescence, an unbroken regimen of silent toil, even a year or two in prison, usually constitute bad news.
What a delightful joke it would be—on us, the readers—if Salinger’s biography turned out to be, of all things, boring. Then we would have to content ourselves with what no Salinger fan has ever been able to content himself with: the work itself; the skimpy 500 pages or so of what Salinger decided to publish in his lifetime. It seems likely that more work exists, that he continued to write even as he ceased to publish, but it also seems likely that his estate will maintain its iron grip on whatever material exists. As Kenneth Salewski, author of the most recent biography of the writer, noted in Salon, “It is impossible to judge the last 45 years of his life without knowing what he was writing at the time.” What Shields and Salerno have come up with we’ll have to wait to wait and see, but so long as we remain in the dark with regards to Salinger’s writing post-1965, our interest in the work and the life is somewhat futile. We don’t know the half of it.