1923: On Running Away
In 1923, when J.D. Salinger was four years old, his mother went out shopping and left him in the care of his sister, Doris, who was ten. Sonny, as his family called him, was extremely close to his sister. They spent a lot of time together. She oft en took him to the movies. Doris Salinger describes the experience: “In those days, you know, the movies were silent and had subtitles that I had to read to him out loud. Boy, he wouldn’t let you miss a single one. The rows used to empty out all around us!”
Immediately one feels a moment of recognition, the aural version of a double take. There is no one like the grownup Doris Salinger in J.D. Salinger’s fiction — a successful career woman, twice divorced, a buyer for Bloomingdale’s most fashionable department, moving amid other strong, well-earning ladies in New York City’s garment and fashion world — and yet something about that voice, its wised-up, exclamatory energy combined with a note of exasperation, sounds familiar.
On the day in question, when their mother was out shopping and left them alone, the siblings had a fight. “I forget about what,” Doris would say almost sixty years later. The cause of the fight is forgotten but not the result. Sonny packed a suitcase, dressed himself in his Indian outfit, and left the apartment. He didn’t leave the building, though. A couple of hours later, his mother arrived in the lobby and found her son, dressed head to toe in his Indian costume, complete with a long feather headdress. His suitcase was by his side. “Mother, I’m running away,” he said. “But I stayed to say goodbye to you.”
They went upstairs and opened the suitcase. It was full of toy soldiers.
Shortly after I decided to write a biography of J.D. Salinger, I went to the home of a man who was in possession of an invaluable bit of evidence. He lived on West Seventy-Seventh Street, across the street from the American Museum of Natural History.
When I was a little kid I would come to this block every year. A childhood friend lived up the street, and on the night before Thanksgiving his family would have a party. We would watch the Thanksgiving Day parade floats get inflated. Later I became aware that Philip Roth had an apartment on this block, and I associated it with him. I would see Roth now and then in the neighborhood and once stood next to him in line at Osner Business Machines, a typewriter shop on Amsterdam Avenue that lasted well into the personal computer age. I remember thinking it seemed significant that Roth, waiting in line on the worn linoleum floor, still used a typewriter. But now the street would take on a new dimension and association that should have been there all along: J.D. Salinger used the Museum of Natural History as a setting for The Catcher in the Rye. Holden recalling his school trip to the museum. The titillation of the bare breast in one of the dioramas.
My host greeted me warmly and led me into the living room, where I encountered the roof of the Museum of Natural History and a lot of sky. There was a divan, or a chaise longue — I’m not sure which is the right term — and other comfortable, overstuffed pieces of furniture. The light was glorious.
He had to go do something before he could sit down with me, and so I had the experience of being alone in a strange house with the prerogative to poke around and explore. This certainly did not involve stealing anything, or even touching anything. But it did allow for a level of scrutiny beyond what one would feel comfortable doing in the presence of another person. I got to my feet and walked around. Mostly I stared at the books. Many, many interesting books. Among them biographies of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow.
Schwartz and Bellow. A bit of an echo there. Literary Jews. They were both from elsewhere — Brooklyn and Chicago, respectively — but had done time on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, probably somewhere north of the Museum of Natural History. Schwartz grew up in Washington Heights; Bellow set one of his major novels, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, on the Upper West Side. A line that I seem to remember from Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift (not that I could ever find it) flickered in my mind — the protagonist, I recalled (not that I could ever find it), was a professor who could barely keep himself together in any of the normal ways but could discuss bird imagery in Dante with the dean. A genius who can’t tie his shoelaces, in other words, which is more or less how Margaret Salinger characterized her father in her memoir, Dream Catcher.
My host returned, and we settled in for a nice chat. At some point he handed me, in a mode that for some reason I associated with a Bar Mitzvah gift , a bound galley of Ian Hamilton’s J.D. Salinger: A Writing Life.
“I think you’ll find this useful,” he said. “It’s very rare.” I took it in my hands.
I had heard about Ian Hamilton’s biography and its peculiar fate, but I had no sense of the world as those events unfolded. Only with time did I start to understand what a profoundly strange spectacle the whole thing was. Everyone who cared about book publishing was familiar with the case. Everyone who cared about, or had participated in, biography or biographical research knew about it. It was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. The case “has hung like a rain cloud over the head of every biographer since,” in the words of D.T. Max, David Foster Wallace’s biographer.
Hamilton was British. His handwriting, I would soon learn, was fastidious and minute. He had produced, prior to embarking on his Salinger project, a biography of the poet Robert Lowell, which involved his becoming embroiled with all manner of dysfunctional American aristocracy — Boston society stretching back to the Mayflower, money, Harvard, WASP rectitude, and the other side of that coin, the spectacle of nervous breakdowns in public.
Salinger, a grandson of immigrants and half Jewish (but learning of the half that was not Jewish quite late), came from a milieu that couldn’t have been more different from Lowell’s, although there are some similarities: both men were iconic figures of postwar American literature. Lowell was a total insider who was nevertheless insane — out of his own mind — or on the verge of becoming so, for much of his life; Salinger was a consummate outsider who made sanity, and what the definition of it might be, the prevailing theme of his later fiction, and who lived for more than half of his ninety-one years in a seclusion that held within it an intense ambiguity, one could almost say a riddle, that riveted a portion of the American, and global, public. This raised a question: Was his seclusion, his allergy to publicity, his self-silencing to the point of refusing to publish, evidence that he had gone crazy? Or did his choices about how to live — about which he proselytized hardly at all outside of his fiction — amount to a kind of judgment on everyone else? Salinger’s narrators are preoccupied with matters of authenticity — Holden Caulfield is probably famous above all else for calling everyone a phony — but his writings are first and foremost stories. Their purpose is in their form; they are not disguised pieces of propaganda, political, religious, or philosophical. But they nevertheless function as a kind of litmus test by which readers can me...