J.D. Salinger spent almost half a century hiding in plain sight. This is perhaps the most interesting revelation both in David Shields and Shane Salerno's oral biography "Salinger" and its accompanying documentary (which opens this week in New York and Los Angeles) — that far from being a recluse in the traditional sense, Salinger led, for a while anyway, an unexpectedly connected life.
He traveled, he saw friends, he raised children. He interacted with the townspeople of Cornish, N.H., and Windsor, Vt. And, it is now confirmed, he wrote: at least five volumes of material that is scheduled to be published over the next several years, as well as a copious store of letters to acquaintances, admirers and romantic partners, some of which are quoted in Shields and Salerno's book.
Indeed, this is a key difference between the two versions of "Salinger" -- that in print, we come upon Salinger in his own words. Shields and Salerno quote him throughout the book, not just the works with which we are familiar ("The Catcher in the Rye," "A Perfect Day for Bananafish"), but also correspondence and writings we haven't seen before.
Early on they offer a few quick glimpses of an unpublished story, "The Magic Foxhole," which touches on the author's war experience; the original manuscript is in the Story magazine archive at Princeton University.
"We come in twenty minutes before H-Hour on D-Day," Salinger writes. "There wasn't nothing on the beach but the dead boys of 'A' and 'B' Company, and some dead sailor boys, and a Chaplain that was crawling around looking for his glasses in the sand."
"The Magic Foxhole" is just one of a number of unknown or lesser known Salinger writings that, like their creator, are also more available than they might appear. In addition to what's at Princeton, there is a small set of papers at the University of Texas' Ransom Center, not to mention the so-called uncollected stories: 22 pieces of short fiction ranging from early 1940s magazine work to his final publication, "Hapworth 16, 1924," which appeared in the New Yorker in 1965.
Together, these efforts — including some of Salinger's correspondence — make up a kind of unseen addition to his oeuvre, tracing his life in language much more broadly than we commonly suppose. It's an idea Shields and Salerno make explicit in the middle of their biography with a 10-page pastiche, in Salinger's own voice, constructed from letters he sent Joyce Maynard in the early 1970s.
Maynard, of course, wrote about her relationship with Salinger in the 1998 memoir "At Home in the World"; she later sold the letters from which Shields and Salerno's essayistic "self-portrait" is compiled. To be honest, I wish they'd reproduced one or two letters in full, rather than create such a hybrid. But then again, I'm happy to take what I can get.
The Salinger who emerges here is chatty, seductive and revealing: "I'm sort of a fifty-three-year-old pantywaist and indoors country type," he writes. "I love to shoot pool, or used to."
He also offers some advice on writing, which says a lot about the struggle in which he found himself.
"It just seems to me a perfect unwonder," Salinger writes, "that writing's almost never terrific fun. If it's not the hardest of the arts — I think it is — it's surely the most unnatural, and therefore the most wearying. So unreliable, so uncertain. Our instrument is a blank sheet of paper — no strings, no frets, no keys, no reed, mouthpiece, nothing to do with the body whatever — God, the unnaturalness of it. Always waiting for birth, every time we sit down to work."