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Michael Clarkson

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Salinger Documentary

Posted: 09/11/2013 7:26 am


NEW YORK - J. D. Salinger was the second man I ever loved. The first was my father, Fred, who couldn't -- or wouldn't -- love me enough.
And so, depressed in the 1970s, I went twice on pilgrimages to the rugged New Hampshire woods to seek out Salinger, controversial author my favorite novel, "The Catcher in the Rye," and the one man I thought understood my sensitivity to the world.
My adventure and the advice Salinger gave me, are documented in producer Shane Salerno's gripping documentary "Salinger," now playing in theatres. And yet, it wasn't until I saw the film last week at a screening here at The Museum of Modern Art that I realized the damage that World War II had done to Salinger and my father and, perhaps, to many of their generation.
Salinger's combat in Europe and seeing the horrors of Nazi death camps broke him as a man yet developed him as a writer, according to Salerno and writer David Shields, who co-authored the companion book to the documentary - "Salinger" (Simon and Schuster).
They say he went into the war hoping to become a Hollywood writer and returned to shun showbiz, his adoring public and eventually publishing.
"Before he had landed on D-Day, J. D. Salinger was a Park Avenue rich kid," Salerno said. "Nothing prepared him for what World War II was going to do to him psychologically. We know this because at the end of the war, he checked into a mental institution, and then did something truly remarkable, which is, came out of the mental institution and signed back up for more, and participated in the de-Nazification of Germany."
Salinger reportedly dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder through his art and religion. He stopped publishing in 1965, refusing to be interviewed as he raised a family in stark conditions in Cornish, N.H.
When he died at 91 three years ago, according to Salerno, Salinger left instructions authorizing publication between 2015 and 2020, of numerous new books, which have allegedly been locked in a vault, including stories on the family of Holden Caulfield, depressed teenaged narrator of "Catcher," and another of Salinger's fictional families, the Glasses, along with a novel based on Salinger's first wife, Sylvia.
When I learned that the war had drastically altered Salinger's psyche, it shook me close to home. In England, prior to the war, my father was an outgoing partier; when he returned from a destroyer in the Mediterranean Sea, he shunned many people and became a virtual recluse, refusing to talk about his involvement in the bloody conflict.
This is also a story about me and 65 million others who have bought "Catcher" since its publication in 1951, making it one of the best-selling books of all time.
As a student at a private school which banned the book, I read it at home and identified with Caulfield, who railed against the cliques in schools and the phoniness of many in society.
Growing up in the 1950s, I saw phoniness all around me; on television, we watched "Father Knows Best" and yet my parents exchanged partners with the neighbors. It was a nice era if you were a white guy with money - not so much if you were a woman, a minority or a child. Children had no power (boy, hasn't that changed!).
Salinger had an impact on my life through his books and my two visits with him. He made me realize there were many fans who thought like I did, who tried to reach out to him.
"I've gone through this so many times, there's no gracious way to tell you to leave," he said when I met him at the bottom of his mountain driveway in 1978. "I'm almost becoming embittered. . . the words are a little different each time: people with problems, people needing to communicate, people wanting help for their careers. They've come from all over this country, Canada and Europe. They've collared me in elevators, on the street. Here. Why I've even had to turn and run from them. I get stacks of mail and questions every day. . .in ways, I regret ever having been published; it's the insanest profession."
"Are you under psychiatric care?" he asked me. I laughed, but since then I have sought the help of counselors for depression.
"If you're lonely, as most writers are, write your way out of it," he said. "Writers are always going to be lonely people. . .I can't give you a magic quarter to put under your pillow to make you a successful writer by morning. You can't teach somebody how to write. It's the blind leading the blind."
Prior to my visit, I had wanted to be a fiction writer, just like him, but I went home to become author of psychology books, touching on fear, stress and phobias, and a professional speaker on those subjects.
The film "Salinger" had a good opening last weekend, grossing about $23K average at four selected theatres in New York and Los Angeles. It will open at 175 other theatres this weekend and appear on PBS in January.
It has received mixed reviews. To me, some of the reviews seem superficial and lazy while missing the major revelation that the war shaped Salinger's art. I knew quite a lot about Salinger but didn't know his involvement was so intense.
Salerno offers other revelations about Salinger's many women, including teenager Jean Miller, whose barefoot walks with the author along Florida beaches apparently inspired Salinger's famous short story "For Esme - With Love and Squalor."

 
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