It's fitting that the 200th episode of American Masters on PBS features writer J. D. Salinger, an author so influential it is hard to imagine the course of 20th century American literature without his imprint of lost innocence in the novel The Catcher in the Rye. Not only are at least three assassination attempts attributed to this book, but much in the arts bear its stamp. Just look in the Museum of Modern Arts' Education Center's display of a facsimile of the first edition, an act of appropriation by Richard Prince, and thereby an appreciation. Featuring interviews with notables: John Guare, Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, A. Scott Berg, Phoebe Hoban and many others, this copiously researched documentary also has Joyce Maynard and the "Esme" girl, Jean Miller, telling their side of seduction and betrayal by Salinger. Back in September, when the film first screened at MoMA, Simon & Schuster published a valuable accompanying volume compiled by David Shields and Salinger's filmmaker Shane Salerno.
Here's a piece of my review from the September opening: The biggest revelation in the new documentary Salinger is that The Catcher in the Rye author was not a recluse. Rather fame-averse and a champion of innocence as his signature books show, he simply removed himself to a New Hampshire retreat and wrote more books without a plan for their publication. The second reveal, and more significant for book lovers: Over the 40 years he retreated from the public, he wrote books in a woodsy bunker, producing manuscripts that will now be published. Are they any good? No one in Salinger could say, but J.D. Salinger's literary reputation will change, and contrary to the midcentury notion held by many writers -- that we should know an author only through the books he wrote -- the Salinger life story unfolds like a thriller. A literary Garbo, Salinger's presence in absence remains catnip for celebrity culture.
Writers write. Few live lives as compelling as Salinger's, as shown in this compelling film. It would be unimaginable to write books in a foxhole, but Salinger, according to others with whom he survived combat in World War II, did. Deeply affected by the experience of seeing Dachau, he committed himself to a mental institution. Spurned by Oona O'Neill, post-war, he married a woman with a Nazi past, and had a fondness for women just past jailbait. In mostly platonic relationships, he talked to them, often referring to his fictional characters as real people. Aware of his place in the mainstream of American literature, he sought out Hemingway as Paris was liberated. Filmmaker Shane Salerno funded this 10-year labor of love with money made as an expert screenwriter. However coy, Salinger gives him this movie's final image: a man who lived his life the way he wanted, looking out of a car's passenger window, grinning.
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