Writers love to look up to the greats. For each person who aspires to write the next great novel, there is one timeless author that they seek to imitate not only in writing style, but approach to craft as well. To some, it’s Hemmingway; to others, it’s Austen; to me, after watching the world premiere of Shane Salerno’s documentary, Salinger, I’m led to believe that I already follow the same philosophies as J.D. Salinger. However, I’ve never read a single book of his, at least not yet, and from what I saw at the Scotiabank Theatre last night; perhaps I might not need to.
The Catcher in the Rye is a classic novel for all ages, especially for adolescents across multiple generations past, present and future. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield, represents the genuine youth that rages against the forgery that is adulthood. It’s a novel that resonates with everyone because of how masterfully Salinger captured those feelings from his youth. “Write what you know” is a common, nearly clichéd adage for aspiring writers, and Salinger, through all the works that he’s published and will soon publish within the next few years, if sources cited from the documentary are indeed correct. Salinger certainly wrote what he knew, but given the life that was portrayed in the documentary, I wonder if it’s a life that’s fit for everyone to experience.
I can’t possibly think of a more emotionally formative experience than that of war. Every Remembrance Day, I pay tribute to those who served in both World Wars and others past, thankful and privileged for never having been through the experience of it, and instead have the opportunity to keep writing in the confines of my condo, my own little bunker, 26 stories above York Street, a few minutes walk away from the festival. Jerry never had that opportunity or freedom; the film suggests that his motivation to survive the D-Day landing was based on the six chapters of Catcher that he kept with him, and his desperation to one day have that work published. He watched people die around him, and he watched the dead, having visited concentration camps in ally-occupied Nazi Germany.
Salinger describes, “You never get the scent of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live.” War changes people forever, and the Second World War created the J.D. that we know, for better and for worse.
For one, it created the J.D. that distanced himself from the rest of society; no one else could have possibly understood the sensory experiences he had, the stories he was told from locals in Nazi-occupied villages and cities, the darkness of Humanity that he stood face-to-face with. How could anyone go back? How could anyone see anything differently? It only made sense that he saw the world differently after the war, and that he would be greatly troubled by it.
His relationships with women were also especially worrisome. Perennially attracted to young, bright, genuine female personalities, Salinger loved and lived with the best of them. From the famed debutante Oona O’neil to Sylvia Welter, to Jean Miller, to Joyce Maynard, his loves were perennially 18, yet he continued to grow older, though I imagine a part of his mind was forever trapped in the body of Holden Caulfield. A genius of his caliber drove him to pursue writing first and foremost, leading him to failed relationships and emotionally scarred children.
I’m not a parent yet, though I wish to become one eventually. Somehow, this documentary scared me, made me wonder how I could possibly balance a life that loves writing with a life that loves family. I’m in a wonderful relationship, and I feel complete; the love of my life drives me to continue writing, and I wish to one day write a story for each of my kids when they reach an age where they can appreciate the gesture. I want to have a family. I want to write. I can’t live the life of J.D. Salinger.
And perhaps, as this movie informs through its tone and the words spoken by those closest to this man, no one can. No one ever will. He is a sad fellow, burdened by the weight of his experiences, and the weight of the success that followed his careful, deliberate attempt to heal himself through his own writing. Nobody deserves to have a rough life, but any writer can appreciate the cathartic power of putting ourselves into our own words and sharing our feelings and experiences through story. Narratives that fall short are those that are born from what people don’t know or haven’t experienced for themselves. As Salinger puts it, “there’s no fire between [those] words.”
Write what you know. J.D. did exactly that, and he spent an entire life, alone, perhaps lonely, writing everything that he perceived about himself and the world. Catcher in the Rye was him making sense of his adolescence and sorting out how out of touch with the world society was. And everything that followed, his struggles with success, his family, love, were also thoroughly reflected upon and will probably come out in the works that he is to release.
Even for an audience privy to what was presented in this documentary, I don’t feel that anyone could ever come closer to knowing who J.D. Salinger was. We only have his writing. To many, Catcher in the Rye was the resonant piece that framed their life experience. To some, it was the dreadful eye-opener to a world that doesn’t make sense, the world seen through Salinger’s eyes. To me, I’ll have to read it for myself and figure that out. I’ll learn much more about him through his writing than any documentary or expose ever will.
One day, I might get around to reading Catcher, and it will be because of Salinger. And I will love it even more than I would if I hadn’t seen the documentary at all.