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The Private War Of J.D. Salinger

Salinger, seen here at right with his friend Donald Hartog in 1989, was sorry he ever wrote Catcher, says Salinger co-author Shane Salerno. (AP)

"J.D. Salinger spent 10 years writing The Catcher in the Rye and the rest of his life regretting it," according to a new book about one of America's best-known and most revered writers.

Salinger died three years ago at the age of 91, after publishing four slim books. But Catcher in the Rye has sold more than 65 million copies and has become a touchstone for young people coming of age around the world. It still sells hundreds of thousands of copies every year.

Shane Salerno and David Shields co-authored Salinger, a book looking at Salinger's work and his life. Salerno is also the director of a related documentary, to be released Friday.

Salerno spoke with Weekend Edition Sunday guest host Wade Goodwyn about Salinger and the book that made him a reluctant literary superstar.


Interview Highlights

On how his work and World War II intertwined

"One of the first details I learned was that he was carrying six chapters of Catcher in the Rye when he landed on D-Day. That was something that stunned me. He carried these chapters with him almost as a talisman to keep him alive, and he worked on the book throughout the war. ...

"Before he had landed on D-Day, J.D. Salinger was a Park Avenue rich kid. 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."

On how Salinger thought his work would be received

"One of the things we uncovered in a letter he was writing to Jean Miller, who was a 14-year-old girl that he struck up a very unique and unusual relationship with ... He says that he's actually very scared about what the reaction will be to Catcher in the Rye. He's very scared about what his family and friends will think about the language and some of the points of view.

"I don't think he had any idea that it would become one of the most successful novels of all time."

On the struggle to get "Catcher in the Rye" published

"There's a scene in which Salinger is treated very roughly, in which he's invited in to meet with a publisher who tells him that they're not going to publish the book and in fact, Holden Caulfield is insane. It sends Salinger running into the street.

"That's absolutely true, and when we discovered that ... they really thought Holden Caulfield was crazy, and by extension that Salinger was crazy. Since Salinger had put his whole life into Catcher in the Rye, you can imagine, a man who had stepped out of a mental institution a few years earlier. Being told that he was crazy and that Holden Caulfield was crazy was a great wound to him. In fact, he teared up in the room and was deeply, deeply hurt."

On dealing with fame

"He was completely overwhelmed by fame, and what he did, very much like Holden, very much like Catcher in the Rye, was beat a fast exit out of New York City. He moved to Cornish, N.H., and he never looked back.

"J.D. Salinger was not a recluse; he was very private, and he wanted a private life. He was a man of deep, deep contradictions. He was a man who would write about renouncing the world, and then write a letter to a friend about how much he liked the Whopper at Burger King."

On yet-to-be-released works

"After nine years, and after uncovering photos and documents and interviews with people that had never come forward or never been seen, we were able to confirm that there is more work, and that work will be published fairly soon ... in irregular installments between 2015 and 2020."

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Transcript

WADE GOODWYN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Wade Goodwyn. J.D. Salinger spent 10 years writing "The Catcher in the Rye" - and the rest of his life regretting it. That's the opening line of a major new work about one of America's most revered writers. The book about Salinger's life comes out this week. It's called simply "Salinger." And a documentary, which will accompany the book, will be released this coming Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SALINGER")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The publication of "Catcher in the Rye" in 1951 was a revolution.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: There had not been a voice like that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: When you're a kid and you read "Catcher in the Rye," you're just like, oh my God, somebody gets it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I remember that being the first book you take with you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: It is a phenomenon.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: How many millions and millions came to that book?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: The great mystery is why he stopped.

GOODWYN: James Salerno is co-author and director of "Salinger." I asked him about his nine-year saga researching this very misunderstood author.

SHANE SALERNO: One of the first details that I learned is that he was carrying six chapters of the "Catcher in the Rye" with him when he landed on D-Day. And that was something that stunned me. He carried these chapters with him almost as a talisman to keep him alive. And he worked on the book throughout the war. His first day of combat was D-Day, and from there he proceeded into the hedgerows in the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge, and then ultimately entering a concentration camp, a sub-camp of Dachau.

GOODWYN: I don't think I understood just how much Salinger's combat experience became the formative experience for everything that Salinger wrote. His main character in "Catcher in the Rye," Holden Caulfield, isn't born inside Salinger's mind during the war; he's created before that. But he's really forged there.

SALERNO: If J.D. Salinger had not participated in World War II, we would not be having this conversation. The fact is, is that the work that is known prior to combat is not on the level that the rest of the work is. All of the work for which we know J.D. Salinger - "Banana Fish," "Esme," "Catcher," "Nine Stories" - all written after the war. Before he had landed on D-Day, J.D. Salinger was a Park Avenue rich kid. Nothing prepared him for what World War II was going to do to him psychologically. And 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.

GOODWYN: Let's talk about the writing of "Catcher in the Rye." From reading your book, to me, Salinger's confidence seems at once great and fragile at the same time. Did Salinger know he was writing a great American novel while he was at it, or do you think he just was hoping he was writing a great American novel?

SALERNO: It's a great question. I mean, one of the things that we uncovered in a letter that he wrote to Jean Miller, which was a 14-year-old girl that he struck up a very unique and unusual relationship with - and he wrote her a letter where he says that he's actually very scared about what the reaction will be to "Catcher in the Rye." He's very scared about what his family and friends will think about the language and some of the points of view. And I don't think he had any idea that it would become, you know, one of the most successful novels of all time.

GOODWYN: And here's the part that will fill every aspiring writer's heart with hope. It's the great American novel but he can't get it published.

SALERNO: Not only was "The Catcher in the Rye" turned down by its initial publisher, Harcourt Brace, but it was also turned down for excerpt by The New Yorker. And that's even a harder thing to understand because at that time J.D. Salinger was their most popular writer. And they didn't just reject it; they rejected it and wrote him a letter that we have where they say, you know, we don't believe this book.

GOODWYN: There's a scene in which Salinger is treated very roughly in which he's invited in to meet with a publisher who tells him that they're not going to publish the book and in fact Holden Caulfield is insane, and it sends Salinger running into the street.

SALERNO: That's absolutely true. And when we discovered that and when we investigated that and actually talked - we were the first people that really talked with people who were at Harcourt Brace at the time - I mean, they really thought Holden Caulfield was crazy, and by extension that Salinger was crazy. And since Salinger had put his whole life into "The Catcher in the Rye," you can imagine a man who had, you know, stepped out of a mental institution a few years earlier being told that he was crazy and that Holden Caulfield was crazy was a great wound to him. And in fact, he teared up in the room and was deeply, deeply hurt.

GOODWYN: And then it is published and the world loves it. The reviews are ecstatic - maybe too much so because Salinger's not happy. He's such a literary snob that he worries that too much acclaim means that he's actually written not a great book but a book for the masses. He wants a book for the ages. But the fact that he's written both, he has difficulty seeing that.

SALERNO: He was completely overwhelmed by fame. And what he did, very much like Holden, very much out of "Catcher in the Rye," was beat a fast exit out of New York City. And he moved to Cornish, New Hampshire, and he never looked back. He would go into the city for certain lunches and dinners with select friends or come to a bookstore or come to a play. J.D. Salinger was not a recluse. He was very private and he wanted a private life. He was a man of deep, deep contradictions. This was a man who would write about renouncing the world and then write a letter to a friend talking about how much he loved the Whopper at Burger King.

GOODWYN: He wrote this book that eloquently touched the yearning, vulnerable, young intellect inside so many who feel like Salinger has written to them, that he understands something about them that the rest of the world doesn't. Did you get a sense of what he thought about having suddenly touched so many young people in such a powerful way?

SALERNO: He said as much. He said very specifically that he regretted ever writing "The Catcher in the Rye." That it took over his life and made his life incredibly difficult. There are things about "The Catcher in the Rye" that are wholly unique to "Catcher in the Rye." People read that book - and this happened for decades and decades - and they want to meet Salinger. They get in their cars - we interviewed some of these people who left their lives, left their families, left their jobs just to see him. They think that he is a guru, that they think that he has the answers to the problems in their life, that they want to have deep conversations with him. That's wholly unique to "The Catcher in the Rye."

GOODWYN: Salinger eventually has little patience for these people. I don't know if he despises them or feels sorry for them. But it's clear he was happiest when he was at his writing desk. And I wonder if that would have been true with or without "Catcher in the Rye" having been written.

SALERNO: He didn't want people showing up at his doors. He didn't want to be bothered. He didn't want to answer questions. He said to Michael Clarkson, who we interview in the book and the film, I'm a fiction writer. I'm not a teacher or seer.

GOODWYN: Let's talk about Salinger and women. The first-grade love his life is the daughter of one of America's literary giants, Eugene O'Neill, and she's 16 years old.

SALERNO: She's a fascinating woman, a beautiful woman, truly beautiful woman. And just to put this in perspective: between the ages of 16 and 18, Wade, Oona O'Neill dated Peter Arno, Orson Welles and J.D. Salinger and then married Charlie Chaplin just after her 18th birthday. Salinger met her when she was 16 and fell head over heels in love with her. And they were divided by war. Salinger finds out that he loses Oona to Chaplin and is devastated. He's overseas, can't do anything about it and is utterly devastated. And every one of his relationships that followed that with women was haunted by his relationship with Oona O'Neill. And Salinger was always attracted to girls at the edge of their transformation into womanhood.

GOODWYN: In my own reporting I like to bury the lead, and in that regard, your research breaks some important news, and that is that Salinger may not be finished publishing.

SALERNO: That's true. You know, after nine years and after uncovering photos and documents and interviews with people that had never come forward or never been seen, as part of that, we were able to confirm that there is more work and that work will be published fairly soon.

GOODWYN: When do you think the work might be published?

SALERNO: We think that from the sources that we have, that the work will be published in irregular installments between 2015 and 2020.

GOODWYN: I wonder how you feel about that. I mean, his last works were criticized as being long and preachy tone and short and other kinds of content. Do you worry that these new works might suffer the same fate?

SALERNO: I know it's a concern for millions of Salinger fans. I see that reflected in various articles. I believe that the work will be significant and important. And I'm dying to read it.

GOODWYN: Shane Salerno is the co-author of a new book about J.D. Salinger and the director, producer and writer of an accompanying documentary. The film, also called "Salinger," will be released this coming Friday, September 6. Shane, congratulations.

SALERNO: Thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed speaking with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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