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Editorial: In Salinger, a genius perhaps haunted by war

A young J.D. Salinger pitches his new novel, The Catcher in the Rye, to a leading New York publishing house. An editor there rejects it, noting that the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is crazy. Salinger flees the building. Calling Caulfield crazy is akin to calling Salinger crazy – and the writer can’t bear it.

At least that’s the way it happened in a dramatic reenactment contained in a new Salinger documentary aired on PBS this week.

The scene seems aimed at goading viewers to connect some far-too-easy dots: Salinger is Caulfield. To understand the mysterious Salinger, all you need do is understand his beloved fictional character. Caulfield’s rage against the world is the same as his creator’s. Of course, English-class students even younger than Caulfield know that good fiction is rarely so simplistic. Salinger can both sympathize with Caulfield’s hysteria and distance himself from it.

The manipulative film episode may have elicited more than one “Give me a break” from living-room viewers, yet the notion of psychiatric troubles on Salinger’s part is not so easily shrugged off.

The film, part of PBS’s American Masters series, was a never-before-seen director’s cut of Shane Salerno’s film, Salinger, which included 15 minutes of new material not included in the cinema version released last fall. It was of particular interest to local viewers because so much of the long film tries to answer the question of what the heck Salinger was doing sequestered in Cornish, N.H., for all those many years.

But more compelling was the film’s early segment on Salinger’s experience in World War II, a brutal and relentless episode that began with the Allied invasion of Normandy. Salinger saw his comrades killed in large numbers during the battle to take Germany’s Hurtgen Forest. He worked as an Army counterintelligence officer and took part in the liberation of Dachau, seeing for himself some of the worst atrocities of the Nazi regime. (Amazingly, he had early chapters of The Catcher in the Rye with him on D Day.)

After nearly a full year in combat Salinger was hospitalized for what was then called a nervous breakdown. After the war he married and quickly divorced a young German woman who the filmmakers believe was a Nazi. He was drawn, repeatedly, to women and girls far younger than he. And ultimately, at the height of his fame, he fled the New York literary world and holed up in Cornish – writing for decades but never again publishing.

Was Salinger’s inability to live easily, normally, in the world a result of what he had seen and done during the war? Was he unable to put the horrors of Europe behind him – in his writing and in his life? While we now have a different name for combat-driven breakdowns, and devote more effort to helping veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, the Salinger documentary is instructive in reminding us how such horrific experiences can haunt over many, many years. (Another veteran in the film, for instance, emotionally described still hearing shells land in his yard and in his living room.)

Salinger’s aversion to publicity and his death in 2010 make it hard to know the truth, yet further clues await.

Salerno seems to have confirmed plans made by Salinger to release several new literary works after his death – in a staggered fashion beginning next year. They reportedly include A World War II Love Story, based on Salinger’s marriage to the German, and a work called A Counterintelligence Agent’s Diary, based on Salinger’s experience interrogating prisoners during the final months of the war.

What was the writer thinking and writing about for all those years in Cornish? How heavily did the war weigh on him? Did The Catcher in the Rye represent the pinnacle of his talent or just the beginning?

When the time capsule opens, we might just find out.

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