Category Archive for: ‘Michael Ferguson’
Directed by Shane Salerno
This is an outstanding documentary about the life of J. D. Salinger. I was impressed with how comprehensive it is. They packed a lot into two hours. Having said that, there was only scanty information about Salinger’s own childhood, family background, and years growing up. They did point out that Salinger’s family was well to do, that he grew up in Manhattan, that he was kicked out of numerous prep schools, that he went to a military school, and so forth, but his relationships with his immediate family members are not explored in great depth, particularly his sister, Doris, who is barely mentioned, although they did remark that his mother approved of everything he did, which I think was an important antecedent of the indefatigable self confidence he had in himself and in his writing. The significance of this lack of exploration of his childhood and developmental years within his birth family is that the film emphasizes his experience in the military during World War 2 as being a crucial influence on his later writing, and perhaps on his character as well. I was surprised at how extensive and significant his military experience was. He landed in France on D-Day. That was his initiation into combat. He was one of the first to enter the concentration camp at Dachau. He was an intelligence officer who interrogated prisoners and ex-Nazis after the war. He was hospitalized for PTSD. The film does make a compelling case that the war experience strongly influenced the stories A Perfect Day for Bananafish and For Esmé — with Love and Squalor. It also documents that Salinger was working on The Catcher in the Rye during the campaign against the Germans. I am not so convinced that The Catcher in the Rye has as strong a relationship to his war experience, nor his subsequent writing about the Glass family. I think one has to look into his childhood and his experience growing up in the upper middle class American society that he came from for this. I was surprised to hear about his first marriage to a young Nazi woman, Sylvia Welter, whom he interrogated after the war — very contrary to military rules at the time. The marriage did not last long. He brought her back to the United States, introduced her to his family, and shortly thereafter broke up with her. Whatever became of her?
I was glad they included the interviews with his daughter, Margaret, and with Joyce Maynard. However, there is not a word from his son, Matthew, who differs markedly with his sister Margaret’s account of their family and of their father. Salinger’s asceticism in only obliquely alluded to, but the film does indicate that this was manifest in his character from an early age. (See my article in the Journal of Homosexuality for a more extensive analysis of the sexual aspects of The Catcher in the Rye.1)
The film offers extensive interviews with people who knew Salinger, who worked with him, who were interested in him and wanted to know him. The film tends to be honorific in its approach, which is OK, I guess. Countless people of his own generation, and still today, resonate with his characters and their sense of alienation and loneliness. Personally, my view of Salinger has evolved over the years. I do not regard his as favorably as I once did. I think I understand him better now, and I see his limitations as a human being much more clearly — and they bear a relationship to his writing and the messages it communicates.
What really got my attention was the list of forthcoming publications at the very end of the film. They are due to start appearing beginning in 2015 through 2020. The titles and subject matter look fascinating. Salinger was indeed writing during all those years of seclusion in New Hampshire, and the books are due to be opened and the contents proclaimed on the housetops. When they are you’ll be seeing more reviews here. This film is an excellent overview of Salinger’s life, full of interesting interviews, well documented, highly informative, and offering a positive, almost deferential attitude toward Salinger and his work. While it does not do everything, it does more than I expected about a person whom it has been very hard to find out anything concrete for nearly half a century.
1. Ferguson, Michael (2010) Book Review of The Catcher in the Rye. Journal of Homosexuality 57: 810-818.