Margaret Invades J.D.’s Studio; She Should Have Let Daddy Work

“If you really want to hear about it,” begins Holden Caulfield in the pitch- perfect first sentence of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye –to which I have always inwardly shot back, “We do” (assuming in that pronoun not just myself, but legions of readers born after the First World War). That “it” embraces all of the particulars of origin and background, which Holden promptly dismisses as “that David Copperfield kind of crap,” throwing up a protective wall before the ostensibly explanatory materials of the inner life. A couple years after the publication of The Catcher in the Rye in 1951, Mr. Salinger took himself off to Cornish, N.H., and raised an all-but-literal wall against the world’s incursion. His last published work was the story “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which ran in The New Yorker in the spring of 1965. Since that time, the author’s doings have remained beautifully and legendarily enigmatic.

And so, though we want very much to hear about it, we mainly desist, respecting as we must almost any desire so strenuously asserted. Which is not to say that there have not been a few opportunistic violations, including Ian Hamilton’s unauthorized biography, In Search of J.D. Salinger (1988), which the subject’s lawyers fought mightily to counter; Joyce Maynard’s 1999 memoir, At Home in the World , detailing her relationship decades past with the writer; and now–each presentation striking closer to the epicenter of that famous silence–daughter Margaret Salinger’s Dream Catcher: A Memoir .

Though authored in some secrecy–to forestall preventive legal interventions– Dream Catcher is not a particularly scandalous or even revealing work. That Mr. Salinger is eccentric, self-involved, often unsupportive and insensitive–this we have heard. That he is Yankee-tight with a buck, an evangelist of homeopathy; that he has been drawn to various kinds of cultic devotion over the years, including Buddhism, Christian Science and Dianetics–also no great news.

The most useful part of Ms. Salinger’s memoir sets out more fully than anyone has before certain key facets of Mr. Salinger’s early history–his confusion and ambivalence at discovering, in his youth, that his mother had only pretended to be Jewish for his father’s family, that she was in fact Catholic; that his time as a soldier (he was part of the landing at Utah Beach on D-Day) was deeply and lastingly traumatic to him; that his cultic and ascetic relation to sexuality made his first marriage–to Claire, Margaret’s mother–stressful. Ms. Salinger puts together a convincingly detailed background picture of the early years of family life.

For the rest, however, when she is not discoursing windily on American anti-Semitism or the documented personality profiles of cult adherents, she is telling us the story of her own sometimes tormented coming-of-age, disclosing everything from her summer camp friendships and private school angst to her ups and downs with boyfriends. As this Salinger is no Salinger, much of the book is tedious reading. Nothing about the famous father takes us much past his own succinct observation in the story “Teddy”: “[I]t’s very hard to meditate and live a spiritual life in America. People think you’re a freak if you try to.”

Still, the publication of Dream Catcher affords us an occasion–there are so many of these occasions–to page through the primer of issues relevant to the production of memoirs.

The first of these involves the delicate business of children writing about their parents, which is not unrelated to the business of ex-lovers writing about one another. It seems to me that these are relationships that are private not merely in popular designation, but in their ontological essence as well. Which is to say that they constitute, emotionally and psychologically, worlds of their own. They are profoundly contextual. Wrest them into the public glare and they often collapse into near unrecognizability or become caricature. This does not mean that personal memoirs of this sort ought not to be written, simply that they should be viewed by readers as intrinsically suspect. Only where a writer is skillful enough to recreate the complex atmosphere of interactions is there a chance that the figures will live. Ms. Salinger is not a writer of this caliber.

Second, I would invoke–or propose–the worthiness law: that the memoirist ought to be, in some core perceptual way, the equal of her subject. It seems evident that the lesser cannot comprehend the greater. This holds true especially where the subject is a creative artist. Contrary to what many believe, the writer does not just spill his bejeweled phrases on command. To put a world onto the page–vivid, compelling, self-sustaining–the writer must find and perpetuate a very delicate alignment with the forces in his life, a kind of interior feng shui . Finding that alignment can be all-consuming, and it must be respected, even if the process can make the artist personally difficult.

I have sympathy for this daughter’s pain. But at the same time I want to assert that there is a trans-therapeutic perspective. William Faulkner captured the terms most winningly in his Paris Review interview: “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”

Finally, we confront again the basic issue of privacy. I can’t speak for those individuals who seek out and willingly accept life in the public eye–they sign over title to certain parts of their non-public lives. But for the rest, including the artist who, like J.D. Salinger, used his public platform to declare his desire to be left alone, and who with every honest gesture has made clear his need for isolation, there should be no question. We should no more think to invade that artist’s creative sanctum–no matter who we are–than impose physical duress on a pregnant woman. And for the same reason: The person is carrying something that has its own inalienable rights, that must be allowed a chance at unhampered development. Though in all of her 400-plus pages Ms. Salinger gives no hint as to whether or not her father is still producing, we should assume that he is. More honorably still, we should acknowledge the work he already did and extend the respect that is the mark of our gratitude, receiver to giver.

In one passage fairly early in the book, Ms. Salinger remembers how, when she was quite young, she and her best friend one day knocked on the door of the little shack in the woods where Mr. Salinger wrote:

“Daddy opened the door, surprised, but happy to see us. We came in and sat on the army cot that took up almost the entire wall. There were bookshelves above the cot with cool things on them like tins of salty corn parchies, and glass honeyjars full of silver coins or peppermints. Lots of my drawings were taped up on the wall.… At the far end, way up in the air where I couldn’t reach it, was an old, brown leather car bench seat that my father used for a desk chair.… He showed me how he sat, lotus position, legs crossed beneath him.… On the plain slab of wood he used for a desk was an old manual typewriter, which he used in his self-taught, two-fingers-only style.

“Light shone onto his desk from a milky skylight above, a thing that positively delighted my father. Lots of small yellow pieces of paper with notes written in dark, soft-lead pencil were taped, here and there, to almost every surface within reach of the desk–the wall, the lampshade and so on.”

A perception like this, a memory like this, is the best argument I can muster for why Ms. Salinger should have let matters be. The stillness she broke in on is–for better and worse–apart from all the considerations of dailiness. Whatever goes on at that plain slab of wood holds the key to everything else. Ignore that, or get it wrong, and none of the rest makes any sense–or any difference.

Sven Birkerts is the author, most recently, of Readings, a collection of essays.