Reflections on Salinger and Dream Catcher

By Dan Wilcock:

PBS’s airing of the Salinger documentary this week rekindled my interest in J.D. Salinger, one of America’s most distinctive and endearing voices. Instead of diving into his fiction yet again, however, the documentary inspired me to read Dream Catcher, the memoir of Margaret “Peggy” Salinger, J.D.’s daughter. One of the documentary’s interviewees, who knew Peggy growing up, says that it’s the saddest book she’s ever read. That braced me for some real horror stories, but outright horror isn’t what the book reveals, except for the possible arson that Peggy’s mother may have committed. It’s more about the toll taken by neglect, and the nightmares that can arise from having deeply unbalanced parents.

Perhaps because I was braced for a wallowing, I was impressed by Peggy Salinger in her own right–as a writer and as an interpreter of more than just  her dad’s obsessions. She’s really good at “pushing back,” and the book amounts to a major return shove against her father and his self-involved cult of perfection. It contains a lot of great anecdotes from her youth. The anecdotes have some of the hallmarks of her father’s writing–little details that conjure both place and characters’ temperaments, such as the chimney at prep school in which Peggy and her ingenious best friend would hide to escape from the cruel headmasters and their forced outdoor activities.

The enlightenment that J.D. Salinger fans receive from Dream Catcher is that nearly all of J.D. (aka “Sonny,” aka “Jerry”) are either autobiographical (i.e. “Holden,” aka “Buddy,” aka “Seymour) or inspired by people around him (i.e. “Peggy”). The book fills in the back-story of how J.D. and Holden are really the same guy, and how the short stories are “refractions” of Salinger’s experiences in World War II, in which he was an interrogator on the front lines, witnessing both D-Day and the liberation of a concentration camp.

After Peggy is born, her story takes center stage, and it held my interest as much as the material about J.D. She goes through a lot, mentally and physically, to overcome the traumas that began with her painful childhood and adolescence, and I think the book shows how she becomes a stronger person for it.

The big reveal at the end of the Salinger documentary is the list of five forthcoming books that the author wrote over decades of reclusion, to be between 2015 and 2020. While this is an unprecedented revelation, and I certainly hope that it comes to pass, Dream Catcher tempers my expectations somewhat. If Salinger’s source material is almost entirely autobiographical, the fountain of source material may have reduced to a trickle. The end result may be a lot of Hapworth 16, 1924 naval-gazing-type prose, which would need hundreds of footnotes to be comprehended by most readers.

Peggy Salinger makes a similar point about the evidence leading up to her father’s literary disappearance, and what it suggests about what the rest of the writing may be like:

His work, by the time we get to Seymour: An Introduction and “Hapworth” is no longer secular fiction but hagiography [chronicles of saints]. This is a genre not concerned with time and place, character development, conflict and resolution. Hagiography, given its lack of tension, its lack of earthly focus, and context, is not meant to communicate to nonbelievers. They are excluded from the fraternity. Witness his direct address to the elect, the true believers, at the beginning of Seymour, who are offered a bouquet of early-blooming parentheses (((()))).

Here’s hoping that–like Proust–Salinger’s stored-up semi-autobiographical works-of-a-lifetime aren’t hagiography, but rather  life-altering/affirming masterpieces like his best published work. I hope they are a deep pool into which readers can jump for centuries and emerge changed, wiser, braver, more creative.

In the meantime, Dream Catcher is here right now, and because it introduces Peggy Salinger to the world it’s even better than the documentary, which–though fascinating–was kind of lousy if you really want to hear about it.

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