WASHINGTON, August 30, 2013 – The assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, murder of former Beatle John Lennon and senseless slaughter of American actress Rebecca Schaeffer are strangely united, at least in part, by a single literary thread. The perpetrators claimed, directly or indirectly, that J.D. Salinger’s classic 1951 novel “Catcher in the Rye” helped inspire them to commit these violent acts.
These and other controversies are likely to become hot topics next month when “Salinger” debuts on a movie screen near you. Produced, written and directed by screenwriter and author Shane Salerno, this new documentary film is slated for theatrical release on Friday, September 6. PBS also has rights to air the film on TV, likely in January, 2014.
Salerno’s companion biography, also entitled “Salinger,” hits bookstands next week as well.
Salerno’s film features interviews with over 150 subjects including Salinger’s friends and colleagues, many of whom have never spoken in front of a camera or on the record before. Included in the movie are heretofore-unseen film clips, historical photographs and additional new material.
A broader cultural picture of Salinger’s times and of his literary importance will be discussed with luminaries that include Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, John Cusack, Danny DeVito, John Guare, Martin Sheen, David Milch, Robert Towne, Tom Wolfe, E.L. Doctorow, Gore Vidal and Pulitzer Prize winners A. Scott Berg and Elizabeth Frank.
Why all the hype and hubbub over a sixty year old novel and its notoriously reclusive author who disappeared from public view nearly half a century ago and scarcely more than a decade after his magnum opus appeared?
For starters, although it was originally aimed at adult readers, “Catcher in the Rye” took off like a rocket in the youth market after it first appeared. A literary anthem to youthful rebellion, it has maintained an enduring hold on that demographic ever since.
Adolescent and young adult readers still strongly relate to the novel’s depiction of teenage alienation, an up-and-coming post-World War theme in the 1950s that found voice in the rebellious 1960s and beyond. In the process, the book’s central character, Holden Caulfield, quickly became an icon for teenage rebellion. Arguably, he also served as the template for the cavalcade of anti-heroes who dominated American literature for the balance of the twentieth century.
The popularity of “Catcher in the Rye” has not been limited to the United States. It has been translated into nearly all major languages. Even today, roughly 250,000 copies of the book are sold annually. Total sales of the novel now top 65 million copies.
But Salinger’s enduringly popular novel is not the only intriguing part of this story. More vexing to scholars and fans of Salinger’s work was his abrupt, enigmatic retreat from the public sphere at the very height of his influence and popularity.
According to the author’s son and literary co-executor, stage and film actor Matt Salinger, “My father moved there [to New Hampshire] in the ‘50s because it was beautiful but also because of a particular kind of respect for individual rights. He basically wanted to be left alone and do his work, and New Hampshire, he quickly sensed, respected that.”
From the mid-1960s on, Salinger became a recluse, holing up in his remote Cornish, New Hampshire hideaway and refusing most contact with the outside world, particularly after a controversial 1980 interview.
The reasons behind Salinger’s disappearing act remain essentially unknown. Some think the novelist simply got tired of the public arena and withdrew from it permanently. Others attribute it, at least in part, to his traumatic experiences in the Second World War finally getting the better of his psyche.
Whatever the case, once he chose to withdraw, Salinger guarded his secrecy with a fierceness bordering on paranoia. He was notoriously willing to involve attorneys to defend his privacy and writings against real or imagined transgressions. Yet during all those years out of the public eye, Salinger continued to write, a fact that is well documented.
In 1974, Salinger told “The New York Times” that he wrote daily, though only for himself. Many friends, neighbors and family members reported that he was always writing at his home in New Hampshire and wrote nearly until the year of his death at age 91. Still, he consistently withheld this work from publishers and the public, save for a brief, fruitless flirtation with a small Virginia press.
Shane Salerno’s upcoming “Salinger” double-bagger will purportedly pierce the author’s longstanding veil of secrecy, examining in detail his childhood, his wartime experiences, his rocky marriages and extra-marital affairs, and his painstaking and intensely private work habits.
Also revealed: the possibility that some of Salinger’s heretofore secret body of writing—possibly as many as five volumes’ worth—may actually reach print, beginning in the 2015 time frame according to some sources.
Yet even today Matt Salinger continues to fight his father’s old fight to protect his literary rights and privacy. When the New Hampshire state government turned thumbs-down on a 2012 bill extending for another seventy years the commercial rights to J. D. Salinger’s publication by inheritance, the younger Salinger reacted much as his father would have.
“I’m stunned and just hugely disappointed that Gov. [John] Lynch saw fit to veto something that was the result of thousands of hours of well-intentioned, diligent, bipartisan work,” Salinger told The Associated Press. The bill was in keeping with New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die” motto, he noted—a motto that had led his father, at least in part, to establish his permanent residence in that state.
Meanwhile, as August draws to a close, the buzz is building for Shane Salerno’s September Salinger madness, which includes both the Salinger biopic and his purportedly tell-all biography.
At the same time speculation mounts that at least some of the late author’s mysterious literary treasure trove may soon come to light, perhaps enabling a fresh evaluation of his work and his legacy.
We’ll find out more next week.
Meanwhile, check out the film’s official trailer, below.
—Terry Ponick contributed to this article.
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