New J. D. Salinger biography and documentary promise new works by the reclusive author

JD Salinger

Catcher in the Rye author JD Salinger

J. D. Salinger is nearly as famous for his reclusive lifestyle, shunning press and fans of his relatively few titles, as he is for creating the influential narrator Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye. If you’ve already read through Salinger’s body of work and it left you wanting more, you may be in for a treat. According to a new J. D. Salinger biography and documentary by director Shane Salerno and writer David Shields, Salinger left five additional works to be published after his death in 2010, and that some may become available as early as 2015.

How does a documentary director create a film and a biography about an author who was so private in his life? Initially, Salerno had the cooperation of Salinger’s family, but early on in the project, they withdrew support. For nine years, Salerno collected unpublished photographs, handwritten letters, and a diary of one of Salinger’s close friends. “If that’s not the inner circle, I don’t know what is the inner circle,” Salerno told Michael Cieply and Julie Bosman of the New York Times in their August 25, 2013 article “Film on Salinger Claims More Books Are Coming.” The book releases September 3, 2013; the documentary on September 6.

The man

Who was J. D. Salinger? The author, born in 1919, “embodied the style of fiction writing that captured the voice of a generation unsure of itself and its place in the world following World War II,” wrote a contributor to Great American Writers: Twentieth Century, Vol. 10. Despite the small amount of fiction he published—really only one full novel and a number of short stories—he became one of the best known of the post-war writers.

Salinger was no stranger to film, though he detested the movie that was made from one of his works. His story “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” adapted as My Foolish Heart in 1949, made him swear off of films for good.

In 1967, he divorced Claire Douglas, with whom he had two children, and disappeared from the public view. He reemerged occasionally, mostly to defend his private life and his works. In 1986, he won a lawsuit to prevent the publication of private letters in a biography by Ian Hamilton. The biography, In Search of J. D. Salinger, sans private letters, became as much about the struggle to write a biography of Salinger as a biography itself.

Salinger’s works have been widely published in anthologies; Salinger’s four solo books published before his death are:

  • The Catcher in the Rye, 1951
  • Nine Stories, 1953
  • Franny and Zooey, 1961
  • Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, 1963

The biographies

Beyond Hamilton’s meta-biography, two other notable biographies on Salinger have been previously published. One, At Home in the World: A Memoir by Joyce Maynard, is predominantly her own autobiography, but it details her romantic relationship with the much older Salinger. The other, by Salinger’s daughter Margaret A. Salinger, is Dream Catcher, which counters some of Hamilton’s assertions and describes Salinger’s controlling relationship with Margaret’s mother before their divorce.

What do the new biography and documentary, both titled Salinger, offer to the literature on Salinger’s life? Entertainment Weekly contributor Stephan Lee interviewed Salerno in “A never-before-seen photo of J.D. Salinger from new documentary and biography—EXCLUSIVE.” Salerno described the impact of the image he allowed Entertainment Weekly to publish, and the other firsts in the film: “This is one of many exclusive, intimate, never-before-seen photos of Salinger that appear in the film Salinger,” he explained. “Among many other revelations, the film and book show the public the first ever images of Salinger at war. I always knew such photos existed, but it took me nine years to locate someone who not only had the photographs but was willing to allow me to use them in my film and book.”

Many of Salinger’s intimates were reluctant to work with Salerno out of respect for Salinger’s privacy. But, Salerno explained, as the sources became aware that Salerno and Shields were interested in telling Salinger’s full story, they trusted the biographers with new and unseen material.

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