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J. D. Salinger Has Won : IN SEARCH OF J. D. SALINGER by Ian Hamilton (Random House: $17.95; 222 pp.)

June 12, 1988|Mark Harris | Harris is the author of "Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck." and

This biography was to have been published two years ago in much different form. But, having read advance proofs, Jerome David Salinger, its subject, threatened from his New England retreat to sue the biographer for quoting him without permission.

Salinger demanded that the biographer, Ian Hamilton, remove more than 30,000 words from unpublished letters to editors and friends. Hamilton and his publisher, Random House, fought to retain the quoted material, but they lost their case in court.

From the remains of that disaster, Hamilton undertook to prepare a new volume, in which Salinger's quoted words were reduced to 200 and from which almost all of Salinger's language was removed.

The original manuscript, Hamilton says, "was not, in those days, really the book I had wanted it to be." Presumably the present book is better than the abandoned manuscript, but of course I cannot know. Thirty-thousand words directly from Salinger would inevitably have strengthened or enriched this book, whose prose is pale and nervous, perhaps because of the restraints and inhibitions beneath which the rattled Hamilton was forced to work.

However, Hamilton had little choice but to do what he has done. His alternative was not to have written a book at all. If the result of his choice is an awkward and necessarily fragmentary work, it is better than no book at all.

Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" (1951) is one of the most famous and best-respected novels of our century. Fame and respect do not always add up to sales, but "Catcher" sells more than a quarter of a million copies annually. The circumstance of such worldwide acceptance is amusing and ironic, doubling back upon itself, for Holden Caulfield, hero of the book, scorns the crass side of the world most of us know, and his creator, Salinger, removed himself from it more than 30 years ago.

Salinger, who will be 70 years old New Year's Day, lives virtually incommunicado behind a high fence in Cornish, N.H. He moved there in the winter of 1952-53, Hamilton writes, into a primitive house where he and his wife intended to live a life of "uncompromising purity." They were to "grow their own food but would not kill even the tiniest of creatures. Salinger himself had a pioneer's idealism as he set about controlling his domain."

For a while, Salinger's relationship to his new town was open and friendly. He had forsworn New York society, but he had not forsworn society altogether. In Cornish, he spent a good deal of time mingling with the young people. By 1956, however, when "The Catcher in the Rye" had become a "market force," says Hamilton, Salinger withdrew almost totally. He "had originally chosen Cornish as a retreat. From now on, it would seem to him more like a fortress."

Hamilton, assembling in this book more data about Salinger than exists in any other single place, offers plenty of opportunity for speculation. Salinger is mad. Or Salinger's war experiences were so hideous that they alienated him from all humanity. Or Salinger lives according to a version of Oriental philosophy.

Or Salinger, who may have been a spy during World War II, remains concealed--unseen, never photographed--as a matter of self-protection. Or Salinger suffers extraordinary chagrin on the subject of revelations of his early life and psyche, as revealed in "The Catcher in the Rye" and in his short stories in The New Yorker and elsewhere.

Or Salinger's experience of literary fame has confirmed the intuitive antagonism of his apprentice days, when he hated all professional book people. After "Catcher," he could isolate himself from that nasty business. He had so much money he could put it where his mouth was: In 1970, he returned with interest $75,000 advanced to him by a publisher for a book he preferred not to deliver.

This book tells more about Salinger's childhood than we have known, and about his teen-age years at Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania--the model, of course, for Penncy, from which Caulfield fled one memorable night, out of the gregarious world into his ultimate privacy. "When I was all set to go, when I had my bags and all, I stood for a while next to the stairs and took a last look down the goddam corridor. I was sort of crying. I don't know why. I put my red hunting cap on, and turned the peak around to the back the way I liked it, and then I yelled at the top of my goddam voice, 'Sleep tight, ya morons!' I'll bet I woke up every bastard on the whole floor. Then I got the hell out. Some stupid guy had thrown peanut shells all over the stairs, and I damn near broke my crazy neck."

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