Sad things can happen when an author chooses the wrong subject: first the author suffers, then the reader, and finally the publisher, all together in a tiny whirlpool of pain. Ian Hamilton’s book, In Search of J.D. Salinger, seems to have set in dolorous motion all of the above. The author’s misunderstandings begin on page one, and his groans only a page or so later. And at the end Mr. Hamilton is still wearing his bitterness rather awkwardly on his sleeve, his publisher has become, as Hamilton puts it, “preoccupied,” and the reader doesn’t know which way to look.
The book’s fate certainly has been an unusual one, of a kind that would have amused the Mikado. In the event you have been living in a cave, or conceivably in New Hampshire, the story, plus commentary, goes roughly like this. Four years ago, Hamilton, a lifelong Holden Caulfield fan, wrote J.D. Salinger a pro forma letter announcing a plan to write a book about him. He didn’t expect an answer, partly because everyone knows that Salinger despises literary biographies and publishers too (a position shared by an ample number of writers, though you wouldn’t guess it from Hamilton, who treats Salinger throughout as a man without a species, unique unto himself) and partly because “he [J.D.] was, in any real-life sense, invisible, as good as dead” (joke). Incidentally, there are a lot of (jokes) in this book.
The small but crucial distinction between dead and invisible became sufficiently clear shortly after that when Salinger, who wasn’t supposed to write one dead or alive, fired off a quite vigorous letter rounding on Hamilton for harassing his family (H. had written all the Salingers in the Manhattan phone book, and had winged a couple of relatives) “in the not particularly fair name of scholarship.”
Writers, sad to say, often take this philistine view of “scholarship,” feeling that they don’t owe it anything except their published work: again Salinger was not alone. Hamilton, however, was quite nonplused by the letter as he would subsequently be by almost everything he learned about his subject—a signal, perhaps, that he didn’t quite have a feel for this thing.
One of his friends told him the letter was really a ” ‘come-on’: ‘I can’t stop you’ to be translated as ‘Please go ahead.’ ” (Remember when they used to say that about girls?) Hamilton, being of slightly finer stuff, isn’t quite so sure—although he sounds pretty sure to me. “He [Salinger] said he wanted neither fame nor money and by this means he’d contrived to get extra supplies of both—much more of both, in fact, than might have come his way if he’d stayed in the marketplace along with everybody else.” Yes indeed. There is a light flurry of “on the other hand”s after this, but at book’s end, when the case has achieved a certain notoriety, the theme reasserts itself plangently. “Meanwhile, Salinger was getting more feature-length attention in the press than would surely have resulted from [my] unimpeded publication.” Fancy that—feature length: Salinger could hardly have done better if he’d planned the whole thing himself.
But back to the letter. At that stage, and viewing it solely as a tactic, Hamilton was not altogether without respect for the privacy-for-profit angle. If playing hard to get enhances a girl’s value, even the most lecherous of us can understand that. So, despite forebodings that do him credit, he essentially took his friend’s view that the letter was a challenge; and right to the end he refused to believe that he just might not be Salinger’s type, marketplace or no marketplace. (And by the way, it’s far from a given that Salinger would have been one whit less marketable if he’d hung around with “everybody else”: John Knowles’s A Separate Peace still sells prodigiously every year, and Knowles didn’t go anyplace.)
Since Salinger’s letter was so short, it’s a pity that Hamilton didn’t weigh each phrase more carefully and sense that that one about scholarship was the loaded one. Originally H. had hoped that by declaring himself a scholar instead of a news magazine, he would crack the case wide open. But as it turned out a news magazine could hardly have done worse. After all, from an author’s point of view, a news magazine can only steal your clothes, while a scholar picks among your very bones, and lets the magic out of your plots, plastering the remains with names and dates like graffiti on a tombstone. So Salinger’s hatred of academics may not, as they themselves prefer to believe, be based on graduate school envy at all, but on his own sense of Eros v. Thanatos, and thus a simple matter of life or death.
Hamilton’s Salinger, on the other hand, just doesn’t think like that, and so his creator plunged ahead with a high heart into a swampy area which, expressly because of him, will henceforth be carefully signposted against eager tourists: he appropriated some unpublished letters of J.D. that could be found in certain libraries, and printed them without a by-your-leave from either the libraries or Salinger (he must have thought that rare material was awfully easy to come by in the United States); wrote his book and duly sent it on to Salinger, still hoping, with a goofy ardor worthy of Freddy Hill in Pygmalion, that he would win the latter’s heart, that he would prove the exception, the lucky lecher. Salinger promptly copyrighted the letters and obtained a writ delaying their (and the book’s) publication. Hamilton just as promptly paraphrased the letters, quite excruciatingly (intentionally so, one hopes for his sake), and tried again. And this time Salinger took him to court. And goodness, was Hamilton nonplused.
By this time, Hamilton must have been practically certain he’d got the wrong man. When your subject turns around and bites you—and you don’t expect it—you’ve probably missed a hint someplace. What’s surprising in this instance is that Hamilton’s Salinger, a biliously competitive careerist, sounds quite capable of taking his grandmother to court if necessary: and yet the biographer persisted in thinking the original was just kidding.1 At any rate, the first legal proceeding (nobody just has one any more) went to Hamilton, on grounds of scholar’s rights, but the appeal went to Salinger, largely on the grounds that the letters Hamilton had filched without permission had cash value, hence property value, which paraphrases would tend to diminish as much as quotes would, and that he had gone way beyond the “incidental” use of them allowed by law by citing them on 40 percent of his pages.
Journalism proceeded to have the last laugh over scholarship when several papers printed a legally “incidental” sampling of the forbidden letters, reminding one of their flavor—and reminding this particular reader, who had seen Hamilton’s original manuscript, of how much the new book missed them. Hamilton, if anything, understates the matter when he says of the original that “it had (thanks to the letters) something of his tone, his presence.” On the page at least, Salinger’s tone is his presence to a unique extent, and a book that can’t quote him verbatim might be about anybody.
In a human, as opposed to a legal, sense, it is obviously hard to pick any kind of fight with a man who has, after all, brought a good deal of pleasure at very little cost to anyone, and Hamilton feels quite queasy about it himself. But momentum now required him to proceed in a legal mode, and thus we find him, or at least his lawyers, comparing this superb writer with Howard Hughes, a fellow recluse who also happened to be a public figure. And an anonymous publisher weighs in with this thought: “What if ‘a news reporter discovers Oliver North’s private diary, but can neither quote nor paraphrase from it because it is unpublished’?”
This kind of thing may help to explain why, even in a case ostensibly concerning censorship, Hamilton seems to have so few creative writers in his corner right now (uncreative writers are another story). Whatever the law may have to say about it, this year or next, most writers stoutly refuse to consider themselves public figures in the same sense as Hughes or North, and in fact would probably prefer not to be seen in the same argument with either of them. So if a publisher, however anonymous, and an author can agree for even a moment in granting to a writer’s personal papers the same status as those of a crazed manipulator or a government employee, then authors have no choice but to guard the door against publishers and scholars alike, and Salinger’s alleged paranoia becomes a simple matter of professional necessity.
But in all this, Hamilton is probably just as much a victim of the law’s clumsiness as Salinger. The cast of mind that can lump Oliver North in with J.D. Salinger can easily do the same for scholars and journalists, and thus Hamilton finds himself willy-nilly defending his scholarship with journalistic precedents, and making, or at least passing on, these embarrassing comparisons, even in a book where he is no longer on trial—comparisons that would surely never have occurred to him before the madness of litigation touched him (against his wishes, one should probably emphasize).
In real, nonlegal life, Hamilton has been a good deal more respectful of his subject’s wishes than a journalist would dream of being, accepting, for instance, Salinger’s implicit proposition that a writer who ceases to publish can, by so doing, cease to be a public figure upon the moment, and he has used no material dated after 1965—a condition that would make nonsense of any research relating to North or Hughes. But he has to insist for legal purposes that Salinger was “a public figure” once upon a time, and since the phrase still does not quite fit what scholars do, the old journalistic arguments have to be wheeled out, retroactively as it were, in all their awesome unsuitability, and we’re back with North and Hughes again, for want of anything better.
The common-sense trouble with this is at least hinted at in the relevant statute when it lists, without insisting on it, unprofitability as a desideratum in a work of scholarship. But since the very word strikes at the core of what journalism is about, it follows that, at least to a degree, the very thing that still makes Salinger appealing to journalists (his publicness) makes him unready for scholars: if he sells newspapers, he sells books in a newspapery sort of way, even highminded ones.
And finally, the public figure defense didn’t even work on the law’s own terms, perhaps because the statute doesn’t really know what it is supposed to do about scholars, or indeed what they are doing in there in the first place. To put it too simply: a journalist leaking from North’s diaries will presumably have to violate a trust somewhere along the line, as Hamilton did venially with the librarians (they told him he needed permission, but apparently let him be the judge of whether he had it—henceforth they won’t be so nice), but the journalist can always justify it by invoking the Public Interest. But what precisely is the scholarly equivalent of the Public Interest?
The assumption in Hamilton's corner was that Salinger would not reveal himself in New York long enough to give a deposition, a nasty piece of game playing to pull on one's old hero, but that's the law for you. Anyway, it backfired. Although my lips are generally sealed on the subject, it might be appropriate to mention here that I met Mr. Salinger once (nice fellow), both of us far from home, and got the distinct impression that he goes pretty much where he feels like.↩
The assumption in Hamilton’s corner was that Salinger would not reveal himself in New York long enough to give a deposition, a nasty piece of game playing to pull on one’s old hero, but that’s the law for you. Anyway, it backfired. Although my lips are generally sealed on the subject, it might be appropriate to mention here that I met Mr. Salinger once (nice fellow), both of us far from home, and got the distinct impression that he goes pretty much where he feels like.↩