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 …