IN SEARCH OF J.D. SALINGER: A Writing Life by Ian Hamilton
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Hamilton's still unauthorized biography of J.D. Salinger is neither better nor worse than the celebrated, banned original (Kirkus, 1986). It simply represents a different, albeit equally productive, approach to a difficult subject. Barred from quoting Salinger's letters to friends and editors by an appellate court decision, Hamilton has here recast his comparatively conventional study, which conjectuarally linked the writer's modest, immensely popular oeuvre to what could be learned of his life. In this revised version, Hamilton introduces a couple of new characters--himself and a pushy alter ego he labels ""biographer."" The result is an exercise in literary detection that, despite a full measure of introspection, provides arresting perspectives on a man of letters who has not published a word since the early 1960's. A diligent investigator, Hamilton (Robert Lowell, 1982) unearthed a remarkable amount of information about the reclusive Salinger, whose reputation rests on just four books--The Catcher in the Rye and three collections of short fiction. Hamilton did not get the whole story, but he learned enough of his subject's family ties, school days, WW II experiences, marriages, career aspirations, and withdrawal from the public eye to make educated guesses about gaps in the record, draw some convincing conclusions, and poke gentle fun at such standard references as exist. While Salinger (who turns 70 next year) remains as elusive as ever, Hamilton in a rueful afterword notes some ironies in the legal battle that delayed release of his work. By suing, for example, Salinger received far more press attention than would probably have resulted from uncontested publication of the original manuscript. In addition, the intensely private author had to copyright each of the contested 1939-61 letters, so anyone can buy them from the US government ""chronologically arranged and neatly packaged"" for $10.00--well below, Hamilton observes, ""what Random House would have been asking for my book."" Whether events turn what promised to be a succÉs d'estime into a succÉs de scandale is almost beside the point. Like Hamilton's initial effort, the instant text succeeds admirably on its own circumscribed terms.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1988
Publisher: Random House