Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Reprint Heaven: Two Men From Utah Beach

(A reprint; for November 11th.)

Infantry Under Fire, Huddled At The Utah Beach Seawall,
June 6, 1944 (Smithsonian Collection; Public Domain)

Today, the New York Times, one of the last newspapers where publishing Obituaries is an art form (one of the last newspapers, come to that), reported two men who had once been at Utah Beach at the same time on D-Day -- J.D. Salinger -- author of Franny And Zooey; Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters; and, aber natürlich, Catcher In The Rye -- and Louis Auchincloss ("Wall Street lawyer from a prominent old New York family who became a durable and prolific chronicler of Manhattan’s old-money elite"), died at ages 91 and 92 respectively.

Portrait Of Auchincloss By Everett Raymond Kinstler, 2008

Auchincloss was a member of America's hereditary, monied elite. He was raised in a world of town houses, summer homes on Long Island and Bar Harbor, Maine; private clubs and servants, debutante parties and travel abroad. However, as a child Auchincloss thought of himself as "neither rich nor aristocratic": In a 1974 autobiography, A Writer's Capital, he noted, “Like most children of affluence, I grew up with a distinct sense that my parents were only tolerably well off. This is because children always compare their families with wealthier ones, never with poorer."

Facades Of Brownstone Mansions, New York City 2008
(Photo: New York Times Online Real Estate Section)

His path through life was predictable enough for one of his class -- a comfortable childhood, preparatory schools; guaranteed entry to Yale in 1935; he seemed predestined for the life of a Gentleman of his class; a man with means who did little beyond tending and adding to the Family fortune. But it was in his Junior year at Yale that the wheels came off his little Bourgeois wagon.

Not For You And Me: Summer Home In Bar Harbor, ME

Auchincloss yearned to break from the well-travelled path of the monied and privileged and wrote a novel. When it was subsequently rejected by a major New York publisher, Auchincloss decided “that a man born to the responsibilities of a brownstone bourgeois world could only be an artist or writer if he were a genius.” He dropped out of Yale, which he found suffocating, and decided upon taking up a profession, one that his milieu wouldn't reject, and entered the University of Virginia Law School on the eve of WW2.

He was surprisingly good at the law -- and, Trusts and Estates law, at that -- a specialty almost solely devoted to the hereditary wealthy. In WW2, he volunteered for the U.S. Navy, was commissioned an officer and served in Naval Intelligence (typical for a Knickerbocker), but left that to command an LST at Utah beach on D-Day at Normandy, then in the Pacific after V-E Day. Even with his normal duties, he had completed a second novel, but "threw it in the trash".

It wasn't until 1947 that he completed The Indifferent Children, published after he returned to his law practice. It appeared under the pseudonym Andrew Lee, in deference to his mother, who thought the book “trivial and vulgar”, and feared it would damage his career (the horror of publicity, too, a trait of the rich).

Auchincloss At His New York City Home, 2005

I remember reading a New Yorker portrait of him several years ago while waiting in my Dog Trainer's office, and was struck with how much a man of his class he was -- and yet, he wasn't. He felt no sense of guilt at who and what he was (there isn't a trace of it in his writing). And, although I haven't read much of his work (which, like a wine, had hints of Edith Wharton and John Updike-ian highlights, though Auchincloss was far below Updike), his characters were drawn from his own world, and in chronicling their human failings, Auchincloss pointed up the value of at least an ethical rectitude if not a moral one.

The very wealthy are rarely seen by the likes of you and I. Where they live, where they eat, travel and shop is inside a Magic Circle of privilege and exclusivity. If he hadn't been an author, and his books hadn't possessed some merit, Auchincloss would have moved through life inside that Circle, acting as lawyer to his own tribe; his mark would have been made in helping them to preserve and maintain wealth accumulated over generations. His friends and clients would have been "his crowd... the right sort", who knew people he knew, summered where he did, voted Republican, and may have had their suits, shirts and shoes custom-made by the same Gentleman's tailors and reclusive cobblers.

But that wasn't his life -- or, not all of it. When he was writing, he was temporarily freed of the bourgeois world he swam in so easily. Auchincloss couldn't escape what he was as a man, but as an author he tried to see further, explore the human condition and bring back an artifact from his travels for a wider audience.

Commenting to an interviewer for some Tony Manhattan publication in 2007, however, Auchincloss reminded us that the world of the wealthy never really goes away in what are, for the rest of us, good times or bad:

Even near the end of his life, Mr. Auchincloss said the influence of his class had not waned. “I grew up in the 1920s and 1930s in a nouveau riche world, where money was spent wildly, and I’m still living in one!,” he told The Financial Times in 2007. “The private schools are all jammed with long waiting lists; the clubs — all the old clubs — are jammed with long waiting lists today; the harbors are clogged with yachts; there has never been a more material society than the one we live in today. Where is this ‘vanished world’ they talk about?” he asked. “I don’t think the critics have looked out the window!”

J.D. Salinger, Surprised By A Fan's Camera In Cornish, NH,
On His 89th Birthday In 2008: "woe betide any of those fans
who track him down just to explain that they, like, totally
love him and can so relate to his retreat from a world of
phony bastards. “No you don’t,” he told one such visitor.
“Or you wouldn’t be here."

Jerome David Salinger was once groomed by his father for a career in the ham business, which, fortunately for American letters, never quite congealed. He was born in New York City, attended Progressive and Prep schools; he had just begun to publish short fiction -- in The New Yorker, no less -- when he was drafted in 1942. Initially a rifleman in the 4th Infantry Division, he was transferred to serve as a Counterintelligence specialist, trained to interrogate prisoners and review captured documents and maps -- meaning Salinger had to possess an above-average ability with spoken and written German.

Camp Ritchie, Maryland, During WW2 (Contemporary Postcard)

(Training for all CIC specialists was conducted at one location -- Camp Ritchie, Maryland, and is detailed in the book, Germans, by George Bailey [1970]. I wonder if Salinger and Bailey knew each other; they were at the Camp at the same time, 1943, and had to know the same instructors, characters, and fellow voulnteers, many of whom were German-Jewish refugees from the nazis who had taken U.S. citizenship.)

Salinger went ashore on D-Day at Utah beach with elements of the firat wave of the 4th Infantry. I've wondered from time to time whether Louis Auchincloss, commanding an LST in carrying that first wave in to Utah on June 6th, ferried the future author of one of America's enduring, classic postwar novels that day; it's not impossible.

In December of 1944 and into 1945, Salinger fought in the Battle Of The Bulge -- when everyone on the line, for weeks, no matter what their MOS*, were riflemen. After The Bulge, he was was hospitalized with "battle fatigue", the forerunning terminology for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

[*MOS = Military Occupational Specialty, a term more familiar to Vietnam-era draftees]

Salinger, In The U.S. Army, Circa 1944 (Unknown)

After release from hospital, he remained in Germany for at least a year, helping Allied authorities track down nazi functionaries wanted by the Occupation powers. He married a German woman, briefly; very little is known of her, or this period in Salinger's life.

(We might be able to infer what some of his duties may have been, again from George Bailey's book: Many of the CIC specialists in 1945-46 also helped to resettle refugees from the Soviets in various small German communities -- who were under Allied military jurisdiction and had no choice but to, uh, follow orders.)

(This involved a degree of subterfuge, quick wits, and a sense of both the scale of physical and moral destruction the nazis had brought on Europe and their own country; and a heightened sense of the kind of absurdity peculiar to the U.S. Army, which appears in novels like Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse Five.)

Returning from the war, Salinger also returned to New York City and in 1948 published a short story, "A Perfect Day For Bananafish", in the New Yorker -- a kind of shot-across-the-bow to announce a different kind of writer was in town. After several other short stories were published by the magazine, in 1951 Salinger's seminal novel, Catcher In The Rye, was published.

Salinger had A Major And Serious Jones for attention as a literary genius; and, he'd proven he had the chops for it. While in college, he had bragged about his literary talent and ambitions -- and his short fiction had marked him as a real talent. But, when Catcher became a runaway bestseller and critical success, being in the 'eye of the comic book hurricane' was more than he bargained for.

Salinger On The Cover Of TIME, 1953: From The Bulge
To National Notoriety In Less Than Ten Years

It wasn't just being lionized by the Establishment press and New York literary mafia; the book was a landmark of postwar American alienation. Salinger seemed to give a voice through his narrator, Holden Caulfield, to the conflicted, shamed, vainglorious, and noble patter which runs through all our heads on a daily basis; Caulfield was nearly an archetypal figure -- and the novel resonated.

What I like best is a book that's at least funny once in a while...What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though.
Holden Caulfield, Catcher In The Rye

And it did resonate with the feelings of being lost, an undefined longing, in so many people who read the novel that Salinger was subjected to what eventually would be termed 'stalking' from readers -- some enthusiastic, many others troubled; but all of whom believed Salinger had a finer perception of the world we live in, and could be that "terrific friend" and help them. They wanted answers to The Big Questions.

(Sometimes, it's the author of the moment you look for. In the 70's, after The World According To Garp had appeared, four friends from my time in New York and I borrowed someone's car and drove up into New England; there was talk of trying to get a glimpse of Salinger -- rejected by the eternal Mick Koznick [A guy as big as Lucca Brazi, drunk, in black leather jacket and Ray-Bans, punches you in the chest with a forefinger and says, "M'eye right? I'm right. M'eye right? I'm right"] as "too bourgeois" -- turned into a search for Putney, Vermont, and author John Irving; which might have succeeded, but for the fact that we were most of the time drunk.)

First Paperback Edition Of Catcher In The Rye

The response of college students to the work of J. D. Salinger indicates that he, more than anyone else, has not turned his back on the times but, instead, has managed to put his finger on whatever struggle of significance is going on between self and culture.
Phillip Roth, 1974

Eventually, Salinger told his editors that he was “good and sick” of seeing his photograph on the dust jacket of Catcher in the Rye and demanded that it be removed from subsequent editions. He ordered his agent to burn any fan mail. In 1953, Salinger moved to a 90-acre parcel of land in Cornish, New Hampshire, which had a long history as an artist's colony.

And, for the most part, Salinger was never publicly seen again. He was rumored to have achieved a mystical state of satori and left the physical plane; or to be writing novel after novel to be published after his death (and so removed from attendant publicity); or to have decayed into an abberated, Howard-Hughes-like paranoid, long-haired recluse. College students tried staking out his property, or -- once it became known he had a PO Box in Cornish -- his local Post Office. sightings of Salinger were few, and brief; the man was smart and quick.

James Earl Jones As 'Terence Mann', The Salinger Character
From W.P. Kinsella's Tale Which Became Field Of Dreams

In the early 80's, when W.P. Kinsella wrote his novel, "Shoeless Joe" (turned into the film Field Of Dreams in 1989), he put J. D. Salinger into the novel, going to New Hampshire to bring him back to Iowa and the magical baseball field Ray Kinsella has built in his cornfield. Salinger would have nothing to do with the production and didn't want his name used; the reclusive author figure played by James Earl Jones became 'Terence Mann' ("I don't have any answers for you -- and I don't know the secret of life. So piss off").

In 1997, Ron Rosenblum wrote a piece for Esquire magazine, "The Haunted Life Of J. D. Salinger": The silence of a writer is not quite the same as the silence of God, but there's something analogous: an awe-inspiring creator, someone who we belive has some answers of some kind, refusing to respond to us, hiding his face, withholding his creation.

Still, Salinger could be seen in and around Cornish, if you were diligent. He would be outdone in the reclusiveness department by Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr., author of his own engrossing postmodern novels ( V.; Gravity's Rainbow; Crying Of Lot 49; Mason & Dixon; Vineland; Against The Day), who has only been publicly seen twice between the early 1960's and the late 1990's -- and not at all since.

Thomas Riggles Pynchon, Jr., In 1953: One Of Seven

Only seven published photographs of him known are to exist -- six yearbook photos, and one as a seaman in the U.S. Navy in the mid-to-late 1950's.

Okay, Pynchon's done a few 'Simpsons' voiceovers, where his cartoon character has a paper bag over his head; and Robert K. Massie thanked Pynchon in the afterword to Massie's amazingly good 1991 book, Dreadnought; but he still makes Salinger look like a publicity hog.

Unlike Salinger, Pynchon (who is 73 this year) isn't demanding, Garbo-like, to be left alone; he simply prefers anonymity. Doing the occasional 'Simpsons' guest spot is Pynchon's way of mocking his own sense of privacy -- something Salinger would never have done, and proof that hanging out with Tom for an afternoon or over a beer wouldn't be a waste of time and might even be fun.

Wikipedia notes: In the early 1990s, Pynchon married his literary agent, Melanie Jackson — a great-granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt — and fathered a son, Jackson, in 1991. The disclosure ... led some journalists and photographers to try to track him down.

[I]n 1997, a CNN camera crew filmed him in Manhattan. Angered by this invasion of his privacy, he rang CNN asking that he not be identified ... "Let me be unambiguous. I prefer not to be photographed." In 1998, a reporter for the [South African] Sunday Times managed to snap a photo of him as he was walking with his son.

I don't know enough about Salinger's inner life, or Pynchon's, to know why they removed themselves from the barest hint of the public spotlight. But, I don't have to. Their lives -- like mine, or yours -- are no one else's business.

I don't agree with John Fowles' autobiographical-fictional narrator in his novel, Daniel Martin, when he notes that creative persons put themselves up on a public soapbox and suffer all that doing so entails. I'm a fairly private person, and Pynchon (or Salinger)'s ire at being stalked like a Snow Leopard by a National Geographic film team is wholly appropriate.

“Here’s your quote. Thomas Pynchon loved this book. Almost
as much as he loves cameras,” a reference indicating that
Marge Simpson’s novel sucks Brontosauruses. Fellow Recluse
Salaman Rushdie describes Pynchon as "Still Crazy After All
These Years".

Salinger was married several times, and divorced; in the 1990's, his daughter would publish a book about being the child of an obviously brilliant and obsessive-compulsive man, the only look into his world anyone had been granted in almost forty years. One tantalizing glimpse from the book: Salinger had a bookcase in his Cornish home, packed with what very well may have been manuscripts written over the years.

Salinger And His Wife, Circa 2009 (Paul Adao, NY Post)

About the same time, in his early eighties, Salinger married a nurse "considerably younger" than himself, but did not change his reclusiveness or irascibility. His new wife adopted Salinger's desire for privacy. He only had his name brought back into the public spotlight when forced -- as he did last year, when a Swedish author wanted to publish what amounted to a sequel to Catcher, titled "Sixty Years After". The Swede claimed it was a parody, like Jane Austen With Zombies. Salinger was plenty steamed, and a court agreed with him.

After breaking his hip this past winter, his health declined rapidly, and he passed away -- peacefully, it was reported -- last night. Like Auchincloss, he lived his life on his own terms; not comfortably provided to him, but -- for better or worse, like all of us -- one made by his own hand. But I believe Salinger will be missed, and his works read by new generations (Catcher In The Rye still sells over 250,000 copies a year) long after Louis' writings fade into a genteel obscurity.

I hope to hell that when I do die somebody has the sense to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you're dead? Nobody.
Holden Caulfield, Catcher In The Rye

1 comment:

  1. thanks for reprinting this piece - well worth savoring - you do this long form very well

    a couple of tangential comments come to mind - they are self-referential, of course

    i had a servant's eye view of the very rich for a little over a year, when i was a uniformed (but unarmed - this was the early 1970's) security guard in a couple of ruling class jewelry stores in boston on newbury st - the one i was at first closed for the summer, when the elderly italian sisters who ran it - and their clientele - went to the cape

    i was then reassigned to the jewelry store on the ground floor of the ritz carlton hotel

    when the parenti sisters reopened in september they asked for me back, and got me - i was flattered, but i actually preferred the other store - bigger, less boring

    then the next day i was reassigned back to the other store - as i heard it, the owner threatened to cancel his contract with the security firm unless he got me back - he got his way, but the owners of the other store then canceled THEIR contract

    in fact, i was overqualified to be in that position - once i heard the parenti sisters talking about me, saying what a shame it was that i was so underemployed - they spoke in italian, not realizing that i had a smattering of that tongue as a consequence of living in napoli when my career military father was assigned to the nato facilities there

    i was preparing myself for grad school at that time (basically memorizing the highest-level intro book in the field i aspired to - i had only a few courses in it while an undergraduate)

    and, on another topic

    about holden caulfield's dislike for the thought of being stuck in a cemetery - my spinster aunt, who died last year, had a somewhat similar attitude - whatever happened to her earthly remains was not her problem, and she declined to express a preference on it (nor had she made any provisions for dealing with it)

    i looked into the prospect of donating the body - she would have had to have made prior arrangements to get into medical school, but the human tissue brokers would have taken her for disassembly and distribution to their customers

    in the end her estranged sister paid for the cremation, and her last atoms would have been laid to rest next to her parents, except that my cousin, tasked with this assignment because he lives in the same state, was distracted by his wife's cancer - my cousin-in-law is still in the land of the living, and perhaps my aunt's interment in the family plot may yet happen

    and now, by a process of association, i think of a photograph i recently viewed - the scene of the concert hall in paris so recently in the news, with several audience members still remaining long after the event is over

    and then my mind goes to


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