This last year, among the various books that I have read, were two full-length author biographies: Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno, and James Merrill: Life and Art, by Langdon Hammer. The Salinger book is like a collection of separately drawn episodes, with little attempt to link real life events specifically to Salinger's literary works. The Hammer book is a meticulously rendered account, almost a concordance of relationships between the events in Merrill's life and the separate poems he wrote. Both books are honest efforts, holding nothing back, and following the clues and implications wherever they lead. Neither book could have been written this way a generation ago, which may tell us something about the progress of our public culture--what we're comfortable with, what we're willing to acknowledge and even accept in our cultural heroes, how much truth we can stand to believe.
My discussion here, though, doesn't consist of a book review. Instead, I want to focus on the common aspects of the two men whose stories are recounted, and to meditate on what those common aspects tell us about artistic production, the artistic life, and the possible meanings to be derived from such relationships.
It would help if you knew something about them, since I won't recapitulate the life stories of either man. Much of what is told in these lives is now common knowledge, though it wasn't information that was available to most of the general public while they were alive.
Let's start with some parallels. Merrill was born in 1926, Salinger in 1919. Both were in the U.S. Army in World War II. Both were precocious authors--Merrill's first book was published without his knowledge or permission by his Father when he was 17. Salinger began writing short stories while in prep school.
Both men grew up in relative security and comfort. Salinger's father was a successful food importer, and the family lived on Park Avenue. Merrill's father was head of the Merrill-Lynch investment firm, and was fabulously wealthy. Merrill would never have to work a day in his life, and lived off his inheritance. After leaving the service in WWII, Salinger lived for a few years off his meager writing income from magazine publication, until in 1951, when Catcher in the Rye was published, which was so successful that it supported him in style for the remainder of his days.
Both men, in effect, came to enjoy the negligent independence of means that completely frees the imagination from all aesthetic responsibility. Free to live how they might choose, free to create whatever kind of literature they wanted, and free from the ordinary ethical or formal restraints that are imposed on those of lesser means.
From a literary point of view, neither writer has ever been regarded as a formal innovator. Salinger learned his art by writing for popular middle-class magazines. Merrill's poetry was always formally traditional, working within the confines of historical rhyme and meter, never challenging syntactic or grammatical correctness.
Both men underwent difficult psychological crises during their lives. Salinger suffered a nervous breakdown during his war experience, and even was briefly hospitalized. Over the next decades, he would go through two troubling marriages and divorces, would conduct a weird affair with a "child-mistress" half his age, and would live out his days in a state of mental and physical hibernation from the world at large, cooped up in a "compound" in rural New Hampshire, fending off vain attempts by the media and his fans to reach him, and refusing to publish anything during the last 45 years of his life.
Merrill, a homosexual all his life, suffered through the embarrassment and shame of his secret shadow existence, attempting to hide his sexuality from his parents, and from the world at large, and went through extended periods of psycho-analysis. While he followed his writing career, he spent the better part of his adult years pursuing young men sexually, living a life-style designed to placate his insatiable lust.
Salinger appears to have become obsessed sexually with pre-pubescent girls, in a repeated pattern he seemed powerless to resist. There are possible explanations for this in his psychology. Given his relative freedom, he could indulge his obsession away from the public eye. The seclusion and indulgence seem to have fed off each other. Meanwhile, his fiction became more and more claustrophobic, as his fictional Glass Family memoirs drew him in further and further into the magic realism of their fantasy world.
Merrill, unable to establish a true lasting relationship, despite the outward model of his prolonged partnership with the failed writer David Jackson, finally submerged himself in a fantasy world of spirit communication, described in detail in his ambitious long poem The Changing Light at Sandover.
A common thread is evident in both men, of a shameful private sexual obsession, which became sharper and more problematic as they matured, causing both to involute artistically, while their private lives fell into disarray. In both cases, their financial security enabled them to fend off the world at large, while they were free to delve more deeply into the private world of their eccentric secret art.
Both were men of evident personal charm, which they used to navigate through the "normal" world, a world which increasingly fell away into obscurity and irrelevance, while the private, secret world they lived in became more vivid and seductive. Free to cultivate their bizarre private worlds, their work became more and more trivial to the ordinary reader.
All of which is not to say that the work of their later years is unworthy, or invalid. Our verdict regarding Salinger's work will have to wait until his literary executors release his private archives to publication. In Merrill's case, the long ouija board epic may never have enough readers to be considered worthy, though it has its admirers.
There are dangers to artists and writers who either are born into financial security, or who achieve freedom through strong early sales. Ordinarily, we think of the freedom artists need to create as a positive aspect. But once need is removed from the equation, the tendency to indulge in private obsession may cause tangential distraction, especially if it is accompanied by deviant or suspicious emotional tendencies.
A writer like Henry Miller may decide at the outset to capitalize on his obsessions, as he did with his curiosity and lustful desires. Charles Bukowski, looking hopelessness and degradation straight in the face, built an entire literary career out of a skid-row drunk's life. John Cheever spent the first half of his life writing decent stories for decent people in The New Yorker, while inside he struggled with his demons (alcohol, bi-sexualism, adultery, artistic jealousy) until they finally overcame his resistance.
What we know of the private lives of artists and writers may or may not tell us something we need to know to understand the ultimate meaning of their works. In the case of Salinger or Merrill, I'm not sure that finding out the unpleasant underlying backstory, brings anything useful to our appreciation of Catcher or Sandover. In the end, the works have to stand on their own. A couple of centuries from now, will any possible reader need to know that the author of Catcher in the Rye had a "thing" about little girls? Will our understanding of Phoebe, Holden Caulfield's sister, or of the young prostitute whom Holden sees in his New York hotel room, be enhanced by knowing about Joyce Maynard's year living in Salinger's household? Is it important that we know the details of Merrill's affairs with young Greek boys in Athens, to more fully comprehend what the imaginary deities or ghosts are telling Merrill he must think about his life in Sandover?
Is there some important lesson to be gained by noting that great art may be the result of a kind of friction between intense private obsessions, and the public at large, to whom these private fictional worlds are offered? Guilt and embarrassment--the need to tell a palatable version of a private reality-- may indeed be the strongest drivers of vivid artistic invention.