SEPTEMBER 30, 2014
LITERARY BIOGRAPHERS POSSESS a position in our culture at once respectable and ignoble. If they are successful, they illuminate an author’s work, amplifying rather than diminishing it. If not, they can seem to reduce art to history, piggybacking on the creativity of more ambitious authors. They can be called parasites, vultures, or, in Henry James’s words, “publishing scoundrel[s].”
No wonder so many authors have gone to great lengths to hinder their would-be biographers, creating great bonfires of their correspondence or prohibiting quotations from their private papers. None of this has stopped the biographical industry, of course. The genre continues to thrive, even when confronted with paltry documentary evidence.
The bravest of biographers surely must be those who take on the lives of the undocumented. One thinks of Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra or Jill Lepore’s of Jane Franklin, Ben’s nearly vanished sister. In such cases, one expects the long-gone subjects wouldn’t mind being more fully understood — or simply remembered.
But what of those unwilling celebrities who wish simply to be left alone? Two new books tackle the lives of two of the most famous and, not coincidentally, most reclusive authors of the 20th century — J. D. Salinger and Harper Lee. The authors of the young adult classics The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird, respectively, both deliberately courted obscurity, retreating into what many have felt was an almost perverse silence. Their right to privacy has never been fully acceded by an American public hungry for not only their books but also their personalities.
The two quasi-biographies — Marja Mills’s The Mockingbird Next Door and Thomas Beller’s J. D. Salinger: The Escape Artist — raise, for their readers, compelling questions about what we seek in the lives of authors, what relationship their lives have to their works, and what connections readers can claim not only to their famous novels but also to the authors themselves.
Mills calls her book a memoir and Beller’s is part of Amazon’s Icon series of short biographies, yet both exist somewhere in between. They might be called quest biographies (Leon Edel’s term), in which the writers’ search for their subjects, rather than the subjects themselves, takes center stage. Such an approach is usually born out of frustration with a lack of material. And although more traditional biographies have been written of both Lee and Salinger, with mixed results, it would seem that anyone approaching the lives of these two exiles from public life has little choice but to abandon a conventional approach to the form altogether. Unfortunately, after reading these two books, one feels less sure that a new form has been created than that the old one (biography) has simply been avoided. Mills, especially, seems so concerned about being considered an irresponsible biographer that she tries to avoid being a biographer at all.
Mills’s book begins with what appears to be a bombshell. The author claims to have been a friend and neighbor of Lee and to have written the book under the “guidance” of Harper and her sister Alice Lee. Concerned about the imminent publication of Charles Shields’s unauthorized biography (published in 2006), Harper Lee “open[ed] up” to her, Mills writes. This is a promising beginning, indeed, signaling that the book perhaps could avoid the ethical questions of an unwilling subject.
But even before Mills’s book appeared on bookstore shelves, the story became more complicated. A signed statement from Harper Lee, now 88, was released denying any involvement with Mills’s project. For some, if Goodreads reviews are any indication, that alone makes it a deeply unsettling, and even unethical, book to read. Mills has suggested that the stroke Lee suffered in 2007 has something to do with her lack of memory about cooperating with the project. Alice, now 102, supports the project — she came out in support of Mills when the book deal with Penguin was first announced in 2011.
Alice ran interference for Harper throughout her years of seclusion. But it seems that by the time Marja Mills arrived on her doorstop in 2001, she had grown weary of silence. Alice invited the Chicago Tribune reporter in for a long chat, during which Mills’s reporter’s notebook got a workout, judged by the wealth of details she includes. But Mills wasn’t the only one Alice talked to. She also communicated with Shields, until Harper’s agent interceded, and allowed herself to be interviewed on camera for the 2011 documentary Harper Lee: Hey, Boo, which ran on PBS as part of its American Masters series.
A few chapters into The Mockingbird Next Door, it becomes clear that Alice was the driving force behind the family’s cooperation with Mills. She didn’t want to die without getting their family’s story out there. Harper met with Mills after her sister encouraged her to do so. Harper — or Nelle, as she is known — may have become friends with Mills, doing laundry with her and inviting herself over for cups of coffee after Mills moved in next door (with the sisters’ blessing, Mills says), but she kept most of what she said to Mills off the record. While Alice sat for hours of taped interviews over a period of many months, Harper became testy when Mills tried to pull out her notebook during their talks. At other times, when Mills’s questions got too personal, Lee would snap, “That’s for me to know and you to find out.”
Throughout, Mills was so concerned about offending Lee that she refrained from asking sensitive questions. Thus the most mysterious parts of Lee’s life — her sexuality, her relationship with her mother, her friendship with Truman Capote, her seeming lack of interest in writing another book after Mockingbird — remain fodder for speculation. Mills’s scrupulous attention to the Lee sisters’ wishes and her allegiance first of all to their friendship, while noble, make her a poor biographer. The one insightful quote from Harper Lee in the book (and there are very few direct quotes from her at all) is: “Truman was a psychopath, honey. […] He thought the rules that apply to everybody else didn’t apply to him.” This is a tantalizing statement that makes us miss, even more keenly, the inside story this book doesn’t offer.
What the book more than amply provides are the details of the ordinary life Harper Lee preferred to literary celebrity. Mills’s book picks up where Shields’s scrupulously researched biography left off, with the most recent years of Lee’s life, which one can’t help but feel didn’t really need to be so painstakingly documented.
Mills paints a portrait of the author that surely proves the adage that a writer’s life is generally pretty boring — but not because she spent her days at her typewriter. We see Lee feeding the ducks from a Cool Whip container, becoming puzzled by Super Bowl ads for erectile dysfunction, and ordering a salad at Burger King to try to lose weight. The banality of such details has been dismaying to some, who feel they diminish the author. To others, it is refreshing to see Lee as simply an ordinary person. But even taking the book on its own terms — Mills has described it as a glimpse into her brush with the great author — it is a pretty uneventful book. Nor do these details generate any illuminating insights about Mills herself. As a result, it disappoints as both memoir and biography.
A typical passage about Mills’s attendance with the Lee sisters at a Super Bowl party reads:
Before the game got under way, I grabbed another Diet Coke from the kitchen and took my place near the Crofts’ son Kenny. […] Kenny looked up at Nelle as she began to read aloud from Doris Jay’s “Rocky Hill News” column in that week’s Monroe Journal. This was, hands down, Nelle’s favorite part of the paper. The column detailed the comings and goings of an extended family who lived in the area known as Rocky Hill, southwest of Monroeville.
Mills then quotes Lee reading from the column at length, a series of uneventful events (dinners, visits, and doctor appointments) that sounds very much like the book Mills has written about Lee. All of this leads to Nelle breaking out in laughter that Mills describes as “the kind of affectionate amusement I’d come to recognize, an appreciation of what was both absurd and deeply human about this kind of thing.” But when the record of the ordinary is about someone as respected as Lee we don’t laugh; rather, we feel more like looking away.
Banality is hardly the problem with J. D. Salinger’s life. The biography J. D. Salinger: The Escape Artist, written by Thomas Beller, a former New Yorker staff writer and creative writing professor, is full of interesting anecdotes that largely satisfy the reader’s appetite for an encounter with the man behind Holden Caulfield and the Glass family. The problem instead is Beller’s reticence to fully explore his subject’s life.
Beller’s biography begins, in fact, with the queasiness he felt about prying into Salinger’s private life. He nevertheless decides that Salinger’s death in 2010 loosened his moral grip on the letters he guarded so closely in life. The man is gone, but the letters and our “curiosity” remain. Somehow, the fact of Salinger’s death makes us feel less invasive than in the case of Harper Lee, but is that simply because he is no longer around to voice his objections?
Beller justifies his invasion of Salinger’s privacy by insisting that he is not simply one of the “Biography Corps, who speculate on why Salinger was up in the woods with all the nuance and insight of a two-year-old having a temper tantrum.” His quest is loftier than that. He is in search of the source of the elusive, “alchemical mix” that draws us to Salinger’s writing. But what exactly is the connection between the slippery fish of lived experience and the works that grow from it? It’s an admittedly difficult question, but in a biography as contemplative as Beller’s one would hope to see the issue at least explored if not fully answered. Unfortunately, Beller seems unwilling to go so far.
In his search for the Salinger behind his favorite works, Beller says he often felt as if he were “trailing a suspect through crowded streets and into a strange room, where all of a sudden I see someone I know.” That someone turns out to be at first his father, who was roaming the streets of Vienna at the same time (1937) as Salinger, and then himself. Although of a later generation, Beller feels his life intersecting with Salinger’s and that of his most famous creation, Holden Caulfield, in the landscape of New York and at The New Yorker magazine. Beller’s quest also takes him to Salinger’s summer camp (still in existence), to the Park Avenue apartment in which Salinger grew up, and to the Princeton Library to read some of his letters.
All of these excursions are narrated from Beller’s point of view, yielding not much more than his impressions and experiences. We are even further from Salinger when Beller visits his own eighth grade teacher, who once taught him The Catcher in the Rye. Readers will naturally grow impatient with such passages as well as the copious footnotes and asides, not to mention a strange bulleted list of reasons why someone might be mad at their neighbor. We are left feeling frustrated, as if a biographer’s shell game has led us not so much to the elusive object of our fascination but to Beller himself.
There are plenty of enticing vignettes to engage the reader along the way, however, such as the tidbit about how Carol Marcus, a friend of Salinger’s girlfriend Oona O’Neill, raided his letters to Oona for her own love letters to William Saroyan. All is revealed one day on Charlie Chaplin’s yacht when Saroyan starts raving about The Catcher in the Rye and “how this Salinger kid could really write.” Or there is the chapter about the author’s World War II experiences. Beller devotes considerable space to how Salinger, who helped to liberate Paris and as a Counter Intelligence agent was probably involved in the Nuremberg trials, brought home from the war a wife who happened to have been a low-level Nazi. This is all fascinating, until Beller later mentions only in passing that Salinger was also part of the landing on D-Day. Why Beller has chosen to ignore Salinger’s combat experience and its effect on his writing is a mystery. As elsewhere, his ad hoc and impressionistic approach leaves the reader yearning for a fuller, if not complete, treatment of the author’s life.
Thoroughness is also lacking in Beller’s approach to some of the more disturbing aspects of Salinger’s life. There are, for instance, his daughter’s allegations of his utter neglect of his family, his seduction of younger women, and his apparent inability to see women as more than sexual objects. But Beller doesn’t address the quandary he or any fan of Salinger’s fiction must feel. Can we simply ignore the unsavory parts of his personality that naturally induce queasiness of another kind? Beller, to his credit, doesn’t ignore them, but he cannot bring himself to comment on the sadism Salinger expressed toward women in a story he wrote around the same time he was dating (and losing) the beauty Oona O’Neill (daughter of the famous playwright Eugene). “My most generous assessment,” Beller writes, “is that this is the anguish, and rage, a guy feels when he is besotted with a beautiful woman who is already slipping away even when she is in your arms.” Yet what are we to do with the repulsion we feel upon learning that Salinger probably would have liked to burn Oona with a cigarette, as he has his character do in “The Long Debut of Lois Taggett”? By raising the possibility and then backing off from the disturbing questions it raises, Beller holds back from fully encountering the author of other works that have inspired almost hyperbolic devotion (including his own).
Here is the trouble with looking for ourselves in the writers whose works we admire, at least if we are proposing to be their biographers. For if we are in search of ourselves, or in this case our own troubled teenaged selves roaming New York, then we are apt to downplay those parts of the life that don’t correspond with that need for recognition.
In the end, neither Beller nor Mills deserves the title of “publishing scoundrel.” They have been too respectful of their subjects for that. Perhaps that is why both of these writers leave us wanting more. Would we have them be what Salinger called the “shitty literary kids,” who elicited his wrath for prying into his life and the sources of his fiction? Yes and no. We would not have them cross the line into irresponsible gossip. Yet their guilt about being biographers at all has prevented them from truly engaging with their subjects and has left them — and us — stranded in some kind of no man’s land somewhere between biography and memoir without the satisfactions of either.