Review: Salinger, Margaret A. (2000). Dream Catcher: A Memoir. New York: Washington Square Press. 400 pp. $27.95.

– Reviewed by Will Hochman, September 28, 2000
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The increase of memoirs and the general blossoming of non-fiction in our culture mixes elements of high and low culture in so many new concoctions, it's hard to know what to expect from "true accounts." In 1998, Joyce Maynard cashed in her affair with J.D. Salinger(At Home in the World) by trying to expose her ex-lover's persona and elevate her own status. The only interesting and believable parts of her book were about Salinger and her attempts to put them in a greater context flopped miserably. Gossip is not truth, and the idea that Maynard had a feminist or even familial insight about Salinger was laughed at by most readers and critics. The final laugh at Maynard's work was when she auctioned off Salinger's letters and they were bought by Peter Norton and quietly returned to Salinger.

Maynard failed to dredge up her old affair and describe her sense of love (past and present) in reasonably interesting and believable ways. When the pre-publication copy of Dream Catcher: A Memoir by Margaret A. Salinger arrived, it was opened with Maynard's wounds still healing. Good non-fiction, and in particular good memoir writing, depends on truth and insight to succeed. Texts flop (like Maynard's) when they only say "me, me, me." Margaret Salinger's memoir, however, honorably describes her experiences as the daughter of J.D. Salinger while going beyond herself to link her insights to some solid research and fine interpretations of her father's fiction.

One can imagine that among J.D. Salinger's commandments, "Honor Thy Father" means not telling family secrets. Margaret Salinger does honor her father, though it's doubtful he will ever feel that way. Ms. Salinger's memoir is not simply the story of living through a difficult childhood with an unusual father. Readers will see how Salinger's reality and his fictive realities blend. Some readers will learn how to better understand and know J.D. Salinger based on better biographical insights and some readers may even enjoy the fact that a strongly female Salinger way of seeing changes the way we may understand the fiction of J.D. Salinger.

Can we accept changes in Salinger's myth? Does it matter that readers will learn that the famous author has weirdly experimented with orgone boxes, urine drinking and Scientology? Can we appreciate Holden's insights about phoniness and understand the character's need for better parenting when his creator sends his real-life, troubled daughter to boarding school at twelve years of age? When a father fails to offer his daughter much comfort and shelter from her struggles with anorexia, alcoholism, education, marriage, and pregnancy, don't we have to ask why?

Imagine that The Catcher in the Rye is not narrated by Holden Caulfield but his younger sister, Phoebe...or imagine that a female Glass family member from Salinger's later fiction stops worshipping Seymour Glass (a character who often reflects the author's spirituality) and decides to tell a version of family life that deeply questions Salinger's male-oriented mixture of aesthetics and theology. Though not a story teller and creative power like her father, Ms. Salinger writes powerful prose as she works through the challenge of being J.D. Salinger's daughter. Dream Catcher weaves fact, fiction, memories and dreams into a text that reveals Ms. Salinger's process of understanding and overcoming the reclusive writer's influence on her life.

In Dream Catcher, Ms. Salinger permeates the membrane between fact and fiction to show how much J.D. Salinger not only wrote fiction, but lives it as though his fictional characters are part of his actual family. She admits to growing up "in a world where fiction and dreams held sway" and justifies her book as a necessary process to understand the reality of her childhood so that she does not pass on a lack of parental caring to her own son. Rarely does a memoir do so much to make readers reconsider a body of fiction by a well-known writer as much as Dream Catcher does – "if you really want to know," this memoir has become one of the best books to surface in the world of Salinger criticism since Warren French revised his original Salinger scholarship in J.D. Salinger, Revisited which was published in 1989.

Joyce Maynard wrote about living with Salinger but was solipsistic and her book was little more than old gossip sold anew. Despite discussing more difficult and visceral personal struggles, Ms. Salinger's work avoids the tawdry effects of Maynard's writing by offering readers solid research and some very thoughtful analysis of J.D. Salinger's writing and living values. In 1998 and 1999, writers Ian Hamilton and Paul Alexander "rounded up the usual suspects" into patchwork biographies that failed to offer readers a vision of Salinger that greatly enhanced their reading of the reclusive author's fiction. However, Dream Catcher offers J.D. Salinger's readers some of the most important critical insights about the author available today. It is certainly ironic that some of the best, recent Salinger criticism written comes from his daughter, but Salinger himself has attuned readers to listen carefully to the insights of "young folks."

The difference between Joyce Maynard and Margaret Salinger offers a nice insight into the ways feminism may be applied to post modern criticism. Maynard's gossip and wounded cries become little more than huckstering attention and money, while Margaret Salinger's work shows the brilliance of what can happen when a woman's way of seeing is adroitly applied to a man's writing. Certainly issues of being J.D. Salinger's lover or daughter cloud most critical issues, but the results are clear. Margaret Salinger has managed to portray more her father's fiction in a critical context, as well as supplying vital research instead of gossip to help readers see what she knows about the ways her father's writing and life intersect. Her feminist interpretations are not vitriolic and about revenge – Margaret Salinger manages instead to teach all readers to question the assumptions and power dynamics of fathers – even ones famous for loving children.

Ms. Salinger reads J.D. Salinger's early, uncollected stories as stories that reflect more of the father she loves than the persona she senses in his later work. Although J.D. Salinger has refused to collect his early stories in a book, preferring to let them die "a natural death," Ms. Salinger uses some of her father's earliest characters and stories to frame his desire and quest to connect with "landsman" or like-minded souls. She researches and analyzes the affects of anti-semitism on her father during the twenties and thirties and Ms. Salinger delves into J.D. Salinger's childhood based on information from his only sibling, Doris. Dream Catcher offers readers detailed descriptions of Salinger's WWII experiences and explains his living realities in the context of how the author's biographical facts connect to his fiction.

Ms. Salinger's experience as a listener to Salinger's lectures about God and religion enables her to link the theology of Seymour and Buddy Glass to her father and to her memories of his religious instruction. However, Ms. Salinger's training at Harvard's Divinity School helps her see the problems with her father's shifting belief in different gurus and religious ideas. Her experience as a critical reader and as his daughter help her argue that her father's "special blend of 'Christianized' Eastern mysticism" depends on "a demonization of womanhood and a sacrifice of childhood."

Readers are told of J.D. Salinger's desire to see the innocent girl instead of the woman in his wives, girlfriends, and daughter. Ms. Salinger asserts that her father neglected the needs of her mother (Claire Douglas) and his children in order to write. She learns not to accept the author's merging of aesthetic and theologic values as a justification for their isolation – she does not think his art explains his harshness and blindness to the needs of his family. Ultimately, Ms. Salinger cannot accept her father's way of seeing the world because she thinks his vision of enlightenment is elitist and exclusionary, and because she does not believe he has really cared for young people in the ways readers of his fiction would like to imagine.

J.D. Salinger, Ms. Salinger concludes, "is not going to be your catcher in real life. Get what you can from his writing, his stories, but the author himself will not appear out of nowhere to catch those kids if they get too close to that crazy cliff."

There are obvious problems when a memoir also offers critical work on a major author, and when a daughter puts her father's work in direct contrast with his life, there is a visceral mix of subjectivity and history that most critics will attempt to avoid. Dream Catcher doesn't exactly avoid this problem, but in typical Salinger fashion, the familiarity and honesty of the text's writing voice guides readers through emotional conflicts most admirably. However, the one literary point that Margaret Salinger fails to make convincingly happens when she attempts to connect some of the defeat and death in Salinger's characters to her father. To do this, she omits real consideration of Esme' and the fact that one of Salinger's best characters in one of his best stories manages to heal a psychologically wounded soldier, offers generous help to strangers and her brother, and survives orphanhood to find love and marry. The irony here is that Margaret Salinger may have written Dream Catcher in the impossible hope that like Esme', her strange offering could heal her father. As of this date though, he hasn't contacted her in over a year.

One of the best sources Ms. Salinger taps is her aunt, Doris Salinger, who believes that the reason her brother hasn't published anything since 1965 is simply that he can't stand criticism. She laments the fact that she will die before seeing the book her brother has been working in all these years, as well as the fact that her own brother did not rush to her side when she had a heart attack because it would interfere with his work. Isn't this exactly the problem one can imagine as life with a great author? Few people are what they are on the page. It's doubtful Christ could live up to his image, and it's clear that Salinger's fictional image as a man quite sensitive to young people and holiness had human problems. As Holden would say, "People are always ruining things for you." However, despite the sad insights to the truth of Salinger's failed fatherhood, it would be wrong to let his fiction fail as well, and that is part of the beauty of Dream Catcher. Margaret Salinger uses her research and literary analysis to enhance understanding of Salinger's fiction. Certainly some fans will be turned off and others will ignore Margaret Salinger's text altogether, but her analysis of Salinger's cosmology and her emphasis on his early stories clearly enhance the body of Salinger criticism once termed "The Salinger Industry" by George Steiner.

Is Salinger going to leave behind a life of writing that goes beyond his presently published work? There's enough evidence in Dream Catcher to believe Ms. Salinger's claim that her father has been busy all these years "writing his heart out," as well as evidence that the love in his life is more likely to be understood on the page than in the flesh. Until the father's later writing is published though, readers can at least use his daughter's memoir to bring interesting biographical insights and new critical realities to the fiction of J.D. Salinger.

Publication Information: Hochman, William. (2000). [Review of the book Dream Catcher: A Memoir]. Academic.Writing. http://wac.colostate.edu/aw/reviews/salinger_2000.htm
Publication Date: October 5, 2000


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Will Hochman's Email: hochman@southernct.edu

Copyright © 2000 William Hochman. Used with permission.