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Reviewed by:
Ian Hamilton. In Search of J. D. Salinger. New York: Random, 1988. 222 pp. $17.95.

Ian Hamilton's study purports to "penetrate the mystery" of Salinger and generally to explore the biographer's task. Unfortunately, Hamilton becomes increasingly hostile to Salinger for making the biographer's job difficult, and his hostility is unwarranted. Although the book increases readers' knowledge about Salinger, most revealing is its (unintentional) affirmation of the vigilance with which writers such as Salinger, Pynchon, and Beckett protect themselves against critics who believe themselves—literary 007s—licensed to intrude.

Hamilton occasionally considers the immortality of his enterprise, but he dismisses the matter as a particularly American (Hamilton is Brirish) trivialization of ethical thought. He quotes unnamed literary friends who are both defensive of Salinger's privacy and eager to know his secrets—as though such hearsay were "evidence" that criticisms of his biography will spring from mere American hypocrisy. His contextualization of this hypocripsy represents his general manner of hit-and-run analysis: "Freedom of information versus invasion of privacy: a quarrel within the American psyche that Watergate had simply tugged into the open." He does not know what Watergate revealed the ways in which self-interest poses as ethical responsibility. But he should know. After teasing himself with all his moral choices, he realizes that he must write the book whether or not such a book should be written: "it was hard for me to be certain what I felt. I had already accepted a commission for this book. I'd been paid (and I'd already spent) a fair amount of the money." Hmm. [End Page 299]

Hamilton attempts to charm readers with his candid presentation of literary realpolitik, but his "heroic biographer" never convinces. For example, Hamilton invents an imaginary side-kick with whom to discuss strategy, a Watson to his Holmes. This side-kick is to demonstrate to readers that Hamilton is a member of a community, in stark contrast to the neurotic, isolated, antagonistic "quarry," J. D. Salinger. The supposedly adventurous biographer cannot stand alone and instead frequendy invents anonymous consenting literati to approve his judgments.

If one reads In Search of J. D. Salinger for gossip, one is somewhat dissatisfied to find that Hamilton has discovered very little, and what he has found comes in most questionable form; but if one reads the book critically, if one studies Hamilton's strategies for seducing readers into his supposedly healthful community—then one is positively offended at the crudity of his justifications, as, for example, his attempt to republish material from the Time Magazine files on Salinger as though to show how intrusive they were. The biographer becomes like Rupert Pupkin, De Niro's self-confident madman in The King of Comedy. As Hamilton plays out his "blame the victim" strategy (Salinger appeared in court to defend his privacy and is therefore a public figure), many readers will instead sympathize with the writer who has been forced into public view against his will.

John Whalen-Bridge
University of Southern California


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pp. 299-300
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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