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J.D. Salinger was one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers. He was also one of its most elusive. After making his mark on the American literary scene, Salinger retreated to a small town in New Hampshire where he hoped to hide his life away from the world. With dogged determination, however, journalist and biographer Paul Alexander captured Salinger’s story in this, the only complete biography of Holden Caulfield’s creator published to date. Using the archives at Princeton, Yale, ...
J.D. Salinger was one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers. He was also one of its most elusive. After making his mark on the American literary scene, Salinger retreated to a small town in New Hampshire where he hoped to hide his life away from the world. With dogged determination, however, journalist and biographer Paul Alexander captured Salinger’s story in this, the only complete biography of Holden Caulfield’s creator published to date. Using the archives at Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Columbia, NYU and the New York Public Library as well as research in New York and New Hampshire, Alexander has created a great biography of Salinger that’s further enriched by interviews with some of the greatest literary figures of our time: George Plimpton, Gay Talese, Ian Hamilton, Harold Bloom, Roger Angell, A. Scott Berg, Robert Giroux, Ved Mehta, Gordon Lish and Tom Wolfe.
"Alexander has drawn an eerie portrait of an increasingly eccentric writer whose attempts to maintain his privacy [are] actually...a manipulative way of promoting himself and his books." —Library Journal
"Alexander documents, among other things, Salinger's nervous breakdown after World War II; his hatred of New York publishers; his hatred of Hollywood; and his ugly divorce from Clair Douglas." —Liz Smith
"For hardcore fans, this biography is a must." —Toronto Sun
'It is safe to say that Alexander will not be making any friends among the faithful by bringing us even closer to a man who wants to be known only as the creator of Holden Caulfield." —New York Magazine
"Alexander's volume is a major publishing event...A skilled investigative reporter, journalist, and biographer. Alexander surveyed numerous archives...to get his 'story'...Strongly recommended." —Choice
If Salinger was so consumed with the subject of youth, what was his own youth like? Was there something about it that made him unable to leave it behind?
On January 1, 1919, in the Nursery and Child's Hospital on West Sixty-first Street in New York City, Jerome David Salinger was born to parents who, because of who they were and the heritages they came from, created in him a sense of conflict about himself that was present from the very beginning of his life. His father, Sol Salinger, had been born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1888; he was not only a Jew but the son of a rabbi -- a rabbi who became a doctor. One family member later stated: "[Sol's father, Simon,] was a rabbi with a congregation in Louisville, Kentucky. But though he had a wife and five children, he had wanted to become a medical doctor. He sought and received permission from his congregation to enroll in night courses in medical school while retaining his pulpit; it took many years, but he ultimately achieved his goal, gave up the rabbinate, and practiced medicine for the balance of a long and productive lifetime."
As a young man, Sol lived in Chicago and worked at a company called J. S. Hoffman, an importer of European cheeses and meats that made and sold products under the names Hofco Family Swiss Cuts and Hofco Baby Goudas. Though he may not have been a practicing Jew, religion became a problem when he met the woman he would marry— Marie Jillich. Marie's family came from Scotland and Ireland and Marie was Christian. There is every reason to believe that the Salingers did not approve of the marriage for that reason. As a result, not long before the wedding, Marie made the most fundamental— and telling — move she could make to appease her future in-laws. She changed her name from the Catholic-sounding Marie, to the Jewish-sounding Miriam. It was a dramatic gesture, yet afterward there is no evidence that Miriam either studied or practiced Judaism.
Perhaps the Salingers' ambivalence about Miriam was still in evidence in 1912, even after Sol and Miriam had had their first child (a daughter, Doris, was born in 1911) or perhaps Sol was simply longing for a city where he could have greater financial opportunity. Whatever the reason, during 1912 Sol and Miriam moved themselves and their baby daughter from Chicago to New York. There, Sol became the general manager of J. S. Hoffman's New York operation. Jerome Schuman, a colleague, later remembered Sol: "[He] was an excellent businessman and a very good general manager. He ran a tight ship but at times he was dominated by the chairman and president of the corporation, Harry Hoffman in Chicago, who often used Sol as a whipping boy. Nevertheless, he was markedly successful in his operation. He was also an excellent public speaker. Considering that he probably had a limited education, he was extremely articulate and used the English language well. He was intelligent and dynamic."
By 1919, the year the Salingers had their second child, Jerome David, whom they nicknamed Sonny, Sol was doing well enough that he moved his family from their apartment at 3681 Broadway in northern Harlem to an attractive, upscale building on the corner of 113 Street and Riverside Drive in the neighborhood where Columbia University is located. Then, between 1919 and 1928, the Salingers moved three more times before they ended up in a pleasant apartment on West Eighty-second Street. It was here they would live for the next four years. During those years, Sonny was described by observers outside his family as "solemn" and "polite" and more than willing to take long walks by himself. As for school, he attended a public grammar school, where one year it was determined he had an IQ of 104, a number which tended to indicate that Sonny had little more than average intelligence. His grades also suggested that Salinger was mediocre. He made mostly B's the year his IQ was tested, except in arithmetic, a subject in which he did much worse. In fact, that year the only area of his schooling in which he performed worse than arithmetic was deportment, which was assessed by his teachers as "poor."
While he was growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan during the 1920s, Sonny was in many ways an average boy— not at all like the sometimes troubled teenager he would soon become, when he started to resemble characters he would later create as an adult, characters such as Holden Caulfield. In his younger years, Sonny had a stable family life and was, according to family friends, unusually close to his mother, who loved her children, but who was also, to quote a family acquaintance, "overshadowed by Mr. Salinger."
During the summer, as many city children did, Sonny went to camp. In the summer of 1930, he attend Camp Wigwam in Harrison, Maine. At age eleven, he was good at tennis and adept at making friends, but one development that took place at Camp Wigwam gave some indication as to the interests he would foster in the coming years. Based on the work he had done in the camp's dramatic production, Sonny was voted Camp Wigwam's "most popular actor" of 1930.
Up to this point Sonny had lived a decidedly ordinary life in New York City. "As a boy," William Maxwell later wrote in an essay that dealt in part with Salinger's youth, "Salinger played on the steps of public buildings that a non-native would recognize immediately and that he never knew the names of." Macy's and Gimbel's, Maxwell continued, were "apotheosized" landmarks to the young Salinger — as they were to many New Yorkers. Sol moved his family to Park Avenue— another kind of landmark— in the fall of 1932. Specifically, he selected a spacious apartment at 1133 Park Avenue, a handsome building on the corner of Ninety-first Street. But this move, the last the Salingers made while Sonny was growing up, had special meaning, since it suggested to Sol, and no doubt to Miriam and Sol's families, that Sol had truly made it in the business world. Before, the Salingers had lived on the Upper West Side. Not as bohemian as Greenwich Village, not as grungy as Hell's Kitchen, the Upper West Side attracted actors, writers, intellectuals, artists, and the like, of different races and backgrounds. It also had a large Jewish population, making the Upper West Side more liberal than many parts of the city. Lively and varied, the neighborhood was not, however, an "appropriate" place to live if one had social aspirations.
For that, one chose the Upper East Side, which connoted status and wealth. As if to reinforce his desire to live a life of social rank, Sol purchased an expensive car, which the family used to drive around the city, and decided to take Sonny, then thirteen, out of public school and enroll him in an expensive private school—another mainstay of the Upper East Side elite. So Sol, the rabbi's son who had defied his father and married a Christian, had made it. In his business he had become such a success that he now lived on one of the most famous and exclusive streets in the world. Interestingly, that street was located in a neighborhood not known for having a significant Jewish population. If Sol seemed to be rejecting his Jewishness by dating and then marrying a Christian, he was certainly abandoning it by passing over other sections of New York to live in a neighborhood synonymous with WASPs and money— Park Avenue on the Upper East Side. Without question, Sol passed his values and preferences on to his son, who years later would choose not to write about the world of the immigrant Jew and his descendants, but instead the world of the Upper East Side WASP -- the very world Sol Salinger had embraced so completely.
In the end, the relationship between the father and the son was complicated, partly because of the kind of person Sol was. "Sol's personality was very complex," Jerome Schuman would later write. "I believe he covered over an inferiority complex with an aura of supreme self-confidence. He was highly intelligent, extremely well organized, and had a good sense of humor. He was a man who achieved and accomplished a lot." However, of all the areas of his life in which he attained so much, there was one in which he did not achieve even a qualified success: the way he got along with his son. "The relationship of Sol Salinger and his son was one where the father exhibited great pride in the accomplishments of the son, but the relationship could not be described as a warm family relationship."
Excerpted by permission of Renaissance Books. Copyright c 1999 by Paul Alexander.
Posted April 24, 2001
I read this book to help me with a research project on Salinger's reclusive lifestyle. Overall, the book is doomed from the beginning. Alexander's interpretations of Salinger's stories are far-fetched and a bit skewed. The only decent thing about this book is that it collects all the various stories about Salinger's run-ins with admirers and reporters in one place. On the whole, the book was somewhat disappointing and I expected as much. It is tough to write a biography on a man who is so wrapped up in his own reclusive lifestyle.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 29, 2001