J. D. Salinger: A Life

“Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you havecreated a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created—nothing,”F. Scott Fitzgerald famously observed. “That is because we are all queerfish, queerer behind our faces and voices than we want any one to know or thanwe know ourselves…. When I hear a man proclaiming himself an ‘average, honest,open fellow,’ I feel pretty sure that he has some definite and perhaps terribleabnormality which he has agreed to conceal.”

No one has accused J. D. Salinger, a Fitzgerald admirer who once described TheGreat Gatsby as the Tom Sawyer of his youth, of being “average.” Andthough he produced, in Holden Caulfield, the most identified-with literarycharacter in 20th-century literature, he was as far from open as humanly possible for a writer of hisfame. In J. D. Salinger: A Life, Kenneth Slawenski has taken it upon himself tountangle some of the mysteries surrounding the notoriously reclusive author’slife. The founder of the website DeadCaulfields.com, Slawenski clearly intendsthe tome, seven years in the making, as an act of devotion. To his credit, hesidesteps—for the most part—the temptation to hagiography.

But he’s handicapped by a tin ear, and a prose style so encumbered by a desireto be faithful to the spirit of his literary hero that it borders onself-parody. Slawenski introduces the birth of young Jerome rather in the styleof a book like Jim Bishop’s The Day Lincoln Was Shot. “The Great War had changed everything,”he informs. “As 1919 dawned, people awoke to a fresh new world, one filledwith promise but uncertainty.” Check.

As has been widely noted, Salinger’s inescapably contagious vernacular voice influenced everything that was to followfromPhilip Roth to the movies of Wes Anderson. The publication of The Catcher InThe Rye in 1951 marked a departure from justly celebratedantecedents like Huckleberry Finn because of the author’s ability to get directlyinside your head, with what Seymour Glass once mockingly described as “aGood Ear for the Rhythms and Cadences of Colloquial Speech.”  No oneelse really comes close to Salinger’s extravagant gifts in conveying the addictivesense that he (and he alone) really understood not only the pain ofconsciousness, but the importance of addressing that pain in earnest—thoughcountless imitators have certainly tried. As Sherwood Anderson, another writer Salinger admired, ironically notedabout his one-time “friend” Hemingway in The Autobiography ofAlice B. Toklas, “it is soflattering to have a pupil who does it without understanding it.”

That Salinger’s Boswell so clearlylacks his subject’s gift to communicate in compelling, first-person prose, isbeyond irony. But despite the infelicities of Slawenski’s style, hisprodigiously researched volume gives us the fullest account to date of thecomplicated forces at work in Salinger’s life, and work. The most illuminatingsection is his rendition of Salinger’s experiences as a member of the CounterIntelligence Corps with the 4th InfantryDivision in World War II.  During the D-Day invasion, Salinger’s landingcraft landed at a safe remove from the carnage, but he was less fortunate in hisnext post, an outnumbered firefight in the French village of Emondeville.

A horrific battle in the Hurtgen Forest, on the German border between Belgiumand Luxembourg, ensued. “Men froze to death in their foxholes or lostlimbs to frostbite.” Slawenski suggests the conflict was both futile andavoidable, citing military historians who point to Hurtgen as “a militaryfailure and a waste of human life.” For Salinger, this experience may havebeen a turning point: Slawenski sees it as a moment of suffering “essentialto understanding the depth of his later works.”

Though in many places Slawenski’s conclusions are questionably based on howSalinger “must have” felt, his account of the effects of combat onthe sensitive young author is well founded. Though Salinger made it a point ofhonor to avoid cheapening his wartime experience by turning it into fictionalfodder (with the exception of “sergeant X” in “For Esmé, WithLove and Squalor”), the war shaped him, and shamed him out of convenientyouthful cynicism. That makes his pivot in subject matter, away from hiswartime travails, a particularly astonishing feat. Compared to Catcher,or even Franny and Zooey, the “great” war novels of Salinger’sera—The Naked And The Dead, From Here To Eternity, The Young Lions—now seem like artifacts of a bygone time.

J. D. Salinger: A Life shrewdly traces Salinger’s ambitious course,piloting his career with the help of early mentors like Whit Burnett, from theslick magazines of his time, including the Saturday Evening Post and Collier‘s,until landing the big fish he’d wanted all along—The New Yorker. Then,as now, the magazine could make an author’s reputation, as the canny rebel wellunderstood.

He was fortunate in his choice of allies, notably William Shawn, who bravedstaffers’ enmity by offering perhaps the most invaluable service an editor canprovide—protecting an author’s work from those who would “improve” it—bypublishing Franny and Zooey and then Raise High the Roof Beam,Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction under his direct aegis. But Shawn’s decision todouble down, with the 1965 publication of Hapworth 16, 1924, an endlessletter from summer camp written by the seven-year-old Seymour Glass was a majordisservice. “Professionally, it was a disaster,” Slawenski notes.After Hapworth, Salinger never wrote for publication again.

As he charts his subject’s career,Slawenski also provides a sympathetic understanding of the author’s most famousprotagonist. In a close reading of the denouement of Holden Caulfield’s lostManhattan weekend, he observes: “He does not enter adulthood because hehas been beaten into submission by the world around him or by seeing the virtueof maturity. He becomes an adult because that is what his sister needs.”

The author is least successful in his account of Salinger’s spiritualpreoccupations. “After The Catcher in the Rye… he devoted himselfto crafting fiction embedded in religion,” he writes. “Salinger’swork was his prayer; the two had been indistinguishable for years.” Headds, more troublingly: “The final arbiter of Seymour was not TheNew Yorker, the critics, or even readers. It was God Himself.”

While the arbiter in question is unavailable for comment, one is left with thesinking feeling that the isolated, increasingly cranky author simply gave up: theFat Lady, sadly, stopped singing.

But the Salinger Industry grinds on. The Private War of J. D. Salinger,a documentary from screenwriter Shane Salerno with a “companion book”co-written with David Means, is currently in the works. What would Holden makeof it? Only God Himself may know.

Paul Wilner is a writer andeditor whose work has appeared in the SanFrancisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, New York Times Arts & Leisuresection, the Monterey County Weeklyand the online magazine obit-mag.com, among other publications.