For this reader, the great achievement of Slawenski's biography is its evocation of the horror of Salinger's wartime experience. Despite Salinger's reticence, Slawenski admirably retraces his movements and recreates the savage battles, the grueling marches and frozen bivouacs of Salinger's war. It's hard to think of an American writer who had more combat experience.
The New York Times Book Review
After nearly a decade’s research and Slawenski’s obvious empathy with his reclusive subject’s search for emotional and philosophical equilibrium, this exemplary biography will be released on the first anniversary of J.D. Salinger’s death. It’s a highly informative effort to assess the arc of Salinger’s career, the themes of his fiction, and his influence on 20th-century American literature. Born in 1919, indulged by his mother while growing up on Park Avenue, Salinger was a bored and indifferent student. He eventually found a mentor in legendary Columbia professor Whit Burnett, who encouraged him to work on the pieces that became The Catcher in the Rye even while Salinger was serving in WWII Europe. Slawenski emphasizes that Salinger’s wartime experience, from D-Day to the liberation of Dachau, “was the traumatic turning point in his life,” influencing the sense of futility that permeates his early work. Salinger’s salvation, Slawenski demonstrates, came through his acceptance of Vedatic Buddhism, and he argues persuasively that Salinger came to consider writing an aspect of meditation, a task that demanded solitude and perfect control over the presentation of his fiction. The celebrity surrounding the publication of Catcher in the Rye in 1951 activated the split between his striving for asceticism and the demands of the outside world. Slawenski describes Salinger’s three marriages, records his contentious relationships with his publishers, his special relationship with the New Yorker, and Slawenski’s assiduous research allows him to identify and assess many obscure and unpublished stories. In total, an invaluable work that sheds fascinating light on the willfully elusive author. B&w photos. (Jan. 25)
Slawenski sets about his task with such unblushing love and zest that his book is as irresistible to me as Salinger himself. . . . Slawenski has a priceless humility and a sympathy with his subject which is unstinting though not unqualified. As a result, I think you get from him a rather better idea of what Salinger was really like and why he lived his life as he did than you might from a biography which is licensed to describe itself as 'scholarly' or 'authorised.' . . . If you can imagine Salinger having a soft spot for any book about him . . . then Slawenski's might be the one.
A welcome trove of information. Partly through exhaustive biographical research (especially into the early years) and partly through porings over almost unknown, uncollected stories, Slawenski enthrallingly illuminates what turned Salinger into an extraordinary literary phenomenon.
A first-rate book which is especially good on the links between Salinger's fictions and their thematic developments . . . The passages on Salinger's own war show that Slawenski can be an excellent storyteller himself, as he follows his subject through the thick of the horrors from D-Day to the Battle of the Bulge.
Diligent, respectful, resolute in its refusal to include gossip, always ready to acknowledge the point at which evidence ends and speculation begins.
“Startling . . . insightful . . . [a] terrific literary biography.”—USA Today
“It is unlikely that any author will do a better job than Mr. Slawenski capturing the glory of Salinger’s life.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Slawenski fills in a great deal and connects the dots assiduously; it’s unlikely that any future writer will uncover much more about Salinger than he has done.”—Boston Sunday Globe
“Offers perhaps the best chance we have to get behind the myth and find the man.”—Newsday
“[Slawenski has] greatly fleshed out and pinned down an elusive story with precision and grace.”—Chicago Sun-Times
“Earnest, sympathetic and perceptive . . . [Slawenski] does an evocative job of tracing the evolution of Salinger’s work and thinking.”—The New York Times
“A first-rate book which is especially good on the links between Salinger’s fictions and their thematic developments . . . The passages on Salinger’s own war show that Slawenski can be an excellent storyteller himself, as he follows his subject through the thick of the horrors from D-Day to the Battle of the Bulge.”—The Daily Telegraph
“A welcome trove of information. Partly through exhaustive biographical research (especially into the early years) and partly through porings over almost unknown, uncollected stories, Slawenski enthrallingly illuminates what turned Salinger into an extraordinary literary phenomenon.”—The Sunday Times
“Slawenski sets about his task with such unblushing love and zest that his book is as irresistible to me as Salinger himself. . . . Slawenski has a priceless humility and a sympathy with his subject which is unstinting though not unqualified. As a result, I think you get from him a rather better idea of what Salinger was really like and why he lived his life as he did than you might from a biography which is licensed to describe itself as ‘scholarly’ or ‘authorised.’ . . . If you can imagine Salinger having a soft spot for any book about him . . . then Slawenski’s might be the one.”—The Spectator
“Diligent, respectful, resolute in its refusal to include gossip, always ready to acknowledge the point at which evidence ends and speculation begins.”—The Mail on Sunday
Slawenski, creator of DeadCaulfields.com, a site devoted to J.D. Salinger, has blended a critical mass of Salinger fact and fable in this tendentious biography. Previous biographies, e.g., Paul Alexander's Salinger and Ian Hamilton's In Search of J.D. Salinger, are descriptive chronicles of Salinger's "writing life" rather than full-flesh biographies. The reclusive, uncooperative Salinger had legally prohibited direct quotation from archival letters and impeded biographers' access to close friends and family. Slawenski, comparably hindered, concentrates here on Salinger's early years—his education at Valley Forge Military Academy, Ursinus College, and Columbia University; war service (Counter Intelligence Corps); first marriage; and youthful short stories. Commendably, Slawenski discloses and describes several short stories that are now lost. Since Salinger's reclusive years (1965–2010) offer scant biographical detail, the latter part of Slawenski's book contains long summaries of the author's stories, accounts of his litigations, and media reactions to Salinger's death. VERDICT The text lacks grammatical and stylistic polish, many factual statements are without source, and letters are cited without reference to a collection or archive. In spite of these flaws, Salinger enthusiasts will want to read this, so libraries should certainly purchase.—Lonnie Weatherby, McGill Univ. Lib., Montreal
Impressively researched, sympathetic critical biography of one of the 20th century's most perplexing fiction authors.
Jerome David Salinger (1919–2010) built his literary reputation in the 1950s and '60s on a string of short stories and a novel,The Catcher in the Rye (1951), which artfully explored youthful precocity, social alienation and religious epiphany. Yet at the height of his fame, Salinger decided to escape the spotlight. After his story "Hapworth 16, 1924," was published in the New Yorker in 1965, he maintained almost total public silence until his death. Consequently, Salinger acquired a second reputation as an infamously eccentric recluse, but Slawenski's biography shows how the author's seclusion naturally flowed out of his personal experience and metaphysical anxiety. Born to a well-off New York family, Salinger harbored literary ambitions from an early age, and though he aspired to the high-art pinnacle of theNew Yorker, his early work mostly emerged in little magazines like Storyor "slicks" likeCollier's and The Saturday Evening Post. Manhandling of his manuscripts by editors made Salinger skeptical about the publishing industry; a brutalizing Army experience during World War II, where he took part in the D-Day invasion, made him obsessive about the nature of man and God. Classic stories such as "For Esmé—With Love and Squalor" were the product of a writer unsure of how to make his way in the world, and Slawenski patiently tracks how Salinger's growing interest in Eastern religion meshed with an increased fastidiousness about his writing. That's a recipe for a reclusive author, though fewer than 50 pages of the book deal with Salinger's half-century of seclusion, dwelling little on the gossipy details that emerged in memoirs such as those by his one-time lover Joyce Maynard. In Slawenski's reckoning, Salinger died not a cloistered misanthrope but a defiantly monklike soul—a writer so obsessed with perfecting his vision of the world that he had to abandon it to get the story right.
Slawenski, the creator of deadcaulfields.com, is an admirer, but this is no fanboy biography; his close study of Salinger's roots admirably redirects attention to his writing and thought instead of his self-imposed exile.