J. D. Salinger: A Life

J. D. Salinger: A Life

by Kenneth Slawenski


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812982596
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/03/2012
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 189,137
Product dimensions: 5.56(w) x 8.52(h) x 1.01(d)

About the Author

Kenneth Slawenski is the creator of DeadCaulfields.com, a website founded in 2004 and recommended by The New York Times. He has been working on this biography for eight years. Slawenski was born in New Jersey, and has lived there all his life.

From the Hardcover edition.

Read an Excerpt

1. Sonny

The Great War had changed everything. As 1919 dawned, people awoke to a fresh new world, one filled with promise but uncertainty. Old ways of life, beliefs and assumptions unchallenged for decades, were now called into question or swept away. The guns had fallen silent only weeks before. The Old World now lay in ruins. In its place stood a new nation poised to assume the mantle of leadership. No place in that land was more anxious or more ready than the city of New York.

It was the first day of the first year of peace when Miriam Jillich Salinger gave birth to a son. His sister, Doris, had been born six years before. In the years since Doris’s birth, Miriam had suffered a series of miscarriages.

This child too was almost lost. So it was with a mixture of joy and relief that Miriam and Solomon Salinger welcomed their son into the world. They named him Jerome David, but from the very first day, they called him Sonny.

Sonny was born into a middle-class Jewish family that was both unconventional and ambitious. The Salinger line reached back to the ?village of Sudargas, a tiny Jewish settlement (shtetl) situated on the Polish-Lithuanian border of the Russian Empire, a village where, rec?ords show, the family had lived at least since 1831. But the Salingers were not given to tradition or nostalgia. By the time Sonny was born, their link to that world had nearly evaporated. Sonny’s father was robust and motivated, determined to go his own way in life. Typical of the sons of immigrants, he had resolved to free himself of any connection with the world of his parents’ birth, a place he considered backward. Unknown to Solomon at the time, his rebellion was actually a family tradition. The Salingers had gone their own way for generations, seldom looking back and growing increasingly prosperous with each step. As Sonny would one day reflect, his ancestors had an amazing penchant “for diving from immense heights into small containers of water”—and hitting their mark every time.1

Hyman Joseph Salinger, Sonny’s great-grandfather, had moved from Sudargas to the more prosperous town of Taurage in order to marry into a prominent family. Through his writings, J. D. Salinger later immortalized his great-grandfather as the clown Zozo, honor- ing him as the family patriarch and confiding that he felt his great-?grandfather’s spirit always watched over him. Hyman Joseph remained in Russia all his life and died nine years before the birth of his great-grandson. Salinger knew of him only through a photograph, an image that offered a glimpse into another world. It depicted an elderly peasant brimming with nobility, erect in his long black gown and flowing white beard, and sporting a tremendous nose—a feature that Salinger confessed made him shudder with apprehension.2

Sonny’s grandfather Simon F. Salinger was also ambitious. In 1881, a year of famine (though not in Taurage itself), he left home and family and immigrated to the United States. Soon after arriving in America, Simon married Fannie Copland, also a Lithuanian immigrant, at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The couple then moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where they found an apartment in one of the city’s many immigrant neighborhoods and where, on March 16, 1887, Fannie gave birth to Sonny’s father, Solomon, the second of five surviving children.3

By 1893, the Salingers were living in Louisville, Kentucky, where Simon attended medical school. His religious training in Russia served him well, enabling him to practice as a rabbi in order to finance his education.4 Upon obtaining his medical degree, Simon left the pulpit and, after a brief return to Pennsylvania, moved the family to its final destination in the center of Chicago, where he set up a general practice not far from Cook County Hospital.5 Sonny knew his grandfather well, as do readers of The Catcher in the Rye. Dr. Salinger often traveled to New York to visit his son and was the basis of Holden Caulfield’s grandfather, the endearing man who would embarrass Holden by read?ing all the street signs aloud while riding on the bus. Simon Salinger died in 1960, just short of his hundredth birthday.


In the opening lines of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield refuses to share his parents’ past with the reader, deriding any recount of “how they were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” “My parents,” he explains, “would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.” This apparent elusiveness on the part of Holden’s parents was imported directly from the attitudes of Salinger’s own mother and father. Sol and Miriam rarely spoke of past events, especially to their children, and their attitude created an air of secrecy that permeated the Salinger household and caused Doris and Sonny to grow into intensely private people.

The Salingers’ insistence upon privacy also led to rumors. Over the years, Miriam and Sol’s story has been repeatedly embellished. This began in 1963, when the literary critic Warren French repeated a claim in a Life magazine article that Miriam had been Scotch-Irish. In time, the term “Scotch-Irish” transformed itself into the assertion that Salinger’s mother had actually been born in County Cork, Ireland. This led in turn to what is perhaps the most commonly repeated story told about Salinger’s mother and father: that Miriam’s parents, supposedly Irish Catholic, were so adamantly opposed to her marriage to Sol, because he was Jewish, that they gave the couple little choice but to elope. And, upon learning of their daughter’s defiance, they never spoke a word to her again.

None of this has any basis in fact, yet by the time of her death in 2001, even Salinger’s sister, Doris, had been persuaded that her mother had been born in Ireland and that she and Sonny had been purposely denied a relationship with their grandparents.

The circumstances surrounding Miriam’s family and her marriage to Sol were quite painful enough without embroidery through rumor. However, Salinger’s parents exacerbated that pain by attempting to conceal their past from their children. In doing so, they not only invited fictitious versions of their history but confused their children too. By attempting to restrain Doris’s and Sonny’s natural curiosity, Miriam and Sol actually gave credence to a fabricated past that remained with them all their lives.

Sonny’s mother was born Marie Jillich on May 11, 1891, in the small midwestern town of Atlantic, Iowa.6 Her parents, Nellie and George Lester Jillich, Jr., were twenty and twenty-four, respectively, at the time of her birth, and records show that she was the second of six surviving children.7 Marie’s grandparents George Lester Jillich, Sr., and Mary Jane Bennett had been the first Jillichs to settle in Iowa. The grandson of German immigrants, George, Sr., had moved from Mas?sachusetts to Ohio, where he met and married his wife. He served briefly with the 192nd Ohio Regiment during the Civil War, and after he returned home in 1865, Mary Jane gave birth to Marie’s father. George, Sr., eventually established himself as a successful grain merchant and by 1891 was in firm position as head of the Jillich clan, with his sons George, Jr., and Frank following him into the trade.

Although Marie later maintained that her mother, Nellie McMahon, had been born in Kansas City in 1871, the daughter of Irish immigrants, four sets of federal census records (1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930) suggest that she is more likely to have come from Iowa. Family tradition has it that Marie met Solomon early in 1910 at a county fair near the Jillich family farm (an unlikely location since no such farm existed). The manager of a Chicago movie theater, Solomon, who was called “Sollie” by his family and “Sol” by his friends, was six feet tall with a whiff of big-city sophistication. Just seventeen, Marie was an arresting beauty, with fair skin and long red hair that contrasted with Sol’s olive complexion. Their romance was immediate and intense, and Sol was determined to marry Marie from the start.

A rapid series of events, some of them heartbreaking, would occur that year, culminating in Marie’s marriage to Sol in the spring of 1910. While the Salingers had steadily improved their position since Simon’s arrival, the Jillichs had suddenly encountered difficulties. Marie’s father had died the previous year.8 Unable to keep the family afloat, her mother had taken the youngest of the children and relocated to Michigan, where she later remarried. Marie did not move with her mother, because of her age and her relationship with Sol. Her swift romance and marriage to Solomon therefore proved to be providential, especially when, by the time of Sonny’s birth in 1919, her mother, Nellie, had also died.9 The loss of both parents was possibly enough to make Marie reluctant to discuss them even with her own children. Rather than cling to the past, she devoted herself completely to a new life with her new husband. Left with only the Salingers now as family, she sought their acceptance by embracing Judaism and changing her name to Miriam, after the sister of Moses.

Simon and Fannie thought that Marie, with her milky-fair skin and auburn hair, looked like “a little Irisher.”10 In a city with thousands of eligible Jewish girls, they never dreamed that Sollie would bring home a red-haired Gentile from Iowa, but they accepted Miriam as their new daughter-in-law, and she soon moved into their Chicago home.

Miriam joined Sol working at the movie theater, where she sold tickets and concessions. Despite their efforts, the theater was unsuccessful and was forced to close, sending the new bridegroom in search of employment. He soon found a position working for J. S. Hoffman & Company, an importer of European cheeses and meats that went by the brand name Hofco. After the disappointment with the theater, Sol swore never to fail at business again and applied himself to his new company duties with devotion. This dedication paid off, and after Doris’s birth in December 1912, he was promoted to general manager of Hoffman’s New York division, becoming, as he coolly declared, “the manager of a cheese factory.”

Sol’s new position required the Salingers to move to New York City, where they settled into a comfortable apartment at 500 West 113th Street, close to Columbia University and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Although Sol was now in the business of vending a series of hams—distinctly the most unkosher of foods—along with his cheeses, he had managed to continue the Salinger custom of advancing beyond the previous generation, an accomplishment of which he was extraordinarily proud. But business became his life, and by the time of his thirtieth birthday in 1917, his hair had gone completely “iron grey.”12


Until he was thirteen, Sonny attended public school on the Upper West Side. This is a class photo of Salinger and his schoolmates on the steps of P.S. 166, circa 1929.

The 1920s were years of unparalleled prosperity, and no place shone brighter than New York City. It was the economic, cultural, and intellectual capital of the Americas, perhaps even of the world. Its values were beamed across the continent through radio and absorbed by millions through publications. Its streets held sway over the economic vitality of nations, and its advertising and markets determined the desires and tastes of a generation. In this opportune place and time, the Salin?gers thrived.

Between the years of Sonny’s birth in 1919 through to 1928, Sol and Miriam moved the family three times, always to a more affluent Manhattan neighborhood. When Sonny was born, they were living at 3681 Broadway, in an apartment located in North Harlem. Before year’s end, they had moved back to their original New York neighborhood, into a residence at 511 West 113th Street. A more ambitious move came in 1928, when the family rented an apartment just a few blocks from Central Park at 215 West 82nd Street. This home came complete with servants’ quarters, and Sol and Miriam quickly hired a live-in maid, an Englishwoman named Jennie Burnett. Sonny grew up in a world of increasing comfort, insulated by his parents’ indulgence and their growing social status.

From the Hardcover edition.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Slawenski's life of Salinger makes at least speculative sense of a seemingly unknowable story, one that has beguiled readers for more than 50 years. That alone makes his book must reading." —-Booklist Starred Review

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J. D. Salinger 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
Oscar_Newton More than 1 year ago
Since Salinger's death I have been eagerly anticipating a biography that would explore the depths of this extraordinary author's life. Anyone who has read Salinger knows his genius; and anyone with the slightest interest in Salinger knows he lead a fascinating life. What I, and I imagine millions of fans, want to know is where did Salinger's genius come from, and why did he vanish from his adoring public? It was with great enthusiasm that I delved into this book. WHAT AN UTTER DISSAPOINTMENT! Firstly, it is poorly written. While Mr. Slawneski is certainly a fan (and probably fanatic) of Salinger, he clearly is no scholar, or for that matter, writer. After re-reading Slawenski's attempt to lay out the Salinger family tree three times, I gave up. It was as if he was trying to get me lost. However, I could forgive poor writing if the information was new and interesting. It's neither. There's really not much that is new in this book; it seems like the book is a rehashing of the information that's already been told about Salinger. The book utterly lacks any revelatory information. It's a lot of words that go nowhere. I felt like everything in the book came from Wikipedia. So why is the book over 450 pages? Because Slawenski, like the professor in the worst literature course you ever took, explores the minutiae of each of Salinger's works with mind-numbing detail. With as many words as Slawenski used, one would think he would have used some of them to delve into what made Salinger into the author he became. Sadly, Slawenski only regurgitates what we already knew about Salinger and offers no new insight.
AlanFAF More than 1 year ago
Imagine if the president of the J.D. Salinger Fan Club wrote a "biography" of J.D. Salinger. That is what this book is. I was expecting a biography, but this book is Slawenski's love letter to the object of his adoration.
cripbook More than 1 year ago
Excellent review of the life of this remarkable writer. More revelations still to come?
GarySeverance on LibraryThing 7 months ago
Kenneth Slawenski presents life events and artistic productions in a way that is consistent with J. D. Salinger¿s idea that the writer should not get between the work and the reader¿s experience. Slawenski does not attempt to reduce the creativity of the short stories, novellas, and novel by making amateur psychiatric interpretation of the relationship between the author¿s personality and his publications. Slawenski makes connections in time: what Salinger was doing in school, in the Army, and in his social interactions and what he wrote during those times. The biography clearly separates Salinger¿s experiences and memories from his imagination. For example, a short story about war is very different from Salinger¿s specific memories of the battles in Hurtgen Forest, more emotionally powerful and less susceptible to rationality.The increasing spirituality of Salinger described in the book as he developed as a person and an artist is embedded in his stories not explained by them. It is interesting that spirituality and creativity actually increased Salinger¿s reclusiveness leaving what he considered to be almost perfect art as the communication between his readers and himself. Readers could be greatly affected by the art but not the man, his imagination not his personal thoughts and behaviors. When fans and journalists attempted to break through the lines of his work seeking the mystical man behind them, Salinger deliberately disillusioned them about himself and his characters with his final published work, Hapworth 16, 1924.World War II greatly affected Salinger. He came ashore at Normandy on D-Day and served in the deadly battles in Hurtgen Forest embedded with the 4th Infantry Division. Most men in the division died, but Salinger managed to walk out of the combat area with the survivors. The important information here is that Salinger was protected because of his role in the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC). His job was to find, arrest, and interrogate soldiers in his unit who were subversive to the war effort. Also, he was valuable as a CIC sergeant because of his language skills and training in interrogating suspected Nazis living secretly in Division captured areas. He certainly saw mayhem and experienced the constant fear of impending death in the 4th Division, but without the same level of fighting risk as his fellow combat infantrymen. He had the opportunity to observe the emotions and motives of people who were experiencing extreme stress.Slawenski¿s excellent biography indicates that there are personal letters and many pages of personal writing produced after Hapworth that were never meant for publication. As with his acquaintance Ernest Hemingway, perhaps such personal writing will be published and ultimately read by many a suitable period after his death. I read such letters and work of EH and I probably will do the same with the secret writing of JDS.
TimBazzett on LibraryThing 7 months ago
Wow! This bio really grabbed me. I wasn't sure if I'd like it, because I generally prefer memoirs, which are so much more personal. Biographies are often too much the opposite - impersonal, scholarly, cold. But in the absence of a memoir from the always reclusive and now departed Salinger, I found Slawenski's biography to be the next best thing. Because Slawenski made it personal, warm, empathetic. There is certainly no doubt that he has been an avid fan of Salinger for most of his life. And fan-dom runs the obvious risk of getting in the way of effective biography-writing. And I'm not sure even Slawenski himself would argue that his treatment of Salinger is completely objective. Because it's not. The NY Times review of the book called it "reverent," which may be a bit too strong. I'd call it respectful.I know there have been quite a few other biographies and critical studies written on Salinger and his work. Slawenski has probably read all of them, and cites several in his own book. But this is the first real bio of Salinger I've read, and I absolutely loved it, probably because the book comes across as a real labor of love. Whenever a writer is truly passionate about his subject, I think it adds something. I know others have called J.D. SALINGER: A LIFE "hagiography." But Salinger was no saint. I know that. (I've read the Maynard memoir, as well as Peggy Salinger's DREAM CATCHER, a memoir with plenty of unflattering dirt about her famous father.) And so does Slawenski. But his respect for the man and his work come through clearly. Slawenski has said he worked on the book for nearly eight years - while Salinger was still very much alive. Perhaps he was hoping, even if only subconsciously, for some sign of tacit approval from the famous recluse. Considering Salinger's litiginous reactions to previous biographies and books about him, it seems highly unlikely. In any case, Salinger died about the same time Slawenski's book was published.Here are some of the things I really liked about the Slawenski bio. (1) The blow-by-blow accounts of Salinger's early attempts at fiction, as well as the detailed summaries of a couple dozen of the early uncollected stories, as well as mentions of other stories that were apparently lost. (2) The detailed tracing of Salinger's wartime experiences. (3) The astute and careful analyses of the books. CATCHER IN THE RYE I didn't need too much on, but those later ones about the oh-so-precocious Glass children were another matter entirely. I did read those books, but I never claimed to actually "get" what they were all about. Slawenski etrapolates them all and also gives an in-depth look at Salinger's nearly life-long fascination with Easter mysticism and philosophies. Stuff that made him, in the eyes of many, well, weird. I remember a grad school assignment back in 1970 of finding and reading "Hapworth 16, 1924." Well, I really did read the whole thing, but I can't say I liked it, or understood what Salinger was driving at. And I kinda got the impression even Slawenski - devoted fan that he is - was a bit flummoxed by that last work. He commented that even the critics pretty much ignored it when it was first published in The New Yorker. The thing is, I appreciated the way Slawenski did do the research and did explain what Salinger seemed to be saying in all those less-understandable pieces. And (4) he brought me back to Holden Caulfield again. Yes, I reread CATCHER yet again, while I was reading the bio. The two books make great bedfellows. Like millions of other people, I've always loved Holden Caulfield, and I've learned a little more about him - and about myself - every time I read the book, which has been around now, continuously in print, for an amazing sixty years! Liked Slawenski, I first read the book at the age of 14. I'm 67 now and have probably read it at least a half a dozen times since then. It keeps getting better. And that is Salinger's genius. If he had never written another book, his pl
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
He had a high fence between house and gravel road a cellar to cellar walk way between house and garage so no one could see him a normal walk way with high winidows would have done he then built another back in further house is 650 thousand with 12 acres my question is how did he make a living in between with three wives (two exs)? I dont remember anything about the book but read when first came out ir some of it
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
TX-LA-MS-CG_Family More than 1 year ago
I am reading this book now am almost finished.  I have always loved Salinger's writing but I now I know so much more about the symbolism in the works and the author's life.  I was moved to write a review after seeing the negative comments here.  I'm not a lit major but I found this book very well written, entertaining and authoritative.  Now I can't wait to go back and re-read Salinger.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hagiography that is not recommended. By the end of the book the reader is weary of the constant praise of Salinger. Also, be forewarned that every story Salinger ever wrote is tediously reviewed.
9stories More than 1 year ago
Really enjoyed this!
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I liked it, but I'm a lit major, a librarian, and have read everything Salinger wrote. I was in college when Catcher in the Rye and 9 stories were published and I identify with the angst. You need to be deeply involved with Salinger's mindset and have a literary knowledge of his works to appreciate this book. My personal favorite is Seymour, an Introduction and, of the stories, For Esme, which I read in The New Yorker when it was first published. Maybe he doesn't speak to today's youth as he did to mine.
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