Kenneth Slawenski’s J. D. Salinger: A Life, published by Random House just one year after its subject’s death at age 91, is an impressive, balanced, thorough and masterful literary biography of one of America’s most famous — and famously reclusive — authors.
Salinger’s most famous character, Holden Caulfield of Catcher in The Rye fame, once refrained from divulging “all that David Copperfield kind of crap” (biographical details about himself and his family) for fear that his parents “would have about two hemorrhages apiece.”
Diligently weaving together material from a wide variety of sources, Slawenski gives us an astonishingly full portrait of Salinger that might have caused its subject a similar sort of conniption had he still been alive. However, Slawinski — a long-time Salinger scholar who runs a website about the author called deadcaulfields.com — is respectful, fair, critically astute, and attuned to the big themes of Salinger’s life.
Jerome David Salinger was born into a middle-class Jewish family in New York on New Year’s Day, 1919. His parents, who called him “Sonny,” gave him a comfortable childhood and, as they grew more affluent, a prep-school and military-school education. His mother was indulgent, doting and over-protective, his father more realistic and increasingly concerned with discipline.
His father disapproved of his plan to be a writer and, after his stint at military school, sent him to Europe to learn the family business of sausage-making. Besides seeing the insides of Polish sausage factories, Salinger witnessed Nazi thugs terrorizing Jews on the streets of Vienna in 1938. Back home, he took a writing course and brought his natural sardonic wit into play on the page. “Several stories seemed to come from his typewriter at once,” his instructor, Whit Burnett, would recall.
For a while he dated Oona O’Neill, the beautiful daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill; he was infatuated with her and her breakup with him and subsequent marriage to film star Charlie Chaplin comprised “the great romantic tragedy” of his life, Slawenski asserts.
Many of Salinger’s early stories were rejected by magazines like Collier’s, Saturday Evening Post and Story, but his persistence paid off. However, “the slicks” often took shocking liberties with his prose, changed titles, and placed his stories amidst garish advertisements that seemed to cheapen them. He was elated when the New Yorker finally accepted his story, “Slight Rebellion off Madison” (one of several pre-Catcher tales that he wrote about Holden Caulfield) in 1941, but felt dejected when they postponed publication until after the war.
An officer in the 12th Infantry Regiment during the war, Salinger survived horrific battles, saw his buddies blown to bits, and helped liberate the concentration camps: through it all, he continued to write whenever the opportunity arose. “The war, its horrors, agonies, and lessons, would brand itself upon every apsect of Salinger’s personality and reverberate through his writings,” Slawenski writes. A singular high point was his friendship with Ernest Hemingway, then living in France, who knew of Salinger through his magazine stories. After the war was won, Salinger helped to track down war criminals in the American zone and was briefly married to a French woman; he remained in Europe until 1946.
When “Slight Rebellion off Madison” appeared in the New Yorker in December 1946, Salinger experienced the fulfillment of “his fondest dream since he had begun to write seriously.” When he presented the New Yorker with another story, “The Bananafish” in 1947, the editors insisted upon a lengthy and grueling revision; months later, the much-improved piece was published as “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Readers were “intrigued by its elusive meaning and powerful ending,” as they would be by the author’s subsequent Glass family stories.
Published in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye was an instant bestselling sensation, propelling Salinger to a literary stardom that he abhorred. “Holden’s meandering thoughts, emotions, and memories populate the most completely stream-of-consciousness experience offered by American literature,” Slawenski asserts, calling Catcher a worthy “successor to David Copperfield and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
Soon after Catcher’s publication, Salinger, at 32, began dating 16-year-old Claire Douglas, who would later become his wife and mother of his two children. But their isolated rural home in Cornish, N.J. and his obsessive working habits made her miserable, and the marriage eventually fell apart. Meanwhile, Salinger spun out more of his Glass family stories and other exquisite pieces for the New Yorker, later publishing them in a series of books: Nine Stories (1953), Franny and Zooey (1961), Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour, An Introduction (1963).
All of these books were bestsellers but sadly, Salinger’s last New Yorker story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which appeared in 1965, was a meandering, introspective mess — a “disaster” that was met by bewildered silence from the critics. From then on, apparently, Salinger’s muse went cold, and he stopped publishing, though he continued to struggle with his stories and a second novel that never came to be.
He also withdrew even more from the public eye, becoming almost Howard Hughes-like in his mistrust of people and his obsessive need for privacy.
For Salinger fans, J. D. Salinger: A Life is an illuminating account that fills in a great many mysteries about a writer that, for good reason, had earned the worshipful reverence of legions of fans. The unvarnished truth seems to be that Salinger, despite his attachment to high spiritual ideals, was often cynical, obsessive, controlling, and difficult to get along with. Alas, though his head may have been in the clouds, the mighty author whom so many had come to idolize only had feet of clay. ♦