Steve Dow's Reviews > J.D. Salinger: A Life

J.D. Salinger by Kenneth Slawenski
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Feb 04, 12

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ON THE event of his death at age 91 on January 27 this year, Jerome David Salinger’s family released a statement in which they said the US author of the famous Caulfield siblings in The Catcher in the Rye and the Glass family of Franny and Zooey had himself remarked he “was in this world but not of it”.

So who was the fiercely private J.D. Salinger, who had not published any writing since 1965, sequestered in his isolated hermitage and outhouse bunker in New Hampshire but whose silence did nothing to dampen the ardour of fans and the intrusions of a hungry media?

Kenneth Slawenski, a Salingerphile who created the Salinger information website, conveys exactly why Salinger’s work, particularly his most influential novel, means so much to readers. The narrator of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield, hated the world’s “phoniness” but his stream-of-conscious rant changed literature upon the book’s publication in 1951, while successive generations of disaffected young readers related to Holden’s voice and found his connection back to humanity, via his little sister Phoebe, affecting.

Yet fandom could become unhinged: John Lennon’s assassin, Mark David Chapman, for one, purchased a copy of Catcher the day he emptied five bullets into the former Beatle in 1980, then nonchalantly took the paperback from his pocket to read. He’d read Catcher several times, and at one point delusionally claimed to be Holden Caulfield.

It was not quite the spiritual connection Salinger had in mind.

The biographer paints a complex picture here of a man hardened by bloody service in World War II who would eventually channel Zen Buddhism and the eastern monotheistic philosophy of Vedanta into his writing, so much so that the “most famous private person in America” may for a time have considered himself a prophet. He was “God’s author”.

Slawenski plausibly posits the reclusive author felt writing was a spiritual act – once his childhood dreams of success had been fulfilled, “his writings became his insular private world of prayer”, thus publishing was no longer necessary, and his estrangement from the world, to which he had generally shown a jaded, embittered front despite his characters’ spiritual epiphanies of human connection, was complete.

Of course, much of this thesis is detective work, given Salinger, thrice married and a father of two, almost never gave interviews, and then grudgingly gave away little about himself or his stories’ spiritual subtext, and became increasingly fixated on destroying personal correspondence.

Slawenski doesn’t say here if he ever approached Salinger for an interview – doubtless the request would have been pointless given Salinger apparently took the Zen belief in ego detachment to mean self-promotion was sacrilegious – but he did speak to some 60 people connected to the author, according to the publicity blurb.

This won’t be the “definitive” biography as its publishers claim, given it fails to uncover precisely what Salinger wrote for the last 45 years of his life. Also, the major source of information for a crucial chapter in Salinger’s early adult life – the murder during the Holocaust of an entire Viennese Jewish family with whom he had stayed, including a 16-year-old girl said to be his first romance – is a Salinger short story that recounts such events, A Girl I Knew. We don’t even get the family’s names.

The most engaging chapters in Slawenski’s biography are those examining Salinger’s war service in US counter-intelligence, his hellish landing at Normandy and fighting amid the loss of thousands to shelling and the elements in the Hürtgen forest of Germany; the careful research is superbly pieced together as a narrative, Salinger reportedly writing Catcher under enemy fire. “You could live a lifetime,” Salinger once said, “and never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose.”

At the end of his life, did Salinger find some measure of happiness, even as he appeared paranoid to the public? Whether he was suffering some undiagnosed form of post-traumatic stress disorder over the years is hinted at here, and should have been explored.
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