Shane's Reviews > J.D. Salinger: A Life

J.D. Salinger by Kenneth Slawenski
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Feb 06, 2012

really liked it
Read from February 06 to 22, 2012

Was he a saint or a brilliant marketer? That’s the question I am left with upon reading this intriguing life of the most reclusive celebrity author of recent times.

Salinger’s output was sparse: a collection of nine short stories, his signature novel The Catcher in the Rye, two novellas combined into a full length book (Franny and Zooey), another two novellas combined (Raise High the Roof Beam and Seymour – an Introduction), and a smattering of short stories published in various “slick” magazines that he did not care about. His focus was on the characters in the fictional Caulfield and Glass families and he followed their development over a period that mirrored his life. And yet he claimed that he only wrote stories about “young people.” His work took a turn towards the religious after Catcher made him a household name. By the time he got to Zooey he was into Vedanta and Zen, and was targeting American materialism and intellectualism as the opposites of spiritualism.

Born into the privileged upper middle class society of New York, he had a relatively comfortable life until he went to war in 1944 and survived the hell of D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, the fall of Cherbourg, the Battle of the Hedgerows, Bloody Mortain and others, ending the war in Intelligence, suffering what is today known as PTSD and emboldened with the realization that his survival had a purpose: he would elevate the horrors of war into high literature.

His literary journey was no cakewalk and yet he reaped rich rewards. Salinger endured more rejection that he gained acceptance, especially in his early years. Publishers had Machiavellian holds on him and insisted on “compressing” his work to meet journalistic requirements; they also published and republished his work without his permission and took the liberty of changing the titles of his stories – dangerous ground to tread with an author whose ego was as big as Salinger’s. His response was to be difficult with publishers and publicists (Salinger only gave one public speaking engagement and quit) and others who wanted to make him famous – the net result was that his hermit status gained him more fame and fortune that he could imagine. Salinger enjoyed the enviable position of being on The New Yorker payroll on a retainer of $30K per year (in 1947 dollars) for giving that venerable magazine the first right of refusal of his stories; his output in that period:1948 – 5 stories submitted, 2 published, 1949 – 7 submitted, all rejected. Wasn’t that just the glory age of publishing, and a cushy time to be a writer?

Salinger’s Spartan and spiritual approach made him specify that his book covers only had to be in text, with no pictures (especially no author pictures!). He refused the distribution of advance review copies and decried advance publicity or promotion. He was noted for launching lawsuits against any perceived infringement of his control of his work. I wonder if J.D. Salinger would have even made the cut as a writer in the publishing universe of today in which shameless self-promotion and lots of “free content” is de rigueur.

Little is known of Salinger’s personal life, especially of the later barren years when he published nothing but continued to write copiously. He had a short-lived first marriage, a longer second one that produced children and a third late in his life. His work overpowered relationships and family time. He entertained young people from his village in New Hampshire but as the world got nosier about him, he withdrew further into his cave. His last published work, a novella, Hapworth 16, 1924, released in 1965, was a disaster – the critics marked their scorn by remaining silent, and Salinger never published anything new again until his death in 2010, aged 91.

This review is but a snapshot of the book and the interesting times through which Salinger traversed, interesting people such as Hemingway and Oona O’Neil (Eugene O’Neil’s daughter and Charlie Chaplin’s future wife) whom he engaged with, and the transformational events such as WWII that forged much of the 20th century and influenced his work. The writer of this biography, Kenneth Slawenski, tends to lionize Salinger and I wished for a more balanced view of his subject which would have still made interesting reading. Nevertheless, the book sheds much light on this reclusive writer and is a motivational read for the rest of us scribes who are toiling in the dark, thirsting for the fame and fortune that Salinger overtly scorned – or did he?

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