J. D. Salinger: A Life

"Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created—nothing," F. Scott Fitzgerald famously observed. "That is because we are all queer fish, queerer behind our faces and voices than we want any one to know or than we know ourselves…. When I hear a man proclaiming himself an 'average, honest, open fellow,' I feel pretty sure that he has some definite and perhaps terrible abnormality which he has agreed to conceal."


No one has accused J. D. Salinger, a Fitzgerald admirer who once described The Great Gatsby as the Tom Sawyer of his youth, of being "average." And though he produced, in Holden Caulfield, the most identified-with literary character in 20th-century literature, he was as far from open as humanly possible for a writer of his fame. In J. D. Salinger: A Life, Kenneth Slawenski has taken it upon himself to untangle some of the mysteries surrounding the notoriously reclusive author's life. The founder of the website DeadCaulfields.com, Slawenski clearly intends the tome, seven years in the making, as an act of devotion. To his credit, he sidesteps—for the most part—the temptation to hagiography.


But he's handicapped by a tin ear, and a prose style so encumbered by a desire to be faithful to the spirit of his literary hero that it borders on self-parody. Slawenski introduces the birth of young Jerome rather in the style of a book like Jim Bishop's The Day Lincoln Was Shot. "The Great War had changed everything," he informs. "As 1919 dawned, people awoke to a fresh new world, one filled with promise but uncertainty." Check.


As has been widely noted, Salinger's inescapably contagious vernacular voice influenced everything that was to followfrom Philip Roth to the movies of Wes Anderson. The publication of The Catcher In The Rye in 1951 marked a departure from justly celebrated antecedents like Huckleberry Finn because of the author's ability to get directly inside your head, with what Seymour Glass once mockingly described as "a Good Ear for the Rhythms and Cadences of Colloquial Speech."  No one else really comes close to Salinger's extravagant gifts in conveying the addictive sense that he (and he alone) really understood not only the pain of consciousness, but the importance of addressing that pain in earnest—though countless imitators have certainly tried. As Sherwood Anderson, another writer Salinger admired, ironically noted about his one-time "friend" Hemingway in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, "it is so flattering to have a pupil who does it without understanding it."


That Salinger's Boswell so clearly lacks his subject's gift to communicate in compelling, first-person prose, is beyond irony. But despite the infelicities of Slawenski's style, his prodigiously researched volume gives us the fullest account to date of the complicated forces at work in Salinger's life, and work. The most illuminating section is his rendition of Salinger's experiences as a member of the Counter Intelligence Corps with the 4th Infantry Division in World War II.  During the D-Day invasion, Salinger's landing craft landed at a safe remove from the carnage, but he was less fortunate in his next post, an outnumbered firefight in the French village of Emondeville.


A horrific battle in the Hurtgen Forest, on the German border between Belgium and Luxembourg, ensued. "Men froze to death in their foxholes or lost limbs to frostbite." Slawenski suggests the conflict was both futile and avoidable, citing military historians who point to Hurtgen as "a military failure and a waste of human life." For Salinger, this experience may have been a turning point: Slawenski sees it as a moment of suffering "essential to understanding the depth of his later works."


Though in many places Slawenski's conclusions are questionably based on how Salinger "must have" felt, his account of the effects of combat on the sensitive young author is well founded. Though Salinger made it a point of honor to avoid cheapening his wartime experience by turning it into fictional fodder (with the exception of "sergeant X" in "For Esmé, With Love and Squalor"), the war shaped him, and shamed him out of convenient youthful cynicism. That makes his pivot in subject matter, away from his wartime travails, a particularly astonishing feat. Compared to Catcher, or even Franny and Zooey, the "great" war novels of Salinger's era—The Naked And The Dead, From Here To Eternity, The Young Lions—now seem like artifacts of a bygone time.


J. D. Salinger: A Life shrewdly traces Salinger's ambitious course, piloting his career with the help of early mentors like Whit Burnett, from the slick magazines of his time, including the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's, until landing the big fish he'd wanted all along—The New Yorker. Then, as now, the magazine could make an author's reputation, as the canny rebel well understood.


He was fortunate in his choice of allies, notably William Shawn, who braved staffers' enmity by offering perhaps the most invaluable service an editor can provide—protecting an author's work from those who would "improve" it—by publishing Franny and Zooey and then Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction under his direct aegis. But Shawn's decision to double down, with the 1965 publication of Hapworth 16, 1924, an endless letter from summer camp written by the seven-year-old Seymour Glass was a major disservice. "Professionally, it was a disaster," Slawenski notes. After Hapworth, Salinger never wrote for publication again.


As he charts his subject's career, Slawenski also provides a sympathetic understanding of the author's most famous protagonist. In a close reading of the denouement of Holden Caulfield's lost Manhattan weekend, he observes: "He does not enter adulthood because he has been beaten into submission by the world around him or by seeing the virtue of maturity. He becomes an adult because that is what his sister needs."


The author is least successful in his account of Salinger's spiritual preoccupations. "After The Catcher in the Rye… he devoted himself to crafting fiction embedded in religion," he writes. "Salinger's work was his prayer; the two had been indistinguishable for years." He adds, more troublingly: "The final arbiter of Seymour was not The New Yorker, the critics, or even readers. It was God Himself."


While the arbiter in question is unavailable for comment, one is left with the sinking feeling that the isolated, increasingly cranky author simply gave up: the Fat Lady, sadly, stopped singing.


But the Salinger Industry grinds on. The Private War of J. D. Salinger, a documentary from screenwriter Shane Salerno with a "companion book" co-written with David Means, is currently in the works. What would Holden make of it? Only God Himself may know.


Paul Wilner is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, New York Times Arts & Leisure section, the Monterey County Weekly and the online magazine obit-mag.com, among other publications.

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