The National Catholic Review

In 2010, at the age of 91, Jerome David Salinger died in Cornish, N.H., where he had lived in seclusion for over 50 years, claiming that he needed isolation to keep his creativity intact. Having acquired fame with the publication of the enormously influential The Catcher in the Rye (1951), he spent the rest of his life avoiding publicity, refusing interviews and thwarting—as best he could—all attempts to publish biographical profiles of him. To be sure, his physical inaccessibility engendered more than the usual degree of curiosity and provoked much resentment—as though readers were owed his presence as well as his written words.

Despite vigorous efforts to protect his privacy, there exist a number of unauthorized accounts, some of them derogatory. To mention just a few, the journalist Joyce Maynard, who had lived with the master of short fiction for almost a year—when he was 53 and she 18—released At Home in the World (1998), in which she reveals details of her relationship with what she describes as an eccentric, controlling personality. Also unflattering, in part, is his daughter Margaret’s book, Dream Catcher: A Memoir (2000), which her brother, Matthew, discredited. Ian Hamilton’s In Search of J. D. Salinger (1988), an objective account, is actually a revised version of the biography he had written two years earlier but that his celebrated subject had snatched from the hands of the printer on the grounds that it contained extensive quotations from his personal correspondence. The legal battle that ensued—Salinger v. Random House—resulted in major repercussions for American copyright law.

The latest biography, J. D. Salinger: A Life, by Kenneth Slawenski, the bulk of which was written while its litigious subject was still alive, is sympathetic, perceptive and eminently readable. It glosses over the less-than-flattering material, as if reluctant to deal with unsavory facts that other writers have highlighted. The author of this volume draws a parallel—as so many biographers are wont to do—between the life and the work of his subject. Both clearly give testimony to the restlessness of heart of which St. Augustine speaks.

The portrait painted is that of a handsome and charming man with a biting, acerbic wit, who bears a striking resemblance to the famous protagonist of Catcher, the petulant, yearning teenager Holden Caulfield—often compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. He also resembles the Glass children, who appear in his later fiction—spiritual pilgrims who feel alienated in a vulgar, materialistic world populated by hypocrites and bores. Having immersed himself in Eastern and Catholic mysticism, Salinger finally embraced Zen Buddhism and Vedanta philosophy.

After the publication of Catcher, he devoted himself to creating fictional worlds populated by characters in quest of the Infinite, characters who hold a curious amalgam of Eastern and Christian tenets that reflect Salinger’s own evolving beliefs. He began to view his writing as a form of meditation, an exploration of metaphysical questions and a means of offering spiritual enlightenment to others. Seeking to honor God through his work, he felt it his duty, Slawenski asserts, a holy obligation, to withdraw from the world to pursue his vocation.

A large chunk of this biography is dedicated to the evocation of Salinger’s horrific combat experience during World War II: the landing on Utah Beach on D-Day, the Hurtgen Forest campaign, the Battle of the Bulge, the liberation of prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp—events that profoundly affected the author, causing post-traumatic stress disorder and aggravation of the depression from which he suffered.

It is noteworthy that this dedicated writer of fiction, who continued to submit stories to The New Yorker that had been worked on in foxholes, chose, for the most part, not to write about the horrors he had witnessed. He did, however, depict traumatized veterans—the most notable examples being Sergeant X in the frequently anthologized “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor” (1950) and the suicidal Army veteran featured in the classic “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (1948).

Upon returning to New York City, where he was born and where he grew up in increasing prosperity, Salinger attempted to resume a Greenwich Village version of the sophisticated lifestyle he’d had before the war, which included a failed romance with Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, Oona. Eventually, however, he came to the realization that the literary world and the glitter of Manhattan no longer suited him; so he moved to a 90-acre compound on a wooded hill in rural New Hampshire. By the time he married Claire Douglas, his second wife, he was leading a life that revolved around meditation, yoga and disciplined writing. The marriage ended in divorce, and in 1988 he wed Colleen O’Neill, a nurse 40 years his junior, with whom he spent the remainder of his days.

A meticulous craftsman who continually revised, polished and rewrote, Salinger expressed a preference for short fiction: “I am a dash man and not a miler.” Indeed, two long sections of his only novel originally appeared as short stories. His deft use of dialogue, mastery of idiomatic speech and use of first-person narration are distinguishing characteristics of his work. Such stylistic techniques as interior monologue, letters and telephone calls gave him, Slawenski remarks, “the illusion of having...delivered his characters’ destinies into their own keeping.” In fact, he seemingly came to look upon his creations as real people, referring to Buddy Glass, his alter ego, as his “collaborator.” And to Elia Kazan’s request to adapt Catcher for Broadway, he replied, “I cannot give my permission. I fear Holden wouldn’t like it.”

Oscar Wilde remarked that all great men have their disciples, and it is usually Judas who writes the biography. That certainly is not the case here. Slawenski, who maintains the Web site DeadCaulfields.com, is clearly a fan of “the hermit crab of American letters.” That is how one critic referred to the writer, whose spectacular reputation rests on a very slender canon. Aside from multiple uncollected short stories printed in various magazines, it consists of one novel that has never gone out of print; one collection, titled Nine Stories (1953); and two compilations, each with two related stories or novellas about the fictional Glass family: Franny and Zooey (1961) and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963).

This is not the definitive biography. For one thing Salinger, although he published nothing after 1965, continued to write—for his own pleasure, as he confided. Reports have it that locked away in a safe somewhere there are hundreds of stories left unread except by the One whom he pursued.

Ann M. Begley has taught at universities on both east and west coasts. Her studies of Simone Weil and Marguerite Yourcenar appear in European Writers: The Twentieth Century.

Comments

michael murphy | 9/16/2011 - 7:09pm
Great piece, Ann. A new wave of Salinger studies begins; I look forward to the conversation.