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Digging For Pearls In The New Salinger Biography

Jan 25, 2011 (Fresh Air)

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J.D. Salinger died a year ago this Thursday, and in time for that anniversary, there's a newly published biography called, simply, J.D. Salinger: A Life. Fresh Air's Book critic Maureen Corrigan says Salinger, no doubt, would have cringed at what Holden Caulfield calls "all that David Copperfield kind of crap" that biographies necessarily expose, but readers who revere Salinger will find a lot that's surprising in his early background. Here is her review.


Here's Holden Caulfield at the beginning of The Catcher in the Rye uttering not only one of the most famous passages in that novel, but one of the most famous passages in all of world literature: "What really knocks me out" [says Holden] "is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though."

Good thing, too, Holden! I would say because, chances are, if you did reach that beloved author, you'd be disappointed. Great writers pour their best selves into their books; in life, most are merely human. That truth was brought home to me yet again by Kenneth Slawenski's new biography of J.D. Salinger. As anecdote after anecdote in J.D. Salinger: A Life makes clear, it is a far, far better thing for readers to "meet" Holden Caulfield or Buddy Glass than it would have ever been for us to meet their strange, withdrawn creator.

Slawenski is the founder of a Salinger website called DeadCaulfields.com; that fact doesn't exactly inspire confidence in us literary traditionalists — and, indeed, it turns out that this biography, some eight years in the making, is awfully wobbly. Not surprisingly, Slawenski never got access to the great man himself, nor to anyone in Salinger's inner circle. The biography does contain new material — some letters and photos — made available since Salinger's death. It also contains some achingly facile observations. To wit, the first lines of chapter one describing the fateful year of Salinger's birth read like a history paper written by Holden's Pencey Prep nemesis, Stradlater: "The Great War had changed everything. As 1919 dawned, people awoke to a fresh new world, one filled with promise, but uncertainty."

Buried within this sludge, however, are some genuine pearls. One revelation that is elaborated on throughout Slawenski's erratic biography is just how crucial Salinger's World War II experiences were to his later Zen Buddhism, as well as to his writing. Salinger served in an Army Counter Intelligence Corps. On D-Day, he landed on Utah Beach, then went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge; toward the end of the war, he helped liberate a sub-camp of Dachau. According to Slawenski, manuscript pages of The Catcher in the Rye were on Salinger's person throughout the fighting. World War II and its soul-shattering effects are, of course, explicitly present in Salinger's monumental short story, "For Esme, With Love and Squalor." But, Slawenski, who turns out to be an astute close reader of Salinger's work, also teases out the war's influence on The Catcher in the Rye. Holden, you may remember, is haunted by the memory of his dead brother, Allie, whose name, Slawenski points out, sounds suggestively close to "allies" — all those fallen brothers-in-arms Salinger fought beside. Slawenski also makes a convincing case for Salinger having the dead of World War II in mind as he wrote Holden's parting words: "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody."

Salinger had those manuscript pages with him during World War II for another, more practical reason: It took him an excruciatingly long time to write. When, in 1950, Salinger triumphantly submitted The Catcher in the Rye to his publisher, Harcourt Brace, the editors there rejected it, apparently confused by whether or not Holden was supposed to be crazy. Even worse, The New Yorker, where Salinger had been publishing his short stories, declined to print an excerpt. The editors said that: "The notion that in one family (the Caulfield family) there are four such extraordinary children ... is not tenable."

It was enough to make a man say "nuts" to the world — which is pretty much what Salinger wound up doing for a half-century.

When Salinger died last year, I, like a lot of other fans, reread his small canon. Like all great literature, it yields up something new upon each rereading. And, as for The Catcher in the Rye, in particular, well, there's just no other voice in American literature that is as alive as Holden's — sorry, Huck. Thinking again of Holden and how he wrestles, so clumsily, with Big Questions about God and Evil and struggles to shore up innocence in all its fragility, I could understand why the young Sgt. Salinger wanted to be armed with an early version of Holden close to him "for support and inspiration," as he told a friend, while he was storming the beaches at Normandy and penetrating into the horrors that lay beyond.

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