What sort of person would you expect to be bringing out a life of J. D. Salinger two months after his death, bearing in mind that Salinger was more obsessive about his privacy than any other writer in human history and fought the publication of the last biography all the way to the US Supreme Court? You might not expect the answer to be Kenneth Slawenski. Who, you may ask, is he? Well, he is a pretty private person too. I pummelled the web and the only meagre intelligence I could extract is that he was born and raised in New Jersey and has worked in computers. This may be his first book, for he mentions no other on the dustjacket, and tells us only that he runs the ‘definitive Salinger website’, deadcaulfields.com. So he is not by trade a biographer or a critic. He is a fan, one of those ‘amateur readers’ to whom Salinger dedicated Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters ‘with untellable affection and gratitude’.
Like the rest of us, amateur readers have their faults. Slawenski spells Adolph Hitler like that. He has an eccentric way with the apostrophe. Sometimes he plods and sometimes he gushes. And it doesn’t help that his publishers seem a bit amateurish too. Pomona Books of Hebden Bridge, Yorks, do not give us any pictures, or an index, let alone a Salinger bibliography. One imagines them cranking an inky old press in between turning out tapestry kits of Wensleydale scenes and Toby jugs of Geoffrey Boycott and Sir Bernard Ingham.
And this biography is no more authorised than Ian Hamilton’s was 20 years ago. So Slawenski cannot quote chunks from letters or diaries or even from the books. This is rather tantalising when he tells us about the ‘misleading’ and ‘deceptive’ letters Salinger wrote when he was in the army, but cannot tell us what was in them. More tantalising still when he mentions the passionate letters Salinger wrote to Oona O’Neill, here identified as the love of his life before she was snatched away by the ancient Charlie Chaplin. Oona’s best friend, Carol Marcus, later to become famous as the original of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, copied some of the more elegant passages in Salinger’s letters to Oona into her own letters to William Saroyan, so he wouldn’t think she was an airhead, thus using Salinger as an involuntary Cyrano de Bergerac. Alas, Saroyan was contemptuous of those ‘lousy glib letters’, but he forgave her when she owned up and he married her none the less. Nor do we get a glimpse of the letters Salinger wrote to his agent or to the editor of the New Yorker, the almost equally reclusive William Shawn, who did so much to help shape Salinger’s finest work, because he made them both destroy the lot.
But somehow none of these flaws and gaps and absences matters a damn. Slawenski sets about his task with such unblushing love and zest that his book is as irresistible to me as Salinger himself. In his foreword, he quotes the words he posted on deadcaulfields.com the day Salinger died:
Read. Explore, whether for the first time or 20th, The Catcher in the Rye. Read Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam and Seymour. Salinger the man may be gone — and for that the world is an emptier place — but he will always live within the pages he created.
This is not how literary biographies usually kick off. Far from egging you on to read and re-read the author’s works, they may well restrict themselves to reporting how many copies he sold and what the critics said about them. For unlike the biographer of a painter or a general, the literary biographer is in unacknowledged competition with the stuff her subject actually wrote and she cannot help wanting to be the one who is composing the real work of art.
But Slawenski has a priceless humility and a sympathy with his subject which is unstinting though not unqualified. As a result, I think you get from him a rather better idea of what Salinger was really like and why he lived his life as he did than you might from a biography which is licensed to describe itself as ‘scholarly’ or ‘authorised’. For my money it is better too than Hamilton’s far more sophisticated In Search of J. D. Salinger, which was ruinously soured by the legal battles that eventually restricted him to publishing a non-quoting version. If you can imagine Salinger having a soft spot for any book about him — which of course you can’t — then Slawenski’s might be the one.
Jerome David Salinger was the only son of a New York Jewish pork and cheese importer and his wife Marie Jillich, from an Iowa family of German descent. Solomon Salinger did well, moved across town to 1133 Park Avenue at 91st Street and sent Jerry, or Sonny as he was sometimes known, to private schools. Despite Marie changing her name to Miriam and converting to Judaism, the family was more or less secular. Salinger’s sister Doris was married by the leader of the Society for Ethical Culture. Salinger himself was barmitzvahed, though the school he went to was run by the YMCA.
Like Holden Caulfield in Catcher, he then dropped out of a string of colleges, starting with the Valley Forge Military Academy and ending with Columbia. But Slawenski warns us against confecting a picture of a sullen rebel who couldn’t fit in. At all these academies, Salinger acted in plays and wrote for campus mags; he liked the discipline at Valley Forge and even wrote the Class Song of 1936, still sung there to this day. He also enjoyed his first real job, as an entertainment officer on a Swedish cruise liner. When war came, he was keen to enlist, and bust a gut to get a commission — ‘I want to be an officer so bad and they won’t let me.’
Salinger’s war was horrendous and Homeric. Even before D-Day he was caught up in the disaster at Slapton Sands when a dress rehearsal for the invasion was surprised by German torpedo boats and 749 troops lost their lives, many of them from friendly fire. The tragedy was covered up for half a century and the British admiral killed himself. Staff-Sergeant Salinger was then part of the first or second wave to land on Utah Beach. He was subsequently caught up in the fiercest hand-to-hand fighting across the orchards and cornfields of Normandy. He rode in the first American jeeps down the Champs Elysées (how nice it would be to read his ‘euphoric’ letters home), but was then engulfed in the worst of the Battle of the Bulge, in Hürtgen Forest, where his regiment lost three-quarters of its men, the highest casualty rate of any American unit in the whole war. He went on to see Dachau liberated and even after VE-Day was kept on in Germany for almost a year as a Counter-Intelligence Officer to arrest and interrogate thousands of Nazi war criminals.
While waiting for the invasion, Salinger had written a story, ‘The Last Day of the Last Furlough’, in which the hero, Technical Sergeant John ‘Babe’ Gladwaller, tells his veteran father: ‘I believe that it’s the moral duty of all the men who have fought and will fight in this war to keep our mouths shut, once it’s over, never again to mention it in any way.’ Salinger himself kept to Babe’s resolution, though he did say later that ‘the men who have been in this war deserve some sort of trembling melody rendered without embarrassment or regret’. But he did not feel that he was the man to write that book. It would have been too much like bragging, too much macho, too much Hemingway. He did at most touch on the war glancingly, in stories such as ‘For Esmé with Love
and Squalor’, based on his days stationed in Tiverton before June 1944.
For a time after the war, it looked as though the New Yorker and its coven of sophisticates might be not only the making of his reputation but the rebuilding of his life. After repeated delays and rejections, the magazine finally began to publish his stories. When he returned to America, he landed one of those coveted contracts which paid him a salary and gave him a hutch in return for first refusal on what he wrote. The initial judgment by the magazine’s mainstay, the novelist William Maxwell, had been that ‘this J. D. Salinger just doesn’t seem quite right for us’.
And in the end, that turned out to be true. The brilliance of his early stories had dazzled the editors into overlooking their unwelcome but growing religious tinge. And when after a decade of tinkering, Salinger finally came up with Catcher, the magazine refused to print a word of it. Who, after all, were these ‘phonies’ whom Holden Caulfield was fingering but the upper crust of the New Yorker’s audience, not to mention its advertisers and even its staff. The editors then unanimously rejected Salinger’s novella Zooey. Little Mr Shawn, the new editor who had taken over on the death of Harold Ross, knew a thing or two, though, and overruled his colleagues and hatched it under his own wing.
The public loved every story Salinger ever published, but the intelligentsia had begun to turn against him. Mary McCarthy, bitter that Salinger still had a New Yorker contract while she had not, laid into the novellas with venom. She hated the Glass family, the seven eerily gifted children who had become famous on a radio quiz show and whose later misadventures fill most of Salinger’s published stories:
And who are these wonder kids but Salinger himself, splitting and multiplying like the original amoeba? To be confronted with the seven faces of Salinger, all wise and lovable and simple, is to gaze into a terrifying narcissus pool. Salinger’s world contains nothing but Salinger.
John Updike had revered Catcher and learnt a lot from the book, as had most of his contemporaries, but now he complained that ‘Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them.’
Salinger had offended against the great orthodoxy of modern fiction: that a novelist had no more right to fall in love with his characters than a doctor was licensed to fondle his patients. The proper writer had to keep a splinter of ice in his heart. It was his professional duty to cultivate a cold and detached persona. Not only had Salinger deliberately rejected this frigidism, he also brought in religion, admittedly of a non-specific multi-faith variety, mingling the Christian Gospels, Zen and the Bhagavad Gita.
For this Salinger was never to be forgiven by a doggedly secular literary establishment. But then he did something even worse. He refused to play the game at all. Even before he became famous, he hated being in the public eye. ‘It’s a goddam embarrassment, publishing. The poor boob who lets himself in for it might as well walk down Madison Avenue with his pants down.’ When Catcher was about to come out, he fled to Europe on the Queen Elizabeth. The reviews turned out to be mostly ecstatic, but he hated them all for missing the spiritual dimension in the book.
Back in the States again, he bought a patch of land with a barn on it in the woods and streams of Cornish, New Hampshire, and he stayed there until he died 58 years later, never giving an interview or appearing on a public platform. As the sale of his books grew huger, he retreated deeper into the woods. He had been briefly married after the war, to Sylvia Welter, a German ophthalmologist. In 1955, he got married again, to Claire Douglas, the half-sister of Lord Douglas of Kirtleside, the Battle of Britain leader (oddly, like Norman Mailer’s second wife, of Scottish upper-class descent). They had two children, Matthew and Peggy, but soon Claire too, like many another writer’s wife, was complaining of neglect. Salinger would disappear into his bunker in the woods and sometimes fail to reappear for days, seeming only dimly aware of Claire’s depression. After one or two separations and reunions, they were finally divorced. Yet Claire and the children continued to live in the Cornish farmhouse, while he lived across the way on a patch of land he had bought to prevent it being turned into a trailer park.
The ‘mysterious J. D. Salinger’ now became the quarry of every ambitious reporter and the topic of many a fact-lite profile. Reporters, Slawenski rightly argues,
set out to unravel the mystery that they themselves had created. The consequence of this manipulation was to produce in reality what had been fabricated on paper — and to curse the author in the process. With their relentless scrutiny and invasion of privacy, the media drove Salinger into a seclusion he might not have sought on his own.
The locals at Cornish never thought Salinger so very strange. He grew his own vegetables organically, protected wild life and took up yoga — these days the normal lifestyle of every downshifter. His best friend in Cornish was was Judge Learned Hand, universally agreed to be the wisest judge who never sat on the Supreme Court, and not a man likely to have dinner once a week with a paranoid nutter. The Salingers took vacations in Florida and Scotland, where like many another American, Salinger had fantasies of settling down one day. He often went down to New York to see his parents. Up to his last days, he and his third wife Colleen O’Neill, a professional nurse and amateur quilter, were regulars at the weekly roast-beef dinners held at the Congregational Church in Hartland, Vermont. I’ve heard of weirder ways of passing the time.
Before he met Colleen at the Cornish Fair, Salinger had several affairs with much younger women. One of them, Joyce Maynard, lived with him for a year or so, and later wrote a bitter memoir. As a result Salinger came to be thought of as not only reclusive but creepy and a bit perverted. But other famous artists have become infatuated with much younger women — Chaplin to start with, but also Hardy, Elgar and Sartre. None of them was denounced as a disgusting weirdo, for the simple reason that they were all happy to play the part of the Great Man, indeed to overplay it. Fame is a bitch-goddess at the best of times, but never more of a bitch than to those who reject her advances.
Salinger never published another line after 1965. ‘There is a marvellous peace in not publishing’, but he loved to write, he said, and now he wrote for his own pleasure. Nor did he weary of the Glasses. ‘Oddly, the joys and satisfactions of working on the Glass family peculiarly increase and deepen for me with the years.’ But so did the terrors of being thought smug and taking on the pretensions of a great writer. In no way could you call him a saint. He was cold and unforgiving to those he thought had let him down, and unable to see how he was hurting people who loved him or tried to help him. He was certainly a curmudgeon, but he was neither crazy nor ignoble.
So, we must presume, the typescripts are still there piled up in the bunker in the woods, more likely to be novellas than full-scale novels — ‘I’m a dash man, not a miler,’ he said. The unpublished material may well be wonderful, for it is hard to see much falling off in his last published work. I agree with Slawenski that ‘his ability to draw the reader into his work, a manoeuvre whose gentleness seems to have been refined with each previous story, reached its summit in Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters’, a story which is as touching as anything by Chekhov and as funny as anything by Wodehouse. If ever Salinger’s children fall on hard times and choose to publish whatever is there, millions of fans will fall on every scrap. But it is also nice to think of that withheld treasure glowing quietly in the dark woods. Or of course there may be nothing there at all, which would be a good joke too.
The Catcher in the Rye remains the great American novel of the 20th century, just as Huckleberry Finn was the great American novel of the 19th. A recent poll of literary professionals voted Catcher the most influential book of its time, together with Camus’s The Outsider. Superficially, the two books might appear to share a common theme of alienation — the rebellion against phony bourgeois values etc — but Catcher has a lot more love in it and less estrangement.
Yet it is Salinger’s picaresque account of a couple of days in the life of an upper-class college drop-out which has had the greater fall-out. Catcher became the most banned book in the US. School boards tried to have it removed from classroom and library as fast as academics recommended it to their students. It was nearly 30 years after its publication that Mark David Chapman followed every step that Holden Caulfield takes in the novel before emptying five bullets into John Lennon in the old Dakota building. He claimed that he killed Lennon to prevent him from descending into phoniness, for his own good, as it were. Only a few months later, John Hinckley Jr took his copy of Catcher when he went to Washington to shoot President Reagan. How curious that this book should make some readers like me bark with laughter and feel marvellously carefree and happy, while it inspires others to go out and shoot people.
Slawenski tells us nothing about Salinger’s funeral, if there was one. He ends instead by describing how, when news of Salinger’s death broke, thousands of people, mostly young, took to YouTube to read out their favourite bits of his work, their voices alternately soaring and breaking as they read. I logged on to a couple of these jerky, smudgy little films. They are, to use the driest word I can think of, affecting. I rather felt like making one myself.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 3, 2010Tags: America, Biography, Non-fiction, Novelists