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Kenneth Slawenski's "J.D. Salilnger: a Life"

Salinger, Still Unknowable

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Difficult to write a biography of a recluse. I understand the problem fully, from my own attempt to write a joint biography of Nella Larsen and Jean Toomer, two writers of the Harlem Renaissance who "disappeared" after the Renaissance was over. J. D. Salinger didn’t literally disappear but for all practical purposes he was no longer visible. Everyone who will read Kenneth Slawenski’s exhaustive biography of Salinger already knows that. But if they expect to learn much more than what is already known about the last 44 years of Salinger’s life (once he stopped publishing), they will no doubt be disappointed. That’s virtually half of Salinger’s life and still hardly a clue about the major question: Are there manuscripts (novels, stories) that will finally see publication?

Fortunately, there are plenty of interesting nuggets about Salinger’s earlier years but at least two that I am aware of are not mentioned in Slawenski’s biography. The major one? When the novelist, A. M. Homes, was still a teenager, she wrote a play about Holden Caulfield that Salinger’s lawyers stopped before it could be produced. That was a long time before several of the celebrated later instances when Salinger’s lawyers prevented other offshoots from his works from seeing the light of publication. No matter, since those legal matters are not as interesting as what Slawenski has revealed about the famous writer.

Quick facts: Salinger (1919-2010) was the child of a Jewish father and a gentile mother. His formal schooling was at Valley Forge Military Academy, followed by brief periods of study at three universities without completing a B.A. He was in love with Oona O’Neill (as she apparently was with him) but Oona later married Charlie Chaplin. By 1940, he had begun publishing short stories (the first one in Story magazine that year). He was drafted in 1942 and served in the military (he landed at Normandy and was also present at the liberation of Paris). He continued in Counterintelligence after the war and subsequently married a German woman, the first of three wives. He had managed to keep writing throughout the war and published first in The New Yorker in 1946.

Of the Salinger’s war years, Slawenski is particularly perceptive, concluding, "…he was jaded and bitter over the realities he had encountered. The scars, both physical and psychological, would remain with him for the rest of his life. Hurling himself for cover, he had broken his nose, a disfigurement he refused to repair. The sound of explosions had stolen much of his hearing, and by war’s end he was partially deaf. Constant combat served to cut him off from his own feelings and left no time to deal with the horror he had lived through." He was hospitalized for a time because of depression. His salvation was his writing and his rapidly increasing visibility as a writer after the war was over.

Yet by 1950, with the publication of Catcher in the Rye (which he had worked on for ten years), a pattern of secrecy and withdrawal had begun—even before the publication of the novel. After the second printing of what was becoming an enormously successful book, he had his photo removed from the book jacket. He turned increasingly to Zen and other Eastern religions. He left New York for the remoteness of Cornish, New Hampshire. The house had no toilet, no running water. Salinger permitted a high school girl to interview him for her school’s paper but then was horrified when the interview appeared in the town’s newspaper. He married Claire Douglass in 1955, and they had two children (a girl and a boy). He had begun writing his celebrated stories about the Glass family. After improvements on the original house, he had a second cottage built on the 90 acres of land originally purchased. Increasingly, he distanced himself from his wife and children, sometimes spending 16 or 24 hours alone by himself writing.

Slawenski mentions problems with writer’s block. In 1961, Salinger’s privacy was breached by a lengthy article in Time magazine—along with his portrait on the cover. The religious turn of Salinger’s late stories fascinated his devoted readers and led to endless speculations about the reclusive writer. Slawenski remarks, "Media articles with titles such as ‘The Mysterious J. D. Salinger’ made for good copy. They were intriguing to readers and sold magazines. But they fabricated a myth that Salinger was an ascetic recluse who had spurned the real world for the refuge of his imagination. Reporters then 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, strengthening his resolve to remain in anonymity as his desire for privacy became more precious to him the more difficult it became to secure."

Salinger’s last published story was "Hapworth 16, 1924" which ran in The New Yorker, June 19, 1965—so long that it was almost the entire issue. He and Claire divorced in 1967, though Salinger appears to have remained a devoted father. His biographer describes Salinger’s life as one of "rigid isolation" and depression, and as a "failed husband," yet there was a third marriage to a woman who presumably outlived him.

Kenneth Slawenski is almost as difficult to locate information about as the subject of his biography. He is identified on the jacket of the biography as "the creator of DeadCaulfields.com, a website founded in 2004," but the site itself reveals almost nothing about Slawenski. His biography of Salinger is strong on descriptive facts but fairly colorless about interpretation of Salinger’s literary works. No surprise that Slawenski has to rely on speculations tempered by such phrases as "it may be," "it is possible," "the chances are that." Salinger simply worked too hard to make certain that evidence of his personal life was destroyed. One example: He convinced his agent, Dorothy Olding, to destroy the more than 500 letters she had received from him. Thus, we will probably never know much more about J. D. Salinger than what is available in this biography. Slawenski has provided us with what is known from public documents and some first-hand accounts from a number of people in his life. But, mostly, these people remained silent and gave Salinger what he wanted: anonymity. That is no reason for ignoring J. D. Salinger: A Life, though some readers may conclude it was not much of a life at all.

J. D. Salinger: A Life
Kenneth Slawensk
Random House, 450 pp., $27.00

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. His books include: Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen.