Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life

There is an Internet axiom known as the Streisand effect, which states that any attempt to hide, censor or prevent the spread of information or ideas inevitably ends up drawing greater attention to the subject in question. The tragedy of the latter half of J.D. Salinger’s life is that he did not understand this simple truth, and so many of the attempts he made to secure his privacy – by lying, in an interview, about where he lived, for example, or badgering publishers to remove his portrait from his published works – only increased the public’s curiosity about this strange recluse living the life of a Zen monk in rural New Hampshire. Though Salinger only died in January of 2010, and apparently continued to write until the end of his days, his last published work emerged in 1959, and so – as interesting as his final years may be – it is to the tragedy of his early life that admirers of his work should turn. Kenneth Slawenski, whose blog DeadCaulfields is the web’s most visited shrine to the life and work of J.D. Salinger, has put his passion for the man in the service of a loving biography, meticulously researched and convincingly argued, drawing on what bibliographical reference material remains – Salinger, no doubt aware of the posthumous circulation of literary letters, asked that his friends burn his correspondence – as well as close readings of Salinger’s works.

Salinger’s life follows an unusual pattern for writers, in that we know far more about his early years than his later ones, despite the relative obscurity of his youth and the incredible fame he came to have as an adult. Like so many men of his generation, he served in the Second World War, and both his correspondence from Europe and his army service records survive, so Slawenski can more or less track his movements throughout the war, though Salinger himself remained tight-lipped about his experiences in combat all his life. Still, a quick survey of his route through Europe should suffice to evoke the special hell he must have gone through: he was among the men of the 12th Infantry Regiment, where he saw combat at Utah Beach on D-Day. From there, he was present at both the siege of Cherbourg – a key port city for German supply lines, nested with snipers – and the infamous and prolonged battle in Hürtgen Forest, where the Nazis had entrenched themselves in pill boxes and boobytrapped the forest floor with land mines. To this day, the Hürtgen Forest battle remains the longest-lasting in American military history, involving the worst fighting conditions of the Western Front. Some 28,000 Germans were killed, at the expense of 33,000 Allied troops, half of whom were killed by the terrible cold. The remaining casualties were shot by snipers, killed by landmines, or impaled by shrapnel from German tree bursts, “which exploded well above the soldiers’ heads, resulting in a shower of shrapnel and shredded tree limbs that poured down like a thousand spears.” Again, the attrition rate was staggering: “Of the original 3,080 regimental soldiers who went into Hürtgen, only 563 were left” by the time the German’s finally capitulated, and their reward was not rest or furlough but an immediate German counteroffensive, Hitler’s last, desperate bid for military victory: the Battle of the Bulge. Adding to his stress, Salinger worked in army counter-intelligence: it was his job to comb newly conquered territories for Nazis or their collaborators, many of whom were left behind to sabotage the Allied advance. The first man he identified as a Nazi collaborator was swept up by a French mob and hanged before he could stand trial.

The war was an unbroken string of misery and suffering, but that did not prevent him from writing. Fans of Holden Caulfield will smile to think that the earliest versions of his character emerged as the Allies advanced across Europe, and that Salinger – who drew strength from the spiritual shelter his writings provided him – carried his papers on his person at all times. Holden Caulfield, too, was present on D-Day, and in Cherbourg, and Hürtgen, and the Battle of the Bulge. Slawenski draws on the memories of Salinger’s fellow combat veterans, who recall seeing him scribbling away in a trench or on a desk under a tent behind the front lines, even to the sound of bursting bombs. Hemingway, too, was present for much of this, albeit as a war correspondent rather than a combatant, and Salinger sought him out. Their friendship was short-lived, and Salinger seems to have had many reservations about Hemingway as a man and as as writer, but their brief campfire conversations about art and literature, their shared reverence for the written word, offered him a rare respite from combat. By April of 1945, Salinger was in Germany, where he would have his most horrific experience yet: the liberation of a concentration camp. The sight of those emaciated prisoners, mere skeletons, would haunt him for the rest of his life, and – according to Slawenski – bring his spiritual crisis to a final, devastating question: where, in all this misery, was God?

This question, and the subsequent attempts to answer it in his writings, would propel Salinger to new heights of artistic accomplishment by supplying him with a higher goal, a more pressing spiritual concern, than he had ever had before the War. It would not be Holden Caulfield, the young rebel, but Seymour Glass, the husband and father, the war veteran, who would help him answer this question. In “A Perfect Day For Bananafish,” the first short story to feature a member of the Glass family, the characters that would preoccupy Salinger for the rest of his life, Salinger enters into a kind of dialogue with T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the most famous 20th century poem, and certainly one of the most pessimistic; Slawenski’s analysis of this interchange is worth quoting in full:

Down on the beach sits Seymour Glass, his pale, thin body cocooned within his bathrobe. He is talking to a child whose mother has sent her off to play while she herself consumes martinis. The little girl’s name is Sybil Carpenter, and her conversation with Seymour is as ordinary as it is intriguing. Sybil, though, is not a likeable child. She is demanding, impatient, and given to jealousy. […] When Sybil brings up the subject of her rival, the young Sharon Lipschutz, Seymour quotes T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land in claiming the topic to be “mixing memory and desire.” Salinger’s use of this quote points to the source of Sybil’s name. The Waste Land opens with a short introduction in Greek in which the young men of Cumae taunt the entrapped Sybil with their freedom. In Greek mythology, Sibyl was granted a wish. In vanity, she chose eternal life. However, she forgot to request eternal youth at the same time, condemning her to grow old without end. Eliot presents Sibyl suspended within a jar, begging the gods for the very death that she has denied herself. It is a dark vision of humankind being perpetually mutilated by its own experience and frantically seeking release.

If Sybil Carpenter’s first name links her with a selfish and unhappy figure in Greek mythology, her last name evokes Christ, the figure of utmost selflessness, suggesting, perhaps, that all of us are possessed of this dual possibility for good and evil. “Seymour,” Slawenski goes on, “may weigh the nature of humanity through the time he spends with Sybil, all the while grasping for some kind of hope or even deliverance from what he has endured.” The story ends with Seymour Glass in his hotel room, standing over his sleeping wife; he then reaches for his pistol and takes his own life. Perhaps Seymour, like Salinger, had seen too much of humanity’s capacity for evil to be persuaded of the value of life. And perhaps, in Seymour’s suicide, we glimpse something of the rationale for Salinger’s subsequent seclusion, for the suicide and the recluse agree on the benefit of renouncing the world – they disagree only on the method.

Slawenski’s portrait of Salinger does much to illuminate the man and his work, and to explain his incredible and enduring appeal, and the irony of his life. For in the end, Salinger could renounce the world, but the world was not – and is not – ready to relinquish him.