J.D. Salinger’s quasi-autobiographical novel about teenage angst and adolescent alienation, The Catcher in the Rye, is a classic of American literature. Written as a series of short stories when he served as a soldier in the U.S. army during World War II, the book was published on July 16, 1951, to mixed reviews. Nonetheless, it took off, spending nearly a year on the New York Times’ bestseller list.
Sixty-one years on, the novel remains astonishingly popular. By all accounts, 250,000 copies are sold each year in various languages. Still more astounding, world-wide sales have been 65 million.
In hindsight, any publisher would have been thrilled and honoured to have published The Catcher in the Rye. Yet when Salinger submitted the manuscript, the publisher requested a rewrite, and the editors of The New Yorker, which had published several of Salinger’s short stories, saw fit not to print excerpts, claiming that its characters, including Holden Caulfield, were unbelievable and too precocious.
Fortunately, Salinger, possessing remarkable self-confidence and tenacity, did not despair. Another publisher scooped up the manuscript, and Salinger’s stratospheric career was launched, with short stories and novellas – Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction – flowing from his fecund pen.
The eccentric and reclusive man who has touched so many lives is the subject of a most thorough and satisfying biography. Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life (Random House) takes a reader from his formative years in Manhattan to his cloistered existence in the backwoods of rural America. Being the founder of a website dedicated to Salinger, DeadCaulfields.com, the author is tremendously well versed and writes with great authority.
Jerome David Salinger, known to his parents as Sonny, was a hybrid. His mother, Marie Jillich, was of German, Scottish and Irish descent. His father, Solomon, was Jewish, his Lithuanian grandfather having immigrated to the United States in 1881. Marie met Solomon in 1910, embraced Judaism and changed her name to Miriam.
Raising their children in a secular and humanistic home, they celebrated both Christmas and Passover, but eventually, abandoned all displays of religious affiliation. Salinger was close to his mother, who always believed in him and to whom he dedicated The Catcher in the Rye. His relationship with his father was strained.
Salinger grew up amid the affluence of the Upper East Side and attended a private school, where he earned passable grades. Salinger wanted to study acting, but his father insisted on a military boarding school. At Valley Forge Military Academy, Salinger observed, he became a writer. Slawenski claims he used Valley Forge as the basis of Holden Caulfield’s prep school.
After dropping out of New York University, Salinger drifted. In an attempt to give him some direction, his father, the general manager of a European cheese and meat import company, sent him on a business trip to Austria and Poland. The relatives he met in Vienna were murdered during the Holocaust.
Upon returning, Salinger enrolled at Ursinus College, a German Reformed Church institution worlds away from New York. Joining the campus newspaper, he wrote his first published story. According to Slawenski, his desire to become a professional writer was hatched here.
In 1939, he enrolled at Columbia University, signing up for classes in short story writing and poetry. One of his instructors, Whit Burnett, the editor of Story magazine, accepted his first short story, The Young Folks, shortly before his 21st birthday, and would later urge him to write The Catcher in the Rye. In a burst of enthusiasm, Salinger submitted more stories to other magazines, but they were summarily rejected. Salinger, never allowing self-doubt to dilute his ambition, continued writing. His persistence paid off, with Esquire publishing The Heart of a Broken Story in 1941 and with The New Yorker accepting yet another one of his short stories shortly afterward. By then, he was represented by one of the most prestigious literary agencies in Manhattan.
Salinger was also busy chasing Oona O’Neill, the daughter of the famous playwright Eugene O’Neill. She broke his heart and left him for the actor Charlie Chaplin. Slawenski documents his liaison with O’Neill – which he describes as “the great romantic tragedy of [his] life” – at length.
Drafted by the army in 1942, Salinger was in the thick of combat during the war, landing in Normandy on D-Day in 1944. The horrors and agonies he witnessed would reverberate in his stories, some of which appeared in the mass-circulation Saturday Evening Post.
As a member of the 4th Infantry Division, he took part in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp system. It was an event that shook him to his core. After the war ended, Salinger was attached to a counter-intelligence unit charged with the de-Nazification of occupied Germany. While in Germany, he married a German national, Sylvia Louise Welter, but the marriage was over within a year.
By 1946 – the same year The New Yorker finally published his story Slight Rebellion off Madison – Salinger was studying Zen Buddhism and mystical Catholicism. Later, he embraced Christian Science. Slawenski offers no explanation why he was not drawn to his Jewish roots.
In 1948, The New Yorker not only published A Perfect Day for Bananafish, but put him on a retainer with an annual salary. From this point onward, he wrote exclusively for The New Yorker.
Having achieved recognition, he wrote For Esme – with Love and Squalor, one of his greatest stories. Basking in its glow, he devoted himself to finishing The Catcher in the Rye. He hated the celebrity it conferred on him and developed a fear of being recognized by admirers.
Craving normality, he moved to Cornish, New Hampshire, a village 240 miles north of New York City. There he converted a dilapidated barn, deep in the dense forest, into a livable home.
He lived in Cornish with his second wife, Claire Douglas, whom he divorced in 1967. In 1972, he became romantically involved with Joyce Maynard, a writer who was 35 years his junior. It would not be his last romantic relationship with a woman.
At Cornish, Salinger withdrew from the world. “His isolation was an insidious progression that slowly enveloped him,” Slawenski says. Salinger’s seclusion compounded the public fascination with him and burnished his legendary status.
Slawenski brusquely dismisses Hapworth 16, 1924, published in 1965 as his last piece, as “unreadable” and “completely indigestible.”
Salinger died on Jan. 27, 2010, at the ripe old age of 91. His son, Matthew, wrote an eulogy that distilled his father’s essence: “Salinger had remarked that he was in this world but not of it. His body is gone, but the family hopes that he is still with those he loves, whether they are religious or historical figures, personal friends or fictional characters.”
His death redoubled interest in his formidable body of work, with Amazon.com depleting its stock of his most famous titles. Salinger is gone, but his stories live on.