Exploring the genius of J D Salinger

The Browser's Ecstasy

Exploring the genius of J D Salinger

While this is not the definitive biography we have been eagerly waiting for (can there ever be one?), this is by far the most sympathetic, the most reverent biography of Salinger. Why, that marvellous photograph of S stylishly holding a cigarette and smiling at a rare book reading used on the book cover (it surfaced last year soon after his death) alone makes the price of the book worthwhile to a fan.

Another bonus in the book is more unseen photographs of Salinger. Slawenski hosted the Dead Caulfields website, an invaluable source of information for Salinger fans on his life and work for several years now.

This is the first full-fledged work on Salinger’s life and work that is not by a literary critic (Ian Hamilton) or a professional biographer (Paul Alexander). Even if there are already two existing biographies and two memoirs, there is always the hope that some big revelation about the author awaits you in a contemporary biography.

J D Salinger: A Life (Random House; whose UK title is J D Salinger: A Life Raised High) could become more invaluable to a student of Salinger’s work than to the casual reader curious about his life. Because Slawenski dives deep into the details of his fiction, going beyond his best known work to the dozens of short stories that reveal not Salinger’s craft but the connection between his work and life.

But, as grateful as I am for a new Salinger biography, I wish biographers would take as a starting point that part of his life when he turned reclusive and stopped publishing. These are the years that have not been uncovered; instead, they have been endlessly speculated on.

That whole first half of his life has been gone over and over again, not just in previous biographies and his daughter’s memoir, but also in a steady stream of academic monographs on his life and work that always begin with origins. But that doesn’t mean Slawenski has nothing new to say about S’s early life. He hits gold beginning with the true origins of his parents, showing us how even his family had the wrong notion of where they came from and who they were.

The famous opening lines of The Catcher in the Rye, points the biographer, where Holden is defiantly shy about his parent’s past (“all that David Copperfield kind of crap”) has its roots in Sonny’s own murky past. “This apparent elusiveness on the part of Holden’s parents,” Slawenski writes, “was imported directly from the attitudes of Salinger’s own mother and father.

Sol and Miriam rarely spoke of past events, especially to their children, and their attitude created an air of secrecy that permeated the Salinger household and caused Doris and Sonny to grow into intensely private people. The Salingers’ insistence upon privacy also led to rumours.”

Later, he notes that, “...In doing so, they not only invited fictitious versions of their history but confused their children too. By attempting to restrain Doris’s and Sonny’s natural curiosity, Miriam and Sol actually gave credence to a fabricated past that remained with them all their lives.”

Slawenski digs deep into the family’s past, and comes up with fascinating details previously ignored or unexplored by earlier biographers that throw light on not just how it could have affected his childhood but how it also shaped his fiction. A large, roomy New York apartment the family moved into may have become the setting for the Glass Family Stories.

There are more graphic details of what Salinger, the soldier, might possibly have gone through in the war than we have had before, demonstrating vividly how it made him even more private in civilian life, and the new interest in Eastern religions. “Through his writings,” says the biographer, “he sought answers to the questions that his service experiences had exposed, questions of life and death, of God, of what we are to each other.”

Hemingway had become a friend, and S wrote to him saying that he found himself, “in an almost constant state of despondency.” After this follows the better documented history of how Salinger became the famous short story writer for the New Yorker.

The early stories, many rejected, followed by the success of those that would foreshadow Catcher with Holden as a minor character. It culminates in the publication of his first novel. What interested me, in particular, was the aftermath of what happened, after he became a cult author.

His quick withdrawal from fame, and his retreat into silence. Most people think that his reclusive behaviour surfaced later, after he moved away from the city, but even before Catcher could be published he had specified that he did not want to do interviews, and after the first print run, that his photograph be removed from the backjacket.

He had become interested in Vedanta in particular and began attending classes. The deeper he studied, the more fiercely he pursued exile. His biographer makes an extremely telling interpretation when he observes, “From the time he completed The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger maintained the philosophy that his work was the equivalent of spiritual meditation”. The disappointment with Slawenski’s J D Salinger: A Life begins here. Just when Salinger’s life becomes really interesting, the chapters shorten and the book reaches its end.

Though his new biographer is able to tell us more about his subject’s reclusive period than any biographer before him, it is brief when matched against how much is unearthed about Salinger, the public author, versus Salinger, the private mystic.

What we really want to know is not just what had he been writing all these years, locked up in self exile, but how much had he been writing, and if they will be published. We know from many sources now that he continued to work on the Glass Stories, but little else. However, this is not what Slawenski is after. He writes, “By examining the life of J D Salinger, with all its sadness and imperfections, we are charged with the revaluation of our own lives, an assessment of our own connections, and the weighing of our own integrity.”

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