Holden Caulfield famously remarks in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye that after finishing a good book, “you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” As Kenneth Slawenski demonstrates, J.D. Salinger was not an author who would take your call. Reclusive and devoted to his craft, he seems to have had little time for anyone as he got older, with the possible exception of his children. Slawenski’s authoritative and illuminating new book, J.D. Salinger: A Life, is the result of many years of exhaustive research on the author’s writings, philosophy and the smallest details of his life.
Salinger’s decision to become a writer was made early in his life. His father was opposed to his choice, but his mother, to whom The Catcher in the Rye is dedicated, believed that her son was destined for greatness, a view he came to share. It was not, however, until Salinger heard the editor Whit Burnett read aloud William Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun Go Down” to a class at Columbia University that he began to focus seriously on the craft of writing. From this experience, he learned never to interfere with the reader and the story, to strive instead to write from the background.
Slawenski says it cannot be overstated that June 6, 1944, was the turning point in Salinger’s life. D-Day and the 11 months of combat that followed, including the Battle of the Bulge, “would brand itself upon every aspect of his personality and reverberate through his writings.” Salinger was in the Counter Intelligence Corps, where his duty was to arrest suspects and interrogate prisoners. His wartime experience encompassed both horror and bravery; the memory of his fellow soldiers who had been killed haunted him for years.
Slawenski’s enthusiasm for his iconic yet mysterious subject is evident on every page. We learn about Salinger’s romance with Oona O’Neill, the daughter of Eugene O’Neill, who later married the much older Charlie Chaplin, as well as many other relationships in his life, such as his friendship, mostly by letter, with Ernest Hemingway; his often difficult relations with his editors and publishers; and his three marriages (especially the first two). Slawenski offers insightful interpretations of both his well-known and obscure works and explains how Salinger began to understand his professional work as a spiritual exercise. Readers may be surprised when Slawenski explains why Salinger did not deliberately choose to withdraw from the world.
The 60th anniversary of the publication of The Catcher in the Rye is the perfect occasion to read this absorbing and groundbreaking account of a legendary American author.