This book, which purports to be a biography of the well-known author, J. D. Salinger, is perhaps more interesting for what it itself is than what it tells us of Salinger. It is certainly not your ordinary biography, consisting of quotes from dozens of people who at one time or another had conversations with Salinger, served in the army with him, lived with him, married him, edited him, was a child of his, a lover, or someone who merely observed him briefly at one time or another. It is, in a way, a ridiculous presentation. First, you have no way of knowing if the quotes are supposed to be verbatim (which they surely are not), which means they must have been at least somewhat edited. Second, and more importantly, you cannot know why only some quotes were selected and others were not. Virtually all of the quotes are more positive than negative, could there have been negative ones that were simply left out? There is little or nothing of Salinger’s childhood other than he was a child of partly Jewish wealthy parents. The book begins with Salinger’s experiences in World War II that were, beyond doubt, extremely traumatic for him, landing him in psychiatric care for a time and quite obviously affecting his life and writing thereafter.
Salinger wanted to be a writer at least from the age of fifteen. He felt that if he joined the army he would get the kind of experience he needed to become one. It is claimed he carried the first four or five chapters of his most famous work, Catcher in the Rye, with him during his combat experiences and would work on them whenever an opportunity presented itself. He was also working on short stories and submitting them to various magazines. He thought Hemingway was a great writer (as did most people of his generation) and actually met him on three or four occasions during the war. Hemingway was apparently very kind to him and encouraged him. Salinger’s stated goal as a writer was to have his work appear in the New Yorker magazine, a goal he eventually achieved even before Catcher in the Rye brought him fame and fortune, and perhaps ruined his life, or at least helped to turn him into a recluse for some fifty years of his life. Although he was indeed reclusive, how reclusive he truly was is not entirely clear. He seems to have been social enough on occasions when he wanted to be.
Salinger certainly was not reclusive when he began writing and his ambition was to become known and publish in the New Yorker. The success of Catcher in the Rye, that has by now apparently sold over 60 million copies, brought him such fame and fortune, and so many demands from his readers, he eventually had to escape, which he did, to a country house in New Hampshire, pleading that he was merely a writer of fiction, not a guru. He became obsessively concerned with his privacy which was apparently protected by his neighbors and by his wives until he died at 91 years of age, having published nothing for some fifty years. Although he did not publish during all those years he apparently did continue writing (for himself, he claimed), so there is now an inordinate amount of curiosity about just what it was he was writing (there are apparently several manuscripts to be published posthumously).
I confess to not having been a great fan of Salinger’s although I have read and enjoyed most of his work. I must have read “Catcher” in the 50’s when it was first published (1951) and although I’m sure I enjoyed it, it did not make an indelible impression on me as it has on so many others. As I read most of his work some time ago I do not remember it as vividly as I might wish so I am in the process of reviewing most of it. There is no doubt Salinger was a fine writer, with, as Hemingway told him, a “fine ear.” But I find some of the claims about his work to be somewhat questionable and I will comment further about this soon.
In the meanwhile listen to Ted Cruz and watch the Republican Party unravel in their attempt to placate the lunatics that seem to be in charge of it these days.
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”