Born - January 1, 1919 - New York City
Catcher in the Rye - published 1951, Over 65,000,000 copies sold
Died - January 27, 2010, Cornish, New Hampshire
I read Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger probably around fifty years ago. A few months ago my youngest daughter, 19, said one of her friends advised her she must read the book so I bought her a copy. All I knew about Salinger before I read the best selling biography by Kenneth Slawenski J. D. Salinger: A Life was that he became a recluse, shielding himself from the public in a country house in rural New Hampshire.
Slawenski does a wonderful job bringing the legend to life. His biography was a delight to read, with an elegant prose style. I throughly enjoyed this book.
We see Salinger was born into an affluent New York City family. His mother totally doted on him and he got pretty much anything he wanted. When he told his parents he wanted to be a professional writer, his father was skeptical but his mother supported the idea. Salinger never finished college. He had some limited early success selling a couple of stories. After the United States entered World War II, Salinger joined the army. He scored high on various tests and tried to become an officer but did not succeed. After about a year on various American bases in training Salinger was part of the invasion force that went ashore in France on D Day. Salinger spent three years in the army, conducting himself with great fortitude. He experienced massive death rates among his comrades. He was designated as an intelligence official. His job was to question captured German troops and citizens in towns the Americans occupied. He was in Paris after the liberation, where he made a life time friend, Ernest Hemingway who helped him deal with the horrors of war. Perhaps the most traumatic of his experiences was at the liberation of concentration camps. Slawenski lets us see how all this death, cruelty and violence impacted the raised in a pampered way Salinger. He often received gift baskets from his mother and he wrote a few short stories about his war experiences.
Salinger was so happy to return home, he was kept for about six months in Germany as his intelligence skills were needed. Salinger was what would have in 1946 been called "a ladies man". He had numerous girl friends and like to hang out at elite places in NYC. He began writing again and Slawenski lets us follow closely the career
Path of Salinger. He knew he had succeeded when after numerous rejections the super prestigious New Yorker offered him a $30,000 yearly contract to have first refusal rights on all his work. Salinger struggled with editors and mentors but The New Yorker became his literary home and the editorial staff a second family.
Slawenski shows us the very long genesis of The Catcher in the Rye. We see Salinger becoming more demanding about the way his work was published and more difficult personally. He became interested in Zen Buddhism and later was very influenced by the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, a Hindu religious teacher.
Slawenski devotes a great deal of space to explicating Salinger's short stories, letting us she the impact of Salinger's experiences and his spiritual beliefs. Along the way we learn a lot about the business side of Salinger's career. We are there for his three marriages and a late life affair. As he became more famous reporters sought him out. I was surprised to learn that the man who murdered John Lennon was reading calmly a copy of Catcher in the Rye when the police arrested him. He said he was inspired by the lead character Holden Caulfield to kill Lennon. Also the attempted assassin of Ronald Reagan had a copy of the book in his back pack. The book in spite of being a great commercial and literary success began to be banned in schools.
There is much more in this book. We see Salinger settle in on his 90 acre property in New Hampshire, follow decline of his second marriage, his first was a one year fiasco with a French woman he met while in Europe who some say was a gestapo agent, we admire what a devoted father he became. We see him become more and more private. His third marriage was the best. He had a strange late life affair that Slawenski details.
This is a first rate literary biography. Slawenski totally knows the work of Salinger. I for sure want to reread Catcher in the Rye and read the rest of his work.
Kenneth Slawenski is the author of J. D. Salinger: A Life, on which he worked for eight years, and the creator of the New York Times recommended Web site DeadCaulfields.com.