J.D. Salinger: A familiar life reviewed, revised
Kenneth Slawenski can be considered one of those "amateur readers" to whom J. D. Salinger, with "untellable affection and gratitude," dedicated "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" in 1955.
As something of an amateur author (this is his first book), Mr. Slawenski is also deserving of Salinger's gratitude, for his biography is remarkably good, though the notoriously reclusive and promotion-shy author would never have felt gratitude for anything smacking of publicity.
The author worked on this biography for seven years while running the website deadcaulfields.com. It was first published in Great Britain only weeks after Salinger's death nearly a year ago at 91.
The biography is successful although it differs little in its information from the last serious attempt, Ian Hamilton's "In Search of J.D. Salinger" of 1988.
Salinger fought ferociously -- all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court -- to prevent Mr. Hamilton from quoting from his letters, and largely prevailed.
Letters from Salinger are cited here, but you will not find them extensively quoted. But by using information from them, quoting letters to Salinger and painstaking digging in other areas, Mr. Slawenski has come up with a satisfying outline of his subject's life and career.
What chiefly makes the book valuable is its admiring, at times affectionate, understanding of Salinger as a person and its rigorous interpretation of his fiction as noteworthy art. Both were overdue, because, over the decades a sullen resentment had grown up in the intellectual establishment over his "hiding away" in remote Cornish, N.H., and his decision to stop publishing. Who did he think he was?
He was Jerome David Salinger, born into affluence in New York City Jan. 1, 1919. He began to write when barely out of his teens; went to war; achieved postwar acclaim with his short fiction; wrote one of the classic American novels of the 20th century, "The Catcher in the Rye"; and wrote other fiction that achieved fame, including "Nine Stories."
Mr. Slawenski relates at length Salinger's danger-filled military service. Though a staff sergeant in the Counter Intelligence Corps, basically he fought as a 12th Regiment infantryman from D-Day through the Huertgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge, by some historians' accounts the hardest combat faced by Americans in the European Theater.
A sullen envy had grown up, too, over his reclusiveness, his perfectionist demands concerning the publishing and publicizing of his fiction.
Didn't he know that a writer is not supposed to love his characters, as Salinger clearly did, but maintain a cool detachment? If he didn't, "they" would, and did, tell him so.
Mary McCarthy did. She ripped into the Glass family stories, saying "Salinger's world contains nothing but Salinger."
There is much more in here, including, of course, his status among his passionate fans as a mysterious legend and the cult status of "Catcher."
It's still early days in the Salinger biography industry, which surely will thrive as new sources open up. Meantime, it is good to have this corrective giving a better, not to say more humane, understanding of both the artist and his art.
First Published January 23, 2011 12:00 am