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Book review: 'J.D. Salinger: A Life' by Kenneth Slawenski

Taking on the tricky job of assessing the reclusive author's life.

January 23, 2011|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • J.D. Salinger in 1939, in a photo taken by his friend Dorothy Nollman while on break from Columbia University. (From the book "J.D. Salinger - A Life," by Kenneth Slawenski.
J.D. Salinger in 1939, in a photo taken by his friend Dorothy Nollman while… (Dorothy Nollman / Peter…)

J.D. Salinger

A Life

Kenneth Slawenski

Random House: 450 pp., $27

A year after his death on Jan. 27, 2010, it's tough to know how to assess J.D. Salinger; there are too many loose ends. How can we miss a writer who removed himself from the public conversation nearly half a century before he died? At the same time, nothing in the last 12 months has suggested any loosening of the grip he maintained on his writing while he was alive. Whatever Salinger may have produced since his last published piece, the novella "Hapworth 16, 1924," appeared in the New Yorker in 1965 remains out of reach.

So while Kenneth Slawenski's "J.D.Salinger: A Life" is the first comprehensive biography of the reclusive author, it does little to resolve the issue of Salinger's legacy. Instead, it is more an extended letter from a fan. Since 2004, Slawenski has been the proprietor of DeadCaulfields.com, a website devoted to all things Salinger, and he's been working on this project for longer than that. Originally published last March in England under the title "J.D. Salinger: A Life Raised High," his is a book that blends workman-like doggedness with a fair amount of critical overstatement while still managing to frame its subject's life.

Yet it's less the details of his life than the content of his work that defines Salinger's significance. "The Catcher in the Rye," "Nine Stories," "Franny and Zooey," "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour — An Introduction": Here we have the enigmatic substance of his legend, through which readers have long refracted their own alienation and desires. "If there is an amateur reader still left in the world — or anybody who just reads and runs — I ask him or her, with untellable affection and gratitude, to split the dedication of this book four ways with my wife and children," Salinger wrote in the last of these volumes. When, late in his investigation, Slawenski quotes this passage, he is offering us a key to his own point of view.

At the heart of Slawenski's portrayal is his account of Salinger's experiences during World War II, when, in less than 11 months, he participated in the invasion of Normandy, helped liberate Paris and — if Slawenski has conjectured correctly — ended up confronting the human wreckage at Dachau, where the "stench, according to eyewitness, could be smelled 10 miles away." The key concept here, of course, is conjecture, for as Slawenski admits, "[l]ike so many who encountered such scenes during the war, Salinger has never spoken directly of his experiences, and we cannot be certain of exactly what his … duties demanded of him." Nonetheless, because a division to which he was attached was later recognized "as a liberating unit of Nazi concentration camps," Slawenski concludes "it is evident that J.D. Salinger was called upon to take part in the liberation of victims of the Dachau concentration camp."

Such a passage neatly encapsulates both the challenges and the difficulties of this book that too much remains unknown. It's not just the war years, which clearly scarred the author; in July 1945, still in Germany, he checked himself into an Army hospital for treatment of what was probably post-traumatic stress disorder. Indeed, it's no stretch to suggest, as Slawenski does, that Salinger's time in battle rendered him fatalistic and had a lot to do with the direction of his later work.

And yet, because Salinger was so guarded — destroying correspondence, eschewing interviews, compelling friends to silence — Slawenski has to depend throughout the book on many secondary sources, including the author's writings, to fuel his conjectural leaps. He culls from archives at Princeton and the University of Texas, among other places, where some of Salinger's papers are kept. "It is probably dangerous to read its characters as autobiographical," he writes of an unpublished early story called "Birthday Boy," but again and again he has no choice but to offer precisely these sorts of readings, equating Salinger, at various points, with both Seymour and Buddy Glass as well as Holden Caulfield, looking for the correlations between his fiction and his inner self.

This is a double-edged sword, especially for readers familiar with Salinger's work. Slawenski's analyses are often inconsistent, if not incorrect. Discussing school-board challenges to "The Catcher in the Rye," he oddly wonders at Salinger's silence, then cites a September 1960 letter in which the author declares "he had decided to ignore the controversy completely … in order to devote himself to [his] new work." Addressing his influence on American letters, he claims that "writers such as John Updike and Kurt Vonnegut … had been profoundly influenced by Salinger at a young age," neglecting that Vonnegut, at least, was a contemporary whose career overlapped Salinger's almost completely, making the question of influence complicated, if not moot.

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