‘The Courage to Be an Absolute Nobody’

What made J.D. Salinger stop publishing and drop out of society at the very peak of his success? A new biography looks at the bizarre arc of the late writer’s life and work

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

J. D. Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski.
Random House, 450 pages, $27

The narrator of J.D. Salinger’s story “Seymour: An Intro-duction,” wonders aloud about our fascination with “artists and poets who as well as having a reputation for producing great or fine art have something garishly Wrong with them as persons: a spectacular flaw.”

As an admiring new biography by Kenneth Slawenski makes clear, Salinger’s own garish flaw, and the one closest to the heart of his art, was his fiercely guarded hermetic silence. The author of the “Catcher in the Rye,” who died a year ago at age 91, had published not a word since 1965. To understand why is to fathom something about Salinger’s spiritual seeking, and about the fate of writing in the age of celebrity.

J.D. Salinger, November 1952Credit: Getty Images

The son of Sol, a Jewish meat and cheese importer, and Marie, a redhead from Iowa who changed her name to Miriam when she converted to Judaism, Jerry Salinger enjoyed a prosperous childhood on the Upper West Side and then on Park Avenue. But the family’s ascension into well-heeled WASP circles had its limits. The heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, as perfect an embodiment of that class as you could wish to find, once dismissed the young Salinger as merely “a Jewish boy from New York.”

Anti-Semitism as such crops up only once in Salinger’s fiction. In his 1949 story “Down at the Dinghy,” a boy confuses the word “kike” with “kite,” and imagines that his father has been maliciously compared to “one of those things that go up in the air .... With string you hold.” But resentment toward the upper crust would be heard as a ground-note of Salinger’s stories, part of their distinctive sound.

In fact it was Salinger – by all accounts an urbane young man brimming with sardonic wit – who acted as restless as a kite: failing grades; a stint at Valley Forge Military Academy; twice a college dropout; a short-lived romance with Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, Oona, a brassy girl who later wed Charlie Chaplin. Salinger’s only tether in those days was his teacher Whit Burnett, founding editor of Story magazine, who shepherded Salinger’s tentative first stories into print.

World War II brought Salinger crashing to the earth. As a staff sergeant and counterintelligence officer in the 12th Infantry Regiment, he saw some of the war’s bloodiest carnage: the D-Day landing in Normandy on Utah Beach, the Battle of Huertgen Forest in the winter of 1944, the Battle of the Bulge the next winter. In the end, Salinger was among the first American soldiers to reach Paris, where he met Ernest Hemingway, then a war correspondent for Collier’s.

In April 1945, Salinger’s division liberated six sub-camps of the Dachau concentration camp system. “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely,” he would later tell his daughter. “No matter how long you live.” That summer, despondent after 11 months of unremitting combat, Salinger suffered a mental collapse and checked himself into a hospital in Nuremberg. The depressed patient wrote to Hemingway from his bed.

“The talks I had with you here,” he said, “were the only hopeful minutes of the whole business.” After several weeks of recuperation, Salinger resumed his work: interrogating POWs, assisting in “denazification,” and tracking war criminals in the American zone of occupation.

For further reading:

Biography / The founding father
Biography / Heroic ambivalence
From yeshiva student to rebellious writer

Although in an oblique way a couple of Salinger’s stories would later address themselves to the Holocaust (“A Girl I Knew,” 1947), and to the agonies of the war (“For Esme – with Love and Squalor,” 1950), he would never speak about his experiences in the European campaign, as though in observance of his protagonist’s instruction in the 1944 story “Last Day of the Last Furlough”: “I believe ... that it’s the moral duty of all the men who have fought and will fight in this war to keep our mouths shut, once it’s over, never again to mention it in any way.” But of course Salinger’s fulfillment of that duty by no means quieted the war’s reverberations in his own life and writing.

String of successes

Salinger’s return home was followed by a string of successes: his debut in The New Yorker at age 27, the beginning of an enduring association, and the publication five years later of his best-selling novel “The Catcher in the Rye” (1951, only published in Israel in 1974). Salinger’s disaffected 16-year-old monologist Holden Caulfield unforgiving unmasker of phonies and hypocrites, caustic scorner of shallowness and smugness and pretense and conformity soon joined his predecessor Huck Finn as a permanent presence in American literature. Not that every reader was enthralled. Norman Mailer quipped that Holden’s creator was “the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school.”

But the overwhelming majority of readers saw their own plights reflected in Holden’s. In this and other stories of adolescent angst, Salinger displayed a great economy and precision of description, a faultless ear for American speech, a sure comic touch, an alertness to small, ennobling gestures, and a vividness in conveying his indelible characters’ emotions, heartbreak especially.

As Slawenski tells it, the strongest reverberation of the war can be heard not only in Salinger’s longing and Holden’s for purity and innocence lost, but also in the way the writer’s achievements elicited a deep suspicion of success, setting in motion a lifetime of spiritual seeking that would take him through Zen Buddhism, Vedanta Hinduism, the teachings of the Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna, Christian Science, homeopathy and macrobiotic diets.

With the proceeds of “The Catcher in the Rye,” and accompanied by his new wife Claire Douglas, whom he met when she was 16 and he was 32, Salinger bought 90 acres of wooded hillside property in Cornish, New Hampshire, overlooking the Connecticut River Valley, and there retreated into reticence. He kept even old friends at arm’s length. He began to exhibit more than the usual share of eccentricities, including an aversion to being photographed or being recognized, in fact to publicity of any kind. He succumbed to a dread of the mail. He grew increasingly litigious, fighting to prevent take-offs and adaptations of his stories for the screen or stage, turning down the entreaties of Elia Kazan, Billy Wilder, Steven Spielberg even Brigitte Bardot.

With the exception only of Gus Lobrano and William Shawn, his champions at The New Yorker, Salinger held a deep mistrust of editors and publishers, and eventually of publishing itself. He derided the commodification of writers, and the corrosive effects of praise and flattery. “There are no writers anymore,” he remarked to his friend Lillian Ross. “Only book-selling louts and big mouths.”

The choice of solitude

From Thoreau’s seclusion in Walden to E.B. White’s in Maine, many an American writer has chosen solitude. But Salinger’s withdrawal had most of all to do with a renunciation of the fruits of his literary labors. In his 1957 novella “Zooey,” Salinger has a quote from the Hindu holy text the Bhagavad Gita posted on the door of Buddy and Seymour’s room: “You have the right to work, but for work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of your work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working.” Such a sentiment is why Salinger her creator has Franny, a talented actress, quit the stage.

“Just because I’m so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else’s values, and just because I like applause and people to rave about me, doesn’t make it right,” Franny declares. “I’m ashamed of it. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.”

Likewise did Salinger attempt to retreat into obscurity himself. “Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy,” he told The New York Times in 1974. “I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

Naturally, Salinger’s self-wrought silence only amplified the rumor-mongering; it only compounded the Salinger mystique. What he called “English-department scavengers” paid unwanted visits. Less than fastidious journalists ambushed him. Betty Eppes, a reporter for the Baton Rouge Advocate and a former Playboy Bunny, surreptitiously taped a conversation with him. A Time researcher waylaid Salinger’s sister Doris at Bloomingdale’s, where she worked. One writer tried to sell to People magazine a fictitious “interview” with the reclusive author. More darkly, there were the unhinged Salinger crazies, caught up in the cult of “Catcher.” Mark David Chapman was carrying the novel when he shot and killed John Lennon in 1980, and went so far as to declaim a passage to the court during his sentencing. Several months later, police discovered the book in John Hinckley’s possession after he made an attempt on the life of President Ronald Reagan. So too in the movie “Conspiracy Theory” (1997), wherein a mentally troubled taxi driver played by Mel Gibson (perfectly cast for the part) feels an irrational urge to buy copies of the novel whenever he sees it.

Meanwhile, amidst the fuss, the recluse burrowed ever deeper into the recesses of his seclusion.

Writing as meditation

How does telling the story of Salinger’s life and his 45-year silence enlarge our understanding of his writing, if it all?

It is in answering this question that Slawenski is at his best. There have been earlier biographies of Salinger, notably those of Ian Hamilton (1988) and Paul Alexander ((1999. More tawdrily, to these were added memoirs by his daughter Margaret Salinger (“Dream Catcher,” 2000), and by Joyce Maynard (a la Claire Bloom on Philip Roth) in 1999, which described her affair with the writer when she was 18 and he was 53.

But what distinguishes Slawenski’s book, besides its meticulous research, is the stress it places on Salinger’s view of writing as meditation, what the biographer calls “the union of prayer and authorship.” Slawenski, founder of a fan site called DeadCaulfields, more or less reads Salinger’s stories as an increasingly explicit manual on how to live a spiritual life in a material world, which is almost the same as how to create an art unpolluted by ego.

For this very reason, coming on the heels of the high polish of his early stories, Salinger’s mannered late fiction about the precocious Glass family falters. Many critics have remarked on his indulgence in his own characters. “Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them,” John Updike said. “He loves them too exclusively. Their invention has become a hermitage for him. He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation.”

Mary McCarthy, too, had just about enough of the seven half-Jewish, half-Irish Glass children. “In Hemingway’s work,” she complained, “there was hardly anybody but Hemingway in a series of disguises, but at least there was only one Papa per book. To be confronted with the seven faces of Salinger, all wise and lovable and simple, is to gaze into a terrifying narcissus pool. Salinger’s world contains nothing but Salinger, his teachers, and his tolerantly cherished audience.”

What succeeds as prayer and as spiritual meditation may fail as literature, as storytelling. For better or worse, solipsism or no, Salinger made a religion of his art, and took his art as his salvation, and in the end conducted a monologue with himself alone.

Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is the author of “Running Commentary” (2010).