Kenneth Slawenski's biography of J.D. Salinger

By Roger Lathbury
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 6:49 PM


A Life

By Kenneth Slawenski

Random House. 450 pp. $27

Kenneth Slawenski broadens our understanding of the personal and literary life of a remarkable American writer in his biography "J.D. Salinger." Although sometimes careless with language and facts, Slawenski unearths new details and provides a coherent narrative and an in-depth reading of Salinger's work and its links to his life. (Ian Hamilton's "Salinger: A Writing Life" (1988) is still the most spirited and commanding portrait of Salinger, but it was never released as originally composed and covered only the years up to 1965. Paul Alexander's "Salinger" (1999) offers unsophisticated analysis of Salinger's work and is sloppily written.)

Readers familiar with previous biographies will recognize Salinger's privileged New York upbringing, his unsuccessful academic career, the horrific wartime experiences, and his struggles to become a professional writer of high achievement. That effort culminated in two undisputed triumphs, "The Catcher in the Rye" (1951) and "Nine Stories" (1953), followed by the more self-indulgent Glass family saga, which halted in 1965 as the author became more reclusive and more famous.

Slawenski covers Salinger's military experiences in World War II with exciting precision. He marshals details of Salinger's activity with the 12th Regiment in the fierce battle in the Huertgen Forest of Germany, where U.S. forces were outnumbered four to one, insufficiently supplied and sporadically reinforced with troops so exhausted they stepped on the dead bodies of their comrades. "When Salinger entered the Huertgen Forest," writes Slawenski, "he crossed the threshold of a nightmare world." This is the horror behind Sergeant X's experience in "For Esme - With Love and Squalor," and Slawenski's terrifying account enriches that story. In his telling, Salinger's unfortunate first marriage following these traumatic experiences seems less odd, though still somewhat murky.

Most important, Slawenski is able to answer a literary question Hamilton posed in 1988: How did the post-war author of such lax, immature stories as the ones published in Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping metamorphose into the ironic, controlled creator of "For Esme" and other masterworks in "Nine Stories"? Slawenski explains that two New Yorker editors, Gus Lobrano and William Maxwell, provided exactly the combination of encouragement and discipline that enabled Salinger to realize his long-standing literary ambitions. But one would like to know still more about the extended back-and-forth that resulted in the shattering tautness of "A Perfect Day for Bananafish."

Slawenski provides a fresh look at Salinger's second, ill-fated marriage, to Claire Douglas, including details about the couple's visits to College Park, Md., to meet with the guru Swami Premananda. Slawenski also reveals the early financial straits that led Salinger to try to sell his story "The Laughing Man" to Hollywood, which wanted only "Catcher."

Slawenski adds details to the portion of Salinger's life already familiar to most adepts - the period up to around 1965. The final four decades of the writer's 91 years, the silent and less consequential time in New Hampshire, occupy only a 10th of the book, and it is duller. Some of the more scandalous episodes have been retailed before, especially in Joyce Maynard's memoir "At Home in the World" and in Margaret Salinger's "Dream Catcher." Ian Hamilton, in his biography, previously set forth Salinger's exhausting battles to preserve his privacy.

My own name is in here, too. In 1997 my small publishing company, Orchises, was scheduled to publish in book form Salinger's final New Yorker story, "Hapworth 16, 1924," but when Salinger realized that he couldn't do this as quietly as he wanted, he walked away from the project.

Salinger had relied for solace on the Hindu scriptures known as the Vedanta. But around 1979, according to Slawenski, they no longer helped him overcome spells of deep depression, so he turned to other Eastern religions and then to more esoteric practices, such as astrology (and Scientology, though Slawenski doesn't mention this), as well as Christian Science - a fact I can verify. One of the first topics Salinger broached with me when we had lunch at the National Gallery of Art in 1996 was the work of Mary Baker Eddy.

In addition to new facts, "J. D. Salinger" sees the fiction from a fresh perspective. Slawenski may be the reader Salinger always wanted: He gives his heart to the work. Some of his conclusions are either self-evident or have been already drawn (the autobiographical basis of "For Esme" and the link between Valley Forge Military Academy and Holden's Caulfield's school, Pencey Prep, have long been known). But some are new, such as the influence of Salinger's abortive romance with Oona O'Neill (daughter of Eugene, later wife of Charlie Chaplin) on an uncollected New Yorker piece, "Slight Rebellion off Madison," as well as on the Sally Hayes episode in "Catcher." He also teases out the details of Salinger's relationship with Laurene Powell while in the Army, a romance reflected in "Both Parties Concerned," a 1944 Saturday Evening Post story.

Slawenski overestimates minor efforts - for him the uncollected story "A Boy in France" merits comparison to Blake, Dickinson and Dostoyevsky. However, he brings invigorating appreciation to later work, such as "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" (1955) and "Zooey" (1957) and, to a lesser extent, "Seymour, an Introduction" (1959). Except for "Hapworth 16, 1924" (1965), which he deems a failure, Slawenski offers a more meaningful analysis of the family portraits in these final stories than do other, more sophisticated commentators. Aware that the works are formless and moralizing, he does not - perhaps cannot - redeem them. But he argues that they are milestones in Salinger's spiritual quest to follow the non-materialistic gospels of the Vedanta.

Slawenski tells his story competently. However, he doesn't note sources for some of his new revelations or provide the substantiation that a serious, informed biography should. He ought to divulge, for instance, how he knows that as far back as 1943 Salinger contemplated selling his work to the movies after the war or that a snub by Gloria Vanderbilt lies behind the plot turn in "Down at the Dinghy." Additional specifics about the New Yorker editing would have made the book still more valuable. Moreover, the book has not been carefully edited. For instance, Roger Machell, a Hamish Hamilton editor, is misidentified as Robert Machell. However, these are minor objections to a welcome picture of one of the most singular characters in American letters: a writer whose insistence on privacy became at least as well known as his fiction; a quirky, difficult outsider who commanded adoration, brooked no error and mercilessly rejected those he felt had let him down; and above all a writer whose words young Americans read for years with a heartfelt trust and personal devotion that no other literary artist could come close to matching.

Roger Lathbury is a professor of English at George Mason University and the president of Orchises Press.

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