For Salinger, With Love

Kenneth Slawenski’s biography offers a bowdlerized life.

Where were you when J.D. Salinger died on Jan. 27, 2010? I can never forget: I was on the campus of William & Mary, trying to get a little work done before teaching my class, but people kept calling and e-mailing to ask whether I’d write Salinger’s biography now that he was finally dead. The possibility had occurred to me (having published a biography of John Cheever, another New Yorker chronicler of postwar middle-class malaise), but only if I could get the family’s approval in the form of a legally binding agreement.

Snooping into Salinger’s life, after all, has always been a dicey business, as biographer Ian Hamilton learned to his enduring sorrow. Salinger v. Random House—the lawsuit brought to keep Hamilton from quoting Salinger’s letters—resulted in a drastic overhaul of so-called “fair use” law, rendering the whole genre of unauthorized biography a lot less fun for everyone. (Reading a subsequent attempt by Paul Alexander, Salinger: A Biography, from 2000, is like skimming every stale, Googled rumor in chronological order.) But now that Salinger was dead, I e-mailed his son, Matthew, and asked whether he might be willing to cooperate on what I hoped would be a definitive account. “I don’t think his lack of interest in such things depended on whether he was living or dead,” Matthew replied, affably enough, and wished me luck on whatever else I was working on. 

Just one year later, though, we have a new biography by Kenneth Slawenski, J.D. Salinger: A Life, and I dare say the cranky and elusive author of Catcher in the Rye might have been pleasantly surprised: Slawenski appears not to have pestered the family at all—or too many other people, for that matter, since he doesn’t mention interviews, nor does he dwell overmuch on the less-than-flattering material that’s already been unearthed about his subject. Creator of the Web site,, Slawenski is an unabashed fan, who has spent eight years sifting the few known facts of Salinger’s life for the good bits, the gold—that is, the extenuating stuff. Too bad he missed the cache of some 50 letters from J.D. Salinger to a prewar friend, Donald Hartog, just made public by the University of East Anglia; they show him as a regular guy who traveled freely, ate at Burger King, and was generally quite likable with old, undemanding friends and strangers he met on the bus—people, in short, who weren’t apt to treat him like J.D. Salinger. 

But let’s face it: For the most part, Salinger was a peculiar man who tended to make life very difficult for the few people who got close to him, and any serious biographer should be prepared to grapple with even the most gruesome facts.  But that’s precisely what Slawenski endeavors to avoid. For instance, you won’t catch him emphasizing the connection between a) Salinger’s preoccupation with sensitive, alienated young people in his fiction and b) his tendency to cultivate those same youngsters in real life. Slawenski deplores that kind of gossip, and has been commended in the press (so far) for his good manners. Joyce Maynard? Her story—told at harrowing length in her memoir, At Home in the World—gets a two-paragraph bum’s rush on Page 397. In Slawenski’s nutshell, Salinger made a few “poor decisions” in these later years, one of which was coaxing the 18-year-old Maynard—in 1972, when Salinger was 53—to live with him at his Cornish, N.H., retreat, until he got fed up and told her to go home. Nothing here about their ghastly sex life, no urine-drinking and so forth.

Indeed, toward the end of this tactful bowdlerization of Salinger’s life, the poker-faced biographer professes to be appalled by the “bizarre tales and misinformation … that [Salinger] had been habitually infatuated with teenage girls.” Define habitually. Over the years Maynard kept hearingfrom women who as teenagers were also wooed by the author’s lapidary prose, and then there are further revelations in his daughter Peggy’s memoir, Dream Catcher, from which Slawenski draws freely, if very selectively. I was taken aback to read that a 1968 trip to Scotland that Salinger took with his children was, according to Slawenski, little more than a light-hearted quest for locations featured in The 39 Steps, Salinger’s (and Phoebe Caulfield’s) favorite movie. “The only not so fun part of the trip,” Peggy writes in her memoir, “was the main reason he had come over in the first place. He had been corresponding with a teenage girl, and things had blossomed into a pen pal romance. He was to meet her for the first time inperson.” However, as Salinger candidly explained to his 12-year-old daughter at the time, he’d found the Scottish girl “homely” and promptly lost interest.  

The “homely” verdict seems at odds with perhaps the most important theme of Salinger’s fiction (never mind the one about being redeemed by the love of an innocent girl): namely, the Vedantic idea that everything is God, and therefore surface appearances are illusory. In Salinger’s novella, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,Seymour Glass tells a parable about a vegetable hawker who chooses horses so well—judging their inner, spiritual essence—that he doesn’t even notice what they look like. So what about the Scottish girl’s essence?

Slawenski is happy enough to conflate fiction with real life as long as it doesn’t result in some troubling paradox. Salinger’s role in World War II, for example, is presented at great length, and no wonder, given that he took part in the Normandy invasion and many horrific battles after, an experience that informed some of his greatest work: the portraits of traumatized veterans Seymour Glass and Sergeant X in (respectively) “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor,” as well as (arguably) the entire Glass family saga that followed. To give us a better sense, then, of what Salinger might have suffered, Slawenski retails great gobs of history about the writer’s regiment—since, of course, very little is known of Salinger’s actual exploits outside the fiction and a few existing (but circumspect) letters. And when Slawenski does pause to remind us of Salinger’s place in the picture, the conjectural tone is more than a little grating. “Like all soldiers of his regiment,” he generalizes, “[Salinger] fought with the purest sense of devotion, not for the army but for the boy next to him.” Where’s a little conflation when you need it? One may recall that D.B. Caulfield (Holden’s older brother, a writer, in Catcher in the Rye) observes of his war experience that “if he’d had to shoot anybody, he wouldn’t’ve known which direction to shoot in … the Army was practically as full of bastards as the Nazis were.”

Here and there, Slawenski departs from hagiography and adverts to his subject’s shortcomings, about which he tends to be as apologetic as he is insightful. “That Salinger’s ego was immense is indisputable,” he admits, explaining that Salinger had been spoiled by his adoring mother, and thereafter had little patience for those “who might doubt him or not share his point-of-view.” Since Salinger had a rather exacting way of expressing his point of view, others learned to keep their mouths shut or be cast into the outer darkness. The details of Salinger’s marriage to his second wife, Claire Douglas, are so disheartening that one suspects Slawenski would omit them if he could—but Claire was the mother of Salinger’s two children, and some account has to be given. Slawenski cites the usual mitigating factors onSalinger’s behalf (devotion to art, spirituality) while describing the man’s pathological self-absorption but also lets the court record speak for itself: Claire testified that her husband’s indifference had caused “nervous tensions, sleeplessness, and loss of weight” to the point of “injur[ing] her health and endanger[ing] her reason.” The better to work in solitude, that is, Salinger had built himself a bunker where he spent almost every waking minute and, finally, a separate cottage altogether where he could live apart from his family more or less full-time.

As for what finally alienated the affections of his daughter—well, that’s precisely the sort of unsavoriness that Slawenski is loath to pursue. To hear him tell it, Salinger was a doting (if distracted) daddy when Peggy was a child and no mention is made of their later estrangement or (outside the endnotes, where it’s frequently cited as a source) of her disparaging memoir. Needless to say, Slawenski omits the following: As an adult Peggy was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, whereupon her insurance company disputed the diagnosis and stopped her disability payments. At the time, she was losing control of her bowels and bladder and feared she’d end up destitute and unable to care for herself. She phoned her father to tell him so. “A week or two later,” she writes, “something arrived in the mail. He had taken out a three-year subscription, in my name, to a monthly booklet of testimonials to miraculous healing put out by the Christian Science Church. … I would get well when I stopped believing in the ‘illusion’ of my sickness.”      

I imagine the truth of Salinger’s difficult nature is somewhere between his daughter’s and Slawenski’s perspectives—witness those letters to his old buddy, Donald Hartog—and certainly the millions of readers who have been charmed and touched by Salinger’s fiction owe him a measure of forbearance. But Slawenski seems almost to love the man and his work equally, and thus—to paraphrase John Updike’s rueful critique of the Glass family stories—he loves Salinger to the detriment of biographical moderation. And then, beyond a point, his unwillingness to grapple with the messier aspects of his subject’s life begins to seem like laziness. Fiction writers are messy people, and Salinger is a virtual paradigm of such messiness both for better and worse. Braving so much solitude—no less awful for being self-imposed—he goaded himself into perfecting an exquisitely difficult craft, the better to sublimate his darker contradictions into art. Good biographers ought to welcome such contradictions and, perhaps, manage to reconcile them. It’s the very nature of their task.

But Slawenski can’t even be bothered to avoid howlers thatare eminently avoidable in the Internet age. For example, while discussing the rumor that Thomas Pynchon (also reclusive) and Salinger are one and the same, Slawenski points out that “Pynchon’s first publication had appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 1965, the same year Salinger had retired.” Pynchon’s first novel, V., was published in 1963—two years before that Times Magazine credit—and nominated for a National Book Award; anyway, he’d been publishing stories since the ‘50s.

On Salinger’s relations with The New Yorker—an important part of his story—Slawenski tends to neglect the most basic sleuthing. He writes, “It has been reported [by whom? no citation is given] that The New Yorker paid Salinger $30,000 a year for the right to review his work first.” Unlikely: Editor Harold Ross was a legendary cheapskate, and his successor William Shawn was respectful of the payment system he inherited. Updike got a $3,500 “first look” bonus in 1964; poor Cheever got a measly $2,600. In any event, the records are available at the New York Public Library, and Slawenski had eight years to check them. Also, while Ben Yagoda did write an excellent book about The New Yorker, he was not an “editor” there, as Slawenski seems to think. (Note to Slawenski: It took me all of two minutes to Google Yagoda and query him on this point; he responded within the hour.)

In light of what the author leaves out or gets wrong, what’s left over? There’s a lot of plot-summary of Salinger’s fiction—much less fun than reading the fiction itself—and, after Salinger quit publishing in 1965, not much of anything. The last 45 years of Salinger’s life are lumped toward the back of the book. Among other things, we learn that Salinger married, in 1992, “a professional nurse and amateur quilter” named Colleen O’Neill—40 years his junior—but that’s about all we learn of the couple. The final pages are mostly concerned with Salinger’s litigiousness toward a proposed Catcher “sequel” in 2009 titled 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye—a book that probably would have been forgotten before the sun set on its publication date if Salinger hadn’t so assiduously called attention to it. As I turned the very last page, I remembered that Slawenski had mentioned earlier a typical response to enlightenment on the part of Salinger’s characters: “a satisfied, peaceful sleep.” If sleep is what you need, then I’ve got the book for you; enlightenment is another matter.

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