J. D. Salinger

What really knocks me out is a book that,
when you’re all done reading it,
you wish the author that wrote it was
a terrific friend of yours and you could call him
up on the phone whenever you felt like it.
That doesn’t happen much, though.”

— Holden Caulfield in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’

When I finished reading The Catcher in the Rye I was near tears. Okay, so I’m 15, hormonal and a little melodramatic — a lot moves me to tears — still, that book was something of an epiphany for me. Though it was written in 1951, it definitely wasn’t outdated. Why? Holden Caulfield is the prototypical confused adolescent, on the brink of adulthood. He is close enough to becoming a “grown-up” that he understand the “phoniness” of the adult world, but still young enough not to be phony himself. After reading this book, I longed to devour the other books by J.D. Salinger.

I was dissapointed by the lack of published work by Salinger. What I did find was pretty priceless, however: ‘Nine Stories’ (1953), ‘Franny and Zooey’ (1961) and ‘Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction’ (1963).

‘Franny and Zooey’ and ‘Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters’ were both about the bizarre and brilliant children of the Glass family. ‘Nine Stories’ is a collection of pretty random, unusual short stories. I read somewhere that the disturbing first story, our introduction to the character of Seymour Glass, ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, was somewhat inspired by Salinger’s actual life.

Jerome David Salinger was Born in 1919 to an affluent Jewish importer of kosher cheese and his Scotch-Irish wife in a fashionable apartment district of New York City. After attending various prep schools, Salinger reportedly grew restless and was sent to Valley Forge Military Academy, which he attended from 1934-36. Salinger then spent five months studying in Europe in 1937 and when he came home, he studied for a year at Ursinus College and New York University.

Salinger spent four years (1942-46) in the Army Signal Corps and Counter Intelligence Corps during World War II. His daughter, Peggy, believes that he was one of the first Americans to see the horror of German concentration camps and that he witnessed many deaths overseas, including those of 75% of the men in his own unit. Saligner was, according to biographer Ian Hamilton, hospitalized for stress during the war. This experience may have been the inspiration for his acclaimed story ‘For Esme- With Love and Squalor’, about a worn-out American soldier who writes to a teen-aged British girl who helps him regain a girl on reality.

Salinger’s first story was published in 1940 in the magazine Story. Subsequently, he was published by Esquire, Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, Good Housekeeping and– the crème de la crème– New Yorker. In all, he published 35 short stories, 16 of which were never officially published outside of their original appearances.

Salinger’s relationship with his father is often speculated upon. Apparently, it was tumultuous, with issues of Jewish identity causing particular problems. Details on the paternal relationship are sketchy, though it is said that Salinger didn’t even attend the man’s funeral.

Ahh, and now for what you’ve all been holding your breath for: Salinger’s love life. Known for being a bit of a lecher, Salinger is most-definitely a ladies man. Though he claims to be strongly influenced by Buddhism, a religion that scorns greed and desire, Salinger has been married three times and has pursued countless young women for sex.

He married his first wife, Sylvia (a French woman whom he met in Europe) in 1945. They divorced soon after. In 1955, Salinger married Claire Douglas, a young Dartmouth student. She was the daughter of British art critic, Robert Langton Douglas. Their marriage produced Salinger’s only children, Matthew and Margaret, and ended in divorce in 1967. After that relationship, Salinger pursued many young girls, most of whom he met through their fan letters. Most notable of those is Joyce Maynard, who went on to write a tell-all book about Salinger in 1998. Hopefully Salinger has found happiness with his third and current wife: Colleen (thirty years his junior).

Salinger’s two children have vastly different opinions of him. Matt Salinger, an actor who has appeared in many movies and TV shows including “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Picket Fences”, thinks of him as a good father. Margaret “Peggy” Salinger, who wrote a book about her father, strongly disagrees. It is as though the two had a different father.

Salinger is almost as well known as a recluse as he is an acclaimed writer. For many years he has remained in his home, out of the public spotlight, and has published nary a short story in over thirty years. In Paul Alexander’s biography of Salinger, he speculated that Salinger enjoys (on some level) the attention that being a recluse generates. That sounds odd, but Salinger often goes against the grain!

Rumor occasionally has it that Salinger will publish another novel. Salinger did his best to deny this in 1974, in a rare statement to a New York Times correspondent: “I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” Margaret Salinger would probably disagree with that statement, though. She claims that she was once invited into his study and shown several color-coded folders filled with his work. He told her that these folders were for work to be published posthumously. Unfortunately, we’ll all have to wait that one out.

Now, I mentioned earlier that ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ is said to be autobiographical on Salinger’s part. Supposedly Salinger’s father used to hold him and his sister by the waists in the water and tell them to look for “bananafish.” In the story, Seymour yells at his wife for not learning German in order to read a book he had given her as a gift. This kind of bizarre behavior is somewhat characteristic of Salinger himself. Also interesting is the characters suicide in the end. One can argue that Salinger himself committed suicide in a way, ending all sane contact with the outside world.

I have to say that I was somewhat disillusioned after learning more about Salinger’s life. I had come searching for Holden Caulfield and instead I found J.D. Salinger. A complex, disillusioned hermit. A man who preys on young women and is, in many ways, an asshole. Still, that doesn’t invalidate his work. At some point in his life, J.D. Salinger at least understood what it is to be like Holden Caulfield.

One Response

  1. An author’s life, loves, or
    An author’s life, loves, or habits have nothing to do with the quality or shelf life of the writing.

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