Book: JD Salinger: A Life Raised High
Author: Kenneth Slawenski
Publisher: Tranquebar Press
Year : 2011
The story of Salinger’s reclusive life resonates with the theme of his most famous story: you can enter the ‘phony adult world’ and yet not be phony
In his critique of Jerome David Salinger’s Franny and Zooey in the New York Times Book Review, the novelist John Updike writes: “The refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all.” Salinger was a rare artistic adventurer, who saw his art – writing – as “a form of meditation”, as Kenneth Slawenski puts it in this biography of “America’s most famous private person”.
To Salinger, this meditative act of writing was “both fulfilling and natural”, but as meditation demands isolation, he always found it difficult to write “while under observation or scrutiny”. As a US army sergeant during World War II, it was his job to instil compliance among fresh recruits, which required him to don a mask of menace through the day. It was at night that he would write – forever careful to conceal his literary bent from those who were expected to obey his orders. Soon his knowledge of German and French brought him to the notice of the Counter Intelligence Corps, who recruited him as an agent briefed to identify citizens who could be potential threats to the army’s security.
Two years of training for this job, and the imminence of US entry into the war, precipitated what Slawenski calls “a defining moment in Salinger’s career and in his life”, when he wrote ‘Last Day of the Last Furlough’. Ian Hamilton has interpreted it as his last letter to his family in case he got killed in action, expressing what he thought of war through a dinner table discussion between Babe and his father, a former soldier. As the veteran gets nostalgic about World War I, Babe interrupts him with a speech on what glorifying war has done to history, ending with a kind of oath: “It’s the moral duty of all the men who have fought and will fight in this war to keep their mouths shut, once it’s over, never again to mention it in any way. It’s time we let the dead die in vain.”
In the final scene, Babe experiences an epiphanic moment at the bedside of a child, his sister Mattie, where he “re-establishes a connection with his own childhood and attains a level of purity he assumed had long deserted him”. This is a theme that Salinger often returns to in his later works. But it is in his best known work, The Catcher in the Rye – “the most completely stream-of-consciousness experience offered by American literature” – that this theme finds its most accomplished expression.
Often described as ‘life-changing’, The Catcher in the Rye has influenced generations of Americans. Salinger’s image became indistinguishable from the world of his protagonist Holden Caulfield, and yet carried ample ambiguity to allow readers to freely interpret his work. With the emergence of a youth movement that rebelled against the rigid conformity stalking US society since World War II, there was a collective, unconscious search for a voice that could express the widespread discontent and provide a validation to the alienation of individuals in conventional society.
Slawenski writes that many found this validation in The Catcher in the Rye, with its disordered narration of Holden’s memories, thoughts and emotions, and its message that you can enter the adult world and yet not be phony – despite the pervasive “adult phoniness“. No wonder the youth “seized upon the character of Holden Caulfield as the spokesperson for their generation”.
As his biographer, Slawenski shows great respect for Salinger’s “search for humility through privacy”, and this shows in the way he approaches every aspect of Salinger’s life and work. Using his brilliant storytelling skills, he conveys to the reader a deeply sympathetic picture of what Salinger was like, and how seamlessly the themes of his life-story intersect with that of the stories he wrote.