'J.D. Salinger: A Life': Kenneth Slawenski's biography of a reluctant genius
Kenneth Slawenski's "J.D. Salinger: A Life" is the best biography thus far of the reclusive writer, a rich book that offers new insights into the psychology of the author of "The Catcher in the Rye."
Special to The Seattle Times
'J.D. Salinger: A Life'
by Kenneth Slawenski
Random House, 450 pp., $27
Sixty years ago this month, the writer J.D. Salinger received a letter from The New Yorker magazine weighing in on a manuscript to a novel he'd sent them. Salinger breathlessly opened it, expecting an excerpt from his decade-in-the-making novel to be embraced, particularly since he'd completed it due to the editor's constant urging.
The verdict on the book, which Salinger planned to call "The Catcher in the Rye," was that The New Yorker thought it stunk. "The notion that in one family (the Caulfield family) there are four such extraordinary children ... is not quite tenable," wrote the rejecting editor.
The rest, of course, is history, and this being Salinger, much of that history is ironic. "Catcher" went on to become one of the most acclaimed novels ever, Salinger became one of The New Yorker's most popular contributors, and the Caulfield family became one of the most enduring of all fictional creations.
The details of that rejection letter are one of the many particulars that make "J.D. Salinger: A Life" the best Salinger biography to date. Originally published in the U.K. while Salinger was alive, it has been updated and revised for U.S. publication with a new chapter that details Salinger's death last Jan. 27. Author Kenneth Slawenski says it was eight years in the making, and with minutiae to satisfy the most fanatical Salinger reader, it reads that way.
That accomplishment is not surprising, considering that Slawenski is best known for Deadcaulfields.com, a website he maintains of Salinger trivia. But while most fan website creators are too myopic to be skillful biographers, Slawenski's subdued storytelling and concise literary analysis make this not just a trivia-filled tome, but also a delightful read.
When Salinger uncharacteristically agreed at one point to sell a story to Hollywood, it was due, Slawenski writes, because "ambition had embedded itself so deeply as to become a reflex."
It helps that Salinger's life story is so unusual that the writer's last name has become analogous for the reluctant genius. He was a literary Greta Garbo, who, as soon as he became famous, wanted to be left alone. "A Life" is thus richest in detail on the first 40 years of Salinger's life, where the trail is clearest.
Slawenski methodically pieces together Salinger's wartime exploits — his regiment suffered the highest rate of casualties of any fighting in World War II — but also links the period to his later writing. The horror Salinger saw in the war, and never talked about publicly, shaped his work more than any other influence, but also probably was at the root of his depression.
When Salinger moves to the New Hampshire woods and essentially vanishes from public life, Slawenski's book is naturally shorter on details. Yet the biographer uses that disappearing act to continue to explore the period when Salinger "became even more famous for his withdrawal" than he had been for his writing.
There were reporters camping outside Salinger's property, photographs taken of his dog when the author proved uncooperative, and truly insane obsessions like Mark David Chapman, who shot John Lennon and then sat down on a curb to read "Catcher" until the police grabbed him.
Salinger's last few decades were so outlandish they make the eccentricities of Holden Caulfield seem commonplace. And it wasn't just his insistence that his photograph not appear on book covers — he routinely sued biographers, and in one case appealed to the Supreme Court to stop an author from quoting him. "From 1970 onward, Salinger dedicated himself to smothering every disclosure of personal information both past and present," Slawenski writes.
"J.D. Salinger: A Life" discloses much, but it also makes us want to track down and reread the work whose creation is magnificently detailed in these pages. J.D. Salinger might have been OK with that result, but the rest of it, every stinking piece of it, as Holden Caulfield might have said, he would have hated.
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.