Impressively researched, sympathetic critical biography of one of the 20th century’s most perplexing fiction authors.
Jerome David Salinger (1919–2010) built his literary reputation in the 1950s and ’60s on a string of short stories and a novel, The Catcher in the Rye (1951), which artfully explored youthful precocity, social alienation and religious epiphany. Yet at the height of his fame, Salinger decided to escape the spotlight. After his story “Hapworth 16, 1924,” was published in the New Yorker in 1965, he maintained almost total public silence until his death. Consequently, Salinger acquired a second reputation as an infamously eccentric recluse, but Slawenski’s biography shows how the author’s seclusion naturally flowed out of his personal experience and metaphysical anxiety. Born to a well-off New York family, Salinger harbored literary ambitions from an early age, and though he aspired to the high-art pinnacle of the New Yorker, his early work mostly emerged in little magazines like Story or “slicks” like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post. Manhandling of his manuscripts by editors made Salinger skeptical about the publishing industry; a brutalizing Army experience during World War II, where he took part in the D-Day invasion, made him obsessive about the nature of man and God. Classic stories such as “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor” were the product of a writer unsure of how to make his way in the world, and Slawenski patiently tracks how Salinger’s growing interest in Eastern religion meshed with an increased fastidiousness about his writing. That’s a recipe for a reclusive author, though fewer than 50 pages of the book deal with Salinger’s half-century of seclusion, dwelling little on the gossipy details that emerged in memoirs such as those by his one-time lover Joyce Maynard. In Slawenski’s reckoning, Salinger died not a cloistered misanthrope but a defiantly monklike soul—a writer so obsessed with perfecting his vision of the world that he had to abandon it to get the story right.
Slawenski, the creator of deadcaulfields.com, is an admirer, but this is no fanboy biography; his close study of Salinger’s roots admirably redirects attention to his writing and thought instead of his self-imposed exile.