J.D.—Jerome David, that is—Salinger died Jan. 27, 2010, at the age of 91. His best-known fictional creation, Holden Caulfield, might have marveled at Salinger’s longevity; he might have sneered at it, too, Holden having been perhaps the first of the hope-I-die-before-I-get-old crowd.
For decades, Salinger lived a nearly anonymous life, his last publication appearing in 1965. The author’s hermetic existence and fierce protection of his privacy kept journalists and biographers at bay without causing much harm to his fame. Now that Salinger is gone, students of his life may find it easier to do their work—though they’ll have to do an extraordinary job to best Kenneth Slawenski’s first-to-market biography J.D. Salinger: A Life (Random House), which we praised in a starred review as a “close study of Salinger’s roots [that] admirably redirects attention to his writing and thought instead of his self-imposed exile.”
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How did the idea for a Salinger biography come to you? And given the difficulties Ian Hamilton experienced when he tried to write a biography a couple decades ago, did you feel at all wary of approaching this project?
I had been researching Salinger’s lesser-known and unpublished stories for a number of years when I decided to share my information by setting up a website early in 2004. Within six months I was approached by Mark Hodkinson, owner of a small, independent publishing house in the UK, asking me to consider transforming the site into a book. How could I say no?
The manuscript quickly evolved into a biography. I was aware of the difficulties encountered by Ian Hamilton when he attempted a similar project during the mid-1980s. Salinger took Hamilton to court and eventually won his case. My book covers the episode. I read through Hamilton’s papers and had a copy of his unpublished galley—the one that Salinger objected to. So, I used Hamilton’s experience and the court’s decision in particular as my guideline when writing. The Hamilton case provided a clear set of boundaries. I stayed within those limits.
You mention early on that you spent seven years writing this biography. Were there any stumbling blocks—any particularly vexing parts of the book—that took longer to sort out than others?
The book would have been completed years ago if my subject hadn’t generated so much news. Between 2009 and early 2010 alone, I must have revised my “final” draft a half-dozen times. I have a word of advice for anyone considering writing a literary biography: Chaucer—or any other figure dead for 600 years. Chaucer never changes.
Was there anything particularly surprising—for you and/or us—that you learned about Salinger in the course of researching and writing your book?
My research produced constant surprises, perhaps none more poignant than Salinger’s own awareness of his progressive isolation. It enveloped him slowly, and he spoke of it often, with both sadness and resignation. You can feel Salinger’s pain in his descriptions of what he was going through.
Your account of Joyce Maynard’s time with Salinger seems, well, a little terse, given the claims she and other biographers have made about the importance of that relationship. Should we read anything into your brevity, or is she really as incidental to the Salinger story as all that?
My book concentrates on those periods of Salinger’s life that informed his available writings. It was the best way I knew to deliver fairness and balance to his story. His relationship with Joyce Maynard occurred seven years after his last publication and was relatively brief. I think Joyce might be the first to admit that the relationship impacted her life far more than it did Salinger’s. A quarter century later, she showed up on his doorstep still struggling to put the past in context. Salinger, in contrast, had an uncanny ability to firmly bolt the door—and never again wonder what or who he had cut off on the other side.
If you had to reduce the book to a single anecdote or episode, what might be the most telling one about Salinger’s character?
Salinger himself provides the scene; I merely draw attention to its reflective quality. In his final publication, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” Salinger displays his most realistic self-portrait through a vision experienced by his famous character, Seymour Glass. Seymour describes the author in his vision: his hair graying and his hands thickly veined. He is seated at his typewriter in his writing studio, complete with bookshelves and skylight. And he is happy.
I find the image extraordinary, especially because it appears in Salinger’s final work. It speaks to the arc of his career and foreshadows his seclusion. Seymour’s vision completes Salinger’s absorption into his work. He is now part of it. Intriguingly, it displays the author conjured by the character, dependant on his own creation for existence. Reality is turned upside down, leaving the question of who is in control.
Would you care to make any bets on how Salinger will be thought of, say, 20 years to come?
Chances are good that Salinger will be studied as intensely in 20 years as he is now, but whether he will be read as widely or as eagerly is another question. The Catcher in the Rye has altered American literature, remolding the ways we read and we write. For that reason alone, Salinger has earned a permanent place and his novel will remain important. But its ongoing popularity will depend upon the ability of readers to relate to Holden Caulfield’s character, and that’s a challenge that becomes more difficult as times change.
Are you still maintaining your Salinger website deadcaulfields.com? Do you have another biographical or other writing project in the works?
Deadcaulfields.com remains online as a Salinger resource, and I continue to update the site. I have begun to move on with another project, though, on a very different topic. It’s something that I’ve pushed away several times over the past few years but that always manages to reassert itself, whispering in my ear.
J.D. Salinger: A Life
Random House / Jan. 25, 2011 / 9781400069514 / $27.00