May 18, 2012
A few years ago, in a local used/rare bookshop, I came upon the original Signet paperback edition of The Catcher in the Rye, published in March 1953. I couldn’t resist owning it for the memorable illustration of Holden Caulfield entering a squalid New York City neighborhood, carrying a suitcase and wearing his red hunting hat and scarf. The paperback was the version of the classic I read in high school, and I paid $50 at the shop for what once sold for 50 cents — a worthy investment in book nostalgia.
In Kenneth Slawenski’s biography of J.D. Salinger, I learned the legendary recluse hated that Signet paperback design. He fought it but couldn’t get it changed, having acquiesced to it in 1951, the year Little Brown first published The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger blamed Little Brown, which controlled the paperback rights, for allowing such a tawdry cover to be used by Signet, “caring nothing for the presentation of art.”
Before reading this engaging biography, my frame of reference regarding Salinger conformed to popular stories about the legend’s seclusion. Like most everyone else, Salinger to me was simply an eccentric hermit who once wrote a lasting classic novel. I was aware he fiercely fought any invasion of his privacy at his home in New Hampshire, fought (and won) in court Ian Hamilton’s unauthorized biography and suppressed the sale of another author’s sequel to The Catcher in the Rye. And then there was that embarrassing tell-all by Joyce Maynard. But in J. D. Salinger: A Life, I came to understand a person who grew into his extremes from accumulating personal experiences.
That includes his soldiering in the 12th Infantry Regiment during World War II. I was surprised to learn Salinger stormed Normandy beaches on D-Day and took part in the horrific events in the Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. He also was among the American troops discovering Nazi concentration camps. Needless to say, the psychological and emotional impact of his war experiences were profound and enduring. Slawenski writes, “Salinger the man and the events of war are as inseparable as the author and the works that he penned.”
But it was the perceived betrayals by editors and publishers in the 1950s and 1960s that significantly contributed to Salinger’s eccentricities. Shortly after he returned to New York, after the war, he learned Lippincott Press would not publish his collection of short stories (Salinger had been told it was a “done deal”). By this time, he’d already experienced magazine editors changing his story titles and The New Yorker accepting a story and then not publishing it. Yet to happen was Harcourt Brace’s decision not to honor the verbal contract to publish The Catcher in the Rye in 1950. (That’s a famous moment in literary history – Little, Brown and Company became the publisher.) Salinger reached a point where he couldn’t trust the publishing community to value and respect his work. He became extremely difficult, refusing to let editors and publishers control the presentation and publicity of his stories and novels. He would demand, resist and fight, guarding his characters and their fictional worlds as he guarded his own privacy. “Striving as he was for perfection, the thought of allowing his work to be mangled by editors in the pursuit of profits incensed him.”
In reviewing J. D. Salinger: A Life last year, critics consistently made the point it’s impossible to write a successful biography about a writer who lived a secluded life, destroyed his letters and demanded friends say nothing about him to journalists. I agree that’s probably true; however, with what is known, and what is able to be pieced together from research, a story can still be told with significant value for readers. I believe here Slawenski triumphs, as he covers not only the WW II years but also Salinger’s privileged young years on Park Avenue with his parents, his trouble in school, his family life, his interactions with the staff at The New Yorker and his struggle between his ego and his spiritual beliefs.
Salinger’s publishing life ended in 1965 with the story “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which appeared in The New Yorker. Slawenski writes about this time and Salinger’s remaining 45 years with the same engaging detail and warmth as the more notable early years. He describes Salinger’s death on January 27, 2010, as “a kind of terrible extinction.” That description fell hard on me with its heavy truth. I especially loved this line: “J. D. Salinger was unique, and many found his noble opposition comforting.” Amen.
Random House published the hard cover edition of J. D. Salinger: A Life in 2011. I read the trade paperback edition, released this year. Kenneth Slawenski is the founder of deadcaulfields.com. In January, in Salon, he wrote this interesting article: “What was J. D. Salinger working on?”