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Review: JD Salinger: A Life Raised High

Less a biography than literary criticism, the latest biography of JD Salinger is meagre on facts

books Updated: Mar 23, 2012 18:27 IST
Soumitro Das, Hindustan Times

JD Salinger: A Life Raised High

Kenneth Slawenski


Rs 395 pp 423

Kenneth Slawenski may be a determined man, but what he has produced is less of a biography than a work of literary criticism that tries to relate JD Salinger’s work to some of the better known facts about his life and thought processes.

It mustn’t have been easy to dig out the few facts that do figure in the work. Salinger had systematically destroyed all traces of his passage through planet Earth, asking his literary mentors and associates to destroy any correspondence they may have had with him, burning whatever letters may have been written to him by family, friends and admirers.

All this may have been an attempt to implement some of the notions about individual ego propagated by the Ramakrishna order of monks or derived from Salinger’s own reading of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna written by M, but it may also have been an intense desire not to let the public know anything of the private man, so that the latter could enjoy his freedom.

We are talking about someone who after 1965 continued writing, even according to a routine, but would not publish anything because he found publication to be an obnoxious invasion of privacy. No wonder Slawenski scrutinises Salinger’s work for whatever clues or evidence they provide of Salinger’s lived and mental life.

The facts are meagre though not entirely uninteresting. Salinger was born, on January 1, 1919, to a well-to-do New York Jewish businessman and his gentile wife. By all accounts available to Slawenski, the author of Catcher in the Rye led a comfortable, even spoilt, existence. He was sent to a prep school which he hated, flunked and was driven out of. He also attended the Valley Forge Military Academy. His father tried to get him into the family business which was to import pork products from Europe into America. But Salinger rebelled and said he wanted to be a writer instead. So after spending some time at Ursinus college he joined writing classes in Columbia University, following courses given by Whit Burney and Charles Towne.

He had also tried to get into the Army, in the bizarre hope that he could further his career as a writer by being part of it, but was rejected immediately after Pearl Harbor. Eventually though he would make it as a Counter Intelligence Corps agent embedded with an infantry division which would take part in the D-Day landings on Normandy.

The stint during the world war had a great impact on the sensitive Salinger — Jerry to friends — and his participation in the liberation of the concentration camp at Dachau was particularly poignant. His outlook on the world was less than pessimistic and combined with the fatalism inculcated in him by Ramakrishna Paramahansa’s example, shaped his literary vision in ways that were unfathomable. However, he seems to have cherished the solidarity and the camaraderie of the army. The stint in the Army would also produce some classic short stories.

Salinger, of course, will be always remembered for Catcher in the Rye, a novel that anticipated the birth of a youth pop culture through rock ‘n’ roll by at least a decade. Holden Caulfield, its principal protagonist went on to become one of the icons of the sixties and the seventies, during which long-haired, hippy-type intellectuals tried to bring out a pirated edition of Salinger’s uncollected short stories.

For many, Salinger remains a cult figure, someone could efface himself from his work and yet retain a tight control over its publication, taking scrupulous care over its fonts, its cover design and ever vigilant that no photograph of him should figure on the book. His legacy would be that of writerly integrity, a searing honesty, a deliberate and methodical avoidance of phoniness so that Art could be said to be truly divinely inspired and the artist be the true messiah of modern times.

Soumitro Das is a Kolkata-based writer

First Published: Mar 23, 2012 18:27 IST