J.D. Salinger: the name is almost synonymous with the notion of hermit. But Kenneth Slawenski – who, after nearly a decade of research has written J.D. Salinger: A Life – says that public notions of Salinger are not always accurate. Slawenski's book, released this week, follows the famed author of "Catcher in the Rye" from his privileged childhood in New York City through his formative military service; his various romances; the creation of Holden Caulfield, the Glass family, and other literary icons; and on to his reclusive years of private life in Cornish, N.H.
I recently had the chance to ask Slawenski about his book and the fascinating subject at its center.
You worked on this biography for eight years. What originally drew you to Salinger as a subject?
I read "The Catcher in the Rye" as a teenager and connected with its narrator, Holden Caulfield. But it was rereading the novel as an adult that most inspired me. Holden seemed to have also grown with the years, and that amazed me. Naturally, I became curious about the author who created such a remarkable character and found myself compulsively conducting research into Salinger’s life and works.
The Salinger that you describe in this book is sometimes at odds with his public image. What misperceptions of him are most common?
The common perception of Salinger is that he was a recluse and deliberately turned his back on the world. That’s a black and white image, void of color. Salinger’s withdrawal was a progression rather than a decision. It slowly enveloped him.
Salinger served in the US Army in World War II. How essential was that experience to his development as a writer?
The war transformed Salinger and its effects are firmly embedded into his works. His wartime experiences gave rise to deep questions concerning the nature of humanity and set him on a spiritual search. Salinger shared that search with readers through his stories. They are steps along a spiritual path.
What were the other major influences on his books?
Salinger was influenced by a number of writers and had a deep love for poetry. He especially admired F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ring Lardner, who are mirrored in Salinger’s own precise and often humorous prose.
You spent a large piece of your life reading about, talking about, and thinking about J.D. Salinger. Did you come away from this project feeling affection for him? What would you most like the world to understand about him?
I came away with understanding rather than affection. Salinger did many things that strike me as unreasonable; he pushed away a number of people who had his best interests at heart. But I felt it my duty to try to understand the complicated motivations behind his actions. Salinger was an enormously complex and often contradictory human being – as we all are. He deserves a consideration of that complexity before we pass judgment.
Salinger published no new work after 1965 although it is widely believed that he continued to write. Do you think we will ever see a new piece of his writing in publication?
Personally, I am very hopeful that we will soon be reading “new” Salinger works – and perhaps for many years to come.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.