Digging For Pearls In The New Salinger Biography

JD Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski
 
J.D. Salinger: A Life
By Kenneth Slawenski
Hardcover, 464 pages
Random House
List Price: $27

Read An Excerpt

J.D. Salinger died a year ago this Thursday, and in time for that anniversary, there's a newly published biography called, simply, J.D. Salinger: A Life. Fresh Air's Book critic Maureen Corrigan says Salinger, no doubt, would have cringed at what Holden Caulfield calls "all that David Copperfield kind of crap" that biographies necessarily expose, but readers who revere Salinger will find a lot that's surprising in his early background. Here is her review.


Here's Holden Caulfield at the beginning of The Catcher in the Rye uttering not only one of the most famous passages in that novel, but one of the most famous passages in all of world literature: "What really knocks me out" [says Holden] "is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though."

Good thing, too, Holden! I would say because, chances are, if you did reach that beloved author, you'd be disappointed. Great writers pour their best selves into their books; in life, most are merely human. That truth was brought home to me yet again by Kenneth Slawenski's new biography of J.D. Salinger. As anecdote after anecdote in J.D. Salinger: A Life makes clear, it is a far, far better thing for readers to "meet" Holden Caulfield or Buddy Glass than it would have ever been for us to meet their strange, withdrawn creator.

Slawenski is the founder of a Salinger website called DeadCaulfields.com; that fact doesn't exactly inspire confidence in us literary traditionalists — and, indeed, it turns out that this biography, some eight years in the making, is awfully wobbly. Not surprisingly, Slawenski never got access to the great man himself, nor to anyone in Salinger's inner circle. The biography does contain new material — some letters and photos — made available since Salinger's death. It also contains some achingly facile observations. To wit, the first lines of chapter one describing the fateful year of Salinger's birth read like a history paper written by Holden's Pencey Prep nemesis, Stradlater: "The Great War had changed everything. As 1919 dawned, people awoke to a fresh new world, one filled with promise, but uncertainty."

Author Kenneth Slawenski lives in New Jersey. He founded the website DeadCaulfields.com, and has been researching J.D. Salinger: A Life for the past eight years. i i

hide captionAuthor Kenneth Slawenski lives in New Jersey. He founded the website DeadCaulfields.com, and has been researching J.D. Salinger: A Life for the past eight years.

 
Author Kenneth Slawenski lives in New Jersey. He founded the website DeadCaulfields.com, and has been researching J.D. Salinger: A Life for the past eight years.

Author Kenneth Slawenski lives in New Jersey. He founded the website DeadCaulfields.com, and has been researching J.D. Salinger: A Life for the past eight years.

 

Buried within this sludge, however, are some genuine pearls. One revelation that is elaborated on throughout Slawenski's erratic biography is just how crucial Salinger's World War II experiences were to his later Zen Buddhism, as well as to his writing. Salinger served in an Army Counter Intelligence Corps. On D-Day, he landed on Utah Beach, then went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge; toward the end of the war, he helped liberate a sub-camp of Dachau. According to Slawenski, manuscript pages of The Catcher in the Rye were on Salinger's person throughout the fighting. World War II and its soul-shattering effects are, of course, explicitly present in Salinger's monumental short story, "For Esme, With Love and Squalor." But, Slawenski, who turns out to be an astute close reader of Salinger's work, also teases out the war's influence on The Catcher in the Rye. Holden, you may remember, is haunted by the memory of his dead brother, Allie, whose name, Slawenski points out, sounds suggestively close to "allies" — all those fallen brothers-in-arms Salinger fought beside. Slawenski also makes a convincing case for Salinger having the dead of World War II in mind as he wrote Holden's parting words: "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody."

Salinger had those manuscript pages with him during World War II for another, more practical reason: It took him an excruciatingly long time to write. When, in 1950, Salinger triumphantly submitted The Catcher in the Rye to his publisher, Harcourt Brace, the editors there rejected it, apparently confused by whether or not Holden was supposed to be crazy. Even worse, The New Yorker, where Salinger had been publishing his short stories, declined to print an excerpt. The editors said that: "The notion that in one family (the Caulfield family) there are four such extraordinary children ... is not tenable."

It was enough to make a man say "nuts" to the world — which is pretty much what Salinger wound up doing for a half-century.

When Salinger died last year, I, like a lot of other fans, reread his small canon. Like all great literature, it yields up something new upon each rereading. And, as for The Catcher in the Rye, in particular, well, there's just no other voice in American literature that is as alive as Holden's — sorry, Huck. Thinking again of Holden and how he wrestles, so clumsily, with Big Questions about God and Evil and struggles to shore up innocence in all its fragility, I could understand why the young Sgt. Salinger wanted to be armed with an early version of Holden close to him "for support and inspiration," as he told a friend, while he was storming the beaches at Normandy and penetrating into the horrors that lay beyond.

Excerpt: 'J.D. Salinger: A Life'

JD Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski
 
J.D. Salinger: A Life
By Kenneth Slawenski
Hardcover, 464 pages
Random House
List Price: $27

In the opening lines of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield refuses to share his parents' past with the reader, deriding any recount of "how they were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap." "My parents," he explains, "would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them." This apparent elusiveness on the part of Holden's parents was imported directly from the attitudes of Salinger's own mother and father. Sol and Miriam rarely spoke of past events, especially to their children, and their attitude created an air of secrecy that permeated the Salinger household and caused Doris and Sonny to grow into intensely private people.

The Salingers' insistence upon privacy also led to rumors. Over the years, Miriam and Sol's story has been repeatedly embellished. This began in 1963, when the literary critic Warren French repeated a claim in a Life magazine article that Miriam had been Scotch-Irish. In time, the term "Scotch-Irish" transformed itself into the assertion that Salinger's mother had actually been born in County Cork, Ireland. This led in turn to what is perhaps the most commonly repeated story told about Salinger's mother and father: that Miriam's parents, supposedly Irish Catholic, were so adamantly opposed to her marriage to Sol, because he was Jewish, that they gave the couple little choice but to elope. And, upon learning of their daughter's defiance, they never spoke a word to her again.

None of this has any basis in fact, yet by the time of her death in 2001, even Salinger's sister, Doris, had been persuaded that her mother had been born in Ireland and that she and Sonny had been purposely denied a relationship with their grandparents.

The circumstances surrounding Miriam's family and her marriage to Sol were quite painful enough without embroidery through rumor. However, Salinger's parents exacerbated that pain by attempting to conceal their past from their children. In doing so, they not only invited fictitious versions of their history but confused their children too. By attempting to restrain Doris's and Sonny's natural curiosity, Miriam and Sol actually gave credence to a fabricated past that remained with them all their lives.

Sonny's mother was born Marie Jillich on May 11, 1891, in the small midwestern town of Atlantic, Iowa. Her parents, Nellie and George Lester Jillich, Jr., were twenty and twenty-four, respectively, at the time of her birth, and records show that she was the second of six surviving children. Marie's grandparents George Lester Jillich, Sr., and Mary Jane Bennett had been the first Jillichs to settle in Iowa. The grandson of German immigrants, George, Sr., had moved from Mas?sachusetts to Ohio, where he met and married his wife. He served briefly with the 192nd Ohio Regiment during the Civil War, and after he returned home in 1865, Mary Jane gave birth to Marie's father. George, Sr., eventually established himself as a successful grain merchant and by 1891 was in firm position as head of the Jillich clan, with his sons George, Jr., and Frank following him into the trade.

Although Marie later maintained that her mother, Nellie McMahon, had been born in Kansas City in 1871, the daughter of Irish immigrants, four sets of federal census records (1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930) suggest that she is more likely to have come from Iowa. Family tradition has it that Marie met Solomon early in 1910 at a county fair near the Jillich family farm (an unlikely location since no such farm existed). The manager of a Chicago movie theater, Solomon, who was called "Sollie" by his family and "Sol" by his friends, was six feet tall with a whiff of big-city sophistication. Just seventeen, Marie was an arresting beauty, with fair skin and long red hair that contrasted with Sol's olive complexion. Their romance was immediate and intense, and Sol was determined to marry Marie from the start.

A rapid series of events, some of them heartbreaking, would occur that year, culminating in Marie's marriage to Sol in the spring of 1910. While the Salingers had steadily improved their position since Simon's arrival, the Jillichs had suddenly encountered difficulties. Marie's father had died the previous year. Unable to keep the family afloat, her mother had taken the youngest of the children and relocated to Michigan, where she later remarried. Marie did not move with her mother, because of her age and her relationship with Sol. Her swift romance and marriage to Solomon therefore proved to be providential, especially when, by the time of Sonny's birth in 1919, her mother, Nellie, had also died. The loss of both parents was possibly enough to make Marie reluctant to discuss them even with her own children. Rather than cling to the past, she devoted herself completely to a new life with her new husband. Left with only the Salingers now as family, she sought their acceptance by embracing Judaism and changing her name to Miriam, after the sister of Moses.

Simon and Fannie thought that Marie, with her milky-fair skin and auburn hair, looked like "a little Irisher." In a city with thousands of eligible Jewish girls, they never dreamed that Sollie would bring home a red-haired Gentile from Iowa, but they accepted Miriam as their new daughter-in-law, and she soon moved into their Chicago home.

Miriam joined Sol working at the movie theater, where she sold tickets and concessions. Despite their efforts, the theater was unsuccessful and was forced to close, sending the new bridegroom in search of employment. He soon found a position working for J. S. Hoffman & Company, an importer of European cheeses and meats that went by the brand name Hofco. After the disappointment with the theater, Sol swore never to fail at business again and applied himself to his new company duties with devotion. This dedication paid off, and after Doris's birth in December 1912, he was promoted to general manager of Hoffman's New York division, becoming, as he coolly declared, "the manager of a cheese factory."

Sol's new position required the Salingers to move to New York City, where they settled into a comfortable apartment at 500 West 113th Street, close to Columbia University and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Although Sol was now in the business of vending a series of hams—distinctly the most unkosher of foods—along with his cheeses, he had managed to continue the Salinger custom of advancing beyond the previous generation, an accomplishment of which he was extraordinarily proud. But business became his life, and by the time of his thirtieth birthday in 1917, his hair had gone completely "iron grey."

Excerpted from J. D. Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski. Copyright 2011 by Kenneth Slawenski. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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