JD Salinger A Life: A Rambling

I’ve read the latest, and probably best, JD Salinger biography and this is the resulting vomitty-looking post whereupon I foist upon you my long, winding, thoughtful thoughts on it, rambling as I do at length and, in a manner not unlike how Buddy Glass would go about his idol of all time, the great Seymour, that is, with reverence and with great potential to annoy:

‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.’

-Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye

Incidentally, JD Salinger biographer Kenneth Slawenski had to go through the sort of David Copperfield kind of crap that Holden resents going into since that stuff is supposed to be boring and personal. But since this is a biography, it is but proper to go through a certain variety of David Copperfield kind of crap. It is thankfully a crapless biography, one that is thoroughly respectful to a man who, had he lived, would have condemned the book anyway. JD Salinger, A Life is a straightforward, undecorated and extremely well researched telling of the life of JD Salinger, a man so intent on privacy, attempts at making a book about his life after he has died seemed the most sensible thing to do, something only a fan would have done.

JD Salinger at War

I don’t know how much of a writer’s life goes into his works but with JD Salinger, a war veteran who got into the thickest of WW2 situation stickiness, a strong inclination to write about such experience seemed the most natural thing to do, except he chose not to. Not much of his war experiences would be evident in his works, since, maybe, JD is not corny like that. He refuses ‘to prostitute’ his wartime experience into bestsellerdom as is expected of probably most writers. He would in fact go on to write more the Glasses than relive the war by creating a war novel. Or I could also be stupid to suggest that, in the first place, a war vet writing a war novel, I don’t know.

He chose to relive the war through the eyes of a Prep School snob whose demeanor is something you could mistake for a war vet’s. How else to explain that surface disgust for phoniness? Judging from the horrific war experience, told here in great detail, it wouldn’t be so incontinent to assume that Holden Caulfield’s widely perceived cynicism was birthed by its creator’s war experience. On a same note, the fact that JDS lived to write and finish The Catcher in the Rye is proof of that novel’s subtext of hope. Holden may be snotty but he likes his sister a lot, and although that doesn’t really redeem his snottitude, that he can still find beauty and hope in things, albeit in a tiny thing that is his sister, suggests there is more to the book than meets the eye.

It is quite telling that out of all his characters, it is Seymour and Buddy Glass he chose to do several volumes of stories on, instead of the far more popular Holden. Seymour/Buddy Glass, I hate to admit, are at times, insufferable, which is probably the desired effect of their creator. But just probably! I feel like Seymour – An Introduction, more than anything, is a vehicle through which JD felt the need to freely and unabashedly practice self-indulgence. It’s like he didn’t care if Seymour, or Buddy the narrator, gets on the nerves of the readers, for their seeming sacredness and preciousness, something he wouldn’t do to Saint Holden.

Slawenski occasionally dispenses interpretations and observations of Salinger works, as expected, but most are relatively fresh insights such as the overlooked fact of Holden never correcting his interpretation of the song/lyric ‘Comin through the rye’, which is pregnant with significance. And these insights come as pleasant surprises, as told by someone whose intent and tone is consistently non-bragging. He FYIs sparsely and modestly.

‘JD Salinger was always concerned about how he was perceived. The opinions of others mattered a great deal to him. For this reason, his personal and professional correspondence was consistently guarded and geared to the ear of the intended reader. Above all else, he dreaded being considered smug, a frequent accusation throughout his youth and army years. As an adult, smugness became the most affronting of labels, and he went to great lengths to avoid being perceived as vain. Salinger possessed an inherent conceit that had been fostered by his adoring mother during childhood and fed by his persistent ambition later in life; and though pride and high self-esteem are feelings common to authors, for Salinger, to be considered arrogant struck and especially raw nerve.’

Which is probably why the idea of his own biography irked him a lot. He was very reclusive in case it ever escaped public knowledge. Yet there exist these plentiful attempts at documenting his life, some of which paint him as arrogant and egoistic. But Kenneth Slawenski, a Salinger fan of the noblest kind, makes the kind of merciful, non-pandering account, which is probably of no help, as it is JD Salinger, a writer who despises the idea of attention-grabbing book covers and author profiles. Slawenski makes it look like JD’s desire for privacy is not borne out of arrogance (but maybe it does, a little), but out of necessity.

Publishers and publicists held no power against the will of the iron-fisted writer. Of all the people he had had to deal with, it is the poor Hamish Hamilton, his British publisher, that one is likely to feel sorry for, being a person who seemed to understand Salinger the most but who ‘ve ended up suffering the brunt of JD Salinger’s iron will the most. But the iron will is not without its gains. Hamilton, who thought of naming what is now known as Nine Stories, was adamant to call the collection something other than the super stern, Nine Stories. Averse to corniness, JD Salinger was intent to call his collection of nine stories as anything but Nine Stories but gives in to Hamilton’s plea to call it something marketable, undoubtedly an act of rare charity, publishing matters-wise. But the bending of the will is not to last long as is the friendship with the British publisher, one of the many friendships JD was to lose.

JD really likes his privacy.

About his privacy, JD was really, really serious about it. Most people would find this staunch devotion to attaining privacy the most ridiculous/pretentious thing ever, but Slawenski demonstrates in no vague manner, just how vital maintenance of privacy was to Salinger.

Doing away with sensationalist conclusions and inferences, Slawenski relates well documented events such as the infamous Shirley Blaine incident and makes swift observations about how such an incident could have hurt an enormously private man as to cut ties with those whom he otherwise treated as friends. The rest he tells about plainly to the point of bitin.

One of the most intriguing aspects of his life, the women, is brief too. Slawenski tells it as it is: JDS seemingly had excellent taste in noticeably youthful women but these remarkable, almost impressive collection of girls is rather unfortunate a predilection. Looking at and blowing kisses at you Joyce Maynard. If one is looking for a juicy account of The JD Salinger Women, disappointment is to be had.

‘He had too much respect for readers to remove their personal analysis.’

Which is why it’s okay to occasionally misread, misinterpret JD Salinger works because it’s worth going back to, worth revisiting, which is what I would do, reread the stories and even though the reread might not result to eureka moments, there is at least another round of treat for the senses.

For a time at least, Salinger may have considered himself an American prophet, a voice crying in the urban wilderness. Today he is remembered for the briefness of his witness, still reprimanded for his refusal to continue on, as if he owed more to the world than he had already given. Somehow, in a way nearly as mystical as his stories’ gentle epiphanies, the passage of time may reveal that J.D. Salinger fulfilled his duty as author and perhaps even his calling as prophet long ago. The remaining obligation lies with us. In this way, Salinger’s story continues on, passed from author to reader for completion. By examining the life of J.D. Salinger, with all its sadness and imperfections, together with the messages delivered through his writings, we are charged with the reevaluation of our own lives, an assessment of our own connections, and the weighing of our own integrity.

JD Salinger was respectful of his readers. What he seemed to hate though is the idea of his works being read majorly for academic purpose, or so it would seem according to Franny and Buddy Glass. I don’t know what my reasons are for still reading some JDS. Reasons might be suspect, might be the height of literary self-education dubiousness, but I just really, really like his sentences.

5 thoughts on “JD Salinger A Life: A Rambling

  1. Was there any mention of his unpublished works? I remember that there was a lot of talk about them when he died but I haven’t heard anything, if they’d really be published or not.

    What’s your take? Do you think the fans should get a taste of these purported stories, a la DFW’s The Pale King?


  2. The unpublished works are now owned by a legal entity which would own the right to them together with all the published works. Which means the unpublished ones are probably not going to be published soon. That’s probably for the best, though of course I’d love it if those get published somehow. But since they weren’t entrusted to any of his estate (I think), the prospect for the unpublished jd manuscripts is really dim.

    The Pale King sounds intriguing no? Book about boredom. I’m in.


  3. I’m really excited about The Pale King, although tempered with trepidation. I worry about the overall quality of the book since it was left unfinished. I’m sure his editor did all he could to make the book the best possible version given the circumstances. But I still couldn’t help but wonder how awesome a masterpiece it could have been if DFW had the strength to finish it. Oh well, I’m still glad the book is seeing the light of day. 🙂


  4. Salingers Nine Stories. I wish I could lay blame on Salingers prose and maybe I could certainly the first page of Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes qualifies as dense but that argument wouldnt stand a chance against Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut which is like 80 dialogue. Actually Pretty Mouth outside of that first paragraph is just as dialogue-driven as Uncle Wiggily..Id think its pretty much impossible to discuss Salinger without mentioning his talent for dialogue. Heres just a tidbit from Uncle Wiggily .Oh Im dying to see her Mary Jane said. I hate this damn rug anyway. Ill get you another..Salinger doesnt mention the spill at all.


  5. i wouldn’t know 80s dialogue if it licked me in the ass but to say that he had 80s dialogue is to say that he’s a forward-thinking dialogueist because he wrote in the 50s/60s but i am asian so i couldn’t tell! nice mini-analysis you got.


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