Where were you when J.D. Salinger died on Jan. 27, 2010? I can never forget: I was on the campus of William & Mary, trying to get a little work done before teaching my class, but people kept calling and e-mailing to ask whether I'd write Salinger's biography now that he was finally dead. The possibility had occurred to me (having published a biography of John Cheever, another New Yorker chronicler of postwar middle-class malaise), but only if I could get the family's approval in the form of a legally binding agreement.
Snooping into Salinger's life, after all, has always been a dicey business, as biographer Ian Hamilton learned to his enduring sorrow. Salinger v. Random House—the lawsuit brought to keep Hamilton from quoting Salinger's letters—resulted in a drastic overhaul of so-called "fair use" law, rendering the whole genre of unauthorized biography a lot less fun for everyone. (Reading a subsequent attempt by Paul Alexander, Salinger: A Biography, from 2000, is like skimming every stale, Googled rumor in chronological order.) But now that Salinger was dead, I e-mailed his son, Matthew, and asked whether he might be willing to cooperate on what I hoped would be a definitive account. "I don't think his lack of interest in such things depended on whether he was living or dead," Matthew replied, affably enough, and wished me luck on whatever else I was working on.
Just one year later, though, we have a new biography by Kenneth Slawenski, J.D. Salinger: A Life, and I dare say the cranky and elusive author of Catcher in the Rye might have been pleasantly surprised: Slawenski appears not to have pestered the family at all—or too many other people, for that matter, since he doesn't mention interviews, nor does he dwell overmuch on the less-than-flattering material that's already been unearthed about his subject. Creator of the Web site, DeadCaulfields.com, Slawenski is an unabashed fan, who has spent eight years sifting the few known facts of Salinger's life for the good bits, the gold—that is, the extenuating stuff. Too bad he missed the cache of some 50 letters from J.D. Salinger to a prewar friend, Donald Hartog, just made public by the University of East Anglia; they show him as a regular guy who traveled freely, ate at Burger King, and was generally quite likable with old, undemanding friends and strangers he met on the bus—people, in short, who weren't apt to treat him like J.D. Salinger.
But let's face it: For the most part, Salinger was a peculiar man who tended to make life very difficult for the few people who got close to him, and any serious biographer should be prepared to grapple with even the most gruesome facts. But that's precisely what Slawenski endeavors to avoid. For instance, you won't catch him emphasizing the connection between a) Salinger's preoccupation with sensitive, alienated young people in his fiction and b) his tendency to cultivate those same youngsters in real life. Slawenski deplores that kind of gossip, and has been commended in the press (so far) for his good manners. Joyce Maynard? Her story—told at harrowing length in her memoir, At Home in the World—gets a two-paragraph bum's rush on Page 397. In Slawenski's nutshell, Salinger made a few "poor decisions" in these later years, one of which was coaxing the 18-year-old Maynard—in 1972, when Salinger was 53—to live with him at his Cornish, N.H., retreat, until he got fed up and told her to go home. Nothing here about their ghastly sex life, no urine-drinking and so forth.
Indeed, toward the end of this tactful bowdlerization of Salinger's life, the poker-faced biographer professes to be appalled by the "bizarre tales and misinformation … that [Salinger] had been habitually infatuated with teenage girls." Define habitually. Over the years Maynard kept hearingfrom women who as teenagers were also wooed by the author's lapidary prose, and then there are further revelations in his daughter Peggy's memoir, Dream Catcher, from which Slawenski draws freely, if very selectively. I was taken aback to read that a 1968 trip to Scotland that Salinger took with his children was, according to Slawenski, little more than a light-hearted quest for locations featured in The 39 Steps, Salinger's (and Phoebe Caulfield's) favorite movie. "The only not so fun part of the trip," Peggy writes in her memoir, "was the main reason he had come over in the first place. He had been corresponding with a teenage girl, and things had blossomed into a pen pal romance. He was to meet her for the first time inperson." However, as Salinger candidly explained to his 12-year-old daughter at the time, he'd found the Scottish girl "homely" and promptly lost interest.
The "homely" verdict seems at odds with perhaps the most important theme of Salinger's fiction (never mind the one about being redeemed by the love of an innocent girl): namely, the Vedantic idea that everything is God, and therefore surface appearances are illusory. In Salinger's novella, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,Seymour Glass tells a parable about a vegetable hawker who chooses horses so well—judging their inner, spiritual essence—that he doesn't even notice what they look like. So what about the Scottish girl's essence?
Slawenski is happy enough to conflate fiction with real life as long as it doesn't result in some troubling paradox. Salinger's role in World War II, for example, is presented at great length, and no wonder, given that he took part in the Normandy invasion and many horrific battles after, an experience that informed some of his greatest work: the portraits of traumatized veterans Seymour Glass and Sergeant X in (respectively) "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and "For Esmé—With Love and Squalor," as well as (arguably) the entire Glass family saga that followed. To give us a better sense, then, of what Salinger might have suffered, Slawenski retails great gobs of history about the writer's regiment—since, of course, very little is known of Salinger's actual exploits outside the fiction and a few existing (but circumspect) letters. And when Slawenski does pause to remind us of Salinger's place in the picture, the conjectural tone is more than a little grating. "Like all soldiers of his regiment," he generalizes, "[Salinger] fought with the purest sense of devotion, not for the army but for the boy next to him." Where's a little conflation when you need it? One may recall that D.B. Caulfield (Holden's older brother, a writer, in Catcher in the Rye) observes of his war experience that "if he'd had to shoot anybody, he wouldn't've known which direction to shoot in … the Army was practically as full of bastards as the Nazis were."