cambridge book review

J.D. Salinger: A Life

By Kenneth Slawenski
Random House 2011 

Reviewed by Norma Gay Prewett

 

The Spiritual Hermitage of Pure Art [cont’d from part one]

Kenneth Slawenski is generally overly-slavish in his devotion to Salinger’s memory (this is not an authorized biography) as I think one should be when writing autobiography perhaps. A large exception occurs when he discusses Salinger’s longest-term marriage, to Claire Douglas.  Slawenski writes, “During the Spring of 1962, [Salinger and family] received an invitation from President Kennedy to attend a White House dinner honoring popular authors.” He had previously declined an invitation to another official function, but he adored Kennedy and was nearly persuaded to attend. When he balked, Jackie herself called him on the phone, a call Claire fielded.

Slawenski summarizes this reluctance as a sign of Salinger’s not being able to endure an occasion that “would have been ‘phony.’ ” I find this rather sophomoric on the part of the biographer, committing as he does the lamentable unsophisticated error of mistaking person and persona. Holden Caulfield is not Salinger, after all. Slawenski’s analysis of the Kennedy incident seems more emotionally in tune when he notes that “Claire and Peggy” probably never forgave him for denying them the experience of Camelot.

“By the mid-1980s, Salinger had been silent for twenty years,” he notes. “Though he had decided against publishing his own work, he was unable to stop others from writing about him.” Among these were James E. Miller (incidentally a former professor of mine), Frederick Gwynn, and Harold Bloom. British writer Ian Hamilton attempted his own version as late as 1987 and was rebuffed and taken to court.

Joyce Maynard in 1999 offered fourteen letters for auction, they were purchased for $200,000 by Peter Norton, who offered them back to Salinger. When Salinger died on January 27, 2010, at age 91, even those who had been embroiled in lawsuits with him appeared to eulogize.  A fact which appears to please the over-protective Slawenski is that dozens, perhaps hundreds of admirers started posting YouTube readings of his work, seemingly “not caring how [they] looked in front of the camera.”

Salinger’s death also occasioned a lamentable resurgence of what his biographer calls “Salinger-mania,” including stories about his existing “on frozen peas” and being “habitually infatuated with teenage girls.”  Yet Slawenski alludes earlier to the same lack of solid judgment in his remark that Salinger had “seldom chosen [women] wisely … [and] continued to make poor decisions.” It is in this context that his relationship with Joyce Maynard, which takes up page after page of Joyce Maynard’s memoir, gets its one notice here: “one of those choices would rise to haunt him.” Snarkily, Slawenski sums up Maynard’s year of living with Salinger as her having decided that she had been “cast away … by a man who used her callously.”

Yet, though I admit a little bias in favor of Maynard from having read her other writings, I think there are more reasons than one to not dismiss this quirk on Salinger’s part quite so quickly. Humbert Humbert’s adoration of Lolita has been roundly approved, though it always made me squirm. Lewis Carroll probably had physically chaste, but imaginary lustful ideas about Alice. Many great, but insecure, men habitually choose partners whom they can more easily impress, manipulate, etc.  His first wife of three, Claire, was fifteen years younger than he.

It is also a fact that Salinger’s next and last marriage (he was married a total of three times) was also to a woman, who, though no teenager, was forty years younger. (Maynard had been thirty-five years younger; Oona O’Neill, daughter of the famed playwright, was six years younger and only 16 when Salinger fell for and unsuccessfully pursued her. She is sometimes thought to be the prototype of Catcher’s Sally Hayes.) Holden is not he, but Holden’s descriptions of young girls and Buddy Glass’s nearly weird descriptions of his own mother’s legs and lower body (in Seymour), as well as Sergeant X’s attraction to the pretty young Esmé in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” are not unmixed with sexual attraction.

But enough gossip. One still cannot deny that Slawenski has unearthed some previously little-known facts. One important one, on which he spends considerable time in the book, is Salinger’s genuinely (though rarely self-proclaimed) authentic heroism. Not only did the author land at Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, a moment his biographer calls “a turning point” in Salinger’s life, but he also helped liberate Dachau, though Slawenski notes that “like so many who encountered such scenes … Salinger has never spoken directly of his experiences and we can never be sure exactly what his intelligence duties demanded.”  These two iconic events alone would have established his street cred. But he also apparently served well and nobly as an everyday soldier—and suffered what we would call PTSD today. Meanwhile, he wrote and sent off story after story, trying sometimes in vain to break into the “slicks” and the literaries.

While I claim no special expertise in Salinger-enalia, and while Slawenski has certainly been diligent in his documentation of his subject’s life, the tentative tone of the book at times puts me off.  One critic, the writer Jay McInerney in the New York Times Book Review, finds the biography lacking in one key element:  “If you really want to hear about it, what’s missing—and this is not necessarily Slawenski’s fault—is Salinger’s voice. I was tempted to say his inimitable voice, but of course it’s been imitated more often than that of any American writer, except possibly Salinger’s pal Hemingway, infiltrating the language of our literature and refertilizing the American vernacular from which it sprang.” 

McInerney does make the biographer’s excuses for him, however:                  

Slawenski is handicapped in part by the legacy of Ian Hamilton, author of In Search of J. D. Salinger (1988). As Slawenski recounts, after being stonewalled by Salinger and his small, tight circle of friends, Hamilton tracked down a great deal of unpublished correspondence and quoted extensively from Salinger’s letters and books. When a galley of the book reached Salinger, he called in the lawyers and demanded that Random House remove quotations of unpublished letters from the text. The initial district court ruling in favor of Random House and Hamilton was overturned on appeal—with major repercussions for American copyright law and with the  immediate result that Hamilton was forced to paraphrase the letters he’d relied so heavily on. Slawenski is muzzled by that 1987 ruling  and  also by his fastidious interpretation of fair-use copyright law in  regard to quoting from the fiction, limiting himself pretty much to short phrases. The bulk of the book was written when the litigious Salinger was still alive, but I can’t help wondering if his heirs might have proved a little more relaxed about quotation.

I titled this review “The Spiritual Hermitage of Pure Art,” though I was tempted to use a play on what I think is one of the all-time wonderful titles, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” (even though an acquaintance of Salinger’s, A.E. Hotchner, may have claimed that he invented the bulk of the title, according to Slawenski). Salinger was fascinated by titles and one of the best at inventing them, from “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” to “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period.”

But I held my explanation for the title of this review for the end because I think its origin is best explained by a vision Salinger had of himself in the world which is mirrored in Salinger’s own epitaph, read by his son Matthew at a memorial service in which he said his father was “in this world, but not of it.”

Clothed in metaphor, it becomes another vision Salinger had of being an observer in a ballroom where “the music was becoming dimmer and dimmer and the dancers appeared farther and farther away.” As Slawenski aptly and poetically notes, Jerome David Salinger was “confounded … torn between the social world around him and the spiritual hermitage of pure art.”

[< Back to part one]

____________________

Norma Gay Prewett taught English for 34 years and recently became RETINO (retired in name only) from University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (as Gay Davidson-Zielske). She is now free to do any dang thing she wants anytime she wants, but will probably continue to write, bike, quilt, keep her coop, and meditate at her retreat, Piney Wood Mews.  She also co-produces Mindseye Radio which airs first Fridays at 11 PM on WORT-FM or radio4all.net.

June 15, 2011 - Posted by | biography, non-fiction | , , ,

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