With love and squalor

A Salinger devotee delivers an impressively solid biography, slightly marred by some awkward prose and simplistic commentary

By William H. Pritchard
Globe Correspondent / January 23, 2011

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This biography of J.D. Salinger appears just a year after his death at age 91; the biographer, Kenneth Slawenski, worked on it for eight years, while maintaining a website ( devoted to the life and works of his subject. His hope is to “deliver a true and fair and unsentimental account of Salinger’s life justly infused with appreciation for his works.’’ A commendable resolve, and Slawenski for the most part fulfills it, especially in his role as appreciator. He has been preceded by other biographers, notably Ian Hamilton, whose attempt was thwarted by legal processes Salinger instituted. The result was an abortive book (“In Search of J.D. Salinger’’) mainly about the search. There have also been memoirs, one by his live-in mate for a year, Joyce Maynard, and one 30 years ago by his daughter, Margaret. But Slawenski fills in a great deal and connects the dots assiduously; it’s unlikely that any future writer will uncover much more about Salinger than he has done.

That granted, it must be said that too much of the early part of this book is taken up with rather banal rehearsals of the plots and characters of Salinger’s early uncollected or unpublished stories. These stories are no fun to read about in detail, especially since Slawenski’s commentary is on the crude side: “Their simplicity adds to their believability,’’ he writes about characters in the 1944 published story “Both Parties Concerned.’’ “Last Day of the Last Furlough’’ is called “a moving story laden with significance,’’ while “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” (from “Nine Stories’’) is “a humorous story containing deep meaning.’’ Some of Slawenski’s diction likewise reveals an awkward side, as when he repeatedly tells us that Salinger “crafted’’ or “penned’’ or even “authored’’ a story — not-so-elegant variation on the perfectly acceptable “wrote.’’

One puts up with Slawenski’s prose as a literary critic if one is sufficiently interested in Salinger’s life. In telling it, the biographer does a much better job, taking us through relatively familiar territory but in fuller detail: Salinger’s upbringing on the West, then East Side of New York City, as the family grew more prosperous; his somewhat oppressive closeness to his mother, Miriam (we think of Bessie Glass in “Zooey’’); his education at a succession of preparatory schools and colleges; and his important experience in Whit Burnett’s writing class at Columbia University. There Burnett read aloud Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun Go Down,’’ resulting in a literary epiphany for the young Salinger. His first story, “The Young Folks,’’ was accepted by Burnett for publication in Story magazine. Soon afterward The New Yorker accepted “A Slight Rebellion Off Madison,’’ where Holden Caulfield first appears in a stiff and unnuanced third-person narration that, in “The Catcher in the Rye,’’ would become a richly first-person one.

Perhaps the most interesting pages of the biography are devoted to Salinger’s wartime service, from the D-Day landings through the awful carnage in the Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. We better understand the shattered nerves Staff Sergeant X, in “For Esmé — With Love and Squalor,’’ has undergone. Salinger himself put the war behind him as many others did by not talking or writing about it. What connection it had with the enlightenment he pursued ever more diligently from 1946 on can’t be specified. But Slawenski is certainly right that an “inclination toward mysticism’’ combined with a conviction that writing was a “spiritual exercise’’ emerges in “Teddy,’’ the last of “Nine Stories,’’ and in the concerns of Seymour, Zooey, and Franny Glass.

Salinger’s second marriage (his first to Sylvia Welter was a brief one) to Claire Douglas is treated with sympathetic fullness, as is his increasing isolation in Cornish, N.H., — “an insidious progression that slowly enveloped him,’’ writes Slawenski — and the eventual breakup of the marriage. Many pages are taken up by his struggles with publishers and editors, a continuing battle that only true believers will follow with interest.

What matters most to readers of a literary biography is that it propel them into renewed acquaintance with its subject’s writings. In Salinger’s case, rereading is easy since his published books are only four: “Catcher in the Rye,’’ “Nine Stories,’’ and the Glass stories — “Franny and Zooey’’ — and “Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters,’’ and “Seymour: An Introduction.’’ Reread they come through as exquisite, coterie art, created through the vocalized performance of an ingenious if sometimes trying narrator. Before condescending, as some contemporary readers do, to Salinger’s art, we should remember that Nabokov praised it, and that 50 years ago John Updike, in the course of reviewing (somewhat adversely) “Franny and Zooey,’’ singled out for admiration Salinger’s “intense attention to gesture and intonation,’’ calling him among “a uniquely pertinent literary artist.’’ Listening to Salinger’s sentences, rather than just reading them with the eye, will bring readerly rewards still pertinent enough to matter.

William H. Pritchard is a professor of English at Amherst College. His most recent book is “On Poets and Poetry.’’

By Kenneth Slawenski
Random House, 450 pp., illustrated, $27