The Story Behind the Stories: J.D. Salinger: A Life, by Kenneth Slawenski

There are numerous books about J.D. Salinger and this most recent one by Slawenski is an interesting account of Salinger’s life, focused mainly on his writing years. This book was somewhere in the middle of my ‘to-read’ list, but jumped up to the top after a patron recommended it. The patron is a former teacher of Catcher in the Rye, and said that the chapter about Holden Caulfield described the character just as he taught it. He actually only recommended reading that chapter, but I was intrigued by the entire book, and decided to read the whole thing.

Slawenski is a huge, HUGE Salinger fan. He says as much in the introduction, writing about his website devoted to Salinger. This love and devotion comes across in the book – his admiration is palpable. But it doesn’t detract from the telling of Salinger’s life. He presents Salinger in full light, though tending to ennoble his flaws a bit.

Prior to this, I had no idea who Salinger was, what he was like. I had read all of his books, including the short stories, but had never read anything about the author himself. His life was definitely interesting. He fought in WWII, and was in a unit that took part in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. He became an intelligence officer, interrogating Nazis and their sympathizers. He wrote before, during and after the war, many of his stories exorcising his demons of war. Once back home, Salinger became an early American proponent of yoga and organic gardening. He was married multiple times and had children but was very much an independent spirit, preferring to lose himself in his characters’ lives. According to this biography, Salinger initially chose to separate himself from the world in order to produce his works; he knew he would otherwise be too distracted by his own fame, parties and fanfare. He felt he had a duty to write – to his spirit, his god. To do otherwise would be “phony”, something his most famous character, Holden Caulfield, would have despised.

This biography not only gives you a look at Salinger’s life, but describes the stories he wrote at various times, given some critical analysis in light of his life events. I’d read his books and stories over the years, and enjoyed each one. But after reading the bio of Salinger, I definitely want to go back and reread all of his works. Salinger was a master storyteller, presenting his written world through small details, allowing the reader to complete the picture. He described the trees, so that we could see the forest.

Franny and Zooey is one book I remember loving, but do not recall specifics from. It’s about a large, quirky family in New York. It was published in the 50s, but feels timeless. The story is about the relationships between family members and how they see the world. He also was a great short story writer. He wrote “For Esme – With Love and Squalor”, originally published in the New Yorker and anthologized in Nine Stories. This is a powerful tale of a war veteran and a chance encounter with a young girl who changes his life by simply reminding him of innocence.

I actually had the opportunity to hear this short story being read aloud in a coffeehouse by a friend of mine. The New Haven Theater Company presents a seasonal series of short story readings by actors called Listen Here – they do a wonderful job choosing and reading the stories. Attendance is free, the stories are priceless. In one of these sessions, Steve Scarpa’s reading of “For Esme” brought the emotions of the story to the forefront – I can say without any trace of sarcasm that ‘I laughed, I cried, it was better than Cats’... If you have the chance to attend a reading, possibly in the fall cycle, I highly suggest it.

So… any stories about Salinger and his works? Where were you when you first read Catcher? Any favorites other than Catcher?

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