recent posts

Monday, July 11, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Kenneth Slawenski J.D. SALINGER: A Life Raised High. St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 2010 (432 pages)

This Australian edition of Slawenski’s biography was published shortly after J.D. Salinger’s death in 2010.  Slawenski claims he took seven years to write the book and is best known for his website DEAD CAULFIELDS dedicated to the life and work of Salinger
He fleshes out in considerable detail Salinger’s professional publishing career which ended prematurely with his last story ‘Hapworth 16 1924’ which appeared in The New Yorker in 1965. Two short chapters ‘The Poetry of Silence’ and ‘Coming Through The Rye’ inadequately cover the remaining forty-five years of his life.

It was particularly fascinating to read accounts of Salinger’s involvement during World War 2 which took him to D-Day, the Hurtgen Forest, the Battle of the Bulge and the freeing of the death camp at Dachau. But because Salinger never directly commented on his harrowing war experiences Slawenski fills the reader in with details of his infantry division’s deployment and combines it with a detailed discussion of short stories that Salinger was writing at the time. I was reminded in a way of  Bill Bryson’s 2007 biography of Shakespeare Despite Bryson’s extensive research he isn’t able to nail the voice of the man because of the paucity of  primary material.

Slawenski’s account of Salinger’s ambition to be a writer and of his remarkable early professional life is probably the most intriguing in the book. The strongest aspect of this is his dealings with The New Yorker, and how in 1947, after much struggle and rejection, he is finally given a retainer and annual salary by the prestigious magazine for the privilege of  being the first to review his stories for possible publication.

Salinger’s life-long pursuit to protect his privacy, especially after the publication of Catcher in the Rye (1951), makes it difficult for biographers to reveal Salinger’s perspective on any significant event in his life. He rarely granted interviews and he avoided at all costs in disclosing personal facts regardless of how harmless they were.

Salinger was deeply suspicious of and had a healthy contempt for publishers which grew in venom throughout his life. According to Salinger they mangled his work in pursuit of their gluttonous profits and he ‘was never satisfied with the financial portion he received from his publications.’

Of particular interest to me were Salinger’s attempts to control all aspects of his books’ publication, including cover design, publicity and reprints. He appears to have been an extremely pedantic and quarrelsome man. Slawenski’s view is that Salinger fought for contract clauses that granted final say over the narrowest details in regard his work so he could protect its integrity. He chose innocuous covers and spurned publicity launches because he didn’t want to appear smug. Salinger hated being a celebrity and he felt tremendously relieved when the season of success over Catcher in the Rye waned: ‘It’s a goddamn embarrassment, publishing. The poor boob who lets himself in for it might as well walk down Madison Avenue with his pants down.'

I enjoyed immensely the descriptions of Salinger’s life in Cornish, a small rural town in upstate New York. He moved there in 1953 to escape the gaze of people and to start a new life with his second wife Clare Douglas. He built a 'bunker' away from the main home so he was able to find the isolation conducive to evoking the spiritual revelation characteristic of his best work. Yet the striving for perfection in his writing alienated him from his family and he became a prisoner to his life's work.

I was particularly interested in finding out more about Salinger’s life after 1965 and the reasons why he ceased publishing. Slawenski’s view is that ‘Salinger did not deliberately choose to withdraw from the world’ that it was the media who drove Salinger into seclusion. He needed seclusion for his art and his writing became his method of prayer: ‘His work had become a holy obligation and he accepted that loneliness and seclusion might well be the price it demanded for fulfillment.’ In a rare interview with the New York Times in 1974 Salinger tried to explain why he no longer published, ‘There is a marvelous peace in not publishing…I like to write…I love to write..But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.’ It is rumored that Salinger left behind fifteen previously unpublished novels in a secret vault, but none unfortunately, have emerged as yet.

Slawenski provides a highly readable but limited account of Salinger’s life. Because of Salinger’s obsession with secrecy perhaps many of the gaps may never be filled. Slawenski writes from the point of view of an adorning fan and tends to apologise or quickly quash discussion of some of Salinger’s more outrageous or eccentric behaviors. I enjoyed the descriptions of his literary career and family life, but there is far too much recount of stories without sufficient depth of analysis.