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One Hand Clapping: An Incomplete Biography of J. D. Salinger

by Michael Moats

Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski. 450 pgs. Random House, 2011. $27.00.

It’s a safe bet that J. D. Salinger would have hated January 2011.

Less than two weeks into the month, news broke of a settlement between Salinger’s estate and Fredrik Colting, author of 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, a supposed sequel to The Catcher in the Rye. Colting agreed not to publish in the United States or Canada and will drop the subtitle “Coming through the Rye.” The apparent victory for Salinger’s legacy just means that readers must visit to get the novel, which despite losing its subtitle now sports a bright red “BANNED IN THE USA!” and a blurb as “The world’s most talked about book.”

On January 27, the first anniversary of Salinger’s death was marked by the release of a collection of letters from Salinger to Donald Hartog, a friend Salinger made as a teenager in Vienna and corresponded with late in his life. In some of the biggest revelations since Salinger’s toilet was put on eBay last year, the letters prove that the author enjoyed watching tennis, ranked Jose Carreras the best of the Three Tenors, and preferred Burger King hamburgers over other fast food chains. Most of the public received this information with the disinterest that Salinger craved his entire life but was unable to achieve by ferociously guarding even these kinds of minor details.

It can be assumed, however, that of all January’s events, Salinger would have taken greatest issue with the release of Kenneth Slawenski’s J. D. Salinger: A Life, the first biography on the author since his death, and a full, yet deeply flawed, portrait of the artist.

A Life is only the third attempt at a book-length Salinger biography, a surprisingly low number until you hear what happened to the previous two. In the 1980s, poet and critic Ian Hamilton made a first try with Salinger: A Writing Life, which sought to chronicle Salinger’s experiences up to his final publication and disappearance from public life in 1965. A Writing Life made it as far as galley proofs before Hamilton was hustled into court by Salinger’s legal team, who sued over copyright violations in the use of Salinger’s personal correspondence. After rewriting his draft—twice—to excise any hint of Salinger’s unpublished letters, Hamilton published In Search of J. D. Salinger, a story of the detective work he did to find information he couldn’t use.

A decade later, journalist Paul Alexander published Salinger: A Biography, which didn’t require Salinger’s intervention to be terrible. While Alexander had access to interviews and commentary from sources Hamilton lacked, he dedicated much inconclusive ink to Salinger’s controversial interactions with younger women and hypothesized insistently that his hermitage was a cynical effort to increase his fame and drive up book sales. Alexander’s bio was, as one critic wrote recently, “like skimming every stale, Googled rumor in chronological order.” (1)

Though for different reasons, both books ultimately failed in the same way; neither was able to comfortably explain the differences between Salinger in real life, a litigious and unsettlingly odd recluse, and Salinger as his readers hoped he would be, a writer who, in the words of Holden Caulfield, was “a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Hamilton and Alexander made Salinger seem kind of, well, phony, and in turn, made reading his books less enjoyable. As Donald Hartog’s daughter said of her introduction to Salinger, “I remember being not very keen on meeting him because I liked his writing and I was afraid it might spoil it.” (2)

In this third attempt, Kenneth Slawenski, owner of the Salinger website, struggles in his own way with the life-work dynamic: while his sympathetic portrayal of Salinger does less to damage the author’s credibility than the previous biographies, Slawenski himself undercuts the stories with his own dismal analysis of Salinger’s fiction. As biography, A Life is richer and better structured than any of its predecessors—likely, it should be noted, because Slawenski pulls freely from Salinger’s letters, including some found in Ian Hamilton’s original, unedited draft. The detailed recounting of the author’s early years and his struggles to make it as a professional writer taunt fans with a long list of uncollected stories, some of which were published and can be dug up on the internet, and many others which were rejected and are now lost. Clarified are the mysterious circumstances of Salinger’s first marriage and some of the more quotidian and humanizing details of his later life in Cornish. The closing on the author’s death—which even at 91 seemed untimely—is a touching tribute. But the book’s true strength is in the important and long-overdue attention it pays to Salinger’s grueling war experiences, the rare moment from which direct lines can be drawn between life and art.

A Life is clearly the work of one of Salinger’s coveted “amateur readers”—to whom he dedicated his final published collection Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction—and while Slawenski can’t disguise his love of his subject, he manages, with a few slips, to present Salinger without too much sentimental gushing or defensiveness. Unfortunately, Slawenski is also an amateur biographer: aside from World War II, the history around Salinger is relayed by sweeping generalities (“In 1952, most Americans thought their way of life superior to that of Eastern cultures.”) He also makes what are either rookie mistakes or ethical lapses, culling dialogue, scenes and characters from fiction and inserting them as parts of Salinger’s nonfiction life.

Then there are the stories. It seems unlikely that anyone reading A Life would want a thorough synopsis of The Catcher in the Rye, yet Slawenski provides one, along with a reading of the novel that fails to rise much above the level of an SAT practice essay. After being roughed up by Maurice the pimp, we are told, “Holden begins to put away his childhood, but perceiving no redeeming qualities in the world he is about to enter, he also begins to despair.” The same tedious coverage is supplied for each of Salinger’s publications. In “Down at the Dinghy,” Slawenski explains that Lionel “begins to understand the value of interactions with others, his need for others, and the need of others for him,”—almost certainly the kind of neat lesson the story’s author frowned upon. Franny Glass’ retreat to the bathroom is interpreted as the image of “a spiritual seeker whose quest for enlightenment is restrained by the human tendencies that confine her, the four walls of the stall: ego, intellectualism, phoniness, and conformity.” Even the violations of Salinger’s privacy might not have galled him as much as the suggestion that he would craft such a clumsy image. As the book progressed I began to dread the approach of Salinger’s next publication, at one point actually feeling relieved that he offered the world so little. 

A Life shines where the historical record allows, but cannot sustain its luster otherwise. As Salinger’s hermitage deepens, the biography is unable to keep up. Slawenski’s repeated assertions that Salinger wrote as meditation and prayer and shunned publication to try and subvert his own ego are insufficient for explaining even what little we know about the last 60 years of his life. Salinger’s troubled marriage; the spiraling excesses of his fiction; his dalliance with 18-year-old Joyce Maynard; all are largely glossed over. Without insight from the biographer, it is easy to grow weary of Salinger’s contradictions and worst habits. For example, Salinger’s relentless and uncompromising control over his publications, which went as far as choosing the typeface and sending his publisher a color swatch to ensure the exact shade of red on a later edition of Catcher. He held grudges and ended at least one friendship in outrage over book covers. Some readers may realize that this micromanagement—however neurotic and overbearing—resulted in something unique and valuable. The iconic blank covers of his books are an object of wonder in the publishing world, a gift to his readers that would not have been possible without the exercise of some of his most unattractive qualities. But many will not, and explaining it away as part of Salinger’s pursuit of perfection is too weak an excuse for this, and other, imperfections in the author’s life. 
Shortly after World War II, Salinger wrote that “the novels of this war have too much of the strength, maturity, and craftsmanship that critics are looking for and too little of the glorious imperfections which teeter and fall off the best minds. The men who have been in this war deserve some sort of trembling melody rendered without embarrassment or regret. I’ll watch for that book.” (3) Any truly effective Salinger biography will necessarily proceed with a similar trembling balance. While Salinger: A Life falls short, it is the most comprehensive and readable biography to date. It offers hope that someone will eventually come along to compassionately, but honestly, capture the beloved and imperfect author, pure and complicated. Many millions of us will watch for that book. 

1. “For Salinger, With Love.” Blake Bailey. Slate. January 31, 2011. [return]

2. “Letters reveal human side of J. D. Salinger.” Jill Lawless. Washington Post (online). January 26, 2011. [return]

3. “Inside the Mind of a Young J. D. Salinger.” Esquire (online). January 28, 2010.


Michael Moats is a writer in Washington, DC. He has an MFA from Emerson College in Boston and writes the blog Trade Paperbacks. He is currently working on a book about the life and stories of J. D. Salinger. (5/2011)

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