Books | Arts

The Private War Of J.D. Salinger

NPR | Sept. 8, 2013 12:54 p.m.

Contributed By:

NPR Staff

“J.D. Salinger spent 10 years writing The Catcher in the Rye and the rest of his life regretting it.”

That’s the opening line of a major new book about one of America’s best known and most revered writers. J.D. Salinger died three years ago at the age of 91, after publishing four slim books. But one of those books has sold more than 65 million copies and has become a touchstone for young people coming of age around the world.

Catcher in the Rye still sells hundreds of thousands of copies every year.

Shane Salerno is co-author of the monumental 600-page book, called, simply, Salinger. He’s also the director of a related documentary, also called Salinger, to be released Friday, September 6.

Salerno spoke with Weekend Edition Sunday guest host Wade Goodwin about J.D. Salinger and the book that made him a reluctant literary superstar.

The book begins on Utah beach, D-Day of the Normandy invasion, and as J.D. Salinger wades ashore, hundreds die all around him. In fact, the world is incredibly lucky there was ever a Catcher in the Rye at all.

“One of the first details I learned was that he was carrying six chapters of Catcher in the Rye when he landed on D-Day. That was something that stunned me. He carried these chapters with him almost as a talisman to keep him alive, and he worked on the book throughout the war.

“His first day of combat was D-Day, and from there he proceeded into the hedgerows and the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge, and then ultimately entering the concentration camp, a sub-camp of Dachau.”

I don’t think I understood just how much J.D. Salinger’s combat experience became the formative experience for everything that Salinger wrote.

“If J.D. Salinger had not participated in World War II, we would not be having this conversation. The fact is that the work that is known prior to combat is not on the level that the rest of the work. All of the work for which we know J.D. Salinger — Bananafish, Esme, Catcher, Nine Stories — all written after the war.

“Before he had landed on D-Day, J.D. Salinger was a Park Avenue rich kid. Nothing prepared him for what World War II was going to do to him psychologically. We know this because at the end of the war, he checked into a mental institution, and then did something truly remarkable, which is, came out of the mental institution and signed back up for more, and participated in the de-Nazification of Germany.”

Did Salinger know he was writing a great American novel while he was at it, or do you think he was just hoping he was writing the great American novel?

“One of the things we uncovered in a letter he was writing to Jean Miller, who was a 14-year-old girl that he struck up a very unique and unusual relationship with … He says that he’s actually very scared about what the reaction will be to Catcher in the Rye. He’s very scared about what his family and friends will think about the language and some of the points of view.

“I don’t think he had any idea that it would become one of the most successful novels of all time.”

It’s the great American novel but he can’t get it published.

“Not only was the Catcher in the Rye turned down by its initial publisher, Harcourt Brace, but it was also turned down for excerpt by the New Yorker. That’s even a harder thing to understand because at that time, J.D. Salinger was their most popular writer. They didn’t just reject it, they rejected it and wrote him a letter that we have where they say, ‘We don’t believe this book.’”

There’s a scene in which Salinger is treated very roughly, in which he’s invited in to meet with a publisher who tells him that they’re not going to publish the book and in fact, Holden Caulfield is insane. It sends Salinger running into the street.

“That’s absolutely true, and when we discovered that … they really thought Holden Caulfield was crazy, and by extension that Salinger was crazy. Since Salinger had put his whole life into Catcher in the Rye, you can imagine, a man who had stepped out of a mental institution a few years earlier. Being told that he was crazy and that Holden Caulfield was crazy was a great wound to him. In fact, he teared up in the room and was deeply, deeply hurt.”

Then it’s published and the world loves it. The reviews are ecstatic, but he’s not happy because he’s such a literary snob that he worries that too much acclaim means he’s written a book for the masses. He wants a book for the ages. In fact he’s written both, but he has difficulty seeing that.

“He was completely overwhelmed by fame, and what he did, very much like Holden, very much like Catcher in the Rye, was beat a fast exit out of New York City. He moved to Cornish, N.H., and he never looked back.

“J.D. Salinger was not a recluse; he was very private, and he wanted a private life. He was a man of deep, deep contradictions. He was a man who would write about renouncing the world, and then write a letter to a friend about how much he liked the Whopper at Burger King.”

He wrote this book that eloquently touched the yearning, vulnerable young intellect inside so many. Did you get a sense of what he thought about having suddenly touched so many young people in such a powerful way?

“He said very specifically that he regretted ever writing the Catcher in the Rye, that it took over his life and made his life incredibly difficult … People read that book — and this happened for decades and decades — and they want to meet Salinger. They get in their cars. We interviewed some of these people who left their lives, left their families, left their jobs just to see him. They think he is a guru. They think he has the answers to the problems in their lives, that they want to have deep conversations with him. That’s wholly unique to The Catcher in the Rye.”

The first great love of Salinger’s life is the daughter of one of America’s literary giants, Eugene O’Neill — Oona.

“She’s a fascinating woman, a beautiful woman … Salinger met her when she was 16 and fell head over heels in love with her.

“They were divided by war. Salinger finds out that he loses Oona to Chaplin, and is devastated. He’s overseas, can’t do anything about it, and is utterly devastated. Every one of his relationships that followed that was haunted by his relationship with Oona O’Neill. Salinger was always attracted to girls at the age of their transformation into womanhood.”

Your research breaks some important news: Salinger may not be finished publishing. You say he had instructed his estate to publish at least five additional books, some of them completely new.

“That’s true. You know, after nine years, and after uncovering photos and documents and interviews with people that had never come forward or never been seen, we were able to confirm that there is more work, and that work will be published fairly soon … in irregular installments between 2015 and 2020.”

His last works were criticized as being way too preachy. Do you worry that these works will suffer the same fate?

“I know it’s a concern for millions of Salinger fans. I see that reflected in various articles. I believe the work will be significant and important, and I’m dying to read it.”

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