Escape Artist: A New Biography of J.D. Salinger

J.D. Salinger fled the world. A new biography tries to track him down

  • Share
  • Read Later
Illustration by Robert Vickrey for TIME

(2 of 2)

Back in Manhattan, Salinger took a writing class at Columbia University taught by Whit Burnett, editor of the literary magazine Story. Within a year, Salinger had published there, and soon he was appearing in places like Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post, aiming all the while for the prestigious pages of the New Yorker. Meanwhile, he also survived a romance with Oona O'Neill, the 16-year-old daughter of the playwright Eugene O'Neill. (For Salinger, whose books are full of idealized children, fixations on very young women would be a lifelong motif.) A beautiful but insubstantial girl, in 1943 she ran off with the much older Charlie Chaplin.

By that time, Salinger had been drafted. Attached to Army counterintelligence, he was tasked with interrogating Nazis in territory liberated by the Allies. His infantry regiment landed at Normandy on D-Day and helped liberate Paris, where he made friends with Ernest Hemingway. He also took part in some of the worst fighting of the war, a months-long winter bloodbath in the mine-infested Hürtgen Forest in western Germany.

Soldier of Misfortune

Though Salinger stayed tight-lipped all his life about his combat experience, Slawenski does a fine job of detailing the sheer awfulness of Hürtgen Forest. He makes it plain why, at the end of the war, Salinger appears to have suffered some kind of nervous collapse, a trauma that helps to explain his abrupt leap into marriage with a German woman. But when a joint visit to New York in 1946 went badly, the woman, whom Slawenski has identified as Sylvia Werther, an eye doctor, returned to Europe and filed for divorce. That left Salinger free to pursue his real love, Holden Caulfield, and to focus on getting into the New Yorker. Within months, he would score when the magazine decided at last to run a story featuring Caulfield that it had accepted years earlier. From then on, Salinger published only in the New Yorker, which ran most of the works collected in Nine Stories as well as Salinger's tales of the Glass family — with their odd mix of spiritual anguish, ecstatic compassion and serene detachment from the ordinary world — that would reappear as Franny and Zooey and as Salinger's final book, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.

What the Glass stories make plain is that by the 1950s Salinger became nothing less than a religious writer, struggling to convey the messages of compassion and detachment that he had discovered in Hindu and Buddhist texts. That otherworldliness could make him a captivating writer but not always a terrific husband. In 1955 he married Claire Douglas, the daughter of a British art critic, who would become the mother of his two children; their marriage soon foundered as he spent more and more time holed away in his studio on their property.

Slawenski races through the second half of Salinger's life, barely acknowledging the odd picture of Salinger we get from the memoirs of his daughter Margaret and of Joyce Maynard, the 18-year-old writer whom the 53-year-old Salinger, by then divorced, persuaded to join him in Cornish. Both women describe a man devoted to religious study, watching old movies with a reel projector and pursuing eccentric health regimes that included drinking his own urine and forced vomiting. Why does Slawenski step back so much here? Did he begin to share his subject's distaste for the biographer's messy probing into personal matters? You can be Salinger's friend, or you can be his biographer. You can't be both. Whatever Slawenski's motive, he leaves plenty of territory uncharted for whoever takes on Salinger next. And no matter who that turns out to be, you know Salinger would not approve.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 7, 2011 issue of TIME.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. Next Page