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J.D. Salinger was one of twentieth century America’s most popular and famously reclusive literary figures. A new biography offer insights into the life of JD Salinger, author of the best selling and now classic book, “The Catcher in the Rye.”
- Kenneth Slawenski Biographer, and creator of DeadCaulfields.com, founded in 2004
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. The writer J.D. Salinger worked hard at remaining a mystery after catapulting to fame in the early '50s following publication of his novel, ''The Catcher in the Rye.'' Salinger assiduously avoided publicity for the rest of his life. But Kenneth Slawenski who read the book as a teenager and picked it up again later in life was determined to learn all he could about the man who became one of the last century's greatest American writers.
MS. DIANE REHMIn a new biography, he offers a detailed portrait, the man who captured the imagination of generation of readers. The book is called, ''J.D. Salinger: A Life.'' And Kenneth Slawenski joins me in the studio. I hope you will as well. Give us a call on 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, send us a tweet or join on Facebook. Good morning to you, Ken. It's good to have you here.
MR. KENNETH SLAWENSKIGood morning, Diane. Great to be here.
REHMTalk about your internal experience with J.D. Salinger.
SLAWENSKIActually, I'll be 54 in April and it pretty much spans a lifetime from my adolescence until this period now. When you say internal, that's an interesting word because it really is a feeling. You feel Salinger's work. You feel, ''The Catcher in the Rye.'' That’s where the real power is and I first experienced that power when I was -- I would say about 14. I was in junior high school and I read, ''The Catcher in the Rye,'' for the first time, it was mandatory reading.
SLAWENSKIAnd I did connect with the character, Holden Caulfield. I really enjoyed the book. I loved the book. In fact, I might have to admit that I really didn't like reading before I read, ''The Catcher in the Rye,'' and that taught me the joy of reading, plain and simple. But if you fast forward many years, too many...
REHMBut before you fast forward.
REHMTell me what it was about Holden Caulfield that caught you?
SLAWENSKIHolden Caulfield seemed to be speaking my innermost feelings. He seemed to be articulating for me what I could not, at 14, articulate for myself.
SLAWENSKIAngst, trepidation about becoming an adult, phoniness. When you're 14, you are so clued in to the phoniness of especially adults. And Holden was -- he was saying all of these things. He was articulating my feelings for me and that amazed me.
REHMHow did you feel his relationship to friends, to parents, to those around him, how did that connect with you?
SLAWENSKIWhen I was 14, that connected in a way that I thought he was right. I said, finally, somebody's saying these things. The connections that he had with friends and parents was exactly where I was coming from at that point in time, too.
REHMSo you put the book aside...
REHM...having read it once?
SLAWENSKII did, right.
REHMNow, fast forward.
SLAWENSKIAll right. But in the meantime, I have inject one thing. I enjoyed that book so much, it made such a difference to me in my adolescence, that I kept it for many, many years in the top dresser of my drawer as a memento of my youth. And that book sat there for decades and I took it out when I was 45 and reread, ''The Catcher in the Rye.''
REHMWhy do you think you did?
SLAWENSKIThat's a really good question because -- and it's not one I can answer. I think it's just something that called to me. It was there, I was keeping it for a reason. It’s one of those things that it almost whispering in my ear and I was almost avoiding it. And I felt a little funny at 45 reading, ''The Catcher in the Rye,'' again. I really did. I felt almost, like, well, what is this? Is this my version of midlife crisis? And when I read it, I found that it impressed me even more than it did at 14.
SLAWENSKINo, no, not at all. I related to Holden Caulfield all over again, but in different ways. It was as if he as a character had transformed along with me. He had grown along with me. I no longer saw the Holden of teenaged angst and rebellion. I saw a sadder Holden, I saw a more mature Holden. I related to him in an adult way and to me, that was really phenomenal and I wanted to know more about the author who could deliver that kind of a presentation. A book that actually transforms along the years with your life. That's how I felt.
REHMYou know, the idea that resonated with me the first time I read, ''The Catcher in the Rye,'' was life is somehow meaningless.
SLAWENSKIYes. Well, that's the question, now where is the answer? That is the question. It's almost a larger question, too. I believe -- Salinger, he served in World War II and he fought in Europe, landed on D-Day. And he fought in Europe until the end of the war, 'til the surrender of the Germans and then he remained on his own accord for another year in Germany.
SLAWENSKIAnd what he witnessed there during the war shook him to the core. It changed him fundamentally, profoundly. Not only as an individual, but also as an author. His writings change. And I think that experience is partially embedded in, ''The Catcher in the Rye,'' in the way that you said. The question that Holden asks really is, is it worth it? Is it -- life -- not is life worth it, is the world worth it?
SLAWENSKIThe world worth living in, it's the world that's on trial in, ''The Catcher in the Rye.'' Holden Caulfield's not on trial, he’s putting the world on trial. He’s asking the world, please give me something of value and worth. Show me something of worth so that I can become an adult and feel at least that it's worth living in. And that, I think, comes from the war because when you experience war, you have to ask the fundamental question of, is life worth living after what I've experienced? What I know now about the capabilities of man to commit atrocities, what is life all about? Is it worth living? In a way, in a minor way, Holden asks that very same question.
REHMKenneth Slawenski, his new book is, ''J.D. Salinger: A Life.'' And you can join us, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to email@example.com. Kenneth Slawenski is the creator of DeadCaulfields.com, a website founded in 2004 recommended by The New York Times. He's been working on this biography for eight years. It is bizfact that he was in the Second World War, that he did see the horror that the Germans had inflicted and he had the unfinished manuscript, I gather...
SLAWENSKIYes, of course. Yes, yes.
REHM…of, ''The Catcher in the Rye,'' with him. How do you know that?
SLAWENSKIIsn't that phenomenal? Right before he left, he was stationed in England doing preparation for D-Day. And right before he left for D-Day, he wrote a letter home, you know, to the United States, to his friend and his editor, Whit Burnett, and he told Whit Burnett that he had six chapters of, ''The Catcher in the Rye.'' He didn't call it, ''The Catcher in the Rye,'' at that point. His Holden Caulfield book, he called it.
SLAWENSKII have six chapters of the Holden Caulfield book. And he said, No one has seen them. Not even his agent had seen, he said. So he was the only one who had, that was the single copy of six chapters of, ''The Catcher in the Rye.'' He said, I need them with me. I need them. As if he needed them for support. He needed them on his person. So he landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-day with the pages of, ''The Catcher in the Rye,'' on his person. I think that is absolutely amazing.
REHMAnd do you have proof that he landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day...
REHM...and that he saw those prisoners who had been held in Dachau?
SLAWENSKIWell, when I say Dachau, I'm talking about the Dachau concentration camp system. At the end of the war, Salinger's unit entered an area of Bavaria that was absolutely infested with sub-camps of Dachau. These were smaller compounds of prisoners and they were kept to work in Dachau proper. These camps are unavoidable. His unit liberated a good half dozen of these camps.
SLAWENSKISome of the names are obscure. For example, Salinger's daughter wrote that he had mentioned of a concentration camp that he had liberated, help to liberate, and she didn't recall the name. I don't blame her for that because they are obscure names. Some of them, Ohrdruf and Horgau, she wouldn't have remembered these. As far as J.D. goes, we do have an eyewitness account of him landing on the second wave there.
REHMFrom another soldier?
SLAWENSKIExactly, from another soldier from the 12th Infantry Division, yes.
REHMSo you have been able in this book to gather information that no one has had?
SLAWENSKII have some, yes.
REHMUp to now.
REHMKen Slawenski, his new biography is called, ''J.D. Salinger: A Life.'' I know that we have many people waiting on the lines. Elizabeth, Dave, Sue, we'll try to get to you as quickly as possible.
REHMWelcome back. That mysterious figure, J.D. Salinger, has been illuminated in Kenneth Slawenski's new biography called simply, "J.D. Salinger: A Life." At the heart is, of course, Holden Caulfield and, "The Catcher in the Rye," a book that has been with us, on and off bestseller lists for the last 50 years. Tell us about J.D. Salinger before or after he got to D-Day with Holden Caulfield next to his bosom. When did he marry?
SLAWENSKIActually, Salinger's first wife, he married was right directly after the war. He married a German woman named Sylvia Welter.
SLAWENSKIHe remained in Germany with her for a number of months and then he took an extraordinary decision of bringing her back home to live in New York with his mother and father. That wasn't going to happen. He had written home, actually, that Sylvia was French and she was a sweet little French girl. And that's, I assume, what his parents were expecting. Now, his father was Jewish and his mother doted on him. Jerry was, for all of her life, mama's little boy. She wasn't going to take well to anyone. When Sylvia and Jerry got off the boat...
REHMJerry being J.D. Salinger.
SLAWENSKIJerry Salinger. Right, right. I'm sorry. Yes, at that point in time, yeah, I think of him as still being Jerry. When Sylvia and Jerry got off of the boat from Europe -- now, he had been overseas for more than a year and she opened her mouth and a German accent popped out. I'm sure they were flabbergasted. She...
REHMWhen you say I'm sure they were flabbergasted...
REHM...is there any written indication of that?
SLAWENSKIThis is my supposition. Here is the story. And when I say story -- "story," the story is that she lived there for a couple of months in the Manhattan apartment on Park Avenue with the parents. And one morning (laugh) during breakfast, they all came, they all sat down to the breakfast table and the napkins were on top of the plates. And they picked up the napkin and put them on their laps. And under Sylvia's napkin was a ticket home. Sylvia returned to Europe. They were married for all of eight months. She filed for annulment and that was the end of that marriage.
REHMHow do you know that?
SLAWENSKII did talk to Sylvia's friends shortly after her death and she died in 2007. Interestingly, she returned to the United States in the '50s and she lived here for the rest of her life. She married someone in Michigan and she settled in North Carolina.
REHMBut no further contact with "Jerry."
SLAWENSKINo further contact, as far as I know. There is an account given by Salinger's daughter in her book. She wrote a book, a memoir of herself, with a large portion about her father in 2000. And that account -- I think the year was 1972. She said she recalled that she was walking with her father in the woods where they went to the mailbox and there was a letter there from Sylvia. And she recalls the name distinctly. And instead of opening the letter, her father just ripped it up.
REHMWho is Sylvia's successor?
SLAWENSKISylvia's successor (laugh) -- that's a nice term, is Claire Douglas. Claire Douglas was born in Britain. She spent the war in the United States in a foster program. She was a child. They were afraid that the home in London would be bombed, so they sent her to the United States to -- she went to a series of foster homes, actually, her and her brother. And she very much resembles, if you've ever read Salinger's story, "For Esmé - with Love and Squalor," she's Esmé. She is Esmé almost incarnate. It is phenomenal.
REHMHow did they meet?
SLAWENSKIThey met at a party. They met at a party of a mutual friend in 1950. So Salinger was just about to release, "The Catcher in the Rye." He was just about to become famous and he met this demure young girl. She was 17 at the time. And he fell instantly -- they had a real love affair.
REHMAnd married how soon thereafter?
SLAWENSKIThey didn't marry until 1955.
REHMSo a fairly long…
SLAWENSKIIt was, yes.
SLAWENSKIYes. It's interesting in a way because of her age, I think. Salinger, he tried to restrain himself.
REHMHow old would he have been?
SLAWENSKIWell, he would've been 31.
REHMAnd she's 17.
SLAWENSKIRight. And she's 17. You see the age difference. Now, the rumor -- in 1950, that was a little scandalous and he was very aware what people would say. And he tried his best to cool the relationship down. And there were periods when they did split up where they didn't see each other, but always, they seemed to get back together again. At that point in his life, in the early '50s, he really -- she was exactly what he needed at that point in time and vice versa. The same for her.
REHMNow, back to, "Catcher and the Rye." His New Yorker turned it down.
REHMHis first publisher...
SLAWENSKIThat's his beloved New Yorker.
REHM...turned it down.
REHMWhy? Why did they turn it down?
SLAWENSKIThis is the -- I can't answer that question. You know, I wouldn't have turned it down. Would we -- I don't know too many people who would've turned it down, but, you know, much the chagrin, yes, they did. The interesting thing about The New Yorker is it was -- he presented it -- he went to The New Yorker to print and excerpt and he thought that it was going to receive absolutely great reception at The New Yorker. All of his friends were there, he had been working with The New Yorker for a number of years. He was very popular there at the magazine. He sold a lot of New Yorker magazines, J.D. Salinger.
SLAWENSKIAnd he got a letter from his editor at The New Yorker who said that, we received the manuscript and we didn't like it. And they weren't going to publish a word of it. And it also came with a choice lecture on his writing style. They thought that the character Holden Caulfield and Phoebe Caulfield and the entire Caulfield family, they weren't believable. And they scolded Salinger on top of that. I mean, this is hurt on top of hurt.
REHMYou've seen these letters.
SLAWENSKIYes, yes, I have. They're scolding him for not -- they saw too much of Salinger in the manuscript. Now, he had been writing that book for 10 years. For 10 years, he put into it, well before he had any association with The New Yorker. Now, they wanted the book to conform to The New Yorker etiquette on writing, which was a sublimination of the author himself. And J.D. Salinger was not about to rewrite, "The Catcher in the Rye," to please The New Yorker, but he was very deeply hurt, without a doubt.
REHMAnd the first publisher?
SLAWENSKIThe first publisher he had sent it to, it was accepted by Hawker Bryce for publication. And he made a...
REHMBut that was not the first publisher...
REHM...to which he sent it. He sent it to another publisher who initially turned it down.
SLAWENSKIHawker Bryce initially turned it down. What he did was he established an agreement with Hawker Bryce in 1949, a year and a half before the eventual release of, "The Catcher in the Rye." And he sealed the deal with a verbal handshake. Now, when he did finally finish the manuscript and he sent it off to Hawker Bryce, the individual with whom he made the deal sent it to his boss and -- was Robert Jerar (sp?).
SLAWENSKIAnd Jerar didn't understand the novel. He -- his answer was, is Holden Caulfield supposed to be crazy? And when they read that and when Salinger read that interpretation, well, it was clear that this -- Hawker Bryce was not going to publish that book and they didn't. They asked him to rewrite the book. He was furious. He was absolutely furious. But he had a good agent in Dorothy Olding and Dorothy Olding sent the book to Little, Brown and Company in Boston and they took it immediately and they did wind up publishing it.
REHMHow quickly did it become a best seller?
SLAWENSKII would say about -- oh, a bestseller? It hit the number four spot on The New York Times Best Seller list, but it never hit number one. That's interesting. It's probably the -- except for, "Nine Stories," I have to say that. His last two books, "Franny and Zooey" and, "Raise High the Roof Beams," were both instantly number one best sellers, but, "The Catcher in the Rye," never was.
REHMSo from the time he became famous...
REHM...as a writer...
REHM...revered as a writer...
REHM...somehow that so turned him off.
SLAWENSKIIf you look at the -- even, "The Catcher in the Rye," 1951, here he had been, as I said, writing the book for 10 years. All he wanted to do is see this book published. And Jerry Salinger, the earlier -- when I say Jerry, the earlier Jerry Salinger, before the war, was tremendously ambitious. He was tremendously convinced that he was a great writer and he was going to set the world upside down with this his writings.
REHMHe had lots of confidence.
SLAWENSKIWithout a doubt, without a doubt he did. And now the time is here. It's finally here, it's come. He can make his name, he can finally publish that book he's been working on for 10 years. And what does he do? He turns around and he says, I don't want publicity, I won't have my picture on it. I don't -- no speaking tours. Well, it's incredible. Nowadays, that book wouldn't be published.
REHMSo why do you think he turned away?
SLAWENSKIWell, he turned away -- it was actually -- it was a progression, but you can really see that begins in earnest in 1951 with the production of, "The Catcher in the Rye." He was entering that year and the year that he was finishing Catcher in 1950, he was entering a new phase of -- in his philosophy, he left the war with really -- he had embarked on his spiritual journey and he was investigating different forms of primarily Eastern philosophies and religions.
REHMHow do you know this?
SLAWENSKIBecause he wrote of it. He wrote of it constantly. Really, it's almost impossible to understand the man from 1951 on without understanding the values that he was gaining through these Asian philosophies. He found this book, "The Gospel Sri Krishna." Okay? Now, he was giving this book to everyone. Anyone who'd listen, read this book, read this book. The thing is tremendous, it's enormous. It takes you years to get through. And just to understand its -- perhaps a lifetime. And he was so turned on by this book and he just set to adopting every facet of its doctrine.
SLAWENSKIAnd one of those doctrines is ego detachment, is that Sri Krishna taught in no uncertain terms that we must work because God gave us the talent and the ability to work, but that we are not due the benefits, that the fruits of our labor belong to God. And Salinger believed in that also and that starts to kick in in 1951. And you see that when he says, no, take my picture off of the back of the book. No, I don't want too much publicity.
REHMKenneth Slawenski, the new book, a biography of J.D. Salinger, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have many callers. Let's open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning, Elizabeth.
ELIZABETHGood morning. I read this book as a young teenager and I'm now in my 70s and I have never understood the title as it relates to the story. I don't know what the title means.
SLAWENSKIHi, Elizabeth, how are you? (laugh) The title is in the book. There's a poem by Robert Burns, "A Catcher in the Rye." And what happens is Holden Caulfield, he misquotes the poem. He says, when a body catch a body coming through the rye. Where actually the poem says, when a body meet a body coming through the rye. And that really is a primary essence of Holden's problem throughout the book. He needs to learn the distinction between meeting someone and catching someone. Holden wants to catch children as they fall from innocence. His lesson is it requires more than that.
SLAWENSKIHolden Caulfield, he's not quite an adult yet. He's almost an adult, all right. He's not ready to catch children. He still has too much of a child in himself. He needs to connect with other people in order to find -- to complete his own journey first and I think that's part of the meaning behind the title.
REHMBefore we take any additional callers, I want to ask you specifically...
REHM...what new information, new sources you have brought to this biography...
REHM...that have not appeared before.
SLAWENSKIRight. Well, to speak to a number of people. But primarily, I'd like to think that more than anyone else I actually almost interviewed J.D. Salinger. It's probably through his letters -- I've poured over hundreds of them and many of them have never been reported on before.
REHMHave they been shared with you by individuals close to him?
SLAWENSKISome of them I had to track down and they are available to researchers. Some I did get the first dibs on. For example, the Morgan letters. There were 11 letters that Salinger wrote to his friend.
REHMTo his friend.
SLAWENSKIHis friend -- I'm sorry, Michael Mitchell. And Michael Mitchell did the original cover work for, "The Catcher in the Rye." That's his image, the ramped horse. And they were friends for many years. And I did get first dibs on reading and evaluating his letters and it's a wonderful stash. It really is a wonderful stash of letters because you get the entire arc of the relationship from 1951 to the '90s -- to the early '90s.
SLAWENSKIWhatever's in different archives, I just dug and I dug. I found a -- this is funny -- I found a poem that he wrote. You know, so proud to find this poem because as far as I know, no one has even known that it existed. It's just it was in the papers of his poetry professor at Columbia. And again, as far as I know, no one's even known that Salinger took poetry in Columbia, but it was a terrible poem.
REHMKenneth Slawenski and we're talking about J.D. Salinger. We'll take a short break and more of your calls, your e-mails when we return.
REHMAnd here's an e-mail from Katherine, who says, "Like your guest, I keep a copy of, 'Catcher in the Rye,' in the top drawer of my bedside table...
REHM...and reread it frequently. I was born in 1955, deeply affected by the book. I was and still am in love with Holden Caulfield. I went to a girl's school and dated a boy at a boy's school who reminded me of Holden, when he told me to cut his hair above his eyebrows, he shaved his eyebrows off. My question is why has no one made another movie of this wonderful book? I believe there's an old black and white movie made decades ago, but don't you think we could have a modern version?"
SLAWENSKIYou know, there's never been a movie of, "The Catcher in the Rye."
REHMI didn't think so.
SLAWENSKINo, Salinger would never allow it, no. He would never -- he hated any image of Holden. In a way, isn't he right, though? I mean...
REHMLet's talk for a moment...
REHM...about Joyce Maynard.
REHMDid you talk with her? And by the way, we should say she's written...
REHM...her own biography.
SLAWENSKIRight. Her own memoir, yes, in 1998, "At Home in the World." I didn't talk to Joyce, no. And Joyce appeared on the stage at a point in time when Salinger wasn't producing any writings. And I think that to cover those years as if in depth to the extent that I covered the years that he was producing writing would be only to tell half of the story, because so much of Salinger's story are in his works. His works were his life. And he's inseparable from the stories that he wrote, so I'd like to leave some things perhaps for another book and that period of his life. Hopefully if we do see new writings and I'm hoping that we do...
SLAWENSKIOh, yeah, sure, sure.
REHMYou think that he was still writing?
SLAWENSKIOh, I know it, yes. He spoke of it constantly for decades, yes.
REHMEven though he did not wish to publish one more word.
SLAWENSKIIn his lifetime, he decided not to, correct, yes.
REHMIn his lifetime.
SLAWENSKIExactly. Right, but he did leave these things to his estate, which consist now of his widow and his son and it's up to them. He left it up to them what to do with it and he said as much.
REHMAnd what about his daughter?
SLAWENSKIHis daughter is not in the estate. The estate -- when I said the estate, I have no idea what's in the will. All right. He set up a trust. Salinger, right before his death, set up a trust and that went to his wife and to his son. And in that trust are all of the copyrights to all of his works, all of his published works, including ,"The Catcher in the Rye." That's quite something, really.
REHMHow long was he married to his second wife?
SLAWENSKIHis second wife, they were married for about 11, 12 years.
REHMAnd was there a third wife?
SLAWENSKIThere's a third wife, yes, yes.
REHMAnd it is she and the son...
SLAWENSKIExactly. Exactly. And excuse me for not jumping right in and not establishing that. Yes, yes, he married his third wife late '80s and she -- so they had a very long relationship and...
REHMBut he did not live with her at the end, did he?
SLAWENSKIYes, he did. Yes, they lived together, yes.
REHMTo the end?
SLAWENSKITo the end, yes.
REHMWe never saw her.
SLAWENSKIWe never saw her. Yes, yes, low key, not really -- not trying to be low key, just these rural people and small town people and they lived their lives accordingly.
REHMAnd they were protected within that small town.
SLAWENSKIThey were very much protected. See, Cornish, N.H. has -- always had an affection for Salinger and they protected his privacy. You know, let's face it, Cornish, you're talking about a (word?), what, 1500 people, really no downtown. So the only reason you're in Cornish, unless you live in Cornish, is to seek out J.D. Salinger's house.
REHMDid he know the number of schools and libraries had banned, "The Catcher and the Rye?"
SLAWENSKIHe did. Yes, he did.
REHMWhat was his reaction, do we know?
SLAWENSKIYes, we do. Salinger said that he was aware that a lot of schools were beginning in the early '60s to ban the teaching and the reading of, "The Catcher in the Rye," by their students and he said it pained him because actually his quote was -- he had a previous quote that his best friends were children. And it pained him to know that his book would be kept out of their reach. But he felt that he had a greater obligation to the work that he was working on at that time and he needed to let go of his hold on, it's almost an ironic statement, previous works, including, "The Catcher in the Rye." Of course, that didn't turn out to be true until his -- you know, until the day of his death, he was still holding onto, "The Catcher in the Rye."
REHMLet's go to Islip, N.Y. Good morning, Daniel, you're on the air.
DANIELGood morning. I have a quick comment and a question.
DANIELUntil your biographer, Kenneth, there revealed it on air, I had no idea there was a concentration in Altdorf. I was actually stationed in Bitburg, Germany and I lived in Altdorf on Von Hastrasa (sp?)...
DANIEL...which is located halfway between Spangdahlem Air Base and Bitburg Air Base and I was completely amazed that there had been a concentration camp. There was no clue. I had no clue of that. My question, however, is a lot of the critics and reviewers of the book, "Catcher in the Rye," speak of an undertone of Holden Caulfield's budding homosexuality. And I was wondering if the biographer knows was that actually intentional by Salinger or is that something -- a tone that was gleaned by the reviewers and the readers?
SLAWENSKIActually, that's a surprise to me. I haven't heard that line of thought, frankly. He did -- Salinger did produce a story previous to, "The Catcher in the Rye," with Holden's character in it and he did try to submit that story for publication to The New Yorker as a separate short story. And he did receive a rejection letter concerning that story in which his editors questioned whether or not Holden Caulfield was homosexual, but that is the only time I've heard any reference like that.
REHMInteresting. Hope that answers it, Daniel.
DANIELThank you. Yes, it did.
REHMThanks. To Jackson, Mich. Good morning, Annie.
ANNIEGood morning. For some reason, when I was reading Holden at first, he just aggravated me.
SLAWENSKIAll right. Yeah.
ANNIEI don't know. I didn't like him, but I fell in love with the Glass family. When I read, "Perfect Day for Bananafish," I don't know, I feel like I cried for the next five years.
ANNIEI just feel -- I have always felt like they were some -- I was somehow an invisible member of that family and I...
ANNIE...I still go back and read those stories, again and again.
SLAWENSKII thank you for that. I mean, that strikes me because normally, it's the other way around. A lot of readers don't like the Glass stories and they love, "The Catcher in the Rye." It's the rare reader really who -- where it's the other way around. Holden irritated you, huh?
ANNIEI thought he was just kind of a pompous know it all.
ANNIEI mean, this is when I was 15. And like you, you know, you always go back and reread them and learn a lot about yourself by rereading them, but I didn't like him (laugh).
SLAWENSKIBut he struck a chord.
REHMHe clearly struck a chord.
REHMThanks for calling, Annie. You also write that Salinger was deeply in love with Oona Chaplin.
SLAWENSKIThat was his first great love, yes, without a doubt, Oona Chaplin. The daughter of Eugene O'Neill, Oona O'Neill. Salinger was 22 -- 21 and 22 and Oona was 17. And she was just vivacious, she was just beautiful and he met her down at the Jersey shore and he fell instantly in love with her. Now, the problem -- they did date for awhile. I don't know that Oona was really romantically interested in Salinger, but they did date in the '40s right before the war. I mean a date, if you held hands, that was a big thing. So to say date, you know, but she left him for Charlie Chaplin. She moved out to California, got involved with Charlie Chaplin almost immediately and she broke Salinger's heart. She broke Jerry's heart.
SLAWENSKIThe thing is that really what struck me about the breakup of that relationship was he read it in the newspapers because the newspapers were screaming that Chaplin, who they had it out for at that time, now he's dating the 17-year-old girl, daughter...
REHMBecause how old was Chaplin at the time?
SLAWENSKIChaplin was in his mid 50s. He was old enough to be Oona's father. And here is Oona, she's famous for being the daughter of Eugene O'Neill and it was like the newspapers were screaming, hands off, hands off. And Salinger was humiliated. It just humiliated. Here he was in love with this girl. He talked to everyone about her and they must've looked at him with the saddest of eyes.
REHMTo Baltimore, Md. Good morning, Dave.
DAVEGood morning. I'd like to get Ken's comment admiring Salinger's privacy and integrity and Holden -- what Holden said is never more true, but one reaction to the phoniness might be to change things for the better. And I think Mark David Chapman, using Holden Caulfield, killed John Lennon who actually tried to change things for the better. What do you think Salinger would say about that?
SLAWENSKISalinger said publicly nothing about the Lennon assassination, but as human beings, we can imagine that it had a terrible effect upon him, that his great creation was used in such a despicable way. Mark David Chapman, he was a sick human being and he interpreted, "The Catcher in the Rye," in the sickest of ways. To blame Salinger in any way, shape or form for his crime is an injustice.
REHMYou know, it seems to me that what you are saying is that the heart of, "The Catcher in the Rye," and perhaps the stories that came later, really came out of J.D. Salinger's experience in the Second World War, that that is what changed him.
SLAWENSKIThe war did change him, of course, because it did set him on a spiritual journey. And I -- what I do is I've used Salinger's life as almost steps along the spiritual path. You can measure Salinger's spiritual progression, his evolution as you read his stories if you do it chronological order. And when you put the episodes of his life up against those stories, you see not only his philosophy and the events of his life, but you begin to learn about the man. You begin to become closer to Salinger himself and this is what I've tried to do and hopefully read his book, come away with a greater understanding of Salinger.
REHMHere's an e-mail from Barbara, who says, "No one ever seems to mention what I see as the most significant aspect to, 'The Catcher in the Rye. That is that Holden is a teenager whose little brother is dead and 'The Catcher' is written at the suggestion of Holden's older brother, a writer from a sanatorium. It's a book of grief. Holden is writing a catharsis of his terrible grief."
SLAWENSKIYes. She's completely correct, completely right. And when I talk about my two -- the two times that I read, "The Catcher in the Rye," I'm talking about at 14 and 45. I didn't see that grief in the first reading. I certainly did in the second. I didn't even recognize Holden's brother, Allie, that he's dominated by the death of Allie. He's trying to come to terms with the death of Allie and living in this world that could take his pure brother, at the age of 10, away from him. He doesn't know what to make of this world. He's left to grow up in this world and Allie's been taken away from him. I didn't see that grief, that entire conflict, until I read it at 45.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Goshen, Ind. Good morning, Greg.
GREGGood morning, Diane. How are you doing?
REHMI'm good. Thanks.
GREGOh, that's good to know. Yeah, I was going to comment that J.D. Salinger had hit upon a vibe that most authors strive for. It's the every man vibe that brings people into reading.
SLAWENSKIRight, right. Yeah, exactly, exactly. If we talk about Salinger -- tomorrow will be the first anniversary of his death. And I've been thinking lately what his legacy should be. And I really think that it is in, "The Catcher in the Rye." If you think about it, every year millions of young people worldwide are really -- they're inspired to literature because they read, "The Catcher in the Rye." And that should be Salinger's legacy. The point I'd like to make here, and I think I've tried to embed into my book, is that he gave us a great gift and we can't really appreciate the gift without appreciating also the gift giver.
REHMYou say that the insight that Holden Caulfield finds in Central Park is the same that finally soothes Salinger's reaction to the war. What was that?
SLAWENSKIThat the world really is worth living in.
REHMBut it's also, don't ever tell anybody anything.
REHMIf you do, you'll start missing everybody.
SLAWENSKIAnd Diane, if I told you that I knew the exact meaning of that line, I would be lying. There's always going to be things in, "The Catcher in the Rye," that we don't know. See, the ambiguity of, "The Catcher in the Rye," that returns readers to it, that really is its glory.
REHMAnd the 14-year-old boy who read that book, how have you been affected by plunging for eight years into the life of J.D. Salinger?
SLAWENSKIMy life's not the same. That's an excellent question. I don't think I've really dealt with that. I don't think I've really dealt with it fully because it's still something that's unfolding for me. It was really an amazing -- when you examine anyone's life to the extent that I've examined Salinger's, you need to reexamine your own life at the same time. So it really is -- it has been for the eight years a series of epiphanies, it really has personal epiphanies and just revelations about literature and about what makes us human beings?
SLAWENSKIWhat do we owe each other? What do we owe Salinger because he gave us, "The Catcher in the Rye?" Do you we owe him anything? What does Salinger owe us? I mean, the attitude has been for so many years that there was this simmering resentment because he stopped publishing in 1965, that Salinger, he owed us more. He owed us more? Hasn't he given us enough?
REHMKenneth Slawenski, his new biography is titled, "J.D. Salinger: A Life." Thank you so much for being here. And thanks for listening, I'm Diane Rehm.
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