On reading Kenneth Slawenski’s biography of JD Salinger I was struck by one thing. This guy Salinger, the guy we associate with sensitive young Holden Caulfield, was a military badass.
He fought in the D-Day Landings and the Battle of the Bulge, as well as the Battle of Hurtgen Forest. This was the longest battle the US Army ever fought lasting from 19th September 1944 to the 10th of February 1945.
Yet he hardly ever uttered a word about it.
Norman Mailer, by way of contrast, saw a little combat out in the Philippines during WW2 but spent most of his time in the war as a cook. Yet because he wrote ‘The Naked and the Dead’ we always tend to think of him as a tough guy man of action.
It’s a fascinating example of how an author’s work colors our view of who they really are.
In the case of Salinger it also leads me to speculate that his war experiences are the key to understanding the direction of his work. After all it’s really only after the war that his work began to gain traction with a wider public.
He was hospitalized for combat stress reaction after Germany was defeated, which alone suggests the severity of what he went through.
Indeed Salinger reportedly told his daughter “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live.”
Knowing this makes the character of Holden Caulfield come alive in a completely new way for me.
Of course, Holden will always be the classic embodiment of the troubled adolescent. A boy much like the young Salinger himself who stated in an interview that the book is semi-autobiographical
“My boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book … [I]t was a great relief telling people about it.”
However I feel this legendary character is also a reflection of the wartime Salinger in his desire not to grow up and protect childhood innocence. After all, who wouldn’t want to remain innocent and child like when confronted with Utah beach and Hurtgen forest?
‘For Esme – with Love and Squalor’ maybe the only book that is literally written from the point of a soldier but I feel the others are also marked by the traumatic events and horrific suffering endured by the author and millions of men like him. Maybe it’s this that stops us being turned off by characters like Holden Caulfield and Franny Glass. So many other books that deal with the same type of subjects come off as self-absorbed and full of self-pity. There’s a depth to Salinger’s portrayals that come from a place that’s more affecting than having a hard time at a New England Prep school.