In “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” a story in J. D. Salinger’s second book, Nine Stories (1953)—his first was his novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951)—all four characters, two girls in their teens and two men in their early twenties, are so vividly drawn and speak in such perfectly rendered idiomatic American English that the reader might be watching them in a movie. These days the story also has the quality of a faultless antique: a Manhattan taxi fare, for example, comes to 65 cents.
Knowing that the dual release of Salinger, the documentary by the screenwriter Shane Salerno and the more detailed oral biography by Salerno and David Shields was on the horizon, I reread the story and then went on to The Catcher in the Rye for the first time in four decades, curious about how it would seem this time around.
When I first read it, I was a few years younger than Holden Caulfield, the 16-year-old protagonist and narrator of the novel, and was carried away by a book as I never had been before. I was just then embarking on a Manhattan adolescence and Holden was a wonderful companion and very funny. This time when I read it, a month shy of turning 70, it seemed darker than I remembered; in fact Holden now might have been a stricken tour-guide of Manhattan’s mid-century Inferno. I was less beguiled by the comic felicities of his voice and more conscious of the depth of angst in it.
At moments it even seemed tedious, the first book I ever flat-out loved and to this day a perennial bestseller. What kept me reading was the extraordinary craft of the writing, from the first to the last sentence, however spontaneously tossed-off any particular sentence might seem. And that included an ending that tipped the scale, if just barely, toward emotional healing in the wake of Holden’s crack-up and convalescence.
Then, while reading the new biography I reread the undisputed masterpiece from Nine Stories, “For Esme with Love and Squalor,” which reveals more about Salinger’s experience in World War II than anything else he published. Both the book and film are at their best in detailing the writer’s war experience, which comprised close to 300 days in combat. According to one military historian recorded in Salinger, after 200 days virtually any soldier is clinically “insane.” Yet “Esme” is told with such light-handed aplomb that again one might miss the horror at its heart. We see the protagonist, a veteran with Salinger’s army history, before, during and after a nervous breakdown, which Salinger also experienced near the end of his service.
In addition, the story is the closest Salinger comes in his published writing to portraying love between a man and a woman who are not members of the same family. Esme, the lovely English girl in her teens, challenged but undaunted in her pursuit of a large vocabulary, boldly joins the young American soldier at his table at an English teashop. He’s delighted by her, and diverted by her younger brother, Charles, a non-stop prankster who provides in tandem with Esme’s adventures in vocabulary multiple comic turns. The soldier is soon to depart, assigned like Salinger to a division that will be among the first to land at Normandy.
The story renders something like the romantic template that Salinger enacted throughout his long post-war life, which is to say that he was drawn again and again to young women in the early budding stage of their womanhood and tended to lose interest in them after they passed that threshold. With the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, he became a beloved literary celebrity especially among the young and wasn’t above using his fame along with his fluency as a letter writer as a romantic lure.
The first of these episodes in fact occurred before the war when as a young writer just beginning to publish, he became infatuated with Oona O’Neill (later Oona Chaplin), the daughter of Eugene O’Neill, while she was still a student at Brearley, the private girl’s school in New York. In addition to dating her, he wrote her voluminous witty letters. A chapter in the biography seems to be a condensation of multiple letters Salinger wrote three decades later in 1972 to the Yale freshman Joyce Maynard after her photograph appeared on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Confessing that she was a virgin in her Times piece, “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back at Life,” Maynard was wearing a watch with a face too large for her wrist, a fashion touch she shared with Esme, which the now 53-year-old Salinger happily noted. While these letters were written well into his literary silence, which lasted from 1965 when his last story appeared in the New Yorker to the end of his life in 2010, it comprises documentation that he hadn’t lost his letter-writing panache.
Maynard’s testimony in both the film and the book, as well as that of Jean Miller, said to be the inspiration for Esme, whom Salinger met in Florida when she was 14, are among the most telling commentaries here—particularly the dramatic denouement when Maynard bravely confronts the writer at this door 25 years after he cut short their year-long liaison and sent her away.
In effect the biographies seem to track undiagnosed World War II post-traumatic-stress-disorder in both the writer’s romantic and his literary life. The sleuthing sometimes seems just shy of a self-congratulating shakedown of a literary idol, to whom Salerno like so many others was drawn as a young reader. A successful screenwriter of the blockbusters Armageddon and Aliens vs. Predator, he’s not really interested in Salinger’s literary evolution and enormous influence. And his co-writer, the self-styled literary gadfly David Shields, goes long on ex-cathedra pronouncements which are, in the end, simply opinions.
With deeper interest in writing, they might have explored the New Yorker magazine’s extended mid-century literary family, of which Salinger was the brightest star. Presided over by its editor-in-chief and famously reticent paterfamilias, William Shawn, the magazine was an incestuous—and arguably infantilizing—mid-century hotbed of intrigue and rivalries as well as a safe harbor for several cases of terminal writer’s block, the most celebrated being J.D. Salinger.
To the contrary, however, the biographers claim that that there are at least five new books by Salinger to come. While two of them include previously published along with new material, one comprising the complete Holden Caulfield stories including The Catcher in the Rye and the other all of the Glass family stories, two more are said to be entirely new novels and there is also a “manual” of the Vedantic religion beloved of the members of the Glass family and the writer himself.
Salinger’s last two books, Franny and Zooey (1961) and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963), haven’t held up as well as his first two, and his last uncollected story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” published in the New Yorker in 1965, was hard to get through the first time. None of which diminishes the achievement of a writer who to this day continues to quicken the pulse of young readers across the planet.
Aram Saroyan’s books include Trio: The Intimate Friendship of Oona Chaplin/Carol Matthau/Gloria Vanderbilt and Door to the River: Essays and Reviews from the 1960s into the Digital Age.