The Four Faces of J.D. Salinger


To the world, J.D. Salinger had two faces. There was J.D. Salinger the Writer, the complicated, continually evolving author of The Catcher in the Rye, who went on to deliver the famous short story collection Nine Stories and who introduced the world to the quirky, overly-pensive Glass family through his books Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour an Introduction .

Then there was J.D. Salinger the Legend, the myth, the reclusive, apparently stingy Salinger who, after his final publication in The New Yorker in 1965, shut himself away from public view – along with his manuscripts – and threatened lawsuits on anyone who dared challenge his copyright or pry into his personal life.

I knew of both these J.D. Salingers when I began to write Salinger: A Life : the writer and the legend. So, I went chasing after the writer in the hopes it would reveal the truth behind the legend, the man behind the myth. I was searching for some event in Salinger's life, some reaction or reflex that would shed light on why he ceased publication, withdrew from public life, and fell silent.

For me, that search became a journey. What I encountered along that journey were an additional two faces of J.D. Salinger whose investigation was clearly vital to telling his story in full: Salinger the Soldier and Salinger the Seeker. Together, the four faces of J.D. Salinger revealed a life story far more compelling than I ever imagined – and far more touching than I ever anticipated.


I found little hint of Salinger the Legend in his early years. But I did find a richer writer than I had supposed. Born and raised in Manhattan, young Salinger was the cocky, sarcastic son of wealthy and over-indulgent parents. And he reminded me very much of Holden Caulfield. Like Holden, Salinger was perceptive, quick-witted and intelligent. But also like Holden, he refused to apply himself at school. After being thrown out of a private high school for his poor grades, Salinger's father sent him to military academy in Pennsylvania to learn a little discipline. Salinger began to write instead, and began to dream of the day he would become a famous author. After graduating, Salinger attended three separate colleges – and never made it past the first year. This time, his father sent him off to Europe to slaughter pigs in Poland, hoping his son would become practical in the process. But Salinger never budged from his ambition. With nothing but failure under his belt, he still had the confidence to brag to friends that he would one day write The Great American Novel. Young Salinger was – above all else – ambitious.

And Salinger did write and he did publish. And he did pay his dues. For every story that Salinger successfully published, he received a good half dozen rejection slips in exchange. But Salinger the Writer was tenacious. His first story appeared in Story magazine in 1940, when he was only 21 – the same year that he began to write The Catcher in the Rye . And I was delighted to learn that between 1940 and 1948, Salinger had published 21 short stories in various magazines that have so far never been collected together in a book. Of course, young Salinger the Writer would have been thrilled to see such a volume. But Salinger the Legend had refused. When an attempt was made in 1974 to bind his uncollected stories together, the author threatened to sue – preferring to let his old stories (as he put it) “die a natural death” instead.

I'd like to set a scene for you:

The year is 1944 and the world is at war. It is winter – one of the bitterest winters in living memory. Deep within the Hürtgen Forest, inside Nazi Germany itself, a battle is raging: a month-long slug-fest for a worthless piece of ground that will prove to be one of the bloodiest engagements of the European war. Fighting this battle on the Allied side is the American 4th Infantry Division, made up of three regiments: the 8th, the 12th, and the 22nd. Serving as a war correspondent and imbedded into the 22nd Regiment is none other than Ernest Hemingway.

It is night and there is a lull in the fighting. Hemingway is bivouacked in a small cabin deep in the woods. A portable generator provides the cabin with heat and light. And Hemingway has visitors: two non-commissioned officers from the neighboring 12th Regiment who have walked a mile through the dark forest to see him. One is an interpreter for the 12th Regiment. The other is a counter-intelligence agent: 25-year old Staff Sergeant Jerome David Salinger, who met and befriended Hemingway the previous summer during the liberation of Paris. Hemingway pops a bottle of champagne in celebration (this is, after all, Ernest Hemingway, who was never without a small stash of booze) and the three men drink from canteen cups as Hemingway and Salinger talk of literature.

Think about that for a moment. Think about what a remarkable slice of history that night really was. As battle raged around them, two of the most influential authors of the 20th century found a few hours to set the war aside and talk about literature. They talked about Hemingway's writings. They talked about F. Scott Fitzgerald (Salinger's idol and Hemingway's former friend). And we know that they talked about Holden Caulfield. Seven years before the rest of the world would know Holden Caulfield through The Catcher in the Rye , Ernest Hemingway did. For me, something about that small fact is breathtaking. It's more than a moment in time. It's part of our collective literary heritage as Americans.

Salinger was drafted into the Army in April, 1942 and spent a year and a half in various boot camps across the United States . He was a good soldier and enormously eager to gain military promotion. When repeated attempts to become a commissioned officer failed, Salinger's love for the Army began to sour and he returned to writing in his spare time. By the time he was sent overseas to train in England in January, 1944, he was working on at least three stories simultaneously.

It took me more than a year to research and write my chapter on Salinger's time in combat. In part, because I needed to track down and consult literally hundreds of sources. But also because I felt as if I was living the war along with my subject – and there was heaviness to the topic I never anticipated taking on.

Staff Sergeant Salinger landed on Utah Beach with the second wave on D-Day. From there, he fought through the Normandy Campaign, the Battle of the Hedgerows, Saint Lo, Mortain, Bloody Hürtgen, and the Battle of the Bulge. For 11 continuous months Salinger was either in the thick of battle or at arms-length from the front. He helped to liberate Paris from the Nazis, nearly froze to death in the forest, and during the Battle of the Bulge, his family became convinced that he had actually lost his life. He saw some of the fiercest fighting of World War II – and some of the most inconceivable of atrocities. Salinger's unit is credited with the liberation of - not one concentration camp, but of a half dozen. “You could live a lifetime,” Salinger mourned, “and never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose, no matter how hard you try”.

Throughout it all – from D-Day to V-E Day, Salinger carried on his person six chapters of The Catcher in the Rye .

Again, I'm going to ask you to contemplate that for a moment. In a very real sense, The Catcher in the Rye actually went to war. Through all of the horrors that Salinger witnessed, he wore the pages of his book like a talisman – as a reminder that there was once sensitivity in the world. “I need them“, Salinger declared. And they just may have helped him to survive.

But the war took its toll. Within weeks of the German surrender, Salinger emotionally collapsed and was consigned to a hospital in Nuremburg for battle fatigue, what we now refer to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

It took Salinger ten years to complete The Catcher in the Rye . And when the book was finally published in July 1951, its contents had changed as much as the author himself had been changed. It took on a mystical quality that it had not contained before. Just as the author was beginning to consider the questions that his war experiences had exposed: questions of good and evil, questions about God, and what we are to each other as human beings, his writings began to soar.

When the novel that Salinger had worked on for so long became an instant bestseller, rising to the #4 spot on the New York Times Best Sellers List - a younger Salinger would have been thrilled. But the Salinger who emerged from the war found himself uncomfortable with fame. He asked that there be no publicity, refused interviews, and demanded that his photo be removed from the book's dust jacket.

Salinger instead began to meditate. He took up Yoga and began to read a variety of sacred texts, mostly Eastern. He studied Zen Buddhism and embraced Vedantic Hinduism. In 1953 he removed from New York to the tiny hamlet of Cornish, in rural New Hampshire , where he would marry and have two children – but where he would increasingly turn away from the outside world.

His personal life, too, began to suffer. When his isolated home in the woods proved not distant enough from others, Salinger built a small, bunker-like studio apart from his house and away from his family in which to work. 12-hour work days were usual. 16 hour days were not uncommon. Some nights, Salinger would not come home at all. Friends and family felt estranged. And his wife felt abandoned. Claire Salinger would divorce her famous husband in 1967.

Salinger the Writer was quickly becoming Salinger the Legend.

And I needed to understand why.

After the publication of The Catcher in the Rye , J.D. Salinger devoted himself to the crafting of fiction that centered on religion and that exposed the spiritual emptiness inherent in American society. Salinger would use this message to challenge readers for the duration of his career. At first, the author struggled to find the right characters to convey his inspiration. After two attempts at religious fiction that he considered unsuccessful, the 1952 story “De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period,” and the 1953 story “Teddy,” Salinger finally found the perfect vehicle for his message. Within his working bunker, Salinger collected characters from past stories and bound them together into a single family: the Glass family. Developing characters that he described as “settlers in twentieth-century New York ,” Salinger employed the seven children of Bessie and Les Glass to portray the agonies of searching for nobility and eternal truths while attempting to survive in modern society.

Salinger released his fourth and final book in 1963; Raise High the Roof Beam and Seymour -An Introduction , the marriage of two stories previously published in The New Yorker, the magazine where Salinger had come to publish all of his stories after 1952. The book's second contribution, “Seymour-An Introduction,” is a collection of memories written by Salinger's admitted alter-ego, Buddy Glass, of his late brother, Seymour, the spiritual mentor of the Glass family even in death. Buddy closes the book with a poignant and remarkable line – and one that I found enormously enticing in my journey through the life of J.D. Salinger:

“ Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one piece of Holy Ground to the next. Is he never wrong?”

"Holy Ground." My God. How could anyone who had witnessed the horrors, carnage and atrocities that Salinger witnessed, who had walked through Hell itself, ever arrive at the conclusion that every place on earth is Holy Ground? Was Normandy Holy Ground? Was the Hürtgen Forest Holy Ground? Were the concentration camps Holy Ground?

This is the story I needed to tell: the spiritual journey of J.D. Salinger that took him from the depths of Hell and delivered him to Holy Ground. And that's where Salinger's true story lies. To examine the life of J.D. Salinger is to embark on a spiritual journey. And by lining up the facts of Salinger's life with the stories he was writing at the time, his works become steps along the path of that journey. And we begin to see the man.

Recognizing the Seeker dispels the myth. Salinger never disappeared or jealously concealed. He just turned away. And he did it not as a Writer or a Legend, but as a Soldier and a Seeker. While searching through Salinger's letters, I came across a statement written by the author himself that seemed to explain the reasons behind his withdrawal and that offered his point of view with precision:

“Remain in peace in the unity of God” He urged. “And walk blindly in the clear straight path of your obligations. If God wishes more from you his inspiration will make you know it.”

Salinger's withdrawal was not a reaction or a conscious decision. It was a progression. It was the logical conclusion of his spiritual search as he determined to serve God while attempting to live a life void of ego – and in doing so, attain his own personal Holy Ground.

In the final analysis, Salinger owed us nothing - especially after having delivered The Catcher in the Rye . So, obsession with the years of his relative silence – with Salinger the Legend rather than Salinger the Writer – serves only to obscure the gift that he gave us while he was still fully engaged.

J.D. Salinger died the evening of January 27, 2010. He was 91. For 45 years he had been a Legend, a near-ghost among us who had turned his back on fame. But for a short time, at least, the world forgot the myth and made room to honor the man. In doing so, they recalled the author, the Writer who had touched their lives with his work.

If we choose to examine—indeed to judge—the life of J. D. Salinger, we must first accept the obligation to view his life in all its complexities: to recognize the valiant soldier within him as well as the failed husband, the creative soul that gave way to the self-protective recluse.

There is something within the human character that compels us to cast down the idols we ourselves have elevated. We insist upon exalting those we admire beyond the reality of their virtues and then, as if resentful of the heights we have forced upon them, feel it necessary to cut them down. It may be within our character to smash our own idols, but that same character is in constant longing for something to look up to.

For a time at least, Salinger may have considered himself an American prophet, a voice crying in the urban wilderness. Today he is remembered for the briefness of his witness, still reprimanded for his refusal to continue on, as if he owed more to the world than he had already given. Yet somehow, in a way nearly as mystical as his stories' gentle epiphanies, the passage of time may reveal that J. D. Salinger fulfilled his duty long ago. The remaining obligation lies with us. In this way, Salinger's story continues on, passed from author to reader for completion. By examining the life of J. D. Salinger, with all its sadness and imperfections, together with the messages delivered through his writings, we are charged with the reevaluation of our own lives, an assessment of our own connections, and the weighing of our own integrity