A Brief Biography
of J. D. Salinger

© April 2002, February 2006, by Sarah Morrill

* Where was he born and all that David Copperfield type crap?

Jerome David Salinger was born in New York in 1919. His older sister’s name is Doris. His father, Sol, was a Jew who was in the meat and cheese business. His relationship with his father was distant and he didn't even bother to attend his funeral. His mother, of whom he was very fond, was Irish Catholic. Being half Jewish was a source of enormous conflict for Salinger.

The cold relationship with his father, his conflict from being half Jewish, and especially his traumatic experiences in World War II, were negative aspects of his life which shaped his personality and his fiction.

Let's stop right here.

* Why do you want to know about Salinger?

When you read about the life of J. D. Salinger, ask yourself why you want to know about him. The answer to that question is more important than the details of his biography. Right?

Are you impressed by the literary value of his work? Are you especially intrigued by the fact he's a recluse? Do you feel as if you know him? That he understands you? Are you hoping that in real life he's like Buddy Glass? (He's not, but more about that later.)

It's not abnormal to be curious about an author who's made an impression upon you. A good friend of ours found out who John Updike's dentist is and seriously considered switching dentists just on the chance he might some day be sitting in the waiting room with him. And the life of Hemingway is a great read and it sheds some light on his fiction, but why do so many people want to know about Salinger?

He's a recluse, for one. People always want to know about recluses. What are they hiding? And if they're not hiding anything, what exactly is the nature of their psychopathology? It's intriguing. We wonder what it would be like to harbor such an eccentricity that only fame and money could buy. When he could be appearing on talk shows and enjoying the fame that most of us crave, he instead locks himself away and is the prison guard of his own cell. It was fascinating to read about Howard Hughes years ago. Here was a filthy rich man who saw no one but his trusted aides. He had a phobia of germs. He ate the same Baskin Robbins peach ice cream every night. He never cut his finger nails or cut his hair. Did he have an aide by his side 24 hours a day armed with a fly swatter? Who in the hell cares? We do. We are a nation of People Magazine readers. (I, of course, have never bought a copy, but its hard to put down while I'm in the grocery check-out line.)

In his biography of Salinger, Paul Alexander speculates that Salinger enjoyed, on some level, the attention that his reclusiveness generated. The mystique surrounding him has probably greatly increased his book sales. Alexander believes that every now and then when it seems interest is waning, Salinger will do or say something to get back in the public consciousness. He'll place a phone call to a reporter in San Francisco or he'll make an unexpected appearance in New York.

A recluse wanting attention? Alexander's evidence isn't too farfetched and knowing what we do about Salinger, it's believable.

Salinger is a man of contradictions and though he's an extremist, he never was a purist. He has rigid rules of conduct that he frequently finds reason to break.

* He only eats organic food but when he's with his son, they sometimes go out for pizza.

* With his Buddhist beliefs, he scorned worldly desire, but he was vain about the attention his writing received and he pursued young women for sex.

* Salinger enjoyed aspects of Valley Forge Military School but portrayed it as a hell hole in his novel.

* Salinger was fond of the military but later had an aversion for it.

* Salinger admired Hemingway but parodied him and spoke critically of him.

* Salinger thought writers should never have their photographs appear with their work but he wouldn't have started his relationship with Joyce Maynard had he not seen her photograph alongside her magazine article.

So, yes, though Salinger is driven by a force to avoid human contact, he also yearns for attention, approval and love.

<>* Why is Salinger a recluse and how did it come about?

At an early age, Salinger was somewhat odd and stand-offish--not to a great degree, but it was noticeable and it drew comment. When called upon to be social, Salinger could appear to be warm and engaging as if he were a leading man in an old movie. He frequently would say the stock phrase, "I've heard so much about you!" He was never really awkward in manner or speech until his 70’s when angrily confronting unwanted guests. During his school days he had no problem being the center of attention when amusing his classmates with well-told stories and jokes at other people's expense but when it was time to go out drinking, he usually chose to stay behind. A charming loner.

* <>What's the deal with his father?

Salinger had early, inner conflict concerning his father. Sol, who was cold toward his son, constantly placed pressure on him to make money and to have a secure job with high social status. He also wanted him to some day take over the family business of importing and processing meat and cheese from Eastern Europe.

Salinger, as a young man, was sent to Poland by his father to see first hand that end of the meat business. Surprisingly, Salinger went willingly, but he was so disgusted by the slaughterhouses that after that, he firmly decided to embark on a different career path. His disgust for the meat business and his rejection of his father probably had a lot to do with his vegetarianism as an adult.

When his father died, Salinger didn't go to the funeral and barely made mention of the fact to his live-in girlfriend at the time, Joyce Maynard, and to his daughter, Peggy.

About the only positive thing we know about his father is that he's the source for the title of Salinger's most acclaimed short story. When they went to the beach, Sol used to hold Jerry by the waist in the water and tell him to look for "bananafish."

* What's the deal with being Jewish?

Salinger also felt very conflicted about being half Jewish. (His mother was Irish Catholic.) This was a conflict of social status, not religion. Salinger wasn't sure how to define himself but he knew he was supposed to achieve social status. Being half Jewish drove him nuts.

It was not unusual in the 30's and 40's for people to be openly racist against Jews. The Ivy League colleges even had a policy not admit too many of them. To have high social status, you needed money, education, connections and you had to be a gentile.

* What was his war experience?

The greatest source of mental trauma for Salinger was his experiences in World War II. He entered the war with a special affection for the military but soon was right in the middle of some of the most intense, savage warfare of the century. He would see with his own eyes 50 of his fellow soldiers die in a day. Sometimes as many as 200. He landed at Utah Beach in an amphibious craft. Before nightfall, his counterintelligence group was able to advance two miles inland. For the next four months he saw some of the worst fighting of the war. In the first couple weeks, 75% of the soldiers in his unit died. After a few months, that figure jumped to 125% (his unit, The Twelfth Infantry Regiment, had a continual stream of replacements.) Salinger also witnessed some of the most costly blunders made by Allied generals.

After the liberation of Paris, Salinger checked himself into to the military hospital for going "Section 8." After a few weeks he was released and he eventually was discharged from the army. It took a bit of work on his part to get a discharge for other than psychiatric reasons but somehow he managed it. His daughter believes that he was one of the first American soldiers to see the horrors of the concentration camps. Though some of his fictional characters were in the army, Salinger has never written about or even discussed the horror of what he experienced. (In Esmé there is an attempt.)

* How did he feel about the Viet Nam War?

During the Viet Nam War he expressed contempt for the military and caustically ridiculed a few young men who were about to register for the draft.

* What were his publisher problems?

All writers see rejection slips before they achieve success but Salinger's journey down that road seemed particularly rough. Paul Alexander's book chronicles this progression well. Instead of a sudden aversion toward editors and publishers, it was gradual and not as unjustified as one might think.

* What was he like as a student growing up?

He lived on Manhattan's Upper West Side as a child and attended Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania. Before the military academy, he flunked out of a few private schools for not even trying to do the work. Attending the military academy was probably his idea. He probably wanted to get away from his family. His mother, not his father, took him to the entrance interview and he was matriculated in just a few days. Salinger was the manager of the fencing team, just as was Holden in The Catcher in the Rye. Unlike Holden, Salinger did well at the military academy and enjoyed it. Salinger was down right fond of the military until his experiences in World War II.

He briefly attended New York University where he “didn't apply himself.” Later, he attended Ursinus College, a no-name college which he said he enjoyed. He seemed particularly proud that it wasn't an Ivy League school. Salinger had a strong dislike of Ivy League snobbery and being half Jewish gave him good reason.

At Columbia University he audited a writing class taught by Whit Burnett who was the editor of Story Magazine. Burnett said Salinger sat in the back and stared out the window until the last half of the last semester. He then seemed to come alive. Salinger wrote a story, The Young Folks, which Burnett decided to run in Story magazine which was a huge honor. Salinger respected Burnett and Burnett went out of his way to encourage Salinger. (How did Burnett see any genius in Salinger? If The Young Folks has any literary merit, I'd certainly like somebody to show me.)

Friends recall he was a loner and rather impressed with himself. He immodestly told many people that some day he would be a great writer. They also recall he was quite handsome.

* What did Salinger write?

Salinger published 35 short stories in various publications, including many in the Saturday Evening Post, Story, and Colliers between 1940 and 1948, and The New Yorker from 1948 until 1965.

Thirteen of these stories were collected for his three books, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. These joined his short novel, The Catcher in the Rye. The remaining twenty-two stories were never officially published by Salinger outside their original magazine appearances. Six were collected in anthologies, however.

He suffered through ten years of rejection notices from The New Yorker before one of his stories, A Perfect Day for Bananafish, was finally accepted. That story sailed through the approval process; the editors at the New Yorker were very impressed. After that, he seemed to become the great writer he is known as today.

Some critics believe his distinctive style was influenced by The New Yorker. Others say that The New Yorker gave him the freedom to write the way he wanted and allowed him to write about subjects that other magazines wouldn't touch. Salinger considered The New Yorker the only magazine that published serious fiction and he had the strong ambition to only be published there.

The fact that the New Yorker never printed author profiles appealed to Salinger and he adopted the opinion that the less known about the author, the more attention can be directed to the literature on the printed page. This, no doubt, accelerated his reclusion.

To fully appreciate what Salinger does with the story The Laughing Man, you need to read Oliver LaFarge's award winning (though dated) novel titled Laughing Boy.

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is a fascinating story which is wonderfully constructed. Seymour inspires Buddy with the parable of the superlative horse yet Buddy, who's less enlightened, tells the story with one cute but annoying superlative after another.

Franny and Zooey can be a chore to get through but the ending makes it worth it. You know that book that Franny was obsessed with? It's a real book, and thanks to Salinger, it's still in print. It's The Way of A Pilgrim. You can learn all about the Jesus Prayer and how to pray incessantly. (Paul said to pray incessantly. Not just a lot, but incessantly. So how do you do that? If you eat, you'll be praying with your mouth full. It's like the sound of one hand clapping, a favorite Salinger koan.)

Franny was closely patterned after his wife, Claire. How closely? She still has the receipt for her copy of The Way of A Pilgrim which she bought from Bretano's Bookstore. (I wonder what that would fetch on eBay?) Some people say that Franny, as a young child, was patterned after Peggy.

Franny and Zooey has had a strong spiritual influence on many Christians we know--but gosh, it's one book that could have been a lot shorter. I know of nobody who has ever read it twice, though, at the time, critics liked it. (I now know hundreds of people who have read it more than once. After reading this line, they email me and set me straight. Thank you all for writing. Now please stop.)

The stories that generated the most mail for Salinger were Franny, Zooey and Teddy.
Since he started writing for The New Yorker, only one of his stories, De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period, was rejected by them which is odd because it is one of his best. The rejection caught Salinger off guard and he was deeply disturbed by it.

Later, heads must have rolled at The New Yorker. Realizing they committed a colossal blunder, the word must have gone down to never turn down another submission from Salinger again, no matter what.

Salinger probably got wind of that and set himself to typing the long, meaningless story Hapworth as an act of revenge. Salinger, who was paid by the word, must have taken perverse delight with every keystroke.

* What has Salinger's love life been like?

Salinger had a serious attraction to Oona O'Neill who later married Charlie Chaplin. Expecting to marry the young Oona himself, he was more than mildly embittered. Friends say he took it hard and that it took an unusually long time for him to move on. Some people believe he tried to have a literary success in Hollywood just to score a point against Chaplin.

His love letters were reported to be elaborate works of art. They were exceeding clever. Any female reading one would conclude the writer was highly educated, intelligent, creative and fun. His letters were passed around and they were so well written that they often scared off the recipient. On at least one occasion, Salinger was a ghost writer for another man who was trying to impress a woman. (It didn't work.)

He married a young girl he met in Europe, Sylvia, who he divorced soon after they came back to the states after the war. Some say the marriage was annulled. His daughter refers to Sylvia as his first wife. Once, in the '60s, Salinger got a letter from her and he tore it up without even opening it. Such extreme behavior is typical Salinger.

Salinger later married Claire Douglas who was a young woman attending Dartmouth. They had two children and lots of problems. Claire felt isolated in the house with the two children while Salinger spent all day and sometimes all night in his writing bunker. Claire is an intellectual woman who has written books and earned a Ph.D. According to Peggy, she was not a good mother.

Then he had a number of young girl friends. One of them was Joyce Maynard. She had written a magazine article and Salinger wrote her a fan letter on onion skin paper with a few words of advice on how to handle fame in her promising future. A correspondence ensued with plenty of parenthetical remarks on every page. She drove to Windsor and met him at a restaurant. On her second visit, she moved in. She was 19.

Was Salinger enthralled by her writing? It's doubtful. He probably wouldn't have started the correspondence with her if her fetching photo hadn't appeared on the magazine cover.

Maynard had difficulties with Salinger when it came to sex but they expected these difficulties would go away in time. They talked about having a baby and even picked out a name but month after month passed and she was still only able to engage in oral sex. (Do you really want to know all of this?) Salinger took her to a sex therapist but it didn't do any good so then he dumped her. Suddenly he just told her that things weren't working out and that he was probably too old to have any more children anyway so she should just gather up all her things and move out. Maynard was devastated.

Sometimes when Salinger saw a pretty, young woman on TV that he was especially attracted to, he wondered if she might be a big fan of his, big enough to want to meet him and maybe having a relationship with him. He wrote to several of them. Catherine Oxenburg was one. She didn't answer Salinger's letter. TV actress Elaine Joyce did and they soon met. She was in the show Mr. Merlin at the time. Like Maynard, she too moved with in with him for a while and their romantic relationship lasted on and off for about seven years. If she ever writes a book about Salinger, it will be interesting. Apparently attracted to writers, Elaine Joyce later married Neil Simon, who, as luck would have it, had a strong attraction for pretty, young actresses.

Salinger's third wife, if you count Sylvia, is a nurse 30 years his junior. Her name is Colleen and they're still married. Colleen is a simple, kind woman who likes to make tapestries and quilts. She's active in community affairs and by all accounts is a very nice, even-tempered person.

* Has Salinger ever been interviewed?

People who have seen and talked to Salinger recently say he seems normal. But of course, if they say anything else, he'll never speak to them again. Most reporters and fans who have talked to him say he's abnormally hostile.

Salinger once gave an interview to two schoolgirls for their school paper, and he has at least twice talked with people who politely approached him. But the so-called interviews to the press consisted mostly of, "I don't give interviews" spoken through a front door just slightly ajar.

According to Ian Hamilton, the schoolgirl article was played up as a "scoop" and it was then that he stopped socializing with the local teenagers. He was very upset by the article.

Yes, Salinger used to socialize with local teenagers. That is, he opened up his house and let them drop by, hang out, play his stereo, and throw impromptu parties. After the newspaper interview appeared, his teenage "friends" were no longer welcome at his house.

The press has behaved very badly in their pursuit of Salinger. He's made it very clear that he doesn't want to talk to the press or to anybody else about literary matters. Unfortunately, those who have made contact with Salinger appear to be among the most stupid people on Earth.

So don't visit his house. You could get arrested, but worse than that, it would be the wrong thing to do. Also, don't try contacting his son or his sister or other relatives. But you could read the book his daughter wrote. It's very good.

* What does Salinger do for entertainment?

On Wednesdays he used to go into town and eat lunch at a pub called Peter Christian's (which has been replaced by Zin's). Sometimes he ordered organic soup and other times he had a sandwich called "Peter's Mother's Favorite" which had turkey in it, among other things. And he would order extra pickles and chips.

He has an extensive collection of old movies which he plays on a reel to reel projector. He used to lend some of his films to the Dartmouth Film Society.

It might depress you to know that Salinger has always been an avid TV watcher. Gilligan's Island, Leave it to Beaver, Peyton Place, Dynasty, and obviously, Mr. Merlin. His favorite was, and maybe still is, The Andy Griffith Show. He watches TV while eating dinner off of a folding metal tray in his living room. There's now a satellite dish on his house which you can see from the public road at foot of his driveway.

* What do his children think of him?

Though they lived under the same roof, Salinger treated Matthew and Peggy differently so it's not a surprise that they feel differently about him. Matt adores his dad and sees him often. Peggy wrote a stingingly critical book about him and the two will probably never speak to each other again.

When Peggy was grown and was excited with the news that she was going to have a baby, Salinger didn't tell her he looked forward to being a grandfather. Insead, he told Peggy that he was disgusted by her pregnancy and that she should have an abortion. Salinger, the oddball that he is, looked upon pregnancy as something unclean and unnatural. That was confirmed by Peggy's mother. Salinger gave her a terrible time during her two pregnancies.

* What do his friends and family call him?

Not J.D. Not Jerome. It's Jerry. When he was a boy, it was "Sonny."

* How can I contact Salinger?

Well, you could befriend his son Matt by offering him a part in the next movie you're casting and then ask him to pass a note to his dad when he sees him in Cornish for Thanksgiving dinner. It wouldn't be the first time. But do you really want to contact a person who wants to be left alone? That's not nice. If you are curious about how to find J. D. Salinger's house in Cornish, New Hampshire, or if you would just like to know the best way to send him a letter, send me an email and convince me you're not a pest. Please do not actually try to see him and if you try to write him, keep in mind your chances of getting a response are quite slim.

There was a time when Salinger answered inquires if they happened to come from very young, very pretty women, but now that he's in his 80's and seriously hard of hearing, he's probably "outgrown" that behavior. (We sure hope so.)

* Where does Salinger live?

Some biographers say he lives in the same red barn-like house he bought back in 1953 in Cornish, New Hampshire. But no, his divorced wife, Claire Douglas, got it in the settlement. J. D. moved to a similar place down Lang Road. The two properties are connected and are a part of the 450 acres that Salinger owns. They call this first house "The Red House." Claire moved to Norwich, Vermont and then to the Pacific Northwest. The house was rented out to a group of Dartmouth students and then it was later sold.

This first house was on about 100 acres. In the early '60s he found out that on some nearby pasture land there were plans to build a trailer park so he jumped in and bought the land, 450 acres.

Salinger wanted to buy a place near Essex or Ipswich or Glouester, but he thought he couldn't afford it. This was before anybody knew what a great success The Catcher in the Rye would turn out to be. When he bought this first house, it didn't have running water or electricity. The main house is hidden by a fence and birch trees. He used to spend time on a vegetable garden there.

* What does he drive?

He used to drive an old jeep that had curtains in the side windows. He also used to drive a BMW and his wife's Rover. Everyone who's ever ridden with him says he drives too fast, almost like he's back in WWII dodging bullets.

* Where does he write?

His first house had a cement bunker for writing on his property which was about 100 yards away from the main, single story house. A stream flowed between the bunker and the main house. The roof was translucent green fiberglass. There was a wood stove which served as the source of heat but which he also used for cooking from time to time. There was an intercom that connected to the main house but it was only for emergencies since he absolutely hated to be interrupted. His wife, Claire, stayed all alone in the house while Salinger sometimes was in his bunker for as long as 16 hours. During the early days, their house didn't have a phone. The concrete blocks were painted green and they referred to it as "The Green House." Inside, a cot took up one side of a wall. On the opposite side was his desk and chair. His chair was actually a large car seat, believe it or not, large enough to sit on in the lotus position. The car seat was supported on wood and bricks to bring it closer to desk level. On the desk was a manual typewriter. Taped all over the place within reach of his writing position were small post-it-like notes. They were on the wall, his lamp, his typewriter, etc. Later, when he moved to his second house, he took the car seat with him for his new study which is now inside his house.

Sometime when he had writers block, he left Cornish for a week or two and checked himself into a resort hotel to do some writing there.

Later in life, Salinger stopped having long bouts of inspiration. He instead settled into a routine of rising early and knocking off work around 2 pm.

* Does he continue to write?

Salinger testified in court in 1986 that he does and he's told a couple reporters who have barged in on him that he does, but is it true? That's hard to say. His daughter Margaret believes it's true. When Joyce Maynard was living with him, she said he entered his study and spent most of the day there but she never saw his writing nor the vault where he said he kept his written work. Maynard said that Salinger would rise early, eat breakfast and then enter his study to first mediate and then write.

It's true that Salinger is spending time alone in a room every day and he says he's writing but it's conceivable that all he's doing is mediating or reading or writing drivel or writing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” a la Jack Nickelson in The Shining.

When asked once if this writing would be published posthumously, he was evasive. He said he's writing for himself. But his daughter said he once called her into his study to show off how he color coded his manuscripts. One color meant to publish it as-is after his death. Another color signified it could be released after his death but only after it was edited. And there were other colors for other conditions.

So, if he's been writing all these years, why is he in the process of publishing Hapworth in book form? That doesn't make any sense. Hapworth is garbage. If he's actually been writing, he would publish something else. The fact that publishing Hapworth doesn't make any sense might be the simple reason he wants to do it. And it could be a riddle which indicates when he expects to die. More on that later.

* What kind of clothes does Salinger wear?

Sometimes pressed jeans or painters' pants but usually L.L Bean kind of clothing when he's hanging around Cornish. He's always been fastidious. Sometimes he wears an English tailored wool jacket.

* Did his children inherit any of his talent?

Yes. Peggy became a scholar, studied at Oxford and wrote a great book about her life with father. Matthew became an actor/producer. Yes, that Matt Salinger.

* What does Salinger eat?

Mostly vegetarian with the exception of smoked salmon and lamb cooked at 150 degrees. In town, he sometimes orders salad, organic soup, turkey sandwiches and pizza. At home he eats frozen vegetables, usually peas. For a time he worked hard in his large garden and made an honest attempt to grow all the food he needed.

* Is Salinger a good writer?

Good question, even if I do ask it myself. Does Salinger receive attention because he's a good writer or because he's a recluse? He's generally considered a major American author who would have been a best-selling author regardless of his personal idiosyncrasies but it's also true that he continues to sell an enormous amount of books each year due to the mystique.

He might be one of the best American writers of the 20th century. But a lot of the attention he gets is because of a peculiar cult-like draw he has over a lot of people. Norman Mailer and John Updike don't think he deserves all the attention he gets but Nabokov was in complete awe of A Perfect Day for Bananafish.

Mailer said that Salinger was "one of the best minds that ever remained in prep school."

Some say the only reason The Catcher in the Rye sold well initially was due to the selection by the Book of the Month Club but that opinion is not widely held.

The critics were mildly impressed with it but it slowly built a strong following, especially on college campuses.

* Why doesn't he have his portrait on the dust jackets of his books?

Salinger was strange before the publication of The Catcher in the Rye but his reclusiveness and odd behavior took a dramatic u
pswing during its publication. He insisted that the cover be unadorned and that his portrait not appear on the dust cover. For a first time novelist, he placed extraordinary demands on his publishers.

Why didn't he want his picture on the cover? It could be that he was extending the attitude of The New Yorker that what really counted were the words on the page, not the personality that wrote them. Other writers from The New Yorker didn't shun publicity like this when they published their books but Salinger had a way of jumping into things as an extremist.

Salinger's fiction is character driven, not plot driven. He wrote with such authenticating detail that you feel like there really must have been the Glass family. When you close one of his books, you half expect to see the author listed as "Buddy Glass." The words "J. D. Salinger" wake us up from the dream like suspension of disbelief. To have put his picture or biographical information would have interfered with illusion he wanted us to at least partially believe, that the characters he made were real.

* How does he write?

With a typewriter using just two fingers.

* What's his favorite movie?

39 Steps, without a doubt. (He watches it over and over and it's practicaly an obsession.)

* Was Salinger ever a Scientologist?

Sort of. He dabbled in it for a brief period of time and then abandoned it.

* Does he practice homeopathy?

Yes, and this has been a strong interest he's held onto for years. He still spends quite a bit of time on it during a typical day.

* Is he an expert on Eastern philosophy and literature?

He'd like you to think so, but his knowledge is about what you'd have if you minored in Eastern Thought at a state college.

* Were there any other sweet young things other than Joyce Maynard?

Yes. Several. One he traveled to Scotland to see one but concluded she was "too homely." She was a fan who wrote him a letter. Part of the attraction was due to the fact she lived in Scotland, the setting of 39 Steps.

* Did he really once refer to Holden as a real person?

His daughter says he talked about all of his characters as real people, not as characters in fiction. And he never mentioned the titles of his books. So yes, he probably did, when he was once quoted saying, "Holden wouldn't approve."

* Did Salinger really see Hemingway shoot the head off of a chicken?

Probably not. We believe he saw Hemingway just once, at the Ritz, when Paris was liberated.

* Which house of his caught on fire?

Both of them did. The first house fire originated in the closet and may have been set by his wife Claire. The fire at his second house did not do much damage. (Friends of Claire have contacted me to say that she in no way had anything to do with the fire but they weren't there either. Read Peggy's book and decide for yourself.)

* Salinger dislikes most people but who does he actually like?

Judge Learned Hand and William Shawn and his jeep buddy during WWII whose name escapes me.

* What's up with Hapworth 16, 1924? And when is it going to be published?

It was already published fourty years ago in The New Yorker. Salinger arranged to have it reissued in book form by Orchises Press of Virginia but when it will be out is anybody's guess. The publisher at Orchises Press talked to reporters about it which probably made Salinger madder than hell. Indeed it is one more Salinger-made-mystery for us to ponder. It's a riddle and in a few more paragraph I'll tell you what I make of it.

If you can't wait to see how awful Hapworth is, visit your local university library. Ask for the June 19th, 1965 issue of The New Yorker. If you want to photocopy it, bring a lot of quarters.

It is a long piece without any point and there hasn't been any serious reviewers who have been in the least bit positive (aside from an English professor I know but I suspect he would also the emporer was fully clothed.) One wonders why Salinger wrote it. It reads like the product of a once talented man who now is suffering from mental illness.

Like Picasso's dog face sculpture in Chicago or Robert Graham's poop-shaped Quetzaquatl statue in San Jose or Bob Dylan's singing like Gabby Hayes, Hapworth isn't the real deal. It's intentionally poor work created by a famed artist who knows, sadly, that he can get away with it. And the joke is on is.

Students of Salinger will only want to read it to see how remarkably bad it is.

Salinger, who always wanted to be Seymour Glass (but settled, at least in his own mind, for being Buddy), seems to know him better now and has changed his mind. Salinger doesn't like him anymore and he doesn't want us to like him either. Seymour disillusions us with his own words and in a way, it's like a suicide.

Salinger keeps delaying the publication date of Hapworth and it's my belief, though I confess it sounds a trifle bizarre, that he's planning his own death to coincide with the date of publication. Nobody writes about suicide as much as Salinger without actively considering it himself. And this work looks like an act of literary suicide for Salinger as well as a character suicide for Seymour. I believe Salinger keeps delaying publication because he's not quite ready to die.

* How can I find out more about J. D. Salinger?

The best secondary source we've read on Salinger's work is the one by Professor John Wenke. His biographical information is outdated (well, highly inaccurate, to tell you the truth) but his literary analysis is quite good.

Ian Hamilton, the respected poet, wrote a fairly good book called In Search of J. D. Salinger. Like us, the more Hamilton learned about Salinger, the less he cared to know. And not surprisingly, this is a well written book. The only problem with reading this first is that it might make your lose your appetite for more information.

There's a biography by Paul Alexander which is fairly good: J.D. Salinger : A Biography. A serious problem with this book is that it takes every interesting rumor about Salinger and prints it as fact. Alexander talked to a lot of people and did a great deal of research but I think he was careless with what he included. It is not the work of Woodward and Bernstein. Also, he reports about conversations between Salinger and Joyce Maynard and his version is rather different from Maynard’s. What are his sources? The only other person present was Salinger himself and had Alexander communicated with Salinger, he would have put that on the dust jacket. Alexander's book is good at filling in gaps and showing how Salinger made gradual changes in his personality. Alexander is also good at linking Salinger's fiction with his personal life though Alexander doesn't quite understand all of Salinger's fiction. Literature is not his field. Read this book to gain an overall understanding but keep in mind it's the least accurate of the four.

Joyce Maynard's book, At Home in the World, is much, much better than the critics would have you believe. I was expecting to be disgusted by it but I wasn't. First of all, Maynard is an excellent writer. Second, she includes many unflattering facts about herself which she could have easily left out which makes her book rather credible. Third, her book actually sheds light on understanding Salinger and how his life and fiction are related. Maynard is not a likable person but this is a good book.

But the best book, by far, is the one by Salinger's daughter, Margaret (Peggy) Salinger. It's called Dream Catcher: A Memoir. It's also the one that's the most critical. It's especially good at explaining the context of WWII and the fact of his being half Jewish. This book goes beyond reporting facts. It's also a good source for confirming many of the questionable things Maynard wrote about. (Her chapter heading quotations are sometimes distracting and strangely off topic and there are sections where she seems to digress into interesting theories just to show off her expensive education, but these are small faults when you consider the book as a whole.)

Salinger is an odd, unhappy person and a genius. When you read his biography, you'll be glad you're not him. There's more to life than being a genius. Salinger knows this, and even says so in his writings, but it hasn't done him any good. In short, his books are wonderful but his life stinks.

* J. D. is not your Buddy

You know how in A Perfect Day for Bananafish Seymour screams at his wife for not bothering to learn German so she can read some of the books he recommends? That's how nuts and hostile Jerry Salinger is in real life. And remember the part where he kisses the bottom of the girl's foot? Well, Joyce Maynard can tell you about that. Bananafish is a good story for understanding Salinger--his attraction for young girls, his irrational, hostile temper, his brilliance, his belief that he just doesn't belong in the real world. Too smart, too sensitive, too crazy and a bit of a pervert.

Salinger, too, commits suicide, but he's been doing it very slowly.

If you feel a powerful need to personally connect with Salinger, that might just be what he wanted. Read his biographies and you'll cure yourself of that desire. But there's another reason to read his biographies. You'll be able to see how his writing was like therapy. He tried to become Buddy Glass by creating him in fiction.

But it didn't work.


Sarah Morrill is the proprietress of Morrill Books, an underground bookstore in San Francisco.