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New J.D. Salinger Biography 2011 - How Good Can It Be?

When the first biography of J.D. Salinger since his passing comes into print you'd hope for a lot of personal details, let's be honest. This is the world's most famous recluse we're talking about after all. And if you're interested enough in Salinger to want to pick up a memoir on the man, I expect you too would be hunting for the kind of what, where, why, how, details that Salinger kept wrapped up and secret all the 91 years he was alive.

Kenneth Slawenski's J.D. Salinger: A Life may not, I am afraid, be the biography a Salinger fan would want. Though some early reviews are positive, the fact of it is Slawenski, as mentioned in NPR's tepid review of the Salinger biography, had no access to the author himself or anyone in his literary circle.

Still even NPR's review isn't totally damning and acknowledges the "pearls" the book does occasionally offer. Truth be told I wouldn't be nearly so skeptical had I not happened upon the excerpt from J.D. Salinger: A Life in this month's Vanity Fair. Again, there are some interesting tidbits. For the budding writer, learning that one of your literary heroes actually wrote his one and only novel as a series of connected short stories is interesting. Helpful even. Especially as most writers start, like Salinger, by writing in the short form, and that the leap from short form to long for even as remarkably talented a writer as Salinger was still one hell of a leap is neat to read about. I should add, though, that for anyone intrigued enough about Salinger to have already read previous(ly frustratingly limited) bios of the writer or who simply googled him, this kind of information was basically already available. I had heard echoes of this about The Catcher in the Rye elsewhere.

The new book does, to be fair, elaborate some on Salinger's meeting Ernest Hemingway while in Europe at the end of the war.

Salinger was in Paris for only a few days, but they were the happiest days he would experience during the war...The high point was a meeting with Ernest Hemingway, who was a war correspondent for Collier’s. There was no question in Salinger’s mind where Hemingway would be found. He jumped into his jeep and made for the Ritz. Hemingway greeted Salinger like an old friend. He claimed to be familiar with his writing, and asked if he had any new stories on him. Salinger managed to locate a copy of The Saturday Evening Postcontaining “Last Day of the Last Furlough,” which had been published that summer. Hemingway read it and was impressed. The two men talked shop over drinks.

Salinger was relieved to find that Hemingway was not at all pretentious or overly macho, as he had feared he might be. Rather, he found him to be gentle and well grounded: overall, a “really good guy.” Salinger tended to separate Hemingway’s professional persona from his personal one. He told one friend that Hemingway was essentially kind by nature but had been posturing for so many years that it now came naturally to him. 

Sounds promising, no? In fact, on re-reading it, I think to myself: so what's the problem? Sounds like exactly the kind of detail a Salinger fan would fawn over. True. The problem was there really were but a few nuggets like this in all the pages excerpted, and you can bet the folks over at Vanity Fair were sure to find the meatiest bit of the book to take.

But I guess it was NPR's review that cemented it when they described Slawenski's prose as "wobbly" and that this is his first book. The fledgling biographer is in fact the guy behind the Salinger website Dead Caufields, a site I have thoroughly enjoyed, though more for the uncollected short stories it shared (that I had been unable to find elsewhere) than for the interpretation of the text.

On that note, because Slawenski had no access to the author or anyone close to him, even that "meatiest" excerpt from Vanity Fair winds up as literary analysis and critique, extrapolating assumptions of who Salinger the man was, based on what he wrote, which would be all well and interesting, except that's not what I want in a Salinger biography. What any of us want, no? Rather it is to find out how much Salinger was and was not like Holden Caufield and Seymour Glass, like any and all of his characters based on the things about his life that were not in his books.
This book will. I am sure, provide a little of that, but not, I fear, enough.