‘Unusually brilliant’


J. D. Salinger, Robert Vickrey, 1961

From The New York Times:

In October 1941, Salinger got the news that The New Yorker, which he’d been deluging with submissions, had accepted his story “Slight Rebellion Off Madison.” The story marked the debut of Holden Caulfield, although it’s told in the third person rather than in the intimate first person of “The Catcher in the Rye.”

Before The New Yorker published the story, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, after which the editors judged Holden and his whining about the Madison Avenue bus to be out of tune with the new public mood and suspended publication of “Slight Rebellion” indefinitely.

For this reader, the great achievement of Slawenski’s biography is its evocation of the horror of Salinger’s wartime experience. Despite Salinger’s reticence, Sla­wenski admirably retraces his movements and recreates the savage battles, the grueling marches and frozen bivouacs of Salinger’s war. It’s hard to think of an American writer who had more combat experience. He landed on Utah Beach on D-Day. Slawenski reports that of the 3,080 members of Salinger’s regiment who landed with him on June 6, 1944, only 1,130 survived three weeks later. Then, when the 12th Infantry Regiment tried to take the swampy, labyrinthine Hürtgen Forest, in what proved to be a huge military blunder, the statistics were even more horrific. After reinforcement, “of the original 3,080 regimental soldiers who went into Hürtgen, only 563 were left.” Salinger escaped the deadly quagmire of Hürtgen just in time to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, and shortly thereafter, in 1945, participated in the liberation of Dachau. “You could live a lifetime,” he later told his daughter, “and never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose.”

That July he checked himself into a hospital for treatment of what we would now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder. In a letter to Hemingway, whom he’d met at the Ritz bar shortly after the liberation of Paris, he wrote that he’d been “in an almost constant state of despondency.” He would later allude to that experience in “For Esmé — With Love and Squalor.” Readers are left to imagine the horrors between the time that Sergeant X, stationed in Devon, England, meets Esmé and her brother, Charles, two war orphans, and the time that Esmé’s letter reaches him in Bavaria a year later, after he has suffered a nervous breakdown.

“J. D. Salinger’s Love and Squalor”, Jay McInerery, The New York Times

Read an excerpt from ‘J. D. Salinger: A Life’ here