August 2003

Neal Hammons

nonfiction

Salinger: A Biography by Paul Alexander

Would you like to learn about J.D. Salinger? If so, you will not have much learning to do. Verifiable information is hard to find when a person has spent the last forty years trying to prevent people from learning details about his private life. Rumors still circulate about whether he is still writing and how much he has finished that he is unwilling to publish, but no one seems to have definite answers. So, is there really enough information to write a biography about Salinger?

Paul Alexander's book answers that question with a resounding "sort of." His thorough research for the book provides a pleasant contrast to most of the information on fan websites that has no factual basis. Sources include letters written by Salinger, school records, and interviews with old acquaintances. An account of where he spent his military service proves insightful. The description of Sergeant X's nervous breakdown in the story "For Esme--With Love and Squalor" gains credence when we learn about Salinger checking himself into an Army hospital after his extended exposure to live combat.

Interesting accounts of his early publishing endeavors appear in the book. The first published story about Holden Caulfield, the character made famous in The Catcher in the Rye, was in Collier's in December 1945. Salinger, however, sold his first Holden story to The New Yorker in November 1941. "Slight Rebellion Off Madison" was supposed to be printed around Christmas 1941. After the attack on Pearl Harbour, the New Yorker editors changed their views. "Holden's problems were trivial compared to world developments," Alexander writes. "So the magazine's editors postponed the publication of Salinger's story." Five years later, in December 1946, it finally appeared in print.

Only four books of J.D. Salinger's work are available today, one novel and three collections of stories. If everything had gone as planned early in his career, there would be a fifth. Long-time acquaintance Whit Burnett, founder of Story magazine, promised to publish a collection of his early work in a volume called The Young Folks. It would have contained some stories that remain uncollected in book form as well as other stories that were never published. Burnett's superiors rejected the idea, one that would have allowed them to print The Catcher in the Rye also. Evidently, Salinger never put this rejection behind him.

One problem in this book is Paul Alexander's tendency to overanalyse. He takes up five pages to discuss what Salinger really meant with his dedications and dust jacket notes for his last two books. At times the autobiographical nature of his work is overemphasized, reducing his work to nothing but memoirs with the names changed. The most tiresome aspect of this biography is the comparison Alexander makes between every girl in the Salinger canon and Salinger's real life to Lolita.

The ending is pointless. Alexander wonders if Salinger "protected his privacy because he had a penchant for young women that he did not want to reveal to the public." He then allows three other sources - Gordon Lish, Russell Hoban, and George Plimpton - to speculate as to why Salinger has lived his life in seclusion. Gordon Lish is a guy who asked Salinger in 1961 to write an essay for the Job Corps' Why Work program. Russell Hoban illustrated a 1961 article about the author in Time. George Plimpton, the editor of Paris Review, worked with a reporter who had a quick, unpleasant interview with Salinger in 1980. These are the best people he could find to consult when pondering why J.D. Salinger lives his life the way he does. None of them have the credentials to make a convincing case.

For all the unfounded speculation and superfluous analyses, Salinger: A Biography is the best source of information available regarding the author's writing career. Margaret Salinger's memoir Dream Catcher reveals a lot more about the author as a person. For those interested in learning about Salinger's publishing career, however, the little there is to know is found in Paul Alexander's book.

Salinger: A Biography by Paul Alexander
Renaissance Books
ISBN: 1580631487
351 pages