Friday, 10 February 2012
J. D. Salinger: Kenneth Slawenski interviewed...
hursday, January 12, 2012
By Charley Falkenburg, Staff Writer
The Princeton High School Performance Center was the place to be on Jan. 10 for J.D. Salinger buffs when acclaimed author of “J.D. Salinger: A Life” Kenneth Slawenski made a visit to unlock some mysteries of the man who wrote the classic “Catcher in the Rye.”
Students had the opportunity to hear the exclusive details of Mr. Slawenski’s biography prior to his evening book signing and paperback launch at the Princeton Library. Students listened intently as teen services librarian Susan Conlon interviewed Mr. Slawenski and followed up with their own questions.
”As I wrote the book I was finding things out,” Mr. Slawenski said. “It dawned on me that I was mostly writing a biography of ‘Catcher in the Rye.’”
For example, he was shocked to learn the extent of Mr. Salinger’s military service, where Mr. Salinger spent four years fighting in World War II and chose to spend an extra year in Germany cleaning up after the Nazis. As a result, he suffered a mental breakdown, known today as post-traumatic stress disorder.
”The war was a pivotal event in his life. It was more important to him as a man and his works,” Mr. Slawenski said. “Before he left to fight the war he didn’t question anything and just wanted to be rich and famous. But after the war he questioned the nature of living, of good and evil.”
Finding these hidden facts were not easy and Mr. Slawenski had many difficulties acquiring information on Mr. Salinger’s participation in the war. It took him an entire year to write the chapter on Mr. Salinger’s World War II service.
”It wasn’t easy,” Mr. Slawenski emphasized. “I double, triple and quadruple checked every fact in that chapter.”He also came across frustrating information gaps during the research process, leaving several parts of Mr. Salinger’s life blank. He gave the example of being unable to find details of Mr. Salinger’s work for Intelligence in the Army when he went to Nuremburg, Germany.
”The only thing you can do is acknowledge the gap and move on,” Mr. Slawenski told students.
He went on to describe similarities between Mr. Salinger and his infamous Holden Caulfield character, Mr. Salinger’s lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism and Mr. Salinger’s obsession with his Glass family characters, which he wrote about for 15 years.
”Salinger fell in love with these children, he adored them as if they were real people,” Mr. Slawenski said. “He had a winning formula with Holden and the Caulfield family and he abandoned it for the Glass family.”
He added that the Glass children are similar to Holden in that they have anxiety, but that it was more of a spiritual anxiety that caused them to look for God and the meaning of life, a theme that dominated most of Mr. Salinger’s later works.
Mr. Slawenski talked about the New Yorker’s rejection of “Catcher in the Rye” despite their tight knit relationship with Mr. Salinger and his overnight booming popularity with “Catcher in the Rye” that became synonymous with the 1960s generation.
”The anxiety of Holden represented anxiety of the generation,” Mr. Slawenski said. “‘Catcher in the Rye’ fed off a general apprehension of society because of the atomic bomb.”
However, people had misguided views of Mr. Salinger.
Mr. Slawenski said many believed he was a genius and a “one trick pony” with “Catcher in the Rye,” but this was not the case — Mr. Salinger wrote three other books and several short stories and “Catcher in the Rye” took him a difficult 10 years to write.
But instead of enjoying the limelight he sought for so long, Mr. Salinger recoiled and increasingly withdrew from society. It prompted him to move to a cottage in the woods in New Hampshire and spend 12 to 16 hours a day writing in a private bunker on the property – isolated from his second wife and two children, ultimately resulting in divorce.
”He found out he wasn’t meant for the spotlight,” Mr. Slawenski said. “Salinger didn’t think he owed us anything – he believed he owed everything to God because God gave him the ability to write.”
Mr. Salinger stopped publishing his works for 45 years, but Mr. Slawenski stressed that he did without a doubt continue to write.
”He wrote at least a dozen books. We have yet to read them because they haven’t been published,” he said. “The literary well is holding their breath.”
He added that there is a rumor that Mr. Salinger asked his son and wife to wait a number of years before publishing his writings. The reason is that he knew his fans would be happy when he died solely for the hope that they would then be able to read his hidden gems.
With two memoirs and two biographies already on Mr. Salinger, Mr. Slawenski felt the need to write his own to set the record straight and give a true, unbiased account. He described the other accounts as “unflattering.” Mr. Salinger had even sued Ian Hamilton’s publisher for the vindictive tone Mr. Hamilton’s unauthorized biography contained.
Ironically, Mr. Hamilton’s publisher is the same as Mr. Slawenski’s: Random House.
Mr. Slawenski’s interest in Mr. Salinger sparked in junior high school when he read “Catcher in the Rye” and was rekindled when he picked the book back up again years later.
”I enjoyed the book more in my 40s than when I was 14,” Mr. Slawenski said. “I then set out to read everything Salinger ever wrote.”
This sparked his Dead Caulfields website in 2004 where he started chronicling little known Mr. Salinger stories about Holden and his family. It wasn’t until an editor asked him if he ever thought about making the website into a book that he decided to take on the project.
”I didn’t intend for it to be a biography,” Mr. Slawenski said. “I was almost afraid that if I knew too much about him it would spoil it for me, but the more you know about the author the more you enjoy the works.”
Now “J.D. Salinger: A Life” is published in 17 countries in 14 languages.
Mr. Slawenski isn’t stopping there. He is in the process of researching and writing a historical book on World War II that focuses on the battle of Hurtgen Forest, a battle in which both Mr. Salinger and Ernest Hemingway fought. He plans on using Mr. Salinger and Mr. Hemingway as conduits – following them as they talk about the battle itself.
When asked what he would ask Mr. Salinger if he ever received the chance, Mr. Slawenski did not even hesitate.
”Like everyone else, I want to know what he has been writing for the past 45 years,” he said with a smile. “And is it any good?”