Sunday, 30 January 2011

Salinger's War

Holden Caulfield’s Goddam War
As army sergeant J. D. Salinger hit the beach on D-day, drank with Hemingway in newly liberated Paris, and marched into concentration camps, the hero of The Catcher in the Rye was with him. In an adaptation from his Salinger biography, the author reveals how the war changed both Holden Caulfield and his creator.

By Kenneth Slawenski
February 2011

From J. D. Salinger: A Life, by Kenneth Slawenski, published by Random House, Inc.; © 2010 by the author.

In the autumn of 1950, at his home in Westport, Connecticut, J. D. Salinger completed The Catcher in the Rye. The achievement was a catharsis. It was confession, purging, prayer, and enlightenment, in a voice so distinct that it would alter American culture.

Holden Caulfield, and the pages that held him, had been the author’s constant companion for most of his adult life. Those pages, the first of them written in his mid-20s, just before he shipped off to Europe as an army sergeant, were so precious to Salinger that he carried them on his person throughout the Second World War. Pages of The Catcher in the Rye had stormed the beach at Normandy; they had paraded down the streets of Paris, been present at the deaths of countless soldiers in countless places, and been carried through the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. In bits and pieces they had been re-written, put aside, and re-written again, the nature of the story changing as the author himself was changed. Now, in Connecticut, Salinger placed the final line on the final chapter of the book. It is with Salinger’s experience of the Second World War in mind that we should understand Holden Caulfield’s insight at the Central Park carousel, and the parting words of The Catcher in the Rye: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” All the dead soldiers.

Fighter and Writer
Tuesday, June 6, 1944, was the turning point of J. D. Salinger’s life. It is difficult to overstate the impact of D-day and the 11 months of combat that followed. The war, its horrors and lessons, would brand itself upon every aspect of Salinger’s personality and reverberate through his work. As a young writer before entering the army, Salinger had had stories published in various magazines, including Collier’s and Story, and he had begun to conjure members of the Caulfield family, including the famous Holden. On D-day he had six unpublished Caulfield stories in his possession, stories that would form the spine of The Catcher in the Rye. The experience of war gave his writing a depth and maturity it had lacked; the legacy of that experience is present even in work that is not about war at all. In later life, Salinger frequently mentioned Normandy, but he never spoke of the details—“as if,” his daughter later recalled, “I understood the implications, the unspoken.”

As part of the 4th Counter Intelligence Corps (C.I.C.) detachment, Salinger was to land on Utah Beach with the first wave, at 6:30 A.M., but an eyewitness report has him in fact landing during the second wave, about 10 minutes later. The timing was fortunate. The Channel’s currents had thrown the landing off 2,000 yards to the south, allowing Salinger to avoid the most heavily concentrated German defenses. Within an hour of landing, Salinger was moving inland and heading west, where he and his detachment would eventually connect with the 12th Infantry Regiment.

The 12th had not been so lucky. Although it landed five hours later, it had encountered obstacles that Salinger and his group had not. Just beyond the beach, the Germans had flooded a vast marshland, up to two miles wide, and had concentrated their firepower on the only open causeway. The 12th had been forced to abandon the causeway and wade through waist-high water while under constant threat from enemy guns. It took the 12th Infantry three hours to cross the marsh. After meeting up with the regiment, Salinger would spend the next 26 days in combat. On June 6, the regiment had consisted of 3,080 men. By July 1, the number was down to 1,130.

Unlike many soldiers who had been impatient for the invasion, Salinger was far from naïve about war. In short stories he had already written while in the army, such as “Soft-Boiled Sergeant” and “Last Day of the Last Furlough,” he expressed disgust with the false idealism applied to combat, and attempted to explain that war was a bloody, inglorious affair. But no amount of theoretical insight could have prepared him for what was to come. Salinger would count among his most treasured belongings a small casket containing his five battle stars and the Presidential Unit Citation for valor....

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