When fiction writer J.D. Salinger died last year at age 91, he had become famous for his eternally popular novel "The Catcher in the Rye" and for the seclusion that gradually took hold after the novel's publication in 1951. Avid readers and indifferent readers alike knew little else about Jerome David Salinger, a New York City denizen until he achieved fame, then a dweller on the New Hampshire-Vermont border hoping to avoid the spotlight that fame brings.
Salinger's notorious antipathy to biographers makes Kenneth Slawenski's fascinating book "J.D. Salinger: A Life" (Random House, 450 pages, $27) especially remarkable. The remarkableness is doubled by the realization that Slawenski is a complete outsider to the literary establishment. His own author's biography is nearly as sparse as that insisted upon by Salinger himself. A resident of Fair Lawn, N.J., Slawenski re-read "The Catcher in the Rye" as an adult, became obsessed with Salinger, independently researched his life for years, then created the website www.DeadCaulfields.com (the protagonist of "Catcher" is Holden Caulfield).
Few if any biographies of fiction writers intertwine the life of the novelist with the created world on the page as well as this one.
The details of Salinger's adolescence and young adulthood are unearthed with unusual copiousness by Slawenski. So many occurrences could be considered seminal in Salinger's development as a writer that singling out one seems reductionist. But Salinger's nightmarish combat in Europe during World War II absolutely altered his worldview and his personality -- not to mention serving as the source material found in his now famous story "For Esme, With Love and Squalor."
Slawenski does not ignore the decades-long fascination with Salinger's seclusion in New Hampshire. Wisely, however, Slawenski does not obsess about it. Equally wisely, Slawenski provides context. Salinger did not relocate to New Hampshire at the height of his fame to become a recluse. At first, he developed friendships with local students, farmers and tradespeople. He married there, and fathered two children there. He left behind the distractions of New York City for New Hampshire so that he could devote full attention to his writing.
Above all, Salinger should be considered a craftsman of words, stories and ideas, a writer as desirous of perfection on the page as any writer alive or dead.
Furthermore, Salinger had evolved from the cultural Judaism of his youth (his mother was not Jewish) to an absorption of Eastern religious thought, some of it seemingly mystical when compared with the mainstream Protestant faiths of so many of his readers. The rural life of New Hampshire helped Salinger figure out how to meld his fiction and his spiritualism.
The seclusion of Salinger that really mattered is related to the printed page. After a short story appeared in Salinger's primary outlet, the New Yorker magazine, during 1965, Salinger offered nothing new before his death -- 45 years of silence.
Steve Weinberg is a journalist and critic in Missouri. He is online at www.steveweinbergwriter.com