Many literary critics feel the biography of an author shouldn't color our interpretations of the work – the text should stand on its own merits. That was the way I viewed The Catcher in the Rye for the last decade – not that I refused to know more, I just never felt a strong desire to find out. All I really knew about J.D. Salinger were those few things that everybody knows about him – he was a recluse who refused to let
Hollywood turn his writings into movies. Then I started reading J.D. Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski. I feel like a kid with bad eyesight putting on glasses for the first time.
Understanding Salinger’s life, personality, and experiences before and while he wrote Catcher adds layers of meaning to an already rich and evocative novel.
I was surprised to learn that before Catcher, Salinger was primarily a short story writer and had penned and published several short stories about the Caulfield family and their acquaintances. One or two starred Holden, but the others mostly focused on his older brother Vincent (called D.B. in Catcher) or, more often, Vincent’s good friend Babe. One unpublished story even featured a little brother named Kenneth (later Allie) who drowned in the ocean (possibly via suicide) while Holden was away at summer camp and infant Phoebe slept in her crib.
Possibly most disturbing about these early Caulfield stories is that two of them, set after the onset of World War II, indicate that Holden, at 19, is missing in action somewhere in the Pacific theatre! Um, I vote no. Worse yet, Salinger never (as far we know) says for sure whether Holden lives or dies! He’s still out there somewhere in that misty neverland of fictional characters without destiny. So much for closure.
Slawenski indicates that Salinger may have developed this ambiguous fate because he himself was heading into the battlefields, already planning a novel about Holden (of which, by the way, he wrote much while at various fronts in
Europe). Salinger may have reasoned that if he died in the war, Holden would die with him.
Instead, Salinger’s wartime experiences enriched Holden and imbued him with many of the characteristics that endeared him to the world, specifically his fierce desire to protect the innocent.
Salinger landed on the beach on D-Day. With his division, he fought through to
, losing 2/3 of his division along the way. At the French-German border, Salinger remained mired in snowy foxholes for months until slowly advancing into Paris . There, he witnessed emaciated victims of Nazi concentration camps and mountains of ashes relating the stories words could not. Germany
All of these experiences breathe new meaning into Holden’s symbolic dream job – saving the innocent and unknowing children who may otherwise tumble off the cliff bordering their rye field playground.
What do you think? In what other ways could Salinger’s experiences in World War II have affected Catcher? Should the author's life affect our reading and interpretation of the text?
On a lighter note, one of Salinger's early stories was actually adapted into a movie. The producers changed his original story, "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut", so much that it was almost unrecognizable. The movie was called My Foolish Heart, and though it did well critically (nominated for two Oscars), Salinger never seriously considered selling movie rights to his stories again. When approached about turning Catcher into a movie, Salinger said no because "Holden wouldn't like it."