It’s now been just over a week since word came of the death at age ninety-one of J.D. Salinger, the author of The Catcher In The Rye and Franny And Zooey. A lot has been written since then, much of it focusing on the comparative seclusion in which he spent fifty-eigh of his seventy – yes, seventy – years as a professional writer, and on the question of just what he was writing during the forty-five years since the appearance of his last published story.
Last year I wrote about an article which appeared in 1985 in the last print issue of Saturday Review, edited by TNN’s Frank Gannon, that discussed whether two very curious writings which appeared in the long-defunct little magazine The Phoenix in 1971 under the name “Giles Weaver” could have been Salinger’s work. The fact is (and this, for any Salinger fans out there, really is a little-known fact that isn’t in any of the many books about the writer) that the very last previously unpublished words that Salinger permitted in print under his own name appeared during the Nixon Administration. They are in the biography George M. Cohan: The Man Who Invented Broadway by the late John McCabe, which was published by Doubleday in 1973, and are two quotations from letters Salinger wrote to McCabe. In one, he reminisces about seeing Cohan in Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy, Ah Wilderness! in 1933. (Eight years later, Salinger would romance O’Neill’s daughter Oona for several months, until she went off to Hollywood and married Charlie Chaplin.) In the other, he compares Cohan’s acting style to that of Noel Coward.
One of the more perceptive articles about Salinger since his death is this one by F.X. Feeney of LA Weekly. It stresses something often forgotten about Salinger – that although his fiction almost never deals with World War II or the Holocaust (except for the famous story “For Esme – With Love And Squalor” and the less well-known “A Girl I Knew”) and even then rather indirectly, these events formed his life and writing profoundly. He was drafted into the Army soon after Pearl Harbor – as a 1-B, to his disgust, since he was a graduate of Valley Forge Military Academy – and, after serving in several units in several bases, ultimately was transferred to the Counter-Intelligence Corps, thanks to his knowledge of German. (He had worked in his father’s meat and cheese importing business in Vienna for several months just before the Anschluss, and then in Bydgoscz, Poland, not long before the Blitzkrieg.)
On June 6, 1944, his unit landed at Utah Beach. (In a sad indication of the current state of American journalism, the first version of his obituary put up on the New York Times’s site noted this fact but got the date wrong.) His unit fought its way across Normandy to Paris, where it paused just long enough for Salinger to enjoy what would be a huge thrill for any writer of his generation – an evening drinking with Ernest Hemingway, who had read and admired his stories in magazines.
Then Salinger’s unit fought on, through the Bulge, through Hurtgen Forest, and he did his duty, mainly interrogating captured German soldiers, trying to determine the next danger awaiting himself and his comrades. To borrow the title of the novel about this campaign by Richard Matheson, who fought in it, it was a group of “beardless warriors,” soldiers barely out of their teens or still in them, who were doing most of the fighting, since much of America’s older, better-trained servicemen were being kept in reserve for the much more daunting job of invading Japan. (At the time the atom bomb was top secret, and those who did know about it could not know if it could be finished before that invasion.) Salinger was one of the oldest soldiers in his unit and he saw most of the men in it killed or wounded by the time V-E Day came. His last days in combat were spent helping to liberate at least one death camp. Then he had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for a time, which inspired “Esme,” maybe his single most powerful and moving work published to date.
And, as I mentioned above, even before that, in Vienna, he saw a whole vibrant Jewish community that, in a few years, would be almost completely wiped out. Indeed, the family with which he stayed in his months there was killed – this is what “A Girl I Knew” is about. And later, in Bydgoscz, he saw many, many Jews who, just over a year later, would be made the test subjects of one of the earliest Nazi experiments in mass deportation.
This sets Salinger apart in a substantial way from other Jewish American writers of his generation – forget, for the moment, that his mother was a gentile of Irish or Scottish descent (the accounts vary). Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Joseph Heller, and nearly all the others were products of the Depression, growing up too poor to visit Europe, and almost none of these writers had relatives rich enough to visit America before the war. It would have been a rare thing for them to have met anyone who later died in the camps.
But Salinger had been over there, had seen firsthand “the vanished world,” as Roman Vishniac called it in his books of photographs made in Poland before 1939. And later, he gave his utmost to stop those who made it vanish. Like nearly all who were in that Greatest Generation he was reluctant to talk about what had happened after the war – or to write about it, so far we know. In the coming months, or years, or decades, maybe we will find out whether he had anything to say beyond what has so far been published. But what matters now is that a hero, as well as a gifted and important writer, is gone.