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J. D. Salinger: A Life Hardcover – January 25, 2011

3.9 out of 5 stars 102 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, January 2011: In the year since his death, we've heard much more about J.D. Salinger's reclusiveness and eccentricities, both real and exaggerated, than we have about the writing that made him famous in the first place. Kenneth Slawenski's Salinger: A Life avoids such scandalmongering in order to deliver a sensitive (but not fawning) portrait of Salinger the writer. Slawenski looks not only at Salinger's most famous works, but also finds a wealth of psychological insights in places like rejection letters and biographical statements. Not surprisingly, Salinger's life, and especially his service in World War II, provided much of the raw material for his stories. But Slawenski does much more than compare Salinger's biography to his literary output: he also shows how compromises, conflicts, and editorial intrigues shaped Salinger's works, even when he was at the peak of his career. The book has much less to say about Salinger's post-1960 retirement and self-seclusion, apart from the author's occasional foray into the public eye by way of a rare interview or court case. But Slawenski does this for good reason: Salinger: A Life seeks only to explain Salinger as most of us knew him, through his writing. As a result, both die-hard fans and those who last picked up Catcher in the Rye in high school will find it enlightening. --Darryl Campbell

A Look Inside J.D. Salinger: A Life

© PS 166
Until he was thirteen, Sonny attended public school on the Upper West Side. This is a class photo of Salinger and his schoolmates on the steps of P.S. 166, circa 1929.

© Valley Forge Military Academy
Cadet Corporal Salinger in 1936. Salinger’s yearbook photo from Valley Forge Military Academy. Salinger used his own boarding school as the inspiration for Holden Caulfield’s Pency Prep when writing The Catcher in the Rye. Unlike Holden, Salinger excelled at Valley Forge.

© Dorothy Nollman/Peter Imbres
Jerry in 1939. A photo taken by his friend Dorothy Nollman while on break from Columbia University. Within a year, Salinger’s first short story would be published and his career launched.

Between boot camp and combat. Air Corps photo taken in 1943 while Salinger was assigned to the Public Relations Department of the Air Service Command. A year later he would be fighting in Europe.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. After nearly a decade™s research and Slawenski™s obvious empathy with his reclusive subject™s search for emotional and philosophical equilibrium, this exemplary biography will be released on the first anniversary of J.D. Salinger™s death. It™s a highly informative effort to assess the arc of Salinger™s career, the themes of his fiction, and his influence on 20th-century American literature. Born in 1919, indulged by his mother while growing up on Park Avenue, Salinger was a bored and indifferent student. He eventually found a mentor in legendary Columbia professor Whit Burnett, who encouraged him to work on the pieces that became The Catcher in the Rye even while Salinger was serving in WWII Europe. Slawenski emphasizes that Salinger™s wartime experience, from D-Day to the liberation of Dachau, œwas the traumatic turning point in his life, influencing the sense of futility that permeates his early work. Salinger™s salvation, Slawenski demonstrates, came through his acceptance of Vedatic Buddhism, and he argues persuasively that Salinger came to consider writing an aspect of meditation, a task that demanded solitude and perfect control over the presentation of his fiction. The celebrity surrounding the publication of Catcher in the Rye in 1951 activated the split between his striving for asceticism and the demands of the outside world. Slawenski describes Salinger™s three marriages, records his contentious relationships with his publishers, his special relationship with the New Yorker, and Slawenski™s assiduous research allows him to identify and assess many obscure and unpublished stories. In total, an invaluable work that sheds fascinating light on the willfully elusive author. B&w photos. (Jan. 25)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 450 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First Edition edition (2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400069513
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400069514
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (102 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,151,855 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By P. B. Sharp VINE VOICE on January 2, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Kenneth Slawenski has almost absorbed JD Salinger by osmosis, the writer becoming part of his breathing out and breathing in. Slawenski's understanding of Salinger is basic, almost on the chromosome level as though he had incorporated Salinger into his genes so that the two of them- biographer and writer - are twin souls. However, Slawenski says in the introduction that when Salinger died in January 2010, he did not mourn, but gave him a salute. It took Slawenski seven years to write this biography and it can be said to be the horse's mouth as far as Jerome David Salinger is concerned.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the chapters on World War II. Salinger had enlisted and eventually became a sergeant and this young man from a posh address in New York City stormed the Normandy Beach on D - Day and then spent unspeakable days and nights slogging through mud, crouching in fox holes with the snow coming down on his head but actually taking time when he could to write even in a fox hole. He saw the liberation of Paris but went right back in the fox holes crawling step by step fox hole to fox hole toward Berlin and the Battle of the Bulge. He managed to sneak under darkness into Hemingway's camp as the author was on location as a war correspondent.

And all the while, once even when crouching under a table with his typewriter, trying to avoid mortar shells, Salinger wrote. The war forged his writing and his soul and he was never again the same debonair, rather heedless young man he once was. Slawenski says that Salinger was not writing out of patriotism or with approval of Allied commanders' policies. He was writing for and about the boy next to him and these boys died by the thousands. The war was a baptism in fire.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Perhaps Kenneth Slawenski loved too much and this obscured his writer's faults from his notice. I didn't really need to have every story synopsized and explained to me. Too much of the book is taken up with that. I wanted more core Salinger, the man.

Slawenski's writing style is like a fond old uncle's remeniscences whose tone is a little flat and complacent. He skips here and there, then goes back to an earlier memory filled with cliche after cliche. It's not good: "filled with promise," "mantle of leadership," "called into question." How about, "As 1919 dawned people awoke to a fresh new world." You think? Or, "No place was more ready," For what? And this all within the first paragraph! By P. 7 I was lost in the geneology of the family, unable to get them straight due to scrambled writing.

What I disliked more, though, were the many unsupported conclusions and assumptions Slawenski draws. Some are more serious than others. Here's one that is almost a nonsequitur: "But business became his life, and by the time of his thirtieth birthday in 1917, his hair had gone completely 'iron grey.'" Cause and effect? Improbable.

Another example which shows us, I suppose, just how shallow the Salingers were: Slawenski writes that "In the 1920's religion and nationality became increasingly important." As a reaction to this, the Salingers raised their children "with a mixture of lukewarm religious and ethnic traditions." Lukewarm? Explain that, exactly.

There are also contradictions in the book. Slawenski quotes a friend of Salinger's making a negative comment. Then Slawenski chimes in with a positive one, defending Salinger. Doesn't work. His friends say Salinger was "condescending" and "pretentious," and most of his classmates didn't like him.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Kenneth Slawenski, who has devoted himself to the study of J. D. Salinger's life and works for a decade or more has given us this volume, a combination of biography, opinion, and synopses of Salinger's works. Slawenski is an unabashed admirer of Salinger, as an author and as, it seems, a person. I applaud the fact that he takes this strong stand, although my opinion of Salinger as a person is not as positive as Slawenski's is.

This work is at its best when Slawenski is narrating Salinger's life; I found his treatment of Salinger's time in World War II, which is far more comprehensive than that in previous biographies, quite helpful in explaining the state of mind revealed in Salinger's works. I was less pleased with his summaries and explications of Salinger's works. Slawenski notes that Salinger believed that each reader's own experience with writing was paramount, yet he feels compelled to tell us what moments in many of the works mean. I do also feel that Slawenski lets his admiration for Salinger as a writer blind him to Salinger's flaws as a person. Many of the incidents in the book reveal him to have been a selfish and altogether unpleasant man at times. This is not news, but Slawenski continues to admire Salinger, never admitting that Salinger has behaved badly in any of the episodes.

My reservations in the previous paragraph notwithstanding, I consider this by far the best of the biographies of Salinger produced to date.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
After the last two flops a decade and two ago on old J.D., about the last thing I wanted to do was read another quasi biography. I mean he having been the great author of my adolescence and all. But his recent death stirred the pot, and so little about him is written in the three dozen or so books I have on the The New Yorker & family, that I let myself take heart from a biographer and scholar I trust, Peter Ackroyd, and give it a try. Right choice.

Salinger's youth and family history are given just enough space without tealeaves or preciousness. Mr. Slawenski tours the events, relationships and circumstances without exaggerating or imagining the importance of every godam fact he bumps into. Although the Oona O'Neill episode was a real eye-opener.

I was especially suspicious of "Salinger a Life" coming out so soon after Salinger's death. But he had already been deep in research some eight years before. He even started a website "DeadCaulfields.com" back in 2004. This guy is no slouch and no ambulance chaser. I forgot my fears by the time Salinger failed out of prep school. Mr. Slawenski met my first challenge, Salinger's education and early influences, with neither speculation nor dalliance.

The second was his war years. After the military academy, I never thought Salinger would join the Army as an enlisted man. Yet that is just what he attempted. Because of its positioning in the book, I must pause here to show how truly tricky Salinger was. Mr. Slawenski refers to a story from about this time "The Long Debut of Lois Taggett", one of the stories rejected by The New Yorker. He remarks that it contained "many oddities (Lois's husband, for example, suffers from a bizarre allergy to colored socks)," Turns out the allergy is not so bizarre.
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