, , ,

Combing through the archives for my proposed magnum hopus, “What We Talk About When We Talk About War,” I came upon an American writer whose name is known to all, though not because of war.  Except, perhaps it should be.  J.D. Salinger. Catcher in the Rye, reportedly has sold more than 65 million copies, and continues at the rate of hundreds of thousands a year.  Teen-age angst translated into dozens of languages.

Salinger carried drafts of what would become the novel when he waded ashore on D-Day, June 6, 1944.  Three weeks later the original 3,080 men of the 12th Infantry Regiment had been reduced to 1,130.  He carried the papers into liberated concentration camps in Germany.  He worked on them during the six months after V-E day when he was assigned to a denazification unit. — and then during hospitalization for combat stress.

Already, by April of 1944 he had published a short story in the Saturday Evening Post, with a decidedly unromantic look at war.

JUANITA, she’s always dragging me to a million movies, and we see these here shows all about war and stuff. You see a lot of real handsome guys always getting shot pretty neat, right where it don’t spoil their looks none, and they always got plenty of time, before they croak, to give their love to some doll back home, with who, in the beginning of the pitcher, they had a real serious misunderstanding about what dress she should ought to wear to the college dance. Or the guy that’s croaking nice and slow has got plenty of time to hand over the papers he captured off the enemy general or to explain what the whole pitcher’s about in the first place. And meantime, all the other real handsome guys, his buddies, got plenty of time to watch the handsomest guy croak. Then you don’t see no more, except you hear some guy with a bugle handy take time off to blow taps. Then you see the dead guy’s home town, and around a million people, including the mayor and the dead guy’s folks and his doll, and maybe the President, all around the guy’s box, making speeches and wearing medals and looking spiffier in mourning duds than most folks so all dolled up for a party.

Juanita, she eats that stuff up. I tell her it sure is a nice way to croak; then she gets real sore and says she’s never going to no show with me again; then next week we see the same show all over again, only the war’s in Dutch Harbor this time instead of Guadalcanal…See here for the rest of  “Soft-Boiled Sergeant”.

Apparently, an as yet unpublished piece, “The Magic Foxhole,” (not to be released until 70 years after Salinger’s death) is even more vividly disturbing.  See Swalenski’s web site for a short summary, and of other unpublished pieces.

J.D. Salinger WWII, Counter Intelligence Corps, US Army


As Kenneth Slawenski writes in a take-out from his biography of Salinger:

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.

“You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose,” he told his daughter.

By July of 1945 Salinger had checked himself into a civilian hospital at Nuremberg, “in a constant state of despondency” he wrote Ernest Hemingway.  Something of that break is worked into another war-time story “For Esme, WIth Love and Squalor.”

There are more pre-war and just post-war stories in which aspects of the “tricky, dreary farce” of war are explored. And of course, Seymour Glass, appearing in several stories, most completely in “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” is a damaged war veteran.  Some have  suggested that even Catcher in The Rye can be read as a reaction to, and telling of, Salinger’s war-time experiences.  It is curious, however, that he didn’t mine his them for more, as Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw and James Jones did, not to mention Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller.  Perhaps it was because his well-known “shyness,” his disappearance into the New Hampshire woods, was not just a quirk of personality.  Perhaps it, too, had much to do with the war.  Perhaps, says Swalenski, “what Salinger suffered from was less a reticence,  or a very cool allergy to renown, but rather a real case of post-traumatic stress.”

So it seems to be with many books.  Our memory of them, and use as reference points in our own lives, may not correspond with their origin and inspiration.  Second looks may bring surprises: adolescent angst? Yes, still there. But also adult war veteran PTSD and a writer trying to tell us.

Read, “A Soft-Boiled Sergeant”, “Last Day of the Last Furlough”, “This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise”, or “For Esme, WIth Love and Squalor,‘ and see if you don’t reevaluate your high school readings.


Article taken from Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life , in 2011

Review of Slawenski‘s J.D. Salinger: A Life

Review “Why Didn’t J.D. Salinger Write More About War?

Interview with Shane Salerno, co-author of Salinger, in 2013.

Documentary Film, Salinger