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Review: J.D. Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski

About the Author

One of the most popular and mysterious figures in American literary history, the author of the classic Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger eluded fans and journalists for most of his life. Now he is the subject of this definitive biography, which is filled with new information and revelations garnered from countless interviews, letters, and public records. Kenneth Slawenski explores Salinger’s privileged youth, long obscured by misrepresentation and rumor, revealing the brilliant, sarcastic, vulnerable son of a disapproving father and doting mother. Here too are accounts of Salinger’s first broken heart—after Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, Oona, left him—and the devastating World War II service that haunted him forever. J. D. Salinger features all the dazzle of this author’s early writing successes, his dramatic encounters with luminaries from Ernest Hemingway to Elia Kazan, his office intrigues with famous New Yorker editors and writers, and the stunning triumph of The Catcher in the Rye, which would both make him world-famous and hasten his retreat into the hills of New Hampshire. J. D. Salinger is this unique author’s unforgettable story in full—one that no lover of literature can afford to miss.


Man, this book tells you everything. Absolutely all things you could ever wonder about J.D. Salinger are contained in this wonderful little biography. This book is dense, detailed, and for someone who loves a good biography, a dream. First off: J.D. stands for Jerome David, for those of you who never even considered what those letters stood for (it didn't even cross my mind). All jokes aside, this is an incredibly astute look inside a prolific American writer's life and growth through the arts.

I think folks naturally desire to know more about what really inspires a writer. Where do they get their profound talent? How do they come up with such unique ideas. This biography was especially enlightening for those of you who want to understand the background of a particularly important writer of the 20th century. Salinger's writer is filled with parallels to his own life. Characters and events are borrowed from his schooling (Valley Forge) and from his own relationships. 

One relationship in particular that I found interesting throughout was Salinger's relationship with his father. Characters and real humans alike are heavily influenced by the relationships with their parents, and Salinger was no exception. We get a both distant, yet loving relationship that's troubled and still very much one of admiration. One particular event: his father not showing up for his entrance interview for Valley Forge seems rude on the exterior, but examining the environment where a Jewish man might ruin his son's chances at getting into a promising young school reveals that this choice of absence was particularly out of love. 

Time after time we see parallels in Salinger's writing, but we also see vast differences. Salinger is no Holden Caulfield, but the two of them certainly maintain similar qualities. I believe this biography is truly enlightening for aspiring writers, and one that truly allows for the reader to traipse along with Salinger through a life of triumph and sadness. The depth that this book dives into is impressive and really allows for a full reflection on the many facets of Salinger's life as a man and as a writer. This is a truly excellent biography, dense and packed full of facts compiled by a man whose dedication to Salinger is not at all in question. 

Review by Amy Richardson

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