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The Enigmatic J.D. Salinger: From Middle-Class Childhood to Literary Recluse

Salinger is a writer who “appreciates both refined and popular tastes”. His most famous novel, “The Catcher in the Rye,” is about a foul-mouthed high school boy who spends a night wandering around the adult world after being kicked out of school. Therefore, it is regarded as a kind of “youth literature.” However, for more professional writers and literature lovers, his short story collection “Nine Stories” is another serious masterpiece.

And, even among an eccentric group of writers, Salinger was something of an oddity. After becoming famous, he hid in his deep compound. For nearly half a century, he saw no one and rarely published works. No one knew what he was doing. He is a mysterious and boyish person, and there are always people trying to “explore secrets and treasures” in him, hoping to dig out his hidden heart. The following is an attempt by French writer Denis de Montpion to explore Salinger’s secrets.

01 Never lie, this is his main character

Salinger was not the kind of person to tell stories about himself. As a natural novelist, he is good at combining reality and fiction. Biographer? He considered these people worse than those who copied the style of other writers, just like Emerson’s poem: “Self is the most difficult part of man to understand.”

As for autobiography, it was even more unthinkable for him, although he had tried this genre in 1949. In order to promote his short story “Down to the Boat,” Harper’s asked him for some personal information. He responded in a high-profile manner: “First of all, if I were a magazine director, I would never waste a column on the writer’s personal information and answer people’s countless questions,”

He said straight to the point, “I’m not generally interested in where an author was born, the names of his children, how long he worked, or the day he was arrested for smuggling guns to an Irish rebel.” Salinger quipped. He added a few words: “The kind of writer who is willing to tell you anything is most likely a photographer who wears a shirt with an open collar and takes 3:4 headshots of people, and looks like he is having a miserable life.” This ironic wisecrack became a prophecy of his future changes. Three years later, on November 20, 1952, when he was in Brooklyn to introduce the new book “The Catcher in the Rye”, he asked the photographer He took a frontal portrait, wearing a shirt and with the collar open, but it was just a little better than the “tragic look” he said.

Biographers were also a scourge for him. He wrote to Gloria Elizabeth on June 22, 1962. She was the daughter of his old friend Elizabeth. She was just over 20 years old at the time and eager to become a writer. Salinger had given her considerable What a solid encouragement. In the letter, Salinger confessed that he must always draw a clear line between his biographers and other “lepidated lackeys” and other “snoopers” (trash collectors) who are full of smooth words and “pretend to be false academics.” “Looking for rumors everywhere”, maybe someone will shoot you in the back at some point.

When he first started his career as a writer, American literary weeklies had a tradition of publishing an author’s autobiography along with the author’s novels. As for the content, it was up to the author himself to decide. Salinger was still unknown to the public at the time, so he didn’t worry about it. It was not until 1949 that he gave in at the request of Harper’s and wrote: “I have spent time writing autobiographies for magazines, but I don’t think I have written anything true.”

Is this a cover-up or self-deprecation? No, this is more of a middle school student mentality. He doesn’t want others to judge him. This is his true state, and it is also the writing element that keeps his appearance consistent and strictly retains his own authenticity. In the spring of 1940, he wrote his first autobiography, written in the third person, for Story, a charismatic New York literary weekly. As a magazine that specializes in publishing novels, Story Weekly continued to export many important writers to the American literary world in the twentieth century: Faulkner, Pearl Buck, Mailer, Robert Frost, John Updike, Tennessee ·Williams, Truman Capote, in many issues of the article, the writing of these people stands out.

Salinger’s first article, “Young People,” appeared in the March or April 1940 issue, accompanied by these lines of self-introduction: “J.D. Salinger, twenty-one years old, born in New York, graduated from public elementary school , attended a military academy and three universities, and spent a year in Europe. He was particularly interested in dramatic writing.” Nothing could be more true than this. The longer time passes, the richer his life experience becomes. Never lie, this is his main character.

02 His family situation is very stable and he never lacks his mother’s love.

Salinger was born on January 1, 1919, at the New York Infant Care Hospital, a building at 161 West 61st Street that no longer exists. His father Saul, short for Solomon, was a Jew who was unfamiliar with Hebrew culture. His mother was a Catholic who received religious education from an early age.

In an unpublished letter to his old British friend Donald Hartog, Salinger joked that his birthday coincided with two well-known “historical figures.” On the same day, one was John Edgar Hoover, who sat as the boss of the FBI. This man was a scheming politician who had been in power for nearly 50 years; the other was Kim F. Bill, who successfully planned the project for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and became a double agent working for the Soviet Union. These two were Cold War heroes and loathed figures.

We do not know the exact date when his parents named him. But never the day of official birth registration. The birth registration simply states “Baby Salinger”, number 564. The column for skin color says “white”.

Salinger’s father was thirty-one and a cheese dealer, and his mother was twenty-nine and a housewife. Both were born in the United States and were the descendants of immigrants, something the couple would always have in common, and subsequently their children. Shortly before the marriage, his mother, a Catholic born with the surname Gilic and the sister of Moise and the wife of Joseph, changed her name to Miriam and became a full-time housewife. But what is not known is that her husband Saul once pressured her to convert to Judaism. And since she comes from a Catholic family in Ireland and Scotland, she would never joke about her religious beliefs. For a long time to come, their children would attend neither a Catholic church nor a synagogue, nor would they be strictly religious.

Jerome, later affectionately known as “Sony” (his nickname), had a sister who was five years older than him. His childhood was smooth, he came from a middle-class family, and he never experienced any ups and downs worth mentioning. The standard of living is quite affluent. My father worked for a company called J.S. Hoffman, which was a company engaged in the import and export of Eastern European ham and cheese products. It was headquartered in Chicago and had a very large business. Soon after, he was named general manager of a branch in New York.
Afterwards, the Salinger family moved to Route 3681 in Harlem, the northernmost part of the city, a densely populated and bizarre residential area. The family moved the year their son was born, to an apartment closer to downtown Manhattan and theaters. This unique building is located on the corner of 113th Street, close to the River Ring Road, not far from Columbia University, which is built along the Hudson River and has ocher red brick walls. Little Salinger was cared for by his mother.

This little boy likes to play marbles. He still maintains his hobby when he grows up and is not interested in fighting. Since elementary school, Sony has shown strong listening and learning abilities, and has never become frustrated because of homework. An intelligence assessment showed he had a slightly above-average IQ of 104.

However, his academic performance was not good, especially in mathematics. He couldn’t understand the textbook and was defeated by algebraic equations. His average score didn’t drop to zero, but it wasn’t much better. The teacher thinks that based on his level of intelligence, his current score is really average. You must know that his family situation is very stable and he never lacks his mother’s care.

Salinger’s mother was so close to him that her sister Doris would feel uncomfortable. She felt excluded, and this inseparable mother-son relationship was almost exclusive. Margaret Salinger, the writer’s daughter, once said that she once talked with Aunt Doris about her son’s education. Doris, who works at Bloomingdale’s, a large New York City store, has this to say about the issue: “Don’t let your children be the center of your life. It does no good at all. That’s how a mother lives her whole life for her children. .” Later his mother realized that “maybe Sony could be as successful as the others.” Salinger’s sister added: “It was always Sonny and Mom and Mom and Sonny. Dad never had a role. He was never well understood.”

Until his mother’s death, Salinger lived in his mother’s care, and Sony was always surrounded by maternal love in his childhood. This would also explain the dedication in “The Catcher in the Rye”: “To my mother.”

However, his father paid close attention to his son’s studies. He was sent to summer camp at the end of the school year, along with many other boys his age from well-to-do families. In the summer of 1930, Salinger, who was eleven years old, followed the summer camp to the Harrison Thatched Cottage in Maine and breathed the countryside air. He was a good tennis player and “very social” – this was how he was described by those who witnessed his playing, including later in the army.

While working on a show, he discovered his interest in theater. He signed up to join the comedy troupe, performed surprisingly well, and won the title of “Most Popular Actor”, which brought honor to his parents. Seeing new stars emerging in the theater world made him love the art even more, and he felt motivated from the bottom of his heart. For a while, he even wanted to make a living from theater in the future.

03 A child who is loved, not doted on

When we divide his youth, we will find that Salinger’s character at that time belonged to a child who was loved rather than doted on. This character still left some mark on him well into his adulthood.

Writer William Maxwell, who had been familiar with Salinger since the 1950s, had published short stories in The New Yorker, and when “The Catcher in the Rye” was released in the United States in 1951, the book club pamphlet of the month There was an article written by Maxwell on Salinger. The entire article praises Salinger’s talent. He can “write like Flaubert”, “has endless physical strength, endless patience, and endless new ideas for writing.” Maxwell wrote that he grew up in the city. Children, or they come from a wealthy family and have no worries about food and clothing.

To prove the point, he said that Salinger’s Christmas toys all came from Macy’s and Kimbell’s, department stores that symbolized the high quality of New York’s business community. The same conclusion comes from the location of Salinger’s parents’ apartment where he lived for a long time. Park Avenue was the most fashionable residential area at the time, and people living there would take a taxi to Grand Central Station to start their vacation trip. “As a child, Salinger,” Maxwell writes, “played around landmarks that were instantly recognizable to out-of-towners but whose names he never knew. He rode his bicycle in Central Park and Fell into the lake across the park.”

This may be said a bit teasingly, as if it is mocking those who want to gain respect. But William Maxwell once explained in mild terms that this is just the difference between “coming to the city as an adult” and “being born in the city”, “because having a childhood growing up in New York is still a very unique thing.” experience”.

In the fall of 1932, Salinger entered McBurney School, a private boys’ school located at 5 63rd Street between Broadway and Central Park, specializing in Italian architecture. Next door is the Natural History Museum, which he likes to go to, and the park’s lawn is lined with green trees. As a child, he loved running around the American Indian Civilizations exhibit. Years later, he remembered the sound of a glass marble dropped from his pocket bouncing off the marble floor of the museum.

Salinger entered McBurney School on September 26, when he was thirteen. Robert Ross McBurney, the first general secretary of the Young Men’s Christian Association in the 19th century, established Christian school rules, which were reflected in the school’s curriculum. The school is built in the neo-Lombardy architectural style, with red brick walls and a platform with a gear structure on the front. In this school, the knowledge learned and the rules followed have corresponding strict regulations, and all activities must follow the rules engraved on the The inscription on the stone: “Spirit, Memory, Body” always looks so dazzling from outside the school.

Inside the school, the first thing that catches the eye is the noble British-style teaching building, which is inlaid with square bricks made of glazed soil from Siena, as well as colored round stones, green, ocher, and brick red. , with painted Renaissance-style beams and a tall black marble chimney. Not to mention that Kingsley chapel. In Salinger’s day, children entered the school through Gate 7 on the street and entered class through columns decorated with sculptures of animals and penitents. By the 1980s, the school’s motto had become “Think Thinking,” and as land prices soared, the building was converted into apartments, making the return even more lucrative for Young Men’s Christian Association.

During his two years at McBurnie, Salinger still fell far behind. His mediocre results can only keep him in the middle of the pack. However, extracurricular activities are areas where he is good at and performs well: whether it is editing the school newspaper or fancy fencing, he excels.

At the same time, he is still firmly grasped by the magic of drama, and he is not afraid of playing negative roles. He has played female characters in two shows. In the play “Mary’s Ankles” he played Mrs. Burns, and in “Jonesy” he played the role of the mother. Teachers praised him for “excellent performance in dramatic arts” and “good eloquence”.

But in other ways, Salinger had a hard time. His scores were getting worse year by year; his English score dropped from 80 to 72, and Latin also plummeted. He ranked 15th out of 18 people in his algebra class. The teacher’s comment to him was that he “could have done better.” Biology took fifth place among the twelve students in the class. Based on the school’s overall measures, his grades were substandard. Even though he took tutoring classes at Manhast School during the summer, he was eventually expelled.

His father, who had been paying attention to his grades, was very annoyed. In June 1934, the school still issued a verdict: Salinger, since he failed the exam, was expected to transfer to another school. He was obviously very talented, and his teachers took the initiative to give him the green light, but they unfortunately found that the word “hard work” was too unfamiliar to Salinger. Sometimes he also gets praise from his teachers. Considering his character, when one looks at his academic credentials, one finds that he was “suffering from adolescence” during his last year at school.

That’s when his parents told him and his sister that their mother’s real name was Mary, not Miriam. Although she was born and raised in a strictly Catholic family, after her marriage she was asked to convert to Judaism. This was most likely due to the father’s wish that his wife would practice his religion. Salinger’s grandfather, Simon, a doctor and a Jewish preacher at a church in Louisville, Kentucky, wanted the couple to share the same faith.

04 “A character who is a bit out of touch with the masses”

In January 1933, the young Salinger’s situation took a turn for the worse. That day was the day Hitler occupied Germany. It was also his fourteenth birthday and the day he completed his Jewish bar mitzvah. The secret of his parents’ faith would trouble him for a long time to come. After becoming a writer, in a manuscript describing his self-perception, he emphasized that the characters he created were “half-Jewish”. “Because it’s what he’s more familiar with,” his daughter said her father once admitted to her.

To his father, Sony’s mediocre results were unimportant. If there is any expectation, it is that he hopes to switch to business. He hoped to forcefully change his son’s mind and leave this wrong path. One place that seemed perfect for him to take over his son’s life again was Valley Forge Military Academy. This institution was established to educate young people like Salinger. It is located in Wayne, an inconspicuous small city in the rural hinterland of the valley, more than two hours’ drive from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Saul Salinger was called back to New York for business reasons. He asked his wife to help Salinger fill out the registration form on the spot. This doesn’t happen often because he doesn’t delegate his power easily. Looking at the signature on the admission document saved in the school archives, it seems that this is Salinger’s “only parent”, and the main place of residence is: “1133 Park Avenue,” New York. In the column of religious beliefs, there is only one item: Judaism. This is the religion of his father.

Enrollment was scheduled for September 22, 1934. Two days before that, Salinger’s father wrote to the army chaplain Major Valdemar Ivan Rutan. The handwritten letter included a check for $50 to pay for the registration fee. In the letter he assured that everything was arranged and that Jerome would be at Valley Forge on Saturday morning.

Dear Major Rutan, if I have done anything inappropriate, please call or send me a telegram at my expense.
If I’ve missed anything or you need more information, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Thank you also for the cordial reception you received last Tuesday when Mrs. Salinger and my son and daughter visited you, who, I may add, expressed on their return that they were deeply impressed by your charms.
To ensure that his son would get on the right track, the overbearing and worried parent concluded: I have no doubt that Jerome will get on the right track, and I can assure you that he will study hard.

Salinger put on a blue-gray school uniform, buttoned all the way to the collar, and his hair was shaved into a square shape. His big contrasting ears were exposed, and his forehead became more conspicuous. Salinger had a funny head in the Fall 1934 enrollment photo at Valley Forge Military School. His state is closer to abandonment than rebellion.

He is still a child. Student number 234, studying in the lower grades, he needs to remember the school motto and internal rules. This is the only way to shape himself into a disciplined warrior and learn the introductory knowledge of defending his home and country, so he showed great enthusiasm for learning. There is another rule that has not been written into the school regulations, which is to improve the physical fitness, eliminate the old habits of these recruits, eliminate their comfort, eliminate their little quirks, and eliminate their “personality”, the Navy will remove them Shaped into a “new man” in order to live up to Valley Forge’s school motto: “Courage, Honor, Conquest.”
Look right, look left, look right, look left, everyone moves together! The first training was to walk forward, head straight, eyes fixed on the horizon, under the nose of a senior officer, such as Lieutenant Stern. Salinger was assigned to Infantry Company “B” where he learned to use the American Springfield rifle. Study in the morning, physical training or training in the afternoon… After doing this, go to the military canteen to have dinner on time. Once or twice a week, the army conducts a review, similar to a military parade. The company commander served in the religious office of St. Cornelius’s Church, which gave him visibility in front of his commanding officer.
The atmosphere in the military is so masculine that it’s hard to think or daydream. Strictly abiding by the military camp schedule every day, Salinger woke up to the sound of the military bugle at 6 a.m. as usual, making his bed, washing, shaving, and tidying up his appearance. His shoes were polished and the buttons of his military uniform were polished until they shined. The room must also be kept impeccably clean and tidy. Lights out at night is 10 o’clock.

Occasionally, he would intentionally break the rules and sneak over the wall onto the road to the St. Davids Country Club with his friend, Sergeant Alton P. McCloskey, to have a beer at the Four Corners Bar on the corner. This is his way of breaking the mold. Students rarely have any private time to themselves, and holidays become something to look forward to as they get a break from their uniforms.

At Valley Forge, as at his previous school, Salinger was rated as sociable, but not in the personality-less kind. If I had to use an accurate word to describe him, it would be a character who is a bit out of touch with the masses. It was not his nature to be gregarious, and his behavior was tinged with contempt for his fellow officers. There are exceptions, and he has a trusted circle of friends. In this circle, his English teacher would invite him and his wife to have afternoon tea from time to time.

This military school has its own routine. Every year, the school publishes a weekly magazine called “Crusader”. This publication is luxuriously decorated and has a variety of contents. The purpose is to commend the high-quality students in the school and the good people and deeds in the school. Salinger is the weekly’s literary editor. Those students with the best conduct will be introduced and published, and their photos, good moral character, and good habits will be written down as outstanding deeds.

When we look for clues about his years, we find that the information is extremely limited. The 1935-36 book shows that he achieved the rank of corporal and participated in a variety of activities – from indoor athletics to choir, from aeronautics to French lessons. He was also a member of the Masks and Spurs Theatre, and devoted considerable attention to theater productions on campus, especially those by Dorothy Parker and Percival Wilde.

It doesn’t seem like a perfect “military” resume, and he was also interim literary editor of Valley Forge Weekly; a job he did successfully but not mentioned. As Salinger became the writer we know him as, his former classmates spoke of his intense interest in literature and drama, often writing under his pillow after lights out. This undoubtedly adds to the mystique of this precocious writer.

In this environment where the mind and body are dominated by masculinity, the appearance of a woman, even just a brief appearance, is enough to turn into an event. One day, Salinger’s mother came to visit him. After a long time, the classmates saw her again. “I remember meeting her in school,” said Corporal Richard P. Gund. “This woman was very charming, very elegant, very striking, and she loved her son, who looked like he was Her one and only.” Jerome was more than happy to read aloud from letters he sent to others in which he described life in Valley Forge. But where did these letters go in the end, leaving only endless confusion.

Sergeant Guy Woodward added: “Mother Salinger was an unforgettable memory for us. She was beautiful, distinguished and dressed in an unusual way. This was a woman you simply couldn’t ignore.” Here’s what he said next, This is proof for those who previously suspected that his mother doted on her son. “As far as I remember,” the sergeant added, “she came in a big luxury car, a fancy car, to deliver cookies to him. His family looked very wealthy.”

In school, students wearing military uniforms can barely tell the difference. In this connected building, everyone is stationed in the military camp. The dormitories are lined up in a row, and you have to pass through a long corridor to get from one end to the other. The corridors are illuminated by lights, which adds to the strict atmosphere. The students live in small, cramped rooms.

Salinger shared a room for a long time with a man named Alfred Sanelli, about whom little is known. The bed frame is made of iron and shaped like an organizer. The same food is distributed to everyone in the cafeteria. Even in such a serious school environment and living conditions, the two years of low-level military life did not seem to affect Salinger’s state of mind. This can be seen from the lyrics he wrote before graduating from school in June 1936. “Don’t Hide Your Tears” later became the college’s school song, and year after year, students sang it with a hint of pride as they completed their studies. The lyrics express the emotions in my heart:

On this last day, don’t hide your tears

Your sadness is not a shame:

From now on, you can no longer line up in gray military uniforms.

I can no longer continue this game…

Later there are:

Torches flicker, bugles blow

We will keep the military regulations in mind

Young people smile at the present:

We will set off with regrets.

We said goodbye to each other, we still have a road ahead

Go chase success.

we’re leaving valley forge

Let us remember this place one last time…

The nostalgia in the lyrics reflects Salinger’s state of mind at the time, and only he can tell. Since he has never been an eloquent person, this lyrics more or less expresses his true review of this memory. On the other hand, this experience in school also left a mark on him.

When writing “The Catcher in the Rye”, I wrote about Pencey Preparatory School based on my own experience, which is the school where the protagonist of the novel, Holden Caulfield, attends. The difference is that the school atmosphere depicted in the novel is more gloomy and depressing than what is sung in the song. Is he distorting reality when he writes like this, or is he expressing the secret pain in his heart? The truth is probably a mixture of both.

Salinger took off his uniform at Valley Forge in June 1936. He returned to his apartment on the southeast corner of 91 East New York Street and 1133 Park Avenue. It is possible that he had several arguments with his father at that time, and the father just wanted his son to roll up his sleeves and get into real life. International food trade seems to be the easiest field for him to survive and can provide him with a guaranteed future. This is undoubtedly the ideal ending envisaged by his father. That’s what getting a good education is for. His father believed this.
The son was restless, as Margaret Salinger would later experience. “I was still young at the time and knew nothing about family-based businesses. My father showed a lack of ability in this matter,” the writer’s daughter confirmed. Jerome eventually agreed to his father’s idea, and that fall he enrolled at New York University. No one knows whether he actually studied there, and no trace of his academic records remains.

However, Salinger was undergoing a process of self-discovery, as he wrote in his correspondence. He witnessed himself becoming a columnist that attracted the attention of The New Yorker and becoming a “Superman” in terms of intelligence tests; but at that time, he had not written anything, and everything needed to be proved by subsequent events. He wanted to try theater. Giving exaggerated performances, he is not afraid to face the audience directly, but all his experiences make him a respectable amateur player. He visited theaters in search of a job – even if it wasn’t in his favorite comedy – but unfortunately, no theater offered him a job.

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