Adam Engel: (in media res) …nobody gives a damn what authors do or do not do, outside “our crowd” of hopelessly romantic lefties…
Gary Corseri: Don’t agree with that! I don’t think we’re “hopelessly romantic lefties” and more and more Americanos are disenchanted with life here, dream of abroad-dom. Authors settling and writing about life abroad and seeing US from aerie of expatriation–could be important to spur others. It’s a venture I am considering myself within the next couple of years.
AE: Speaking of disenchantment with the odd and sundry farcical, though ultimately tragic, excesses of Empire… I just read this biography of Salinger that blew my mind. J. D. Salinger: A Life, by Kenneth Slawenski.
Of all the dozens of “war movies” I’ve seen and books I’ve read (The Crimean, American Civil War; WWI, Spanish Civil War, WWII, Korea, the omnipresent Vietnam, etc.), I have never, ever read anything so harrowing as the three chapters in this book that describe Salinger’s experience from a month before the Normandy landing to his unit being the first Allied force to liberate and enter the concentration camps eleven months later. All he wrote about — published, anyway — was the effects of the War, without ever describing, a la Mailer, battle scenes, for fear such writings be mis-interpreted as glorification of war. Truly incredible, terrifying shit!
GC: I’ve considered him one of our greats since my NYC high-school days when my best public school English teacher—the poet George Bailin–introduced his works to us. Wish he had written more… but what he did write is worth re-reading and re-reading and what author can ask for more?
AE: Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, etc. — nothing comes remotely close to what I’ve read over these chapters covering Salinger’s war experience. This is something Coppola or Kubrick would have sacrificed their own children to put into film — or Mailer would have capitalized on for decades. It’s almost unbelievable. Of about 4000 men in Salinger’s battalion, only himself and 350 others survived.
GC: This war-driven, war-insane Empire needs to keep hearing about, reading about, vomiting over those kinds of experience!
AE: Makes me want to put that Zionazi Americanischer dumbzeit, Spielberg, in Salinger’s place.
GC: He’s definitely one of the schmucks of the Universe!
AE: That opening scene of the corn-ball patriotic Saving Private Ryan, truly captured the nightmare that was the Normandy landing — before Spielberg went back to fantasy-land.
GC: I saw part of that crapola on TV. Somehow, I missed the first (best?) part of it. Tom Hanks is another Mr. Clean who is really covered in shit! I’m anti-celebrities anyway. I think Occupy movements should protest “grand openings,” etc. “World War Z”! Give me a fuckin break!
AE: For Salinger and the 12th Infantry — his division suffered the worst casualties at Normandy, battle of the Bulge, and throughout the war– The Normandy landing was just an appetizer. What followed was four straight weeks of fox-hole-warfare, accompanied by land-mines, artillery, snipers, etc.
They got brief reprieve to shower and change their clothes for the first time in a month, then more hell-fire and damnation to liberate Paris, where Salinger met Hemingway, who was writing dispatches for Collier’s Magazine, publisher of several of Salinger’s early stories. Hemingway recognized Salinger from his photograph. This book paints Hemingway in a different light. He’s actually a decent guy, totally freaked out by what he’s seen; the arrival of a fellow writer and the chance to talk books was as welcome to him as it was to Salinger.
GC: I wrote a very good (and, to be expected!) unproduced screen-play about Hemingway. He is one of my writer-heroes!
AE: After a brief stay in Paris, Sargent Salinger was off to months and months of even worse, if worse can be imagined. Lost in the Hürtgen (or something like that) forest in the thicket of what was called the “Siegfried line” — a section of forest deliberately planted by the Nazi command at the start of the war, with 100-foot tall trees planted a few feet apart so fox-holes could not be dug, air-cover could not find soldiers to cover, and the enemy, like the “notorious” Viet Cong, was always unseen. Stuck there in the worst winter in decades, it was like Stalingrad; many died from frostbite alone. Then a brief reprieve, they thought, until they realized they were surrounded and attacked in what were the first heavy blasts of the Battle of the Bulge…
GC: As a teen, war novels, sci-fi and poetry and drama, Thoreau and Emerson were my favorite reading! I know something of the horrors of the Battle of the Bulge. (btw, one excellent, short novel was A Walk in the Sun — later a movie. There were a few. But, you’re right. Far too much glorification of the whole sordid affair!)
AE: During all this shit, Salinger was writing. Some of his best stuff yet, or ever, according to the biographer, Slawenski, who describes them well (he read them in the Princeton or University of Texas or whatever Salinger collection—as well as his only stories directly about the war and the experiences he’d had. These were never published, nor were they meant to be.).
Get this: Salinger was a non-commissioned officer in Counter-Intelligence! His task was to interrogate Nazis and collaborators among POWs and the civilian population, and to report any “subversive activity” among his fellow soldiers. The artist/soldier Salinger wrote the stories, highly critical of the Army, the War, the Machine-like consumption of soldiers as disposable parts, murder of civilians, etc., then the Intelligence agent Salinger censored/hid them, lest he be forced to arrest himself for subversion
GC: It’s been going on forever, eh? Bradley Manning, Snowden! Nothing new!
AE: They finally reach Germany proper. Salinger has to leave the regular troops to go on Intelligence missions, literally busting into houses, arresting Nazis and collaborators, then interrogating them in French or German, both of which he was fluent in.
Finally, finally, he thinks he’s outta there. Think not! He and other Counter-Intelligence operatives are sent in as “special units” to liberate POWs and interrogate guards, etc. Only these weren’t regular old POW camps, they were concentration camps. The 12th Infantry was the first Allied unit to enter Bergen-Belsen, etc. Many of the soldiers lost their shit then and there, even the Intelligence guys.
He’s then sent off to do more bust-and-interrogate work, but checks himself into a military hospital for “combat fatigue” (nervous breakdown). The last letter he wrote before he went in was to Hemingway, who was not in the fighting, but close enough to report, to his credit, the truth of the Army’s many fuck-ups, like letting thousands die in the forest over a few yards of land, and was on the verge of cracking up himself. Salinger expressed concern over Hemingway’s “state of mind,” which was not good at all – Hemingway was unable to write for years after the experience.
GC: Those experiences — and similar — must have haunted H. to the grave. In the last years of his life, H. was convinced he was being “shadowed” by the CIA, FBI, whatever. H. suspected “Intelligence” was after him because of his anti-war views, etc. Recall that he lived for years in Cuba, was friends with Fidel! (He spent many years abroad, actually, besides Cuba.) Richard Wright was another great American writer who was convinced the US government was out to get him for his sassy, truth-telling, “uppity” (one of our greatest Black writers!) ways! Wright died under mysterious circumstances in Paris. H. lost his powers to write, to concentrate, to think clearly. He thought the government might be poisoning him! (Carlos Baker and A.E. Hotchner have written well about this!) He finally blew his brains out in Idaho. I think he was 62…
AE: One doesn’t have to know an artist’s biography to know his work — it’s all implied offstage in Salinger’s work — but there’s a bit more than the “I don’t want to talk about it” kind of thing my uncles displayed after WWII; he literally could not talk about it — cause he was a spook and might have incurred a boatload of shit upon himself.
But good god! All that bullshit about his “silence” and his “arrogance” in distancing himself from his “adoring public” was exactly that—bullshit! The guy wrote not for the “Baby Boomers” and their children, but for soldiers and victims of the war; hence, his whole “spiritual journey.”
Funny — not really: a year before his death, he had to appear in public, age 90, to prevent someone from publishing a novel with “Holden Caulfield” as its protagonist. Seems his “adoring public” was angry at him for “not letting Holden go” and spectators, and members of the press, made fun of the guy for being almost totally deaf. At age 90. Turns out it wasn’t just age that was to blame: the noise of constant shelling had rendered him significantly deaf by the end of the war…
It’s interesting that while Salinger and Hemingway were literally like a balm to each other’s frazzled nerves during that surreal winter in the Hürtgen forest, apocalyptic beyond words, and they remained bonded through that experience — neither of them being able to write again for several years — Salinger did write to one of his friends that he had to distinguish Hemingway the person, who gave him shelter in his tent, which had a heat generator, after Salinger had spent a week literally sleeping under a low bush in sub-zero weather (most of the losses that month came from frost-bite and exposure) from Hemingway the persona, whom he criticized in his work and letters for glorifying war and “putting emphasis on courage as the ultimate virtue, which I don’t understand, possibly because I have none of it at all” (?!) Salinger wrote to a friend.
GC: Hemingway had problems with that “persona” throughout his life! I recall that he punched some jackass critic in the face because the guy publicly questioned his masculinity—implied that all that macho stuff was H’s way of compensating for not being really “man” enough! (Recall that the hero, Jake, of The Sun Also Rises is rendered impotent because of war injuries after WWI!) There’s a similar theme, btw, in that first-rate movie with Ava Gardner and Humphrey Bogart: The Barefoot Contessa.
I do think Hemingway has been too handily interpreted by some of his more facile, less-thoughtful critics. He did admire courage, but not blind, idiotic, charge-the-machine-gun-nest courage. It was what we might call thoughtful courage, or what he called “grace under fire.” That’s what he admired in bullfighters, soldiers, an old guy battling a monster fish, or an old guy maintaining his dignity in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.
Somehow in war, being a “good soldier” gets tangled with being a “man,” having a big cock, whatever! I’m convinced it’s one of the ways young men and boys “still wet behind the ears” are turned into professional killers! The fear of being thought “unmanly” is worse than the fear of the enemy! That same fear motivates too much of “patriotism.” The root of that word, of course, is pater or “father.” War becomes a test of manhood, a test of one’s ability to “father” the next generation! When will we dead awaken?
AE: The initial reason for Salinger’s not daring to show the battle-scene stories to anyone was that they were hugely critical of the army and the concept of “modern warfare” in general, though sympathetic to his fellow soldiers. One stunning story, at least as the biographer recounts it, called “Ghost in a Foxhole,” entails a soldier suffering “battle fatigue” claiming to see a strange soldier in a “futuristic uniform and helmet” dodging from foxhole to foxhole. The soldier catches up with this “ghost” who explains to him that he is the soldier’s own not-yet-born son.
GS: Wow! There’s that “fathering” theme again!
AE: The soldier resolves to kill his future son, so “this can never happen again.” The scene shifts to a medical unit where medics are working on casualties of a sudden bombardment, and the soldier wanders into the camp, obviously out of his mind. “Did you kill your ‘son?'” asks another soldier, who is himself on the verge of madness. “No, he said he wanted to be here,” came the reply. Typically “explosive” Salinger ending. He literally “called” Vietnam 20 years before the Gulf of Tonkin, when the “unborn son” would have been just the right age to be “called to duty.”
In the book White Collar, C. Wright Mills intuited all this through analysis of the facts at hand: modern techno warfare is not “warfare” in the classic sense of “men using their strength and skills against other men.” It’s an insane slaughter in which the “lower orders” serve as guinea pigs for power’s latest high-tech-whirly-gigs. Total crap-shoot. Achilles is as powerless as Woody Allen. The latter might even have the advantage in that he’s smaller, and might be quicker to duck for cover and fit into some nook behind a tree or rock when a missile comes in to blow all and sundry to smithereens and turn the great shield of Achilles into a mangled lump of scrap-iron about as useless and meaningless as the bent lid of a trash-can.
GC: Pat Tillman is a good example of a modern Achilles who could not make it in modern warfare! The fact that he was done in by “friendly fire” is also telling to me! Word is that he was going to whistle-blow about the shit he saw going on there! “They” got to him the same way they got to Senator Paul Wellstone, etc.!
AE: Salinger personally vowed — through a character in another, published story — never to speak openly of what he’d seen, cause “they’ll” turn it into sentimental, romantic propaganda, “we just have to stop this from ever happening again.” That, and his Counter-Intelligence role, are part of it; the other part is his attempt, after Nine Stories was published, to destroy or have destroyed or made unavailable the 30 some-odd stories he’d published prior to the Nine, even those that had already been anthologized in “Best of the Year” and “Great Modern Story” type anthologies.
All of his work up to Franny and Zooey, including Nine Stories and The Catcher in the Rye, was an attempt to somehow “turn around” the nightmares in his head, or at least make sense of them, particularly “For Esme, With Love and Squalor.” The biographer pointed out something I’d never noticed: Holden’s refusal to let go of his dead brother was so symbolic of his and other soldiers’ refusal to let go of the dead companions left behind and try to “live” again, in some fashion, was betrayed by a “slip of the pen.” The dead brother had appeared in earlier stories under the name of Frank or something, but in the final draft of Catcher in the Rye it becomes “Allie” (Ally)…
E: No one has ever had the control, or the power to control, his own publications before or since, the way Salinger did. It was he himself who came up with the famous maroon-and-yellow cover for the paperback version of The Catcher in the Rye. Ever notice that his are the only books in the classics section, or anywhere, that are still the size and relative low price that all paperbacks used to be when the term, “pocket books” actually meant just that; as did “Everyman’s Library?”
GC: Adam, that’s one of the best reviews of a book I’ve ever read!… and you didn’t even put it in standard review form, use footnotes, annotations, etc. I regret to inform you that the New York Review of Books will never publish your review (nor get within ten yards of it!) I’m sure this news will break your heart!
AE: Well, J. D. Salinger: A Life is an excellent and timely combination of biography and close literary criticism.
GC: Pretty timely review for all the 4th of July hoopla, ey? Nice antidote to all that flag-waving, cockadoodling-do! In this Internet Age, I’d like to see more reviews written this way! Writers can bounce off each other’s ideas; it broadens the conversation!