O.K. so J.D. (Jerome David) Salinger died. Wasn’t he dead already, and he woke up momentarily to remind him of his existence before croaking and becoming entirely his writings?

Actually, he made headlines by filing a copyright infringement suit against another writer for unauthorized use of one of his characters in Catcher In The Rye in June 2009. So yeah, he was still ticking, if not kicking, up there in Cornish, New Hampshire near the end on January 27 of this year, at age 91.

The signal event of Salinger’s life was World War II. Salinger landed ashore on Utah beach, on D-Day, as an infantryman. As every kid knows, at least in my day, Utah was by far the easier slog compared with ghastly Omaha Beach. Still, when was the last time you faced the German army? He continued across France with his infantry regiment and found himself in the Battle of the Bulge, which everyone knows was a tough slog.

Very little is publicly known about Salinger’s wartime experiences. He does not appear to have been wounded or awarded any medals for valor, although he was briefly hospitalized for “combat stress reaction” after Germany surrendered. He famously remarked to his daughter “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live.” He was one of the first American soldiers to enter a liberated concentration camp. Maybe that was the source of the burning flesh, or an event on the battlefield. Speaking personally, the smell of burning flesh at Ground Zero after the attack was quite bad—the sickly sweet smell hit my nose immediately after leaving the subway coming from Brooklyn to my job downtown. But I wouldn’t say it has haunted my nose.

Salinger met Hemingway in Europe, who praised Salinger’s talent and left a favorable impression on the young author. Hemingway was undoubtedly the source of the “phoniness” Holden Caulfield despised in adults. And if memory serves, Salinger briefly left his self-imposed seclusion to attend the funeral of one of his war buddies or commanding officers.

Except for a few war-related short stories, J.D. Salinger was not one of those writers, like Norman Mailer, for example, who used their war experiences to establish fiction writing careers. Rather, like non-veteran writers such as Truman Capote, in The Grass Harp, and Tennessee Williams, in The Glass Menagerie, he developed a protective sensibility, a preciousness perhaps, in characters who avoided harsh reality or were bruised by life, especially in his stories about the Glass family and in The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951. What was Holden Caulfield but a sensitive youth gone AWOL from life? Not exactly a poet, he dreams of the non-profession of being a catcher in the rye, rescuing lost souls.

I read Catcher during my freshman year in college. My freshman literature professor, a hard-bitten chain smoker with who knew what frustrations, was very anti-Catcher, warning me against its adolescent allure. It was a quick read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There was no danger that it would stay me from my ambition of becoming a serious writer, surely a higher calling than swishing around in the grass. Salinger’s other stories didn’t interest me much. Sometimes I imagined meeting Salinger by chance and having a conversation with him.

Salinger lived a full life. He was married twice and had two children and at least one affair. He was represented by a high-powered New York agency and was published in the “New Yorker” after early rejections. Steady royalties from Catcher allowed him to live as he chose, much of it in seclusion. It was a life most writers could only dream about: getting up in the morning when you felt like it, in beautiful surroundings; writing when you felt like it; picking up the phone and calling your adoring agent when you felt like it; and protecting your interests with a battery of lawyers when you felt like it.

Young writers today can scarcely imagine such a life, as they struggle to rise above the background noise of millions of writers blogging and tweeting relentlessly on the Internet, promoting themselves and their writings.

Perhaps fittingly, one finds a single photo of the man, taken by Lotte Jacobi in 1950. The last photo he permitted. He is wearing a herringbone jacket, shirt and tie, smiling enigmatically at the world with his large, sensitive eyes.

However, I have seen another photo, taken by a classmate of his at the time, at the Valley Forge Military Academy. The black and white snapshot was taken by Art Ford, and it shows young Jerome, or Jerry, as he was sometimes known, sitting calmly on the roof of a building, his arms resting on his knees.

Art Ford was a literary consultant I worked with awhile in the 1990s. He was a courtly, Old World gentleman. His small office off Fifth Avenue was crowded with photos of himself with celebrities such as Shirley MacLaine and Marlon Brando, who he had mixed with in younger days. He sent out scripts to assorted contacts. Mostly, he was a friendly ear I could talk to about my literary ambitions. Once he got me into the late Tom O’Horgan’s downtown loft. O’Horgan, best known for directing Hair, was holding a backer’s audition for selected donors for his latest musical. I certainly didn’t have money. I forget what pretense got me through the door. It was a long room, with a grand piano and serious books. The wall was covered with primitive musical instruments, theatrical posters and dinosaur bones.

J.D. Salinger was a man of modest talents, in my view, who struck gold with a once-in-a-generation novel, that both liberated and imprisoned him. He took up yoga, homeopathy, fasting, among other health or religious disciplines, which might have prolonged his life. He didn’t really die. Writers never really die. Like an old soldier, he just faded away.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

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