J.D. Salinger’s War Experiences and Two Stories that they Spurred by Victor Bernabei
J.D Salinger has a war background that is often unstated or understated, and so I am making it the point of this post to explain all I can about J.D. Salinger: war writer. What interested me most about Salinger initially was his articulate musings, and contrarily his unclear strokes of bitterness that indicated a disaffected soul strapped to a typewriter in the hopes of someone to understand him. In his own biographical note in a 1949 copy of Harper’s Salinger wrote “I’ve written biographical notes for a few magazines, and I doubt if I ever said something honest in them,” but he nonetheless lays out what seem to be truths “I was in the Fourth Division during the war. I almost always write about very young people.” (16) These seem incontestable, and so it is fascinating that Salinger makes himself an unreliable narrator, not unlike Holden Caulfield, when introducing himself in Harper’s. Upon reading this I considered how these facts could be untrue. I considered that Salinger, perhaps, while enlisted did not feel he was in the Fourth Division in WWII, which would not surprise anyone as Salinger often wrote about rejection. Salinger biographer James E. Miller even wrote “the war was responsible for, or at least brought to the surface, an alienation from modern existence as to maintain itself at at times in an overpowering spiritual nausea.” (15) He also does not seem to write so much about very young people but mainly adolescents and people in their twenties. Perhaps it is my perspective as someone clinging desperately to adolescence, but Holden Caulfield does not fit my definition of “very young.” Perhaps Salinger meant to tell misleading truths in his own authorial introduction; perhaps Salinger told the truth.
It was during the war that Salinger met famed writer Ernest Hemingway, who said Salinger had “a hell of a talent” and is regularly recognized as one of the more formative moments in Salinger’s career.(McDuffie) Salinger, who proclaimed to write “whenever [he] could find an unoccupied foxhole,” is generally not considered to be a war writer because much of what he wrote did not praise or condemn war as a concept, but often discusses characters affected by the war experience. Holden Caulfield’s older brother D.B. “hated the Army worse than the war,” and related to Holden’s brother Allie that “if he’d had to shot anybody, he wouldn’t’ve known which direction to shoot in.” (Salinger, “Catcher in the Rye,” 140) I also found it interesting that Caulfield describes Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms as a “phony book.” (141) Perhaps this is some inside joke between Salinger and Hemingway, or perhaps it is a jab. When Salinger met the famous author in France the two famously debated over the better of two pistols, and as a demonstration to prove his point, Hemingway shot the head off of a chicken. From my undeniably biased and ignorant position, I would imagine such an act would have seemed barbaric and offputting to Salinger. Nonetheless, Salinger reportedly wrote to his editor that Hemingway was surprisingly humble and generous and very much unlike his public persona. (McDuffie) My interpretation of these events and Salinger’s comments both about Hemingway and the thoughts of Holden Caulfield in Catcher are that the two were friends, but were very different. Hemingway’s status as a so-called “war writer” gave hima tough-guy reputation while being committed to expressing the horrors of war in his writing. Salinger was not committed to the violence and suffering caused by war, but by the mental anguish that his war experience caused. My theory is that Salinger read Hemingway’s works, such as A Farewell to Arms and saw it as a valuable tale about the evils of war and how no one comes out unscathed, and how there are evils lurking on both sides. This is in line with the idea that D.B., Holden’s older brother thought “the Army was practically as full of bastards as the Nazis were.” (Salinger, “Catcher in the Rye,” 141)
The short story “Just Before the War with the Eskimos” once again conjures up Hemingway in order to tell the story. In the narrative, a young girl named Ginnie Mannox presses her tennis partner, Selena Graff, for money because Ginnie feels she is constantly paying the cab fair for the two to go back home. Graff argues that she brings the tennis balls and so the two should be even, but Mannox feels that since Graff’s father is somehow able to get free tennis balls through his work, that it is not a fair trade. The majority of the short story takes place as Mannox waits in Graff’s living room and talks with Graff’s brother Franklin. Franklin, who is in his twenties, was not drafted into the war because of a heart defect, and so has spent the war stateside mostly working in Ohio in an airplane factory as a part of the war effort. Franklin, who is getting ready to meet a friend, demonstrates himself to be bitter because he can’t fight in the war, and feels rejected from his peers who all seem to be fighting overseas. When Franklin’s friend finally arrives, he talks with Mannox briefly, complaining about his roomate who he describes as “‘this writer’” which Salinger writes “he added with satisfaction, probably remembering a favorite anathema from a Hemingway novel.” (Salinger, “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” 51) I struggled with this line initially. I pondered whether this anathema, this “condemnation” or “curse,” (Oxford English Dictionary) was a curse of writing as a practice, perhaps some utterance from one of Hemingway’s books about the trials or flaws in writing as a profession. While the text seems to tease Hemingway, it appears to be an expression of kinship from one writer to another.
Writer, professor, and essayist John Seelye wrote in 1991 about Catcher in the Rye as an anti-war novel sans, war. He actually discusses Salinger as an influence in several of the anti-war novels of the Vietnam-era, explaining “Catcher… supplied not only the rationale for the anti-war, anti-regimentation movements of the sixties and seventies but provided the anti-ideological basis for many of the actual novels about Vietnam” which intrigued me especially because all of the Vietnam-era novels he mentions Salinger influencing (e.g. Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five) are practically anthemic postmodernist works. This adds another level to the Salinger-as-a-pre-postmodernist idea that I have been investigating. Perhaps the psychological trauma Salinger saw in Europe, whether at the hands of the Nazis or at the hands of the jerks in the army, caused him to see the shortcomings of Hemingway’s modernism, and the jabs Salinger seems to make in his writing to the modernist writer are playful expressions of the shortcomings of the modernist method of telling a story. Salinger’s stories, while hard to pin down as explicitly postmodernist in nature, do seem to have subtle rejections of Romantic storytelling. His stories, while strongly rooted in emotion and feeling, just as often delve into apathy or ambivalence which subvert the traditions of Romanticism.
"anathema, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2018,
www.oed.com/view/Entry/7144. Accessed 21 April 2018.
“Just Before the War with the Eskimos.” Nine Stories, by J. D. Salinger, Little, Brown and
McDuffie, Bradley R. “When Hemingway Met Salinger.” Kansascity.com, The Kansas City Star,
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Bantam, 1986.
Seelye, John. “The Catcher in the Rye as an Antiwar Novel.” Readings on The Catcher in the
Rye, edited by Steven Engel, Greenhaven Press, 1998, pp. 27–33.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.