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A Life

A-J. D. SalingerKenneth Slawenski tries to uncover who the reclusive J. D. Salinger really was and how the events of his life informed his fiction. This is his first book.

The Topic: When J. D. Salinger died in 2010 at the age of 91, he left behind many more questions than answers--about his fiction, of course, but particularly about the closely guarded details of his later life. After seeing heated combat in World War II as a young man, Salinger returned to the United States determined to make his name as a writer (he had already had some success with his short fiction and later became a legend at the New Yorker). When he published The Catcher in the Rye in 1951 while in his early 30s, Salinger's reputation was made. Half a century of his life remains sketchy, though, obscured by litigation meant to keep his private life private and hidden behind the doors of his Cornish, New Hampshire, compound. Kenneth Slawenski spent eight years researching an unauthorized biography of the author. But did he uncover the real Salinger?
Random House. 450 pages. $27. ISBN: 9781400069514

Seattle Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The best Salinger biography to date. ... J.D. Salinger: A Life discloses much, but it also makes us want to track down and reread the work whose creation is magnificently detailed in these pages." Charles R. Cross

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"As something of an amateur author (this is his first book), Mr. Slawenski is also deserving of Salinger's gratitude, for his biography is remarkably good, though the notoriously reclusive and promotion-shy author would never have felt gratitude for anything smacking of publicity. ... What chiefly makes the book valuable is its admiring, at times affectionate, understanding of Salinger as a person and its rigorous interpretation of his fiction as noteworthy art." Roger K. Miller

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Kenneth Slawenski's insightful and sympathetic biography, J.D. Salinger, convincingly shows that Salinger felt he had sinned by polluting his early work with worldly ambition. ... And it is unlikely that any author will do a better job than Mr. Slawenski capturing the glory of Salinger's life--that for all his meanness and pettiness, he never relinquished the sacred duty he felt called upon to perform." Carl Rollyson

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Though drawn with sympathy and respect, the Salinger unveiled here is an object lesson to writers and artists against committing to a personal vision beyond the point of diminishing returns. ... Unless and until Salinger's private papers are made available, Slawenski's book should serve as the standard account of his curious life." Ariel Gonzalez

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"One puts up with Slawenski's prose as a literary critic if one is sufficiently interested in Salinger's life. In telling it, the biographer does a much better job, taking us through relatively familiar territory but in fuller detail." William H. Pritchard

Oregonian 3 of 5 Stars
"The product of an exhaustive search for primary sources, which, unfortunately, remain in short supply, the biography provides fascinating details about Salinger's life. ... Slawenski is less successful in illuminating Salinger's fiction." Glenn C. Altschuler and Patrick M. Burns

St. Petersburg Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Slawenski goes astray when he summarizes and interprets most of Salinger's works. ... [The author] may draw too bluntly as a critic, but he does much better as a biographer, sketching a portrait of Salinger that is far from complete but that throws some light upon a mysterious and extraordinary life." Colette Bancroft

Chicago Sun-Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Slawenski, who maintains a website slavishly devoted to Salinger (, can't be said to offer many new revelations here, but he's greatly fleshed out and pinned down an elusive story with precision and grace. ... He can be faulted for excess when he relies on pages of plot summaries." John Barron

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The book is particularly thin on the years after Salinger ceased to publish, although to be fair again, how much is there to say? For that, I suppose, we'll have to wait for the opening of Salinger's own archive--or to content ourselves with the enigma of not knowing, as the author appears to have intended all along." David L. Ulin

Critical Summary

Kenneth Slawenski does yeoman's work on the biographical details of Salinger's life, poring over every existing detail and writing with surprising equanimity for someone so clearly a fan of the author and his work. But his analysis of Salinger's fiction is less successful, and many critics agreed that "too much of the early part of this book is taken up with rather banal rehearsals of the plots and characters of Salinger's uncollected or unpublished stories" (Boston Globe). Until now, Paul Alexander's 1999 biography--a diligent, if frustratingly thin, effort--has been the one substantive portrait of the elusive artist. Until Salinger's estate releases the output from the last half of the author's life, however, J. D. Salinger: A Life will likely stand as the biography of record. Time will tell whether Slawenski's work will open the door on further Salinger scholarship or whether the author will remain--as was his one burning wish--as elusive in death as he was in life.