A new biography of J. D. Salinger has just been published. Given Salinger’s legendary reclusiveness and his hostility to biographers, that’s a big deal, and the biography (which is admired by some critics and seen more ambivalently by others) appears to provide an illuminating account of Salinger’s early years in New York and the period, after his terrible experience in World War II, when he established the style and the preoccupations for which he became famous.
In some respects, that history makes Salinger a comparable figure to John Hersey.
Although they worked in different genres–Hersey was primarily a journalist, who also wrote fiction; Salinger was solely a fiction writer–both men had begun promising careers before the War. Yet both were writers whose careers and worldviews were profoundly determined by WWII. In Hersey’s case, this is more evident. Before writing Hiroshima he was best known for war reporting, for his novel about the American occupation in Italy, A Bell for Adano and for writing the piece on John F. Kennedy’s heroic survival of the wreck of the PT-109–a story that launched the career of the then largely unknown son of the banking millionaire and former ambassador to Britain Joseph Kennedy. All of this writing, like Hiroshima was essentially concerned with the problem of surviving the horror of the War–which Hersey encountered in many locations especially as a reporter for Life magazine. He witnessed the horrific battle for Guadalcanal as well as the Allied invasion and occupation of Italy.
Salinger’s experience of the war, in which he served as an intelligence officer in an infantry regiment, was horrific and involved some of the worst action on the western front in 1944 and 1945. He was present for the D-Day invasion (during which he waded ashore at Utah Beach with a typewriter in his knapsack), the battle for Cherbourg, the Battle of the Bulge, and, according to this recent biography, the liberation of Dachau. Toward the end of the war, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized.
This experience enters in some direct ways into the fiction that Salinger wrote after the War–most famously in the classic stories “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “For Esme–with Love and Squalor.” But it is probably also at issue in Salinger’s most important work, The Catcher in the Rye, which like those slightly earlier stories is, at least in part, a story about the consequences of a traumatic youthful encounter with death and the effort to survive it.
Both “Bananafish” and “Esme” were published in The New Yorker which Salinger had always viewed as the ideal location for his work. He’d been trying to break into the magazine since 1941 and had met numerous rejections. “Bananfish,” which was accepted in 1947–
the same year three months after Hiroshima was published by the magazine–and published a year later, in January 1948, was his second acceptance to The New Yorker. But it was a struggle getting it approved. (Among the changes Salinger made to his original version of the story at the urging of Fiction Editor William Maxwell was the addition of the opening scene in which the tormented Seymour Glass listens while his annoying new wife talks on the phone with her mother.) “Esme” and a few other pieces which would make their way into his collection Nine Stories soon followed. They were an immediate sensation.
That may have been because Salinger’s stories made use of familiar conventions of the New Yorker-style story of the era, but treated them in a way that seemed strange and a little wild. (The magazine’s editors disliked his earlier work because it seemed to them unrestrained, exaggereted, mannered.) In this way, Salinger–along with contemporaries like John Cheever, Shirley Jackson, and Peter Taylor–significantly opened up the range of the kind of fiction The New Yorker would publish and laid the groundwork for a new kind of postwar American fiction. The Catcher in the Rye would become perhaps the most admired and imitated American novel of the 1950s. In its style, voice, and form, it struck writers and readers of the era as new and disordered in a way that suited the postwar world.
Hersey was not a disorderly writer at all, and his work had nothing like the obvious emotional intensity of Salinger’s fiction. (Salinger became best known for Holden Caulfield’s colloquial and intensely personal first-person narrative. Hersey is all omniscient and reserved third-person.) But, a little like his contemporary Salinger, Hersey was responsible for changing the direction and style of New Yorker writing. Hiroshima, which has been called the most important work of 20th century American journalism, and his other work for the magazine changed people’s ideas about what non-fiction writing could do.
The War was crucial in direct and indirect ways to both these transformations. It also had major consequences for The New Yorker generally. Most immediately, WWII created a crisis for the magazine, as many of its writers and staff were lost to mobilization. With the conflict, in other words, its organizaton and its identity got deeply shaken up.
More generally, the War gave The New Yorker an opportunity to broaden and rethink its mission. The magazine had been created in 1925 as an urbane venue for light humor, and through the Depression it maintained an emphasis on wit and sophistication. During the War, it seized the chance to do serious, long-form reporting on great and serious matters, including the experience of soldiers and civilians affected by war, and it became an important source of information for stateside readers on what was happening in European cities and on battlefields in Europe and Asia.
At the same time, the War vastly expanded The New Yorker‘s circulation. In what turned out to be a brilliant marketing move, as well as an act of good citizenship, the magazine issued a free, abridged “pony” edition to servicemen during the War. After the conflict was over, The New Yorker had established the base of a broad new readership. Its circulation had tripled since the beginning of the war and two-thirds of its readers were now from outside the NYC metropolitan area. Not coincidentally, in the years after the ar, it would significantly broader the range of topics and locations it would cover.
So, in direct and indirect ways, the War deeply shaped the identity of The New Yorker and opened the magazine up to new kinds of reporting and fiction that would turn out to set important postwar trends. Hersey and Salinger were at the center of this development.
It may also be that in some more distinctive ways, Hersey and Salinger had somewhat comparable ways of responding to the conflict. If you’ve read Catcher or Salinger’s short stories, you might consider them in comparison to Hiroshima. Might there be anything in common in the way these two, otherwise quite different writers treat violence, authority, friendship, innocence, religion?