J. D. Salinger pho­to by Lotte Jaco­bi, used in the first edi­tion of The Catch­er in the Rye

J. D. Salinger, the most reclu­sive writer of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, remains an enig­ma. He retreat­ed to Cor­nish, New Hamp­shire, at thir­ty and spent most of his time in a bunker behind his coun­try house. He stopped pub­lish­ing fic­tion by the time he was forty-five, but may have anoth­er forty-five years of writ­ing — sto­ries, a spy nov­el, mem­oirs, count­less tales of Sey­mour Glass— squir­reled away inside a safe in his bunker when he died in 2010. There have been promis­es that the remains of his oeu­vre would be issued to us at reg­u­lar inter­vals, but so far we haven’t wit­nessed a sin­gle word of this hid­den trea­sure. We know he prac­ticed a kind of Vedan­ta Hin­duism, pop­u­lat­ed with migrat­ing souls like the char­ac­ters in his books. Sup­pos­ed­ly he drank his own urine. He was unkind to his first two wives, and dis­in­her­it­ed his daugh­ter. But what do we real­ly know about him?

His father, Solomon or Sol, was the son of a rab­bi who became a med­ical doc­tor. His moth­er, an Irish Catholic, pre­tend­ed to be Jew­ish to please Sol, and changed her name from Marie to Miri­am. Salinger had an old­er sis­ter, Doris, who would become a fash­ion buy­er at Bloomingdale’s. Son­ny, as Salinger was called, grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, oppo­site the Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, in a pre­dom­i­nant­ly Jew­ish neigh­bor­hood. He attend­ed Camp Wig­wam, a sum­mer play­ground for afflu­ent Jew­ish chil­dren, and was the star of his own lit­tle act­ing troupe at the age of ten. He even went through the rit­u­al of a bar mitz­vah, which I describe in Sergeant Salinger.


The bar mitz­vah was a kind of show­piece, staged for Sol’s par­ents, Simon and Fan­nie Salinger, who had come all the way from Chica­go, where Simon was a med­ical doc­tor with his own pri­vate prac­tice in a neigh­bor­hood of the poor­est Jews in the world on Chicago’s South Side — Simon had financed his med­ical stud­ies by serv­ing as a rab­bi in Louisville, a town of goy­im with its tiny ghet­to. He was a hard man not to notice. His left eye had been torn out of its sock­et in a pogrom. It hap­pened in 1880, while Simon was a mem­ber of the vol­un­teer Jew­ish police in the Lithuan­ian town of Taurage; scuf­fling with the czar’s drunk­en sol­diers out­side the cen­tral syn­a­gogue, he was gouged with a bay­o­net. No one had to pity him. Simon gave much more than he got. He left two of the czar’s louts lying with smashed skulls on the clay road. A rene­gade now, on the czar’s death list, he had to run to Amer­i­ca. But that gouged eye intrigued Son­ny. Simon didn’t cov­er it with a vel­veteen patch. His emp­ty sock­et looked like a sin­is­ter tun­nel with a flap of skin …

Sol had hired an itin­er­ant rab­bi with a Torah in a sil­ver case to please his father and moth­er, but Simon dis­ap­proved of this char­la­tan, and he knew that Son­ny recit­ed from the Torah with­out under­stand­ing a sin­gle line. Yet he loved the boy, felt a kin­ship with him. He could sense that zeal in Sonny’s dark eyes, the boy’s search for God. Grand­pa Simon hadn’t lost his predilec­tion for may­hem. He took the itin­er­ant rab­bi with his Torah and tossed him out of the apart­ment, and then he had a shout­ing war with Sol in one of the back bed­rooms, while Son­ny spied on them, like a secret agent wrapped in a prayer shawl.

Sol had hired an itin­er­ant rab­bi with a Torah in a sil­ver case to please his father and moth­er, but Simon dis­ap­proved of this char­la­tan, and he knew that Son­ny recit­ed from the Torah with­out under­stand­ing a sin­gle line.

You had no right, Pa.”

Fak­er,” Simon cack­led. I had every right in the world. I would break your bones if it weren’t for the boy. You nev­er taught him the Haf­tarah. He doesn’t even know about the Prophets.”

I did teach him — I tried. And I found the best rebbe I could.”

And that’s when Grand­pa Simon dis­cov­ered Son­ny in the crack of the door. He had tears of anger and frus­tra­tion in his eyes. He’d been a bat­tler all his life. But he couldn’t slap Sol’s big ears back in front of Son­ny. He wel­comed the bar mitz­vah boy into the room.

It’s noth­ing,” he said. Pay no atten­tion. I nev­er got along with your father. He loved to swin­dle, and I nev­er could.”

He wiped his eyes with a hand­ker­chief that was as long as a dish tow­el and walked Son­ny out of the room …” [1]


Son­ny saw him­self as a kind of King David, a reli­gious singer with his own lyre. But he soon had a fall from grace. His fam­i­ly uproot­ed itself and moved across town to 1133 Park Avenue a few months after Sonny’s bar mitz­vah. And while they were all hav­ing din­ner at Schrafft’s one evening, Sol, who was the vice pres­i­dent of a com­pa­ny that pro­duced unkosher ham and cheese, announced that the Salingers weren’t Jew­ish, and that Miri­am wasn’t Miri­am at all, but an Irish Catholic from Iowa. It shook Son­ny, who lost his lyre and his reli­gious roots in a sim­ple mat­ter of fact announce­ment at Schrafft’s.

I’m not quite sure Son­ny ever recov­ered. He con­vert­ed to Catholi­cism for a while. He went through the hor­rors of World War II — includ­ingthe land­ing at D‑Day, the lib­er­a­tion of a death camp, act­ing as a mem­ber of the Counter Intel­li­gence Corps, and spend­ing two weeks at a men­tal hos­pi­tal in Nurem­berg after the Nazi war machine col­lapsed. His expe­ri­ences are cap­tured with crisp detail in Salinger’s mas­ter­ful short sto­ry, For Esmé — with Love and Squalor,” where Son­ny appears as Sergeant X, who has suf­fered a com­plete men­tal collapse.

No won­der he became a recluse and sent all his char­ac­ters on odd­ly spir­i­tu­al quests. None can find much peace in this world. All of them, includ­ing Hold­en Caulfield and mem­bers of the mul­ti-tal­ent­ed Glass fam­i­ly, suf­fer from Salinger’s angst;they prac­tice a kind of Upper West Side Bud­dhism, or what the late Steven Mar­cus called Jew­ish Zen.” Salinger’s strengths as a writer come from the con­stant chat­ter he picked up on the streets — he’s a bar mitz­vah boy gone amuck, the poet lau­re­ate of Camp Wig­wam, wound­ed by war.

[1] [Sergeant Salinger, p. 269 – 271] Excerpt­ed from Sergeant Salinger. Copy­right © 2021 by Jerome Charyn. Pub­lished by Belle­vue Lit­er­ary Press: www​.blpress​.org. Reprint­ed by per­mis­sion of the pub­lish­er. All rights reserved.

Jerome Charyn is the author of more than fifty works of fic­tion and non­fic­tion, includ­ing Rav­age & Son; Sergeant Salinger; Cesare: A Nov­el of War-Torn BerlinIn the Shad­ow of King Saul: Essays on Silence and SongJerzy: A Nov­el; and A Loaded Gun: Emi­ly Dick­in­son for the 21st Cen­tu­ry. Among oth­er hon­ors, his work has been longlist­ed for the PEN Award for Biog­ra­phy, short­list­ed for the Phi Beta Kap­pa Chris­t­ian Gauss Award, and select­ed as a final­ist for the Fire­crack­er Award and PEN/​Faulkner Award for Fic­tion. Charyn has also been named a Com­man­der of Arts and Let­ters by the French Min­is­ter of Cul­ture and received a Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship and the Rosen­thal Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion Award for Fic­tion from the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Arts and Let­ters. He lives in New York.