J.D. Salinger: How To Spawn A Monster
by Manuel Vicent (translated by Louis S. Bedrock), September 6, 2017
Not all writers are lucky enough for a murderer to be reading his best novel at the moment of his arrest, just after he has committed a historic crime. What’s more, it’s necessary to be a privileged author, blessed by the gods, in order for that famous murderer, Mark David Chapman — who fired five bullets point blank into the back of John Lennon after asking him for an autograph in the hallway of the Dakota apartment building in New York City on December 8, 1980, once the cylinder of the .38 Special revolver had been emptied, to sit quietly on the curb next to the sidewalk to read Catcher in the Rye and wait for the police to arrive.
In his defense, he confessed that he had done nothing more than calibrate his life with the life of Holden Caulfield, the hero of the novel.
—This is my confession —he exclaimed, exhibiting the book as he was handcuffed.
Sales of J.D. Salinger’s novel, already in the millions, took off once again. A new wave of readers launched a massive assault on bookstores when they learned that the story had sufficient power to provoke the erasure of John Lennon from the map. Lennon had been the hero of a rebellion in which several generations of young people recognized themselves.
By then, J.D. Salinger had made his escape; anonymity is one of the works of art that permanently consecrates an artist. Salinger lived as a refugee on a Cornish farm and to find him was a mission as difficult as finding a monkey on Mars — if the explorer was a journalist, biographer, literary critic, or biographer; but not if she were a young female admirer or a young woman on a scholarship inclined to spend some time in his arms.
Mark David Chapman had murdered Lennon seeking fame; J.D. Salinger didn’t want fame and had made himself invisible.
The writer Salinger, the murderer Chapman, and even the murder victim John Lennon had something in common with Holden Caulfield, the hero of The Catcher in the Rye, a young man from a good family who moved around like a loose screw in the machinery of the New York society of that era, when people felt happy among the abundance of raspberry tarts brought about by the victory in World War II.
All four of them, Salinger, Chapman, Lennon, and Holden, had been sarcastic, rebellious, non-conformist, badly adapted adolescents and had displayed an irreverent nonchalance toward adults, be they parents, teachers, or simply preachers of the morality of consumerism.
All four were expelled from high school. All four hated rituals, customs, and the expressions of the dominant order; for them, everyone else was an idiot, an attitude that some cases ends with the disappearance of acne and becoming respectable adults, and in other cases incites them to write, or play the guitar until they become artists, and still others to order a revolver through the mail and use it against the hero of their dreams.
All four had passed through the YMCA, the religious organization for young people. There, Mark David Chapman was put in charge of caring for children, a responsibility that he carried out perfectly, earning him the nickname “Nemo”. Holden Caulfield showed the same concern for keeping an eye on children as they played among the rye near the end of Salinger’s story.
At the YMCA, a friend of Chapman’s lent him a copy of Salinger’s novel to read and the future murderer decided to arrange his life according to the life of the protagonist while he was living in Chicago and playing the guitar in churches and in Christian nightclubs.
Salinger was born in New York on the first of January in 1919.
He was the son of a Jewish man named Salomon, who was the son of a Rabbi. Salomon, according to malicious gossip, had grown rich by importing hams. Actually, Salomon Salinger was an honorable importer of meats and cheeses from Europe. The Hoffman Company, for which he worked, became embroiled in a scandal when it was accused of putting bogus holes in cheeses, but Salomon emerged unscathed from that disaster and wound up living in a luxurious apartment on Park Avenue among New York City’s upper middle class.
It was there that the young Jerome David Salinger began to sharpen his writing skills. After being expelled from the McBurney School, he was admitted as a cadet to The Military Academy of Valley Forge, where he started to compose short stories under the bedsheets in a notebook illuminated by a flashlight. He sent these stories to glossy magazines for many years without success.
Later, he was admitted to New York University where he continued to write and seduced young women whom he would later ridicule. He was a supple, rich, intelligent, snobbish, and sarcastic young man. He would behave like the hero of his novel—a Holden Caulfield wrapped in the black Chesterfield coat that was the envy of his classmates.
The girls went crazy over him while he single-mindedly struggled to become famous; but there was one who remained elusive: Oona O’Neill, the daughter of the famous playwright, to whom he wrote a thousand love letters until Charlie Chaplin, 40 years older than her, snatched her away and had six children with her.
Salinger’s case is symptomatic. No aspiring writer worked harder to make himself known while seeking success; no one worked harder to get his stories published in magazines that had made other writers famous — writers in whose image Salinger saw himself: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Capote.
And at the same time, no one was more fastidious and fought more excruciating battles with the directors of the media—The Story, The Saturday Evening Post, Bazaar, and above all, The New Yorker. No one else sought fame with such determination and later, feeling overwhelmed by it, sought refuge from it underground as if it were a perverse bombardment from a war that had been won.
Before this turmoil, Salinger had traveled to Europe during a period in which he considered becoming a merchant of cheeses. Then he enlisted during World War II. He participated in the landing at Normandy and at the same time was busy converting his own character and experiences into the fictitious character he would make famous. He published The Catcher in the Rye in 1951, a paradigm of youthful restlessness; four years later, the monster that the book engendered was born.
By that time, Salinger had already fled the world and plunged into a hole. He had become a disciple of Jesus, Gotama, Lao-Tse, and Shankaracharya, until his anonymity made him a legend—a withdrawal that did not impede his savoring the secrets of younger and younger women.
Chapman was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1955 at the same time that Holden Caulfield was beginning to sweep through all the bookstores. His father was a sergeant in the United States Air Force; his mother, Katheryn Elizabeth Pease, was a nurse. Chapman said that he was afraid of his father when he was a child.
On the morning of December 8, 1980, Chapman walked out of the Hotel Sheraton where he was staying, left his documentation in his room to make the work of the police easier, and headed toward a bookstore on Fifth Avenue. There, he bought Salinger’s book, and beneath the title, he signed his name next to the name of the author.
During the morning of the crime, the murderer had visited the lake in Central park, which was frozen over, and had asked where the ducks had gone—just as Holden Caulfield had done. His crime was nothing more than a part of his attempt to stage scenes from The Catcher in the Rye.
He was sentenced to prison for twenty years to life. He continues to be incarcerated in the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York after having been denied parole on six occasions. The monster in prison; the writer of fiction condemned by fame to live underground. This has been their story.