J.D. Salinger: WWII & The New Yorker
Salinger was drafted into World War II in 1942. He served as an interrogator, questioning prisoners of war in both Italian and French. He had a successful and distinguished military career, landing at Utah Beach on D-Day and fighting in the Battle of the Bulge near the end of the war. He also was among the first soldiers to enter the newly-liberated concentration camp at Dachau, Germany, witnessing firsthand the horrors of the Holocaust. Like many soldiers, Salinger was deeply affected by his experiences in combat and was briefly hospitalized after the war for post-traumatic stress. The concentration camps particularly upset him. In her memoir, his daughter Margaret recalled her father telling her, "You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely. No matter how long you live."3 In 1945, Salinger married a German woman named Sylvia, a former Nazi Party member whom he had had arrested during the war. The unlikely marriage lasted for less than two years and they divorced in 1947.
Salinger kept up his writing while in Europe, carting his typewriter around in his Jeep and pounding out stories whenever he had a chance. He wrote to his mentor Burnett, "Am still writing whenever I can find the time and an unoccupied foxhole."4 The Saturday Evening Post and Collier's magazine accepted stories he wrote during that time. He also looked up Ernest Hemingway, who was a war correspondent for Collier's at the time. The two men met and clicked immediately. Hemingway was impressed with the younger man's writing ability, and later remarked, "Jesus, he has a helluva talent."5
When he returned to the States, Salinger continued to submit stories and poems to The New Yorker, and the magazine continued to reject them. An attempt to get a book of his short stories into print failed. Then, in 1948, he submitted a story entitled "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." The story features a character named Seymour Glass, who spends what seems like a pleasant afternoon on the beach playing in the waves with a little girl, and then goes back to his hotel room and shoots himself in the head. The New Yorker loved it, accepting the story and signing him to a contract that gave the magazine first dibs on his future stories. The next year, another of his stories, "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut," was made into a movie entitled My Foolish Heart, which sucked so badly that Salinger never sold film rights for his work again. His literary reputation was on the rise, and it was about to get even bigger.