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In April 1942, four months after Pearl Harbor, Salinger was drafted. Eventually he was shipped to England as part of the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps, which was training American soldiers to do things like interrogate suspected Nazi collaborators. He brought with him a little typewriter that he carried across Europe, writing all the time. On D-Day he was part of an infantry regiment that landed on the beach at Normandy. By August, Salinger's regiment had fought its way to Paris and from there pushed on to Germany. In the autumn and winter he would be involved in some of the most horrific campaigns of the war, including the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, a months-long slugfest in freezing, muddy, mine-infested woods.
We don't know much about what happened to Salinger during those campaigns. But Ian Hamilton, his beleaguered biographer beleaguered by Salinger, who successfully sued to keep Hamilton from quoting from his letters believes that not long afterward, Salinger suffered a nervous breakdown. In Hamilton's book In Search of J.D. Salinger he summarizes a letter Salinger wrote in July 1945 to Hemingway, whom Salinger had met the year before in Paris, telling him that he was being treated at a hospital in Nuremberg for a condition that might lead to a psychiatric discharge from the Army. If that's so, then surely it's Salinger himself at the heart of his great, complicated story "For Esme, with Love and Squalor," about an American soldier struggling after a hospitalization of some kind to "keep his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact." In September of that year Salinger did something peculiar, perhaps the act of a man grasping for a stabilizer: He abruptly married a French woman living in Germany. Salinger brought her with him when he returned to the U.S. the following spring, but soon after, for reasons we don't know, she went back to France and dissolved the marriage.
Back in New York, living again with his parents, Salinger returned to writing full-time and finally breached the citadel of the New Yorker. In 1946 the magazine published the Holden Caulfield story it had toyed with earlier. Two years later, Salinger was taken up by the magazine as a regular, publishing three pieces in six months. From then on, he never published anywhere else. And with the exception of two pieces in his 1953 volume Nine Stories, he turned his back on the work he had published elsewhere, never allowing it to be collected or anthologized.
The first of that early trifecta of New Yorker stories was "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," in which we first meet Seymour, the eldest of the Glass children. It's the last day of his life, and he appears in just the final pages, talking with a little girl on a beach in Florida one of the many radiant children in Salinger's work and bringing her out into the ocean in a fond but also slightly dangerous way, and then returning to the hotel room where his new bride, who has been on the phone earlier assuring her mother that Seymour is not crazy, lies sleeping. The last line reads: "Then he went over and sat down on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple."
That brutal finale made Salinger a sensation in literary circles. By that time Salinger, too, was becoming a man who could not abide the world. The producer Darryl Zanuck bought the screen rights to another of Salinger's New Yorker stories, "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut," about a suburban housewife who dissolves into self-pity during an afternoon of drinking with an old school chum. Zanuck had it rewritten as a throbbing melodrama with Susan Hayward that was released under the title My Foolish Heart. The whole thing made Salinger cringe.
He poured his resentment into a tirade against Hollywood that Holden Caulfield delivers in The Catcher in the Rye. A few critics objected to Caulfield's free use of fairly innocuous curse words, but most of the reviews were exultant. Catcher stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for seven months, then developed its enduring afterlife. But Salinger had long since moved on from concerns with adolescent dissatisfaction to an interest in Eastern religion, especially the Gospels of Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th century Hindu mystic. His beliefs started to find their way into his fiction. In his haunting story "Teddy," a college instructor on a transatlantic cruise ship makes the acquaintance of an otherworldly little boy who calmly believes himself to be a reincarnated soul and meets a fate he predicts for himself.
By the time he published that story, in 1953, Salinger had found his own sort of yogi's retreat, the small house in Cornish, N.H. When he first took it on, it had no heat, electricity or running water. But it rested on 90 hillside acres that could insulate him from an outside world he found increasingly trivial, irrelevant and intrusive. For a while he mixed comfortably with his neighbors. But then a couple of teenage girls interviewed him for what he thought would be a story on the high school page of the local paper. When the paper billed it instead as a scoop in its regular pages, Salinger was furious. It was the last interview he ever gave. Not long after, he built a high wall around his house.
It was after his move there that Salinger met his second wife. Claire Douglas was a 19-year-old British-born Radcliffe student. They were married in 1955, but not before Douglas, having already met Salinger, abruptly entered a brief marriage to a graduate of the Harvard Business School, then fled back to Salinger. Salinger poured his feelings about that relationship into a long short story that was published in the New Yorker two weeks before their wedding. "Franny" is about one of the Glass sisters who realizes that she can't abide the jerk she's dating, a smug young Ivy League academic, and flees to the bathroom of a restaurant where they're eating to seek the refuge of an endlessly repeated prayer.