“I almost always write about very young people,” J.D. Salinger said in 1946, and today this giant of midcentury fiction is being remembered as a chronicler of his time and, especially, of a time of life. But he was also a poet of place. Nearly all of Salinger’s troubled, brilliant young people—Holden and Phoebe, Seymour and Buddy, Franny and Zooey—are Manhattanites, and their stories are distinctly New York stories, set against a backdrop of bustling avenues and classic sixes on either side of Central Park, and narrated in an ironic, neurotic, contrarian voice whose provenance is unmistakable.
In Time magazine’s 1961 article Sonny, An Introduction, John Skow gave the following account of J.D. Salinger’s meeting with Ernest Hemingway during the Second World War: “In France, Staff Sergeant Salinger had an audience with War Correspondent Ernest Hemingway, who read Salinger’s work and, possibly in appreciation of it (‘Jesus, he has a hell of a talent’), took out his Luger and shot the head off a chicken.”
In the years that followed, almost every Salinger critic has reported some version of this story. But as the half-century anniversary of the infamous chicken myth draws near, it is time, at last, to set the record straight.
Unfortunately, the myth has led scholars to ignore the fact that meeting Hemingway during the war is the most overlooked event in Salinger’s formation as a writer. Considering the meeting involves two of the most influential writers of the 20th century, the oversight is difficult to comprehend. Salinger died in January at age 91; Hemingway, who died in 1961, was born 111 years ago last week (July 21).
By all accounts, Salinger first met Hemingway at the Hotel Ritz after the liberation of Paris in 1944. In a letter dated a couple of weeks later, on Sept. 4, 1944, Salinger tells his editor, Whit Burnett of Story Magazine, that he met Hemingway and found him soft in comparison to the hard, tough demeanour of his prose. Salinger also says Hemingway was generous, friendly and unimpressed by his own reputation.
“When J.D. Salinger’s “Hapworth 16, 1924”—a very long and very strange story in the form of a letter from camp written by Seymour Glass when he was seven—appeared in The New Yorker in June 1965, it was greeted with unhappy, even embarrassed silence. It seemed to confirm the growing critical consensus that Salinger was going to hell in a handbasket. By the late Fifties, when the stories “Franny” and “Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters” were coming out in the magazine, Salinger was no longer the universally beloved author of The Catcher in the Rye; he was now the seriously annoying creator of the Glass family.”