As two of the most influential and well-known authors of the 20th century it is not surprising that F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway would inspire a great many young writers. The surprise is that one of those young writers would go on to achieve a comparable level of importance to his predecessors in the literary world. Fitzgerald and Hemingway both influenced Jerome David Salinger but in very different ways.
Although J.D. Salinger never met F. Scott Fitzgerald he was still greatly inspired by Fitzgerald through his work. In his biography of Salinger In Search of J.D. Salinger, Ian Hamilton states that “the authors he most admired were Sherwood Anderson, Ring Lardner, Scott Fitzgerald: These three had almost classic status in his mind. (53). As he developed as a writer Salinger came to see himself as following in Fitzgerald’s footsteps and perhaps even achieving what Fitzgerald could not. As Hamilton reports:
In 1941 Salinger would have liked to think he was doing what Scott Fitzgerald had to do. Fitzgerald had died a year earlier, and his legendary aspects were fresh in everybody’s mind. Salinger, in his letters, always spoke warmly of him and took heart from the knowledge that it was the Saturday Evening Post that had supported the writing of the Great Gatsby. In later years he would denounce Fitzgerald’s association with the magazine. For the moment though, he believed that he—Fitzgerald’s successor—could perform a balancing act, which the master himself could never master: between the Nathan and the Woodford worlds, between integrity and commerce (64)
Aside from Fitzgerald’s overall influence on Salinger’s vision for the direction his career would take; there is also evidence that Fitzgerald’s writing directly inspired Salinger’s own works. One prominent example of this is the end of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” which bares a striking resemblance to the end of Fitzgerald’s novelette “May Day,” published in 1920. In his hotel room Fitzgerald’s main character Gordon Sterrett took the revolver he bought at a sporting goods store and fired a shot into his own head “just behind the temple” (Fitzgerald 141). Salinger’s main character, Seymour Glass also committed suicide in a hotel room.
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.
“In his influential book on Ernest Hemingway, Phillip Young contends that “there is little in Hemingway-and next to nothing of ultimate importance-that has not its precedents” in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Young bases this claim on parallels that emerge from a comparison of Twain’s boy-hero Huck and Hemingway’s fictional heroes, but especially the prototype-hero Nick Adams as he appears in the story collection In Our Time. After a detailed and convincing presentation of similarities, Young concludes that Huck and Nick are nearly identical persons who are “very nearly twins.” Furthermore, says Young, “the adventures of the generic Nick Adams are the adventures of Huckleberry Finn in our time,’the main difference being only that “at the very point where Twain found his boy too complex, and let him go, Hemingway has exploited his condition, and raised him to complicated manhood.'” (136)