Salinger and Hemingway Were Pals, Sort of – Who Knew…?

Salinger and Hemingway got be be friends in Hemingway’s favorite context for male bonding: war. What kinds of friends they were says something about each man….

Ernest Hemingway doing what writers do (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, is currently writing a new book on Hemingway – just what we need, right? But Mills’ focus, Hemingway’s life during the Second World War, has yielded some fascinating information not known to the general public. For instance, Hemingway entered recently liberated Paris in 1944 not in the company of American troops but instead with a group of French partisans.

That’s the sort of thing one expects from the American Byron, of course, but Mills gives us an even more interesting bit of literary history: during that period in 1944 J.D. Salinger, he whose most famous character called Frederic Henry and A Farewell to Arms  “phony,” struck up (cultivated is more likely) a friendship that lasted for at least a few years.

The poster boy for schoolyard style machismo in all things and the ultimate alienated loner punk walk into a bar….

J.D. Salinger (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Evidently, the two got along well. That might sound strange, but Mills notes that the two bonded over their mutual disdain for bullshit. He offers the observation that Frederic Henry’s distaste for war after the collapse of the Italian campaign has some interesting parallels with Holden Caulfield’s distaste for the fruits of that war, an America throwing itself into post WWII gray flannel conformist consumerism. Both of these literary heroes simply want to get away to their dream worlds – Henry, of course, to some idyll in Switzerland with his dream girl Catherine; Holden to a place where he can protect innocents like his sister Phoebe from the machinations of assholes like Stradlater who may have already stolen his dream girl Jane.

We know how it all ends. Frederic Henry walks away in the rain and dark from the hospital where his beloved Catherine and their child lie dead. Holden is writing down his story in a journal he’s been keeping during his commitment to a mental institution. Love, both men remind us, can break your heart and make you crazy. You can’t save anybody, it seems, not even yourself. Life sucks, then you die. Twentieth century American modernist literature in a nutshell.

There’s much more to both A Farewell to Arms and to The Catcher in the Rye than these facile sentiments, to be sure. The former, in its protest against the absurdity of war and the foolishness of those who agree to fight, is one of the great anti-war novels. The latter is one of the best critiques of American cultural shallowness, complacency, and self-satisfaction. Both works are masterfully written; Hemingway’s and Salinger’s styles are so striking and engaging that they have been the inspiration of more bad writing, intentional and unintentional, than any other American authors. Their places in American literature seem secure enough.

All that Hemingway and his globe trotting, high living, death defying lifestyle seemed to suggest – glamour, excitement, courage – proved false in the end. Hemingway shot himself. Salinger, when he heard the news, Mills tells us, shared stories about his friendship with Papa when they were in Paris together during the war.

Salinger succeeded Hemingway, of course, as the “most famous American writer” when Hemingway died. It was, as we all know, a title Salinger neither craved nor wanted – nor accepted, if one takes his self-imposed hermitage as his reaction to the succession. He figuratively – even sort of literally (remember that bunker!) – buried himself in Corinth, New Hampshire and became a ghost long before his death in 2010.

One is reminded of the words another author, a young English poet who died long before he should have. Like him, perhaps what helped Hemingway and Salinger bond were their own premonitions about that terrible, ironic truth  he once offered: “…love and fame to nothingness do sink.”


About Jim Booth

Novelist, college professor, rock musician - are we getting the band back together? Maybe....
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