For this reader, the great achievement of Slawenski’s biography is its evocation of the horror of Salinger’s wartime experience. Despite Salinger’s reticence, SlaÂwenski admirably retraces his movements and recreates the savage battles, the grueling marches and frozen bivouacs of Salinger’s war. It’s hard to think of an American writer who had more combat experience. He landed on Utah Beach on D-Day. Slawenski reports that of the 3,080 members of Salinger’s regiment who landed with him on June 6, 1944, only 1,130 survived three weeks later. Then, when the 12th Infantry Regiment tried to take the swampy, labyrinthine HÃ¼rtgen Forest, in what proved to be a huge military blunder, the statistics were even more horrific. After reinforcement, “of the original 3,080 regimental soldiers who went into HÃ¼rtgen, only 563 were left.” Salinger escaped the deadly quagmire of HÃ¼rtgen just in time to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, and shortly thereafter, in 1945, participated in the liberation of Dachau. “You could live a lifetime,” he later told his daughter, “and never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose.”
That July he checked himself into a hospital for treatment of what we would now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder. In a letter to Hemingway, whom he’d met at the Ritz bar shortly after the liberation of Paris, he wrote that he’d been “in an almost constant state of despondency.” He would later allude to that experience in “For EsmÃ© ”” With Love and Squalor.” Readers are left to imagine the horrors between the time that Sergeant X, stationed in Devon, England, meets EsmÃ© and her brother, Charles, two war orphans, and the time that EsmÃ©’s letter reaches him in Bavaria a year later, after he has suffered a nervous breakdown.
Read it all.