Kenneth Slawenski has granted few interviews and doesn’t care to do any more. Yet he has been swept from suburban obscurity in recent weeks by the widespread praise of his new biography, J.D. Salinger: A Life. There was a coveted cover notice in The New York Times Book Review, and three days prior Michiko Kakutani pronounced it “earnest, sympathetic and perceptive.”
When The Observer contacted Mr. Slawenski over email, he told us to arrange a sit-down with his Random House publicist. His publicist promptly called to say that Mr. Slawenski didn’t want any more sit-downs arranged.
“He is a little like Salinger in that way,” she said. It is a comparison that has been made by others. Like the short-story writer, Mr. Slawenski eschewed putting his photograph on the book. A three-sentence “About the Author” note on the back flap describes him as the creator of DeadCaulfields.com. “He has been working on this biography for eight years. Slawenski was born in New Jersey and has lived there all his life.”
Mr. Slawenski has avoided most of the trappings of a publicity tour, submitting only to a couple of NPR interviews and a public conversation with a Bookforum editor at a public library in Westport, Conn., where Salinger lived between his New York days and his retreat to New Hampshire. There have been no mentions of the new literary star in the community newspapers around Mr. Slawenski’s Fair Lawn, N.J., home, nor any events there to commemorate publication.
“I don’t want that. That’s the last thing I want. All that would do is bring the Police Benevolence Association to my door for a donation every month,” Mr. Slawenski said, after being persuaded to sit for a phone interview. “I want to be able to go to the store and buy a loaf of bread and not be bothered. They can talk all they want in Chicago, but here, where I live, no.”
Still, the inevitable comparison between publicity-shy biographer and his publicity-shy subject is one that Mr. Slawenski resists.
“I know it’s inevitable that they are going to draw a correlation between me and Salinger, but this isn’t a stunt,” he said. “This is just the way I am.”
Mr. Slawenski discovered Salinger the same way most do, on his high-school syllabus. He wasn’t much of a reader then, but after reading The Catcher in the Rye, he plowed through the rest of Salinger’s meager published oeuvre, a book of short stories and two volumes of paired novellas.
He studied economics at Ramapo College, in New Jersey, and went to work for what he called a major electronics company making flat-screen televisions. The classic Bantam paperback of Catcher sat dormant in his dresser drawer for decades, alongside letters from old girlfriends and other mementos of youth. It wasn’t until he was in his 40s that he picked up Catcher again, unsure if it would stand up to the sensibilities of a middle-aged reader. But it did, and Mr. Slawenski went on a quest to track down the trove of Salinger stories unavailable to general readers: the 22 stories that once saw the light of day in magazines but remained uncollected; and seven stories, two of which Mr. Slawenski “uncovered” himself, that were never published but exist in various archives.
Along the way he found letters that Salinger had written to friends and family and lovers. In 2004, he started DeadCaulfields.com-so named for a series of eight uncollected Caulfield stories, the last of which was a reminiscence of Holden’s brother D.B. He was also stirred to start the site, he said, because “even the blackest of his stories offer a shining hope. While so many of his characters may speak to us from the dead, they hold that hope out to us as an offering.”
When Mr. Slawenski took to publishing his findings online, he avoided the interference of his notoriously litigious hero by never quoting directly from the stories or letters but merely summarizing and only offering his analysis.
“I started this stuff,” said Stephen Foskett, the creator of Salinger.org, the first of many Web sites devoted to the reclusive author. “But I’ve got a real life. I am not a fanatic or anything. He seemed to be taking a lot more scholarly approach.”
Soon DeadCaulfields.com was noticed by Mark Hodkinson, who runs a small publishing house in West Yorkshire, England.
“The Internet is an obvious place to look when you consider the alternatives of trawling through sacks of unsolicited, mostly rubbish manuscripts or going via the usual gate-keepers of literary agents who themselves often plunder the internet for ideas or new writers,” Mr. Hodkinson told The Observer in an email. He convinced Mr. Slawenski to turn his obsession into a book.
“What do I know? I know nothing. He pretty much told me it would write itself,” Mr. Slawenski said. “How could I say no to something like that? I figured he would walk me through it.”
Mr. Slawenski’s eventual approach was to view Salinger’s work through the lens of his biography, and so he lined up the events of Salinger’s life-the love affairs, his brutal combat in World War II, his tussles with editors in New York-alongside what Salinger was working on at the time. He avoided the troubles that befell the earlier Salinger biographer, Ian Hamilton, whose book was heavily redacted after several lawsuits, by refraining from reaching out to the author’s friends and family. J.D. Salinger: A Life respects the author’s privacy. It mostly avoids the sordid details that memoirs by the author’s intimates have exposed. The book instead follows Salinger on a spiritual journey in life and letters that ends with his ceasing to publish at age 45.
Forty-five years old when he started, Mr. Slawenski went in the opposite direction. He worked on his manuscript in the evenings, on weekends and during lunch breaks. His family, he said, thought he was crazy. A young nephew who would visit on the weekends was told to come back in a few years.
“I didn’t realize what I was going through until I was midway through,” he said. “I was like, ‘This is so unlike anything I have done in my life; this is so unlike what people perceive me as doing. What is going on here?’ And the only logical explanation was that this was my midlife crisis. Pretty good. Less expensive than a sports car or a young girlfriend.”
Eventually, Random House picked up the book. It was originally slated to come out last year, but Mr. Slawenski persuaded the publishers to wait until more time had passed to avoid the appearance of capitalizing on the author’s death.
The experience of publishing has given him a glimpse into why Salinger stopped. Unlike writing, a pursuit that allows you to stop for a while if you hit a block, publishing is all a matter of fulfilling other people’s whims, immediately.
“I know exactly where he was coming from. He had a quote that publishing is an embarrassment. It’s like walking down Madison Avenue with your pants down, and that’s exactly what it’s like,” Mr. Slawenski said. “To open up a newspaper and read somebody’s opinion of you-whom you’ve never met-is strange. I didn’t do this to become famous or to become a writer. People are telling me to enjoy it, and I just want it over with. No one seems to understand where I am coming from.”
The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. The Washington Post said that “Slawenski may be the reader Salinger always wanted: He gives his heart to the work.”
Mr. Slawenski speaks wistfully of the dedication Salinger made for one of his books to “the amateur reader still left in the world-or anybody who just reads and runs.” But eight years with his subject is enough. He has taken leave from his job and hopes to write something about politics.
Yet he notes with a twinge of regret that he did not follow his interest in literary history sooner. “Of course I wish I was 30. I would be in good shape if I was 30. Now I can only say, ‘Oh, I’ll give it another go and see if anything comes out of it.’ If I was 30, I would be on the stump screaming my head off to anyone who would listen. I wouldn’t be reticent at all, and I would be absolutely positive that I was destined for greatness.”