Holden Caulfield, and the pages that held him, had been the author’s constant companion for most of his adult life. Those pages, the first of them written in his mid-20s, just before he shipped off to Europe as an army sergeant, were so precious to Salinger that he carried them on his person throughout the Second World War. Pages of The Catcher in the Rye had stormed the beach at Normandy; they had paraded down the streets of Paris, been present at the deaths of countless soldiers in countless places, and been carried through the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. In bits and pieces they had been re-written, put aside, and re-written again, the nature of the story changing as the author himself was changed. Now, in Connecticut, Salinger placed the final line on the final chapter of the book. It is with Salinger’s experience of the Second World War in mind that we should understand Holden Caulfield’s insight at the Central Park carousel, and the parting words of The Catcher in the Rye: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” All the dead soldiers.
On D-day he had six unpublished Caulfield stories in his possession, stories that would form the spine of The Catcher in the Rye. The experience of war gave his writing a depth and maturity it had lacked; the legacy of that experience is present even in work that is not about war at all. In later life, Salinger frequently mentioned Normandy, but he never spoke of the details—“as if,” his daughter later recalled, “I understood the implications, the unspoken.”
Salinger fought, but he also wrote—wrote constantly, from war’s start to war’s finish. He had begun to write seriously in 1939, as a student at Columbia, under the guidance of a professor, Whit Burnett, who also happened to be the editor of Story magazine, and who became for Salinger a mentor and near father figure. (…) Holden is the first character in whom Salinger embedded himself, and their lives would be joined: whatever happened to Salinger would, in a sense, also happen to Holden. Whit Burnett pushed Salinger repeatedly to place Holden Caulfield into a novel, and he kept prodding him even after he was drafted, in 1942.
On August 25, 1944, the Germans surrendered Paris. (…) Salinger was in Paris for only a few days, but they were the happiest days he would experience during the war. His recollection of them is contained in a letter to Whit Burnett. The high point was a meeting with Ernest Hemingway, who was a war correspondent for Collier’s. There was no question in Salinger’s mind where Hemingway would be found. He jumped into his jeep and made for the Ritz. Hemingway greeted Salinger like an old friend. He claimed to be familiar with his writing, and asked if he had any new stories on him. Salinger managed to locate a copy of The Saturday Evening Post containing “Last Day of the Last Furlough,” which had been published that summer. Hemingway read it and was impressed. The two men talked shop over drinks.