In 1941, the American author JD Salinger submitted a number of his early short stories to the New Yorker magazine. Despite having had some success writing for similar publications, including Story and Collier’s magazine, the New Yorker proved a tougher publication to crack, and the magazine initially turned many of Salinger’s stories down. Finally, however, in December 1941, the editors agreed to publish a story he had written entitled Slight Rebellion off Madison, a tale about a disaffected teenager in Manhattan named Holden Caulfield, dealing with the events of his adolescence, and set in the run-up to World War II.
Acceptance by one of America’s foremost and widely-read magazines proved a huge boost of confidence for Salinger’s burgeoning writing career, and it’s fair to say he was overjoyed. But only a few weeks later, Japan attacked the US military post at Pearl Harbor, and the United States was drawn into World War II. The wartime context of Salinger’s story suddenly now proved problematic, and the New Yorker had little option but to pull it from their next publication.
Understandably, Salinger was devastated, but he also had little time to recover his thoughts, and resubmit his work. Just a few months later, the 23-year-old was drafted into the US Army and arrived in Europe in the spring of 1942 as part of the 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division.
In the months (and eventually years) that followed, Salinger was promoted to sergeant and assigned to a counter-intelligence unit known as “The Ritchie Boys” (after the military camp in Maryland where they were trained). The unit utilized Salinger’s ability to speak both French and German, by having him interrogate Nazi prisoners of war and French resistance leaders. And throughout the entire time, Salinger used any free time he could muster to continue writing.
Incredibly, Salinger had arrived in Europe with draft copies of six short stories in his possession, and throughout his military service, he continued to hone and flesh out his writing and his characters as best he could in between bouts of training, duty, and combat. Eventually, he decided to combine multiple elements from all six tales into one single, longer story, and the teenage protagonist of Slight Rebellion off Madison—that original short story the New Yorker had turned down, then ultimately became the central character in his novella.
By the summer of 1944, the war in Europe was accelerating towards its bloody climax. On July 6, Salinger found himself drafted into the first wave of the Normandy Landings, scheduled to land on Utah Beach at 6:30 a.m. Eyewitness accounts claim Salinger’s unit was delayed slightly, however, meaning that he likely landed amid the second wave of troops around 10-15 minutes later. But the delay proved a fortunate one.
Sea currents in the English Channel disrupted the earliest Utah landings, and cast Salinger’s boat almost 2,000 yards further south than planned, down to a quieter, less marshy part of the French coastline, away from the most heavily defended German outposts. An hour after landing, Salinger was marching westwards as part of a military convoy with some fellow troops, aiming to reconnect with other Allied military units further inland. And still, throughout it all, he carried his precious manuscripts with him. The first drafts of The Catcher in the Rye, now one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, had somehow survived the D-Day landings.
Just when this story cannot get any more unusual, two months later, on August 25, 1944, the Germans surrendered control of Paris. Salinger’s counter-intelligence unit was posted to the French capital to root out Nazi collaborators among the residents. Incredibly, this posting allowed for what must surely be one of the most remarkable of chance meetings in literary history.
Salinger had an inkling that the great author and journalist Ernest Hemingway was, at that time, living in Paris as the war correspondent of Collier’s magazine. And he also knew, if the rumor were true, precisely where Mr. Hemmingway would be.
In a brief break in his military service, Salinger hopped in a jeep and drove to the Ritz Hotel, and there requested a meeting with the great author. Hemingway was indeed housed at the Ritz and gratefully accepted Salinger’s invitation; to his amazement, Hemingway was already very familiar with Salinger’s writing for Collier’s and greeted him at the hotel as if he were an old friend. The two men found time to talk writing, literature, journalism, politics, and the ongoing course of the war before Salinger grew short on time and had to return to his barracks.
As the war raged on, Salinger would go on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge and the bloody Battle of Hurtgen Forest on the Western Front that rumbled on from September to December of 1944. (To this day, Hurtgen Forest remains the longest single battle in which the US military has ever been engaged.) But when the fighting was finally over the following year, Salinger opted to remain in Europe for a short time, to work on an Allied initiative of “Denazification,” aimed at liberating concentration camps plus restoring peace and democracy to the German nation. He did not return to the US until 1946 when his writing career at last began to take shape.
The New Yorker belatedly published Slight Rebellion off Madison in the December of 1946, and, boosted by the publication of a second story, titled A Perfect Day for Bananafish, in 1948, Salinger finally began working on completing the novel he had envisaged while in Europe. The Catcher in the Rye went on to be published in 1951. Considered a generation-defining book, it has now sold more than 65 million copies worldwide.