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opinion | Thomas Medicus

J.D. Salinger’s psychological catastrophe

PTSD from World War II may have driven the writer into hermitage


The name will sound kind of strange for American ears. Gunzenhausen. It’s a small provincial town in Southern Germany, 35 miles south of Nuremberg, in a county called Middle Franconia. It could be described as typical southern German: medieval gate towers, ramparts, battlements, a more than 500-year-old church. On the woody hills overlooking the town there are even remnants of the Limes, a Roman border wall more than 2,000 years old.

It was here, in this placid-seeming river town of 5,000 people, that a young American soldier named Jerome D. Salinger lived right after the end of World War II, in 1945. The mission of his counterintelligence unit was to hunt down the local Nazis and bring them to justice. He was then with his first wife, a German woman named Sylvia Welter. He married her in a smaller neighboring and very romantic town, Pappenheim, in autumn of the same year.

J.D. Salinger attends the Cornish Fair in New Hampshire in this undated photo.Wayne Carter/Eagle Times

But Gunzenhausen wasn’t just another defeated outpost in war-weary Germany: It had been the scene of the first anti-Jewish pogrom in Germany that took place in the 1930s. Even before that, residents had shown great support for the Nazi Party and Hitler himself. And after the war, they watched as one of the county’s leaders, Julius Streicher, the editor of the notorious Nazi newspaper “Der Stürmer,” was prosecuted and hanged at the Nuremburg trials for crimes against humanity, or, as many in the town likely saw it, for propagating ideas they also believed in.

Only sheer coincidence brought the 26-year-old writer to this remote region. But his stay, although it lasted just about nine months, had deep consequences for his future life as well as his oeuvre.


As everybody familiar with Salinger’s career knows, the famed author of “The Catcher in the Rye” left New York in 1953 and moved to the small village of Cornish, N.H. This was the start of a long retreat into solitude. In 1965, he published his last story in The New Yorker. After that came silence: no more publications, almost no more public statements, total absence from the cultural and literary scene. Salinger maintained his reclusive life in the mountains of Cornish until he died four years ago. But even up there in the remote hills he had an extra cabin for writing, probably just for being alone, a good distance from his regular home. He was, in a sense, a double hermit.


Why did he do this? Of course, Salinger was a shy man. He didn’t want to be photographed, not even for the covers of his books. When, in later years, he sometimes visited the library of Dartmouth College, about 20 miles from Cornish, everybody would quietly leave the reading room to allow the famous writer who didn’t publish anymore to be alone with himself.

But Salinger’s reclusiveness was not simply the result of his shyness. He had announced his farewell to the everyday life of ordinary people not only in “The Catcher in the Rye” — in which he wrote, in the voice of a daydreaming Holden Caulfield, “I’d build me a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life. I’d build it right near the woods, but not right in them, because I’d want it to be sunny as hell all the time.” In fact, signals of his desire to hide away in lonely woods were already showing in 1945 — in Middle Franconia. Salinger’s time in this area was the crucial phase of his life, and spending time here just as its residents faced both profound isolation and defeat in the war’s aftermath undoubtedly had an impact. Indeed, during his stay in Gunzenhausen, Salinger had chapters of “The Catcher in the Rye” with him.


The war ended for Salinger in a psychological catastrophe. In a Nuremberg hospital he was treated for “battle fatigue,” now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. He survived the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944 as well as the following horrors of the battle for Germany. He participated in the liberation of a concentration camp southeast of Munich, one of the worst on German soil. Some time after these terrible experiences he had a nervous breakdown. He returned after his release from hospital back to his job as a counterintelligence officer. To Gunzenhausen.

In his famous short story, “For Esmé with Love and Squalor” he offered a vivid picture of what it meant to suffer battle fatigue: shaking, trembling, vomiting, hallucinating, and being sleepless. As a born Gunzenhausener, I recently learned where this drama has supposedly taken place. It is a house next to my former school; I even have been in the room where Salinger used to live.

When he seemed to be overcoming his depression he fell in love with the very attractive young Sylvia Welter and married her three months after their first meeting. He was a traumatized young man of Jewish ancestry; she was a young woman from a nation of perpetrators. It was a fateful attraction: What could have been a time of redemption turned into a disaster.

In the beginning of 1946 Jerry and Sylvia moved to Nuremberg, where Sylvia’s parents lived. Sylvia’s family was not very happy about the marriage; Sylvia’s uncle, who had been captured as a prisoner of war in Normandy, accused the Americans of mistreating him. Salinger gave him a book as a gift: W. Somerset Maugham’s novel “The Razor’s Edge,” the story of a young man traumatized by his experiences during World War I who gave up everything — a fortune, a beloved woman, ordinary day life — to become a kind of monk in a lonely hut in India.


Shortly afterward, Salinger and his wife moved to Manhattan, where they quickly separated. A few years later, he followed the path he had identified in “The Razor’s Edge,” withdrawing to Cornish and never talking about what happened in the war to anyone.

When I stood right in front of the house where Salinger lived with his wife Sylvia in Nuremberg, built close to the still-visible former edge of the town, I got the idea, looking at some scrub forming a green borderline, that the retreat into his hermitage began right here. Going up and down the hills around Cornish some months later, cruising through the Connecticut River valley, I suddenly realized something incredible: The amazing similarity to the Middle-Franconian river valley near Gunzenhausen.

It was a fearful hallucination. But a circle had closed.

Thomas Medicus, a journalist in Germany, is the author of “Homeland: A Search,” recently published by Rowohlt Berlin.