Eberhard Alsen’s new book, J.D. Salinger and the Nazis, is published today. We interviewed Alsen about his work.
A. I became a Salinger fan in 1966 after reading “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and the rest of his Nine Stories. After that I read the other six Glass Family Stories. Only much later did I read The Catcher in the Rye, the novel for which Salinger is best known.
Q. What is it about Salinger that led you to become a scholar of his work and life?
A. By following up on the many references to Vedanta Hinduism in Salinger’s stories I discovered that he had been taking courses at the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York. I enrolled in a seminar similar to the one Salinger took, and I travelled from Cortland, New York, to New York City every Friday for six months. This was in 1977. In 1978, I was invited to a Ramakrishna Center retreat on an island in the St. Lawrence River where we did an intensive study of the Upanishads. Salinger had attended that same retreat a few years earlier. In short, Salinger inspired me to convert to Vedanta Hinduism.
My first Salinger book, Salinger’s Glass Stories as a Composite Novel, is an interpretation of the seven Glass Family Stories in terms of their Vedanta ideas. The impetus for that book came from Salinger’s inscription in a book he gave to his teacher Swami Nikhilananda. In that inscription, he says that he wrote Franny and Zooey “to circulate the ideas of Vedanta.”
Q. In your research on Salinger’s WWII experiences, what discoveries surprised you?
A. Everyone who has written about Salinger’s war experiences claims that the nervous breakdown he suffered after the end of the war was due to the stress of combat. But Salinger was not a combat soldier. He was an agent for the Counter Intelligence Corps. The daily reports of his CIC detachment in the National Archives show that he never fought the Germans in battle because he did his CIC work well behind the front lines.
Q. As a native of Germany, what special skills or insights were you able to bring to the research of this book?
A. First of all, I still read and speak German very well because, after I moved to the United States in 1962, I have regularly gone back to Germany, on three occasions to teach at German universities. I therefore had no problems evaluating German documents relating to Salinger’s activities in Germany.
Also I have a good understanding of the German military that Salinger faced because my father was an officer in the Wehrmacht and because I myself served in the post-war German Army.
And finally, I understand what Salinger’s problems were in rounding up old Nazis after the end of the war because my father was a Nazi, and I have many documents relating to my father’s denazification.
Q. Did Salinger participate in the Denazification Progam, and what did that program entail?
A. After his discharge from the U.S. Army in November of 1945, Salinger signed up for an additional six-month stint as a special investigator for the Counter Intelligence Corps. His task was to track down and arrest Nazis who had gone into hiding, so they could be brought before a Denazification Court. Even before Germany and Austria had been completely occupied, the Allies––the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and France––had created the Denazification Program. Its aim was to remove all Nazi officials from positions of influence and to punish all former members of the Nazi Party for having supported an evil regime.
is a professor emeritus of English at Cortland College, State University of New York. He is the author of several books, including A Reader’s Guide to J.D. Salinger and Salinger’s Glass Stories as a Composite Novel.