On the Trail of J.D. Salinger's Testicle

A new book says that J.D. Salinger had only one testicle, a congenital defect that so shamed the novelist that it eventually drove him into the woods of New Hampshire.

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We don't usually like to start our mornings with nether anatomy, either, but there's no way to help it: Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno has finally been published, with unfounded susurrus having had to pass for publicity — virtually no one got galleys. The accompanying documentary is out this Friday, promising, together with the book, to offer the definitive chronicle of the reclusive life of the Catcher in the Rye author.

The biggest reveal thus far, however, has been of a rather medically pedestrian nature: Salinger only had a single testicle, Shields and Salerno claim, shame over which led to his life of seclusion. And while, according to the Mayo Clinic, an undescended testicle may increase the risk of testicular cancer, it was not medical but psychological concern, the authors of Salinger argue, that drove Jerome David Salinger, once of Park Avenue, into the woods of New Hampshire.

That's why we need to talk about Salinger's testicle. Nor are we the first: Ron Charles of The Washington Post wrote a blog post titled "‘Much Ado’ about J.D. Salinger’s missing testicle" last week, complaining, tongue in cheek, that he almost missed a production of Shakespeare's comedy (you can probably guess which) while having to fact-check a review of Salinger that included the lone testicle theory:

How exactly would I confirm that Salinger had only one testicle?

These are not typical challenges for an editor in Book World.

An earlier review of Salinger by Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times had also discussed the subject of the missing testicle, though she took a characteristically more somber view of the detail than Charles would:

The authors contend that Salinger “was born with only one testicle” and they argue that this caused him enormous embarrassment — that it was “surely one of the many reasons he stayed out of the media glare” so as “to reduce the likelihood that this information would emerge,” and that it amplified his psychological need “to create flawless art.” This assertion, however, is based on anonymous sources: two unnamed women who the authors say “independently confirmed” hearsay that Salinger suffered from this anomaly.

And an article in the Detroit Free Press described the book as claiming that "J.D. Salinger's secret deformity made him a recluse," which is a somewhat more reductive theory of the author's life than Salinger and Salerno actually formulate.

Twitter, too, had plenty of fun with this news, especially after Charles's post thrust the testicle theory into the middle of Salinger scholarship:

We cannot possibly verify the veracity of the lone testicle claim; perhaps no one can. However, let's at least get the basic facts right:

  • According to Salinger scholar Eberhard Alsen, Salinger tried to enlist in the Army right after Pearl Harbor, but got an I-B deferral, which Salinger would describe as being handed out to "cripples and faggets."
  • Shields is skeptical of Salinger's attribution of the I-B to a "slight heart condition," which he says "was almost certainly a convenient fiction to disguise the existence of a congenital deformity. He quotes a soldier who served with Salinger, Werner Kleeman, who later allegedly was present at the meeting between Salinger and Ernest Hemingway, during which Salinger supposedly said that "he didn't think the army would take him...[because] he had only one testicle." 
  • Shields says two women "independently confirmed" the presence of only one testicle. He quotes one of them as saying that Salinger was "incredibly embarrassed and frustrated. [At the time] I knew nothing about men's bodies, but it was a big deal to him. It wasn't an injury. It was an undescended testicle."
  • The authors of Salinger posit that, "Surely one of the many reasons he stayed out of the media glare was to reduce the likelihood that this information about his anatomy would emerge." They suggest that the twin horrors of his own imperfect body and the atrocities he witnessed during the liberation of the Kaufering concentration camp would eventually contribute to Salinger's flight from civilization: "The war was one wound, but his body was the other. It was the combination of these wounds that made Salinger."

This may seem either revealing psychology or puerile gossip — readers of Salinger and future historians will have to judge for themselves.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.