James Salter, last of the Americans

  • Themes: Books

Some writers are thinkers, but James Salter was a doer. The urgent quality of his prose was a function of his love of danger and the intensity of his life.

James Salter.
James Salter. Credit: Agence Opale / Alamy Stock Photo

James Salter: Pilot, Screenwriter, Novelist, Jeffrey Meyers, LSU Press, $34.95

James Salter (1925-2015) was the last great postwar American writer and one of the last true heroes of ‘the greatest generation’. Yet he is still not well known in Britain and much of the Anglophone world. Almost a decade after his death, it is high time for a biography that places him in his proper literary, historical and personal context. Jeffrey Meyers, who knew Salter towards the end of his life, has done an admirable job of understanding and evoking the man. Salter wanted his work to be his sole monument, but his irrepressible life overflowed into his books and deserves attention in its own right. Meyers paints an unadorned but deeply respectful portrait of a modest and intensely private writer who, when celebrity finally came to him in late middle age, firmly resisted its temptations.

Like his friend Saul Bellow, Salter was Jewish and changed his name (in his case, from Horowitz). Unlike Bellow, who achieved early success with The Adventures of Augie March and Henderson the Rain King, Salter was a late starter and his reputation a slow-burner. His name only became well known in the 1970s, when he was well into middle age and acclaimed by his peers. Bellow wrote of Light Years (1975): ‘Mr Salter’s gentleness and his poetry are what we need most in these clattering, roaring, distracting times.’ But it was only in the 21st century that his stature was generally recognised by the notoriously cliquish US literary establishment. By the time he died, aged 90 in 2015, Salter was a name to set alongside those of Bellow, Singer, Roth, Updike and Mailer.

Salter was not only a writer: he was also a man of action. A fighter pilot in the Korean War — the first open conflict of the Cold War, in which jet aircraft fought dogfights at much higher speeds and altitudes than ever before — Salter had flown more than 100 combat missions before he was 30. When he left the air force to begin an uncertain literary career, he felt ‘absolutely miserable — miserable and a failure… As a pilot you’re nobility from the very beginning. As a writer you aren’t anybody until you become somebody’.

This tension between the vita activa and the vita contempliva persisted throughout Salter’s career. He was initially drawn to be a screenwriter and film director, a career that seemed more rewarding, more exciting and more glamorous than that of a novelist. He certainly made more money from movies than from books in his thirties and forties, but his experiences with actors and Hollywood studios were so dire that eventually he gave up. Not one of the films in which he was involved over more than two decades was either a commercial success or an artistic masterpiece. Leaving the movie world, he told the Paris Review, ‘wasn’t abrupt. I just said I would like to do less of this. I would like to do much less. I would like to do none of it’.

What Salter lacked in cinematic imagination he more than made up for in purely literary description. None of his contemporaries and few writers of any age could match his ability to conjure up a time and place in simple, classical  prose. Where necessary he could use this incomparable instrument to do justice to events of great historical magnitude. One example must stand for many: the unforgettable passage in his last novel, All That Is, in which he depicts the sinking of the battleship Yamato in the Sea of Japan. In a desperate bid to prevent the Allied invasion of Okinawa, the outermost island in the Japanese archipelago, Yamato and its crew of 3,000 men were despatched on a kamikaze mission, knowing that they would not return. One of the last and largest of all Dreadnoughts, this magnificent warship was surrounded by some 250 aircraft from the carriers of the vast American invasion fleet.

Salter takes up the story: ‘They came from out of the clouds, dive and torpedo bombers, more than a hundred at a time. The Yamato had been built to be invulnerable to air attack. All of its guns were firing as the first bombs hit. One of the escort destroyers suddenly heeled over, mortally stricken and, showing the dark red of its belly, sank. Through the water torpedos streamed towards the Yamato, their wakes white as string. The impregnable deck had been torn open, steel more than a foot thick, men smashed or cut in two. “Don’t lose heart!” the captain called. Officers had tied themselves to their station on the bridge as more bombs hit. Others missed closely, throwing up great pillars of water, walls of water that fell across the deck, solid as stone. It was not a battle, it was a ritual, the death as of a huge beast brought down by repeated blows.

‘An hour had passed and still the planes came, a fourth wave of them, then a fifth and sixth. The destruction was unimaginable. The steering had been hit, the ship was turning helplessly. It had begun to list, sea was sliding over the deck. My whole life has been the gift of your love, they had written to their mothers. The code books were sheathed in lead so they would sink with the ship, and their ink was of a kind that dissolved in water. Near the end of the second hour, listing almost eighty degrees, with hundreds dead and more wounded, blind and ruined, the gigantic ship began to sink. Waves swept over it and men clinging to the deck were carried off in all directions. As it went under, a huge whirlpool formed around it, a fierce torrent in which men could not survive but were drawn straight down as if falling in air. And then an even worse disaster. The stores of ammunition, the great shells, tons upon tons of them slid from their racks and slammed nose first into the turret sides. From deep in the sea came an immense explosion and a flash of light so intense that it was seen as far away as Kyushu as the full magazines went. A pillar of flame a mile high rose, a biblical pillar, and the sky was filled with red-hot pieces of steel coming down like rain. As if in echo there came, from the deep, a second climactic explosion, and thick smoke came pouring up.

‘Some of the crew that had not been pulled down by the suction were still swimming. They were black with oil and choking in the waves. A few were singing songs.

‘They were the only survivors. Neither the captain nor the admiral were among them. The rest of the three thousand men were in the lifeless body of the ship that had settled to the bottom far below.

‘The news of the sinking of the Yamato spread quickly. It was the end of the war at sea.’

I have quoted Salter at length as a sample of his superlative writing. It is only by the cumulative effect of his laconic sentences, occasionally interlaced with metaphor and simile, that we grasp the emotional enormity of this nautical catastrophe. As an American military aviator himself, Salter might well have chosen to identify with the attacking airmen, who were after all flying into a hail of anti-aircraft fire and thus hardly less courageous than the Japanese crew below them. And if any war has ever been justified, this one most certainly was: the defeat of Imperial Japan proved to be a blessing, not only for humanity, but for the Japanese people themselves. The fact that nuclear weapons were used to bring this about, for the one and only time in war, has confused many into believing that there was some other way to subdue a nation whose leaders had imbued it with the fanaticism of a death cult: ‘It was not a battle, but a ritual…’

And yet Salter sees that the sinking of the Yamato has a nobility that still resonates with us, despite the hideous ideology and lethal consequences of the Japanese kamikaze mentality. Meyers quotes a naval historian who observed that this battle off Okinawa ended ‘five centuries of naval warfare between surface ships’. The death of the battleship (whose name was a literary word used by Japanese poets to denote their homeland) places the hero of the novel, Philip Bowman, in the midst of history — the history of human conflict and its depiction in literature, a history that begins with the Iliad and the Odyssey. Salter thereby universalises his own experience of warfare and warriors, having borne witness to their heroism, in order to lend his novel an authentic historical dimension that is wholly lacking in almost all fiction of our time. That terrible authenticity cannot be acquired second hand, but must be forged first hand in the furnace of war.

A remark from All That Is reveals the author’s outlook: ‘Everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.’ With his customary erudition, Meyers (who uses this quotation as an epigraph for his own book) traces this idea back to Calderòn’s Life is a Dream and to Virginia Woolf. But the truth is that Salter believed this in a very personal way. Those who have been present at and involved in great historical events feel a compulsion to record their experiences in a way that others do not. Salter discovered that the novel was his métier, but he would have been driven to write in one form or another even if his fiction had not eventually found its readership. The urgent quality of his prose is a function of the intensity of his life. Some writers — George Eliot, Thomas Mann, Saul Bellow — are thinkers, but Salter was a doer who loved danger, the cockpit rather than the study. Giving up a life of action in favour of the intellectual life was a real sacrifice for him. And so his words were as visceral as his deeds. We owe Jeffrey Meyers a debt for chronicling and analysing both Salter’s words and his deeds. ‘Heroes are more often made up than true,’ he once said to Meyers. Salter himself was both.


Daniel Johnson