Legendary American writer, recluse passes away at 91
J.D. Salinger, the legendary author, youth hero and fugitive from fame whose “The Catcher in the Rye” shocked and inspired a world he increasingly shunned, has died. He was 91.
Salinger died of natural causes at his home on Wednesday, the author’s son said in a statement from Salinger’s literary representative. He had lived for decades in self-imposed isolation in the small, remote house in Cornish, N.H.
“The Catcher in the Rye,” with its immortal teenage protagonist, the twisted, rebellious Holden Caulfield, came out in 1951, a time of anxious, Cold War conformity and the dawn of modern adolescence. The Book-of-the-Month Club, which made “Catcher” a featured selection, advised that for “anyone who has ever brought up a son” the novel will be “a source of wonder and delight — and concern.”
Enraged by all the “phonies” who make “me so depressed I go crazy,” Holden soon became American literature’s most famous anti-hero since Huckleberry Finn. The novel’s sales are astonishing — more than 60 million copies worldwide — and its impact incalculable. Decades after publication, the book remains a defining expression of that most American of dreams — to never grow up.
Salinger was writing for adults, but teenagers from all over identified with the novel’s themes of alienation, innocence and fantasy, not to mention the luck of having the last word. “Catcher” presents the world as an ever-so-unfair struggle between the goodness of young people and the corruption of elders, a message that only intensified with the oncoming generation gap.
Novels from Evan Hunter’s “The Blackboard Jungle” to Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Prep,” movies from “Rebel Without a Cause” to “The Breakfast Club,” and countless rock ‘n’ roll songs echoed Salinger’s message of kids under siege. One of the great anti-heroes of the 1960s, Benjamin Braddock of “The Graduate,” was but a blander version of Salinger’s narrator.
The cult of “Catcher” turned tragic in 1980 when crazed Beatles fan Mark David Chapman shot and killed John Lennon, citing Salinger’s novel as an inspiration and stating that “this extraordinary book holds many answers.”
By the 21st century, Holden himself seemed relatively mild, but Salinger’s book remained a standard in school curriculums and was discussed on countless Web sites and a fan page on Facebook.
Salinger’s other books don’t equal the influence or sales of “Catcher,” but they are still read, again and again, with great affection and intensity. Critics, at least briefly, rated Salinger as a more accomplished and daring short story writer than John Cheever.
The collection “Nine Stories” features the classic “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” the deadpan account of a suicidal Army veteran and the little girl he hopes, in vain, will save him. The novel “Franny and Zooey,” like “Catcher,” is a youthful, obsessively articulated quest for redemption, featuring a memorable argument between Zooey and his mother as he attempts to read in the bathtub.
“Catcher,” narrated from a mental facility, begins with Holden recalling his expulsion from a Pennsylvania boarding school for failing four classes and for general apathy.
He returns home to Manhattan, where his wanderings take him everywhere from a Times Square hotel to a rainy carousel ride with his kid sister, Phoebe, in Central Park. He decides he wants to escape to a cabin out West, but scorns questions about his future as just so much phoniness.
“I mean how do you know what you’re going to do till you do it?” he reasons. “The answer is, you don’t. I think I am, but how do I know? I swear it’s a stupid question.”
“The Catcher in the Rye” became both required and restricted reading, periodically banned by a school board or challenged by parents worried by its frank language and the irresistible chip on Holden’s shoulder.
“I’m aware that a number of my friends will be saddened, or shocked, or shocked-saddened, over some of the chapters of ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’ Some of my best friends are children. In fact, all of my best friends are children,” Salinger wrote in 1955, in a short note for “20th Century Authors.”
“It’s almost unbearable to me to realize that my book will be kept on a shelf out of their reach,” he added.
Salinger also wrote the novellas “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour — An Introduction,” both featuring the neurotic, fictional Glass family which appeared in much of his work.
His last published story, “Hapworth 16, 1928,” ran in The New Yorker in 1965. By then he was increasingly viewed like a precocious child whose manner had soured from cute to insufferable. “Salinger was the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school,” Norman Mailer once commented.
In 1997, it was announced that “Hapworth” would be reissued as a book — prompting a (negative) New York Times review. The book, in typical Salinger style, didn’t appear. In 1999, New Hampshire neighbor Jerry Burt said the author had told him years earlier that he had written at least 15 unpublished books kept locked in a safe at his home.
“I love to write and I assure you I write regularly,” Salinger said in a brief interview with the Baton Rouge (La.) Advocate in 1980. “But I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it.”
Jerome David Salinger was born Jan. 1, 1919, in New York City. His father was a wealthy importer of cheeses and meat and the family lived for years on Park Avenue.
Like Holden, Salinger was an indifferent student with a history of trouble in various schools. He was sent to Valley Forge Military Academy at age 15, where he wrote at night by flashlight beneath the covers and eventually earned his only diploma. In 1940, he published his first fiction, “The Young Folks,” in Story magazine.
He served in the Army from 1942 to 1946, carrying a typewriter with him most of the time, writing “whenever I can find the time and an unoccupied foxhole,” he told a friend.
Returning to New York, the lean, dark-haired Salinger pursued an intense study of Zen Buddhism but also cut a gregarious figure in the bars of Greenwich Village, where he astonished acquaintances with his proficiency in rounding up dates. One drinking buddy, author A.E. Hotchner, would remember Salinger as the proud owner of an “ego of cast iron,” contemptuous of writers and writing schools, convinced that he was the best thing to happen to American letters since Herman Melville.
Holden first appeared as a character in the story “Last Day of the Last Furlough,” published in 1944 in the Saturday Evening Post. Salinger’s stories ran in several magazines, especially The New Yorker, where excerpts from “Catcher” were published.
The finished novel quickly became a best seller and early reviews were blueprints for the praise and condemnation to come. The New York Times found the book “an unusually brilliant first novel” and observed that Holden’s “delinquencies seem minor indeed when contrasted with the adult delinquencies with which he is confronted.”
But the Christian Science Monitor was not charmed. “He is alive, human, preposterous, profane and pathetic beyond belief,” critic T. Morris Longstreth wrote of Holden.
“Fortunately, there cannot be many of him yet. But one fears that a book like this given wide circulation may multiply his kind – as too easily happens when immortality and perversion are recounted by writers of talent whose work is countenanced in the name of art or good intention.”
The world had come calling for Salinger, but Salinger was bolting the door. By 1952, he had migrated to Cornish. Three years later, he married Claire Douglas, with whom he had two children, Peggy and Matthew, before their 1967 divorce. (Salinger was also briefly married in the 1940s to a woman named Sylvia; little else is known about her).
Meanwhile, he was refusing interviews, instructing his agent to forward no fan mail and reportedly spending much of his time writing in a cement bunker. Sanity, apparently, could only come through seclusion.
“I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes,” Holden says in “Catcher.”
“That way I wouldn’t have to have any … stupid useless conversations with anybody. If anybody wanted to tell me something, they’d have to write it on a piece of paper and shove it over to me. I’d build me a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made.”
Although Salinger initially contemplated a theater production of “Catcher,” with the author himself playing Holden, he turned down numerous offers for film or stage rights, including requests from Billy Wilder and Elia Kazan. Bids from Steven Spielberg and Harvey Weinstein also were rejected.
Salinger became famous for not wanting to be famous. In 1982, he sued a man who allegedly tried to sell a fictitious interview with the author to a national magazine. The impostor agreed to desist and Salinger dropped the suit.
Five years later, another Salinger legal action resulted in an important decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court refused to allow publication of an unauthorized biography, by Ian Hamilton, that quoted from the author’s unpublished letters. Salinger had copyrighted the letters when he learned about Hamilton’s book, which came out in a revised edition in 1988.
In 2009, Salinger sued to halt publication of John David California’s “60 Years Later,” an unauthorized sequel to “Catcher” that imagined Holden in his 70s, misanthropic as ever.
Against Salinger’s will, the curtain was parted in recent years. In 1998, author Joyce Maynard published her memoir “At Home in the World,” in which she detailed her eight-month affair with Salinger in the early 1970s, when she was less than half his age. She drew an unflattering picture of a controlling personality with eccentric eating habits, and described their problematic sex life.
Salinger’s alleged adoration of children apparently did not extend to his own. In 2000, daughter Margaret Salinger’s “Dreamcatcher” portrayed the writer as an unpleasant recluse who drank his own urine and spoke in tongues.
Ms. Salinger said she wrote the book because she was “absolutely determined not to repeat with my son what had been done with me.”
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