Famous for a single novel and for spending half a century as a recluse, J.D. Salinger, who died Wednesday (Jan. 27, 2010), might best be remembered for inventing the American teenager.
Mr. Salinger, 91, died of natural causes at his home in Cornish, N.H. For a man who published only four books, and whose last new short story was published 45 years ago, he had enormous influence on American fiction and the larger culture.
When his best known book and only novel, The Catcher in the Rye, was published in 1951, it was an immediate sensation. This was a year when the bestseller list was dominated by such sane and stuffy grownups as Herman Wouk, John P. Marquand and James Michener, so the profane, self-involved, alienated, wisecracking voice of Catcher's narrator, Holden Caulfield, was transgressive in a way hard to imagine almost 60 years later.
Holden, whose favorite words are "phony" and "goddam," seemed to speak for a generation growing up between the hardship of the war years and the cultural earthquakes of the 1960s. He delivers the story of his expulsion from prep school and the desperate days that follow in a looping, propulsive, cynical and heartbreaking monologue that made him the first literary poster boy for teenage rebellion at the precise time that phenomenon began to reshape American culture.
Almost six decades later, Catcher remains both one of the most assigned books in high schools and one of the most challenged books in libraries. It and Mr. Salinger's short stories have influenced a broad range of artists, including Thomas Pynchon, Michael Chabon, Wes Anderson and Green Day — even though his only public communications in the last half-century have been lawsuits.
Mr. Salinger became famous for being a terrific writer, and then he became even more famous for not wanting to be famous.
Jerome David Salinger was born in 1919 in New York City. His father, a successful food importer, was a Polish Jew, his mother Scots-Irish; for much of his youth, the family lived on Park Avenue.
Mr. Salinger was an indifferent student (he briefly attended three colleges), but he was determined from an early age to become a great writer. As a young man, he sold a few stories to popular magazines. Then he was drafted during World War II; he served with the Counter Intelligence Corps, landed at Utah Beach and saw action in the Battle of the Bulge. Those wartime experiences would shape and sharpen his fictional voice.
That voice was strikingly clear in his first postwar short story, A Perfect Day for Bananafish, published in the New Yorker in 1948 to critical acclaim.
Catcher was published in 1951, followed by three collections of short works: Nine Stories in 1953, Franny and Zooey in 1961 and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction in 1963. Those works, very different in tone and style from Catcher, focused on the eccentric, brilliant Glass family, as did his last published story, Hapworth 16, 1924, printed in The New Yorker in 1965.
At first, Mr. Salinger relished fame, but after he moved to New Hampshire in 1953 he gradually withdrew from the world. He refused interviews, stopped publishing new work and gained notoriety as an eccentric.
He sued biographer Ian Hamilton in 1986 to prevent publication of a book based on his letters to friends and colleagues, pursuing the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Details of his private life were exposed, though, when author <a href=">Joyce Maynard wrote a memoir in 1998, At Home in the World, about the affair she had with Mr. Salinger when she was 18 and he was 53, and when his daughter, Margaret, published Dream Catcher: A Memoir in 2000.
Mr. Salinger is survived by Margaret; his son, Matthew; and his third wife, Colleen O'Neill.
Last year, Mr. Salinger successfully sued to prevent U.S. publication of a sequel to Catcher by a Swedish writer, J.D. California, called 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye; that decision has been appealed.
I got a look at some of that one, and I'm glad Mr. Salinger won. For me, Catcher was one of those transformative books, read at just the right moment in my life. I was 13 when I took it along on a babysitting job, hidden in my purse because the friend who passed it to me in the hallway of our parochial school promised it had "some dirty stuff" in it.
I put the toddlers I was tending to bed and cracked the book open. "If you really want to hear about it," Holden begins, "the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."
I was thunderstruck. Oh my god, I thought, this is exactly how I feel. When the toddlers' parents, those phonies, got home four hours later, I had finished Catcher and started to read it again.
I've reread it many times, taught it in college English classes, and found something new every time. That first shock of identification wore off about the time my acne did, but Holden's struggles — whether you see him as struggling with alienation, manic depression, sexual identity or just a really severe case of teenage angst — never fail to move me.
Among the many outlandish rumors that swirled around Mr. Salinger's hidden life, there's one I hope is true. Maynard and his daughter both reported that he continued to write, pretty much every day, and some in the publishing industry say his agent has several finished novels stowed away for posthumous publication. So maybe we'll hear from Holden and the Glasses again, after all this time. Nothing phony about that.
Information from Times wires was used in this report. Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs. tampabay.com/arts.