Author of The Catcher in the Rye whose works captured the rebellious mood of a generation before he rejected fame to live as a recluse in rural New Hampshire
Published 31/01/2010 | 05:00
JD Salinger, who died on Thursday aged 91, was catapulted to fame in 1951 with the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, which has become the handbook of alienation for generations of angst-ridden teenagers.
It tells the story of teenage Holden Caulfield, who is both protagonist and narrator. Caulfield, apparently the victim of a mental breakdown, reflects on his expulsion from the privileged surroundings of his Pennsylvania boarding school and his subsequent experiences over three days in New York.
These include encounters with a prostitute and with some nuns, dancing in a nightclub, ice-skating and visiting a museum while he wrestles with the meaning of existence. His sister, Phoebe, appears to be the only person to whom he can relate.
Among its devoted fans was Mark Chapman, the assassin of John Lennon. As well as being an immediate best-seller, it continues to sell a quarter of a million copies a year.
Salinger never wrote another novel, and in the next 12 years, before retreating to rural New Hampshire as a permanent recluse, published only three volumes of short stories and novellas. His career demonstrated that a reputation could be comfortably maintained by a small amount of published work.
The three books after The Catcher in the Rye were For Esme -- with Love and Squalor (1953); Franny and Zooey (1961); and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Seymour: An Introduction (1963). The first was a group of short stories; the second a single short story and a novella; the third consisted of two long, connected stories.
After 1963 Salinger spent the rest of his life successfully avoiding all but a minute circle of neighbours in Cornish, a New Hampshire hamlet. The other inhabitants gradually learned to be closemouthed and defensive about their odd, uncommunicative neighbour.
He was once, in the early 1970s, lured to the telephone by a reporter for the New York Times -- at a moment when he was particularly annoyed about his early, uncollected short stories being republished in book form without his permission. These magazine stories were printed in two volumes and had been distributed without authorisation. By that time there was not much that Salinger could do about it, but he took the opportunity to complain hotly.
The reporter quoted him as saying: "There is a marvellous peace in not publishing. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I love to write, but I write for myself and my own pleasure."
His life as a recluse made as much news as his books. But in all his years dwelling in his rural fortress he never answered a single letter from his army of fans, and resisted every blandishment to appear on the lucrative lecture circuit. He simply chose to remain in Cornish, write and pursue an interest in Zen Buddhism.
Scores of critical studies of his work appeared in journals over the years, though he gave not a moment's encouragement or help to any of their authors. Thus the essence of the man remained elusive.
Readers might have seen this coming from the beginning. In the very first paragraph of Catcher he has his protagonist Holden Caulfield remarking: "I'm not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything." Indeed, after the British author Ian Hamilton had devoted three years to preparing JD Salinger: A Writing Life, Salinger sent lawyers to block its publication. Random House, in a routine prepublication exercise, had sent advance proofs of the book to reviewers and booksellers. Someone sent a copy to Salinger, who objected strenuously, especially to passages quoting from letters he had written to Ernest Hemingway, and others which Hamilton had unearthed in university libraries.
Even a rewrite of the manuscript failed to mollify Salinger, and for two years injunctions flew, appeals were filed and positions argued. In the end the US Supreme Court ruled in Salinger's favour -- only for Hamilton to rewrite the book, weaving in an account of the legal imbroglio itself. It was finally published in 1988 as In Search of JD Salinger.
Jerome David Salinger was born in New York on New Year's Day 1919 to Sol and Miriam Jillich Salinger. He attended McBurney School in the city before going on to Valley Forge military academy in Pennsylvania. His time there clearly provided background for Pencey Prep in The Catcher in the Rye.
He went on to New York University, to Ursinus College in Pennsylvania and to Columbia University, where he studied short-story writing. His first published piece, The Young Folks, appeared in Story magazine in 1940. He served four years in the US infantry and was once stationed in England. He was in the Battle of the Bulge as the Germans made their final thrust west.
During and after the war, he published short fiction in Colliers, Esquire, Story, the Saturday Evening Post and the New Yorker. One story, A Girl I Knew, was chosen as one of the best American short stories of 1949.
Many of these stories dealt with similar themes to those in The Catcher in the Rye: young people at large in a world they judged to be valueless and uncaring, a world scarcely worth joining.
Critics had various explanations for his success. Some found his books, particularly The Catcher in the Rye, touched the mood of a disaffected generation. In Holden Caulfield, he painted a youth confronting a society in which he could discern no remaining values worth clinging to. One critic called Catcher the best novel by an American since Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Others found the praise heaped on Salinger exaggerated.
JosePh O'Connor Living, Page 11
Salinger's short stories in For Esme -- with Love and Squalor were frequently about children and the subtle communication between children and the strange world of adults. Some were about sadness -- a war orphan befriended by an American soldier; a young man falling in love with a nun who is taking his learn-art-by-correspondence course. One reviewer thought nobody since Lewis Carroll had so subtly observed children.
The final story in For Esme was Teddy, which offered a hint of Salinger's future interest in Zen. His protagonist, a boy, tries to embrace Buddhism as a hedge against a world he sees as ephemeral.
His last two books, Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, charted the progress of the Glass family, New York Jewish-Irish Catholics. The tales were set against a background of competing religious traditions. In 1965, the New Yorker printed Hapworth 16, 1924, an early instalment in his chronicle of the Glass family. It was the last time Salinger printed new work.
Soon, however, it was the author, not his work, that was to become the focus of media attention. In 1972 the New York Times published the reflections of a young writer, Joyce Maynard, entitled An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life. The piece, and its attendant success, prompted the reclusive Salinger, then 53, to write to its author, warning her of the dangers of fame. The pair then embarked on a correspondence and, shortly afterwards, an affair.
Joyce Maynard lived with Salinger for 10 months, writing her memoir, Looking Back. In later interviews and in a subsequent memoir, At Home in the World, she gave an insight into Salinger's otherwise mysterious life, describing the writer as by turns compelling, vicious and deeply self-obsessed.
She also chronicled his fascination with homeopathic medicines, his need to vomit after eating junk food and his daily meditation rituals.
Most importantly for his legions of admirers, however, she also confirmed that, at the time of their affair, Salinger was highly disciplined about writing every day; and that he had produced novels and short stories which he kept to himself because of his disgust with the publishing business.
She also claimed that, due to her young age, she had been exploited.
Salinger's personal reputation and his writing were bruised by the affair, with new scrutiny being brought retrospectively to bear on his fictional portrayals of young women and prepubescent girls. Most critics quickly exculpated him, deeming his fictional interest in children eccentric, perhaps, but not erotic.
By then Salinger had been twice married and twice divorced. His first, brief, marriage, to a woman called Sylvia, was over by the early 1950s.
With his second wife, Claire Douglas, half-sister of Lord Douglas of Kirtleside, he had a son and a daughter. The marriage was dissolved in 1967. He did, however, marry for a third time, again falling for a woman much younger than himself. But although four decades his junior, Colleen O'Neill, who had run the town fair in Cornish, was no girl by the time they met in the late 1980s.
She survives him, along with his children and the rumours, long nurtured by admirers, of the existence of unpublished works that are filed away in his house in New Hampshire. © Telegraph