Reclusive author of the 20th-century classic The Catcher in the Rye, whose hero Holden Caulfield spoke for rebellious youth
JD Salinger, who has died aged 91, was the reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye (1951), one of the most beloved novels in the English language since the second world war. Millions of American high school and college students identified passionately with the novel’s 16-year-old hero, Holden Caulfield, whose blend of innocence and disillusion make him appear a version of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, translated from the American heartland to New York City, and from the simplicity of the 1840s to the anxieties of the modern era.
Yet, although Holden is an American, his appeal transcended national borders. The Catcher in the Rye has been translated into 30 languages, and sold more than 65m copies worldwide. In his biography of Salinger, the British poet and critic Ian Hamilton wrote of his shock of recognition when, at the age of 17, he read Holden’s story. Other non-American male critics have expressed a similar sense of wonder about how Salinger could have so perfectly captured their sense of their own adolescent selves.
Jerome David Salinger was born in New York City. After elementary grades at state schools, his parents sent him to McBurney, a private school in the city, for secondary education. At best an indifferent student, he was expelled from McBurney after two years for failing to apply himself. At 16 he was dispatched to Valley Forge military academy, Pennsylvania, graduating two years later.
He then returned home. In 1932 his parents had moved to an apartment on Park Avenue, in the heart of Wasp gentility. Salinger’s father, Sol, made his living as an importer of luxury foodstuffs from Europe. His mother, Marie Jillich, is described by biographers as deriving from Scots-Irish stock, and is reported to have changed her name to Miriam because of pressure from Sol’s Jewish family. The secret of her background was so closely guarded that it was only after Salinger’s barmitzvah at 14 that he learned that his mother was not Jewish.
After Valley Forge, Salinger enrolled in New York University but lasted only a year. At this point, his father gave the young man money so he could spend time in Europe improving his language skills and learning about food imports. Salinger stayed abroad for five months, mainly in Vienna. During that time he showed as little interest in Polish hams and fancy cheeses as he had in his schooling. And from letters of his that have since been uncovered, it is apparent that he was taking little notice of the political events that were about to convulse central Europe. Indeed, he may have left Vienna only a month or so before the German annexation of Austria in March 1938.
Back from Europe, Salinger enrolled at Ursinus college, a Pennsylvania institution that disseminated the doctrines of the German Reformed Church. After one unhappy term, he returned to New York and completed his misadventures in higher education with a night course at Columbia University. This turned out to be especially important for him, because it was taught by Whit Burnett, the highly regarded editor of Story, a magazine that specialised in publishing short fiction. Burnett also had a solid record for discovering new talent. Encouraged by Burnett, Salinger began publishing his work in high-paying “slick” magazines such as Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post, as well as in Story. By the time he was 21, he had already had a story accepted by Esquire and had come close to it at the New Yorker, where he most wanted to appear.
Just as Salinger’s career was taking off, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and he was drafted into the army. From 1942 to early 1944 he had an easy war, moving around army bases in the US, but in March 1944 he was shipped out to Tiverton, Devon, where his unit was to prepare for the Normandy invasion. During the time between his arrival in Britain and D-day, Salinger completed six chapters of a novel about a character very much like his own teenage self. Even before 1944 he had decided on a name for his hero: Holden Caulfield. Later he explained, half-humorously, that he chose it because it brought together two Hollywood film stars, William Holden and Joan Caulfield. When The Catcher in the Rye appeared, it marked the culmination of a decade of living with and thinking about his creation.
Salinger was a counter-intelligence officer in the 4th Infantry Division, but he did not escape the carnage of the liberation of Europe. He saw considerable combat, including the Battle of the Bulge. During much of this time he continued to write. To judge by letters and short stories he wrote at about this time, the experience of war had a traumatic effect on him. Salinger had already shown his emotional vulnerability as an unhappy schoolboy, and in his later fiction he would emphasise the emotional precariousness of his youthful heroes. Two early Salinger stories, later reprinted in his collection Nine Stories (1953), offer glimpses of men suffering from what we nowadays call post-traumatic stress disorder. A Perfect Day for Bananafish and For Esmé – With Love and Squalor depict soldiers who have survived but with badly frayed nerves.
Salinger himself suffered a nervous breakdown and was briefly hospitalised when the war ended. In late 1945 he met a German woman named Sylvia, who may have been some kind of doctor, possibly a psychologist. They married a few weeks after meeting. In her memoir Dream Catcher (2000), the novelist’s daughter from his second marriage, Margaret Salinger, wrote that Sylvia was a low-level official in the Nazi party whom her father, working in counter-intelligence, met when he was sent to arrest her. Later, Salinger’s second wife, Claire, said that her husband had told her that Sylvia was a passionate, evil woman who hated Jews with the same venom that he felt towards Nazis. This intense, physical relationship burned itself out after eight months.
In 1946 Salinger returned to New York. Still emotionally shaken, he tried to resume life as a writer. In 1948 he had three stories accepted by the New Yorker and never submitted his work to the “slicks” again after that, his name becoming indissolubly linked with that of the New Yorker. He also set about turning his Holden Caulfield sketches into a work that would be longer and more ambitious than anything he had attempted before.
When The Catcher in the Rye first appeared, most reviewers were positive, but several attacked the book as subversive and immoral. One reviewer, who found Holden “vulgar” and “repellent”, feared that “a book like this, given wide circulation, may multiply his kind”. Indeed, many protectors of public morals contrived to get it banned from schools and libraries. More recent criticism has emphasised Holden’s inchoate desire for something purer and truer than the cruelty and “phoniness” of the unredeemed world. The notion that The Catcher in the Rye is an immoral and irreligious work has largely given way to the antithetical view – that Salinger’s chief impulse is specifically religious. Sympathetic readers have actually regarded Holden as a saint, albeit of an unconventional kind, and have seen the plot as an exercise in the spiritual picaresque.
After The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger’s rate of production slowed considerably. He was now reading Zen and Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, and Advaita Vedanta, and putting in long hours of meditation. He took up a macrobiotic diet and had acupuncture and homeopathy. Nine Stories appeared in 1953, but many of them had originally come out in the 1940s.
Then, in 1955, Salinger published Franny in the New Yorker. It was the first of his stories in which the religious impulse is explicit. Although, at 40 pages, Franny was much slighter than The Catcher in the Rye, it became as much of a young people’s classic in its moment, and all the more the object of a cult because it was hard to get hold of until it was reprinted in 1961, in Franny and Zooey. That volume quickly shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Its publication marked the high point of Salinger’s popularity, creating far more excitement than the publication of The Catcher in the Rye had 10 years earlier. Salinger’s image appeared on the cover of Time magazine and the merit of his fiction was widely debated. The period from 1955 to 1963 in America was the time of rebellious youth as apolitical loner, and Salinger was the laureate of this diversely unhappy cohort.
His three major subsequent stories – all novellas, and longer and more diffuse than the tightly crafted pieces in Nine Stories – were Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (1955), Zooey (1957) and Seymour: An Introduction (1959). All are about members of the Glass family; the parents, who were once stars of vaudeville, and their seven children, all of them precocious to a fault. Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam found an appreciative audience among Salinger’s younger readers. But by 1960 his work had come to the attention of influential critics and academics, and for the most part they were not as appreciative. Salinger, who had always been extremely sensitive of critical opinion, was badly wounded by attacks on his work by John Updike, Mary McCarthy and Frank Kermode.
In 1965, Salinger published Hapworth 16, 1924, a novella that took up 80 pages in the New Yorker. It was very negatively received, and his response was to quit writing or, as he claimed, to continue writing but to refuse to have anything to do with publishers or the commercial literary scene. On his 34th birthday he moved into a modest hilltop house Cornish, New Hampshire. It was far enough from New York City to make a point.
Salinger had turned to eastern religious meditation in a serious way and largely withdrawn from the world. From this point on, the great drama in his life and work consisted of his battle to frustrate journalists and would-be groupies, whose interest in his life had been whetted by what seemed to them – not without reason – the autobiographical element in his fiction.
Here was a writer who had a deep distrust of the world and of the flesh, but one who periodically became enmeshed in both. In 1955, when Salinger was 36, he met and married a 19-year-old Harvard undergraduate, Claire Douglas, daughter of the distinguished art critic Robert Langton Douglas. The eccentric eastern religious regime that he imposed on his household, and his exclusive concentration on his work, meant that the marriage was rocky from the start. Yet it was the longest relationship Salinger sustained, and it produced two children, Margaret, born in 1955, and Matthew, in 1960. In 1967, however, close to a nervous breakdown herself, Claire filed for divorce. She won the house in a settlement, but Salinger built a new one for himself only a mile away so he could continue to see the children.
Salinger entered into a series of relationships with very young women. One of these was Joyce Maynard, an 18-year-old Yale fresher who attracted attention in 1972 when her essay An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life appeared in the New York Times. Salinger wrote Maynard a fan letter, a correspondence ensued, and in 1973 she left Yale to move in with the writer. Their relationship lasted almost a year. In 1998, in a memoir entitled At Home in the World, Maynard recalled the period as one in which she had been emotionally abused and finally cast off with indifference. Her intimate revelations certainly did not please Salinger, who regarded Maynard’s book as a betrayal.
But this was as nothing compared to its sequel the next year, when Maynard auctioned the letters Salinger had sent her during their relationship. In 1986 his lawyers had been able to prevent the publication of the original version of Hamilton’s biography when a court ruled that his quotation of excerpts from unpublished letters violated the author’s rights. But this time Maynard was the undisputed owner of the letters Salinger had sent her, and she was not proposing to publish them. In the event, the American inventor of a hugely profitable computer anti-virus software programme came forward and bought the letters – promptly making them over to Salinger as a gift. In June last year, launched legal action against the author, publisher and distributor of a proposed “sequel” to The Catcher in the Rye. Yet his victories were often pyrrhic, attracting more publicity precisely because of his reclusiveness.
Salinger is survived by his third wife, Colleen O’Neill, whom he married in the late 1980s, along with his son, daughter and three grandsons.
Jerome David Salinger, writer, born 1 January 1919; died 27 January 2010
Mark Krupnick died in 2003