Last reviewed: June 2017
American writer and notorious recluse.
January 1, 1919
New York, New York
January 27, 2010
Cornish, New Hampshire
As famous for his flight from fame as for the one novel and thirteen short fictions that he produced before retreating into silence, Jerome David Salinger (SAL-ihn-jur) gave voice to the rejection of materialism and regimentation that attracted the generation growing up in the United States after World War II. He was born in New York City on New Year’s Day, 1919, the son of a prosperous Jewish importer and his Scottish-Irish wife. From 1934 to 1936 he attended the Valley Forge Military Academy, a boarding school in Pennsylvania, which was to serve as the model for Pencey Prep in The Catcher in the Rye. After brief stints at Ursinus College and New York University, he studied short-story writing at Columbia University with Whit Burnett. His first commercial publication came in Burnett’s own Story magazine. The following summer, 1941, Collier’s became the first of several slick magazines, including Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Mademoiselle, and The Saturday Evening Post, to publish Salinger’s short stories.
After the entry of the United States into World War II, Salinger volunteered for military service and was sent to Europe, with the Army Signal Corps and then with the Counter Intelligence Corps. His 1945 marriage to a Frenchwoman lasted eight months. (His later marriage to Claire Douglas, in 1955, produced two children and lasted twelve years.) J. D. Salinger
J. D. Salinger
After his return to civilian life, Salinger began, in 1948, to publish in The New Yorker those studies in precociousness and poignancy that were to constitute the 1953 collection Nine Stories and that were to be widely anthologized and read. Several of them feature characters from the Glass family, a clan that was to populate his fiction of the 1960s. However, it was his 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye that made him famous—and wealthy. The novel immediately attracted a wide, devoted, and enduring following, especially among those close to the age of its main character, an alienated sixteen-year-old named Holden Caulfield. The Catcher in the Rye is Holden’s first-person account of a long December weekend in New York following his expulsion from Pencey Prep. Holden’s contempt for the "phoniness" of the adult establishment and his dream of becoming a "catcher in the rye," a sort of guardian for the pristine but vulnerable values of childhood, seemed to embody the nascent counter-cultural trends of the 1950s.
After achieving celebrity status, Salinger was becomingly increasingly attracted to the doctrines of Eastern mysticism. His desire for a meditative retreat from worldly preoccupations was abetted by his decision to move from New York to the tiny, secluded New Hampshire town of Cornish on January 1, 1953. He would live in Cornish until his death on January 27, 2010 at age 91. It was while he was living on his rustic estate, without a telephone, that Salinger’s Nine Stories appeared and enjoyed a popular success extremely rare for a collection of short fiction. Salinger resisted the blandishments of publicity, and, when one of the local adolescents he befriended published an interview with him in her high school newspaper, he was offended. It was the last time that he allowed himself to be interviewed.
In 1961 Salinger published in one volume Franny and Zooey, the two novellas on which he had been working for almost seven years. Each focuses on a member of the extraordinary Glass family, whose gifted children—Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, Walter, Waker, Zooey, and Franny—have each been stars on a radio quiz show. Franny recounts a weekend that Franny Glass spends with her Ivy League boyfriend during which she berates him for his smug conventionalism and his preference for academe over art, reason over truth. Zooey extends Salinger’s religious preoccupations in its account of twenty-three-year-old Zooey’s debt to the Buddhist teachings of his older brothers Buddy and Seymour.
Seymour: An Introduction, first published in The New Yorker in 1959 and, with Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, in book form in 1963, is Buddy Glass’s attempt to come to terms with the suicide of his beatific older brother Seymour. The latter novella is the story of Seymour’s wedding day.
Meanwhile, as Salinger withdrew more and more from worldly concerns in remote New Hampshire, he was increasingly harried by intrusive journalists, inspired by the cult of this reclusive author. Salinger rebuffed each attempt to invade his privacy, and he even began to view the very act of publication as a betrayal of his art. His final appearance in print was in The New Yorker of June 19, 1965, with a twenty-thousand-word story entitled "Hapworth 16, 1924," a long letter written by Seymour Glass that brother Buddy finds forty years later.
Salinger reportedly continued to write in later years but steadfastly refused to share any of his new work with his numerous and devoted readers. He took legal action to prevent unauthorized publication of some of his earlier stories and even went to court to suppress a biography by Ian Hamilton. For more than a year, Hamilton was kept from publishing his study, and, when it finally appeared, in 1988, it was devoid of quotations from the private letters to which Salinger’s lawyers had objected. Salinger received more publicity from this legal confrontation than he would have if he had ignored the attempt to appropriate his life, though the Hamilton book is more of a study in biographical frustration than a satisfactory portrait of the elusive author.
Others also attempted to provide insight into Salinger's reclusive life. In 1998 his former partner, Joyce Maynard, published a memoir that portrayed Salinger in a negative light. She also sold at auction letters Salinger had sent her, though the eventual buyer decided to return them to the author. Salinger's daughter Margaret published her own memoir in 2000, which also depicted him negatively, an account that was challenged by Salinger's son Matthew. Meanwhile, Salinger married Colleen O'Neill, and the couple remained together for the rest of the author's life. He died on January 27, 2010, of natural causes at the age of ninety-one at his home in New Hampshire.
Mystery and speculation about Salinger and the rumored existence of unpublished works continued after his death. In 2013 three unpublished short stories, one of which was only available to scholars under supervision at Princeton University, were leaked online. That same year, the controversial biography Salinger was published by Shane Salerno and David Shields, followed by a documentary film. In 2014 a book collecting some of Salinger's earliest fiction—"The Young Folks," "Go See Eddie," and Once a Week Won't Kill You," all unavailable since original publication in magazines—was released as Three Early Stories.
Apart from The Catcher in the Rye and his published stories, Salinger’s principal claim to fame remains his principled contempt for fame. He became the Greta Garbo of American literature, the novelist who wants to be alone but whose dedicated readers remain jealous of his solitude. His last published fiction abandons the conventions of plot and characterization in the interests of theological speculation. It has interested most readers much less than the earlier work, which in its worldly details and its irreverent humor established Salinger’s reputation and made possible his distaste for reputations and his reverent retreat from worldliness.