J. D. Salinger

J. D. Salinger, Author, NYC

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Jerome David Salinger (born January 1, 1919) is an American author best known for his 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, as well as his reclusive nature; he has not published any new work since 1965 and has not granted a formal interview since 1980.

Raised in Manhattan, New York, Salinger attended several boarding schools, where he began writing short stories. He attended college briefly but dropped out to devote his time to writing, publishing his first short story in 1940. After serving with the U.S. 12th Infantry Regiment and working as a Counter-Intelligence officer in World War II, Salinger returned to New York. In 1948, he published a short story called "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" in the esteemed The New Yorker magazine. The story inspired the magazine to sign Salinger to a contract allowing them right of first refusal on all future stories, and by the early fifties, Salinger was publishing his work almost exclusively in The New Yorker.

In 1951, he published his first and, to date, only, novel, The Catcher in the Rye. The semi-autobiographical novel received polarized response; though reviews were mixed and it was banned in several countries and some U.S. schools due to its language and content, the book was an immediate popular success. Salinger's depiction of adolescent alienation and loss of innocence in the character of protagonist Holden Caulfield was incredibly influential, especially among adolescents; in 1961, Time magazine wrote that "Salinger....has spoken with more magic, particularly to the young, than any other U.S. writer since World War II." The novel remains widely-read, selling about 250,000 copies a year as of 2004.

The success of The Catcher in the Rye led to increased public scrutiny and Salinger became reclusive, publishing new work less frequently. He followed up Catcher with three collections of short stories, Nine Stories (1953), Franny and Zooey (1961), and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963). His last published piece of writing, a novella titled "Hapworth 16, 1924," appeared in The New Yorker in 1965.

In the intervening years, Salinger struggled with unwanted attention, including a legal battle in the mid-eighties with Ian Hamilton, a biographer who attempted to excerpt pieces of Salinger's letters, and the release in the late 1990s of memoirs written by two former confidantes: Joyce Maynard, an ex-lover, and Margaret Salinger, his estranged daughter. In the infrequent interviews he has granted, Salinger confirmed that he continues to write, and has completed at least two novels. In 1997, there was a flurry of excitement when a small publisher announced a deal with Salinger to publish "Hapworth 16, 1924" in book form, but amid the ensuing publicity, Salinger withdrew from the arrangement.


Jerome David Salinger was born in Manhattan, New York, to Sol Salinger, a Jewish father of Polish origin who worked for a meat importer, and Marie Jillich, a half-Scottish, half-Irish mother. When they married, Salinger's mother changed her name to Miriam and passed as Jewish; J. D. did not find out that his mother was not Jewish until just after his bar mitzvah. J.D. had only one sibling, his sister Doris, who was born in 1911.

The young Salinger attended public schools on the West Side, then attending the private McBurney School in ninth and tenth grades, where he acted in several plays and "showed an innate talent for drama," though his father was opposed to the idea of J.D. becoming an actor. He was happy to get away from the over-protectiveness of his mother by entering the Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Though he had written for the school newspaper at McBurney, it was at Valley Forge that Salinger began writing stories, "under the covers [at night], with the aid of a flashlight." He started his freshman year at New York University (NYU) in 1936, but dropped out the next spring; that fall, he was prevailed upon by Sol to learn the meat-importing business and was sent to work at the company in Vienna, Austria.

He left Austria only a month or so before the country fell to Hitler, on March 12, 1938. That fall, he attended Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, but for only one semester. Salinger attended Columbia University evening writing class in 1939. The teacher was Whit Burnett, longtime editor of Story Magazine. During the second semester of the class, Burnett saw some degree of talent in the young author. In the March-April 1940 issue of Story, Burnett published Salinger's debut short story, a vignette of several aimless youths, entitled "The Young Folks." Burnett and Salinger would correspond for several years thereafter, although a mix-up involving the proposed publication of a short story collection, also entitled The Young Folks, would leave them estranged.

Salinger had confided to several people that he felt Holden Caulfield deserved a novel, and The Catcher in the Rye was published on July 16, 1951. The novel's plot is simple, detailing the sixteen-year-old Holden's experiences in New York City following his expulsion from an elite prep school, and the book is more notable for the persona and confessional voice of its first-person narrator, Holden. Holden serves as an insightful but unreliable narrator who expounds on the purity of childhood, the "phoniness" of adulthood, and his own alienation and loss of innocence. In a 1953 interview with a high-school newspaper, Salinger admitted that the novel was "sort of" autobiographical, explaining that "My boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book....it was a great relief telling people about it."

Initial critical reactions were mixed, ranging from The New York Times's hail of Catcher as "an unusually brilliant first novel" to denigrations of the book's monotonous language and the "immorality and perversion" of the character of Holden, who uses religious slurs and discusses premarital sex and prostitution in an open and casual manner. However, the novel was an immediate popular success; within two months of its publication, The Catcher in the Rye had been reprinted eight times, and eventually spent thirty weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list.

Though the book's initial success was followed by a brief lull in popularity, by the late fifties the book, according to Ian Hamilton, had "become the book all brooding adolescents had to buy, the indispensable manual from which cool styles of disaffectation could be borrowed." Newspapers began publishing articles about the "Catcher Cult," and the novel was banned in several countries and some U.S. schools because of its subject matter and what Catholic World reviewer Riley Hughes called an "excessive use of amateur swearing and coarse language." (One irate parent counted 237 appearances of the word "goddamn" in the novel, along with 58 "bastard"s, 31 "Chrissakes," and 6 "fuck"s.)

In the seventies, several U.S. high school teachers were "fired or forced to resign for having assigned" the book, and in 1979 one book-length study of censorship noted that The Catcher in the Rye "had the dubious distinction of being at once the most frequently censored book across the nation and the second-most frequently taught novel in public high schools [after John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men]." The book remains widely read; as of 2004, the novel was selling about 250,000 copies per year, "with total worldwide sales over - probably way over - 10 million."

In the wake of its fifties success, Salinger was presented with (and turned down) numerous offers to adapt The Catcher in the Rye for the screen (Samuel Goldwyn among them). Since its publication, there has been sustained interest in the novel among filmmakers, with Billy Wilder, Harvey Weinstein, and Steven Spielberg among those seeking to secure the rights; Salinger stated in the seventies that "Jerry Lewis tried for years to get his hands on the part of Holden." The author has repeatedly demurred, though, and in 1999, Joyce Maynard definitively concluded, "The only person who might ever have played Holden Caulfield would have been J. D. Salinger."

Salinger's writing has had an effect on several prominent authors, prompting Harold Brodkey (himself an O. Henry Prize-winning author) to state, in 1991, "His is the most influential body of work in English prose by anyone since Hemingway." Of the writers in Salinger's generation, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist John Updike attested that "the short stories of J. D. Salinger really opened my eyes as to how you can weave fiction out of a set of events that seem almost unconnected, or very lightly connected....[the experience of reading his work] stick[s] in my mind as really having moved me a step up, as it were, toward knowing how to handle my own material." The early stories of fellow Pulitzer Prize-winner Philip Roth were also impacted by "Salinger's voice and comic timing."

In 2001, Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker that "Catcher in the Rye rewrites" among each new generation had become "a literary genre all its own." He classed among them Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (1963), Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City (1984), and Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). The writer Aimee Bender was struggling with her first short stories when a friend gave her a copy of Nine Stories; inspired, she later described Salinger's effect on writers, explaining, "it feels like Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye in a day, and that incredible feeling of ease inspires writing. Inspires the pursuit of voice. Not his voice. My voice. Your voice." Authors such as Stephen Chbosky, Carl Hiaasen, Susan Minot, Haruki Murakami, Tom Robbins, Louis Sachar, and Joel Stein, along with Academy Award-nominated writer-director Wes Anderson, have also cited Salinger as an influence.

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