J.D. Salinger passes away at 91

Until his bar mitzva, celebrated author didn't know his mother wasn't Jewish.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
January 28, 2010 20:57
Author J.D. Salinger (1919-2010)

salinger 311. (photo credit: AP)

 
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J.D. Salinger, the legendary author, youth hero and fugitive from fame whose The Catcher in the Rye shocked and inspired a world he increasingly shunned, has died. He was 91.



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Salinger died of natural causes at his home on Wednesday, the author's son said in a statement released Thursday by Salinger's literary representative. He had lived for decades in self-imposed isolation in the small, remote house in Cornish, NH.










The Catcher in the Rye, with its immortal teenage protagonist, the troubled, rebellious Holden Caulfield, came out in 1951, a time of anxious, post-War, early Cold War confusion and the dawn of modern, conforming adolescence. The Book-of-the-Month Club, which made Catcher a featured selection, advised that for "anyone who has ever brought up a son" the novel will be "a source of wonder and delight — and concern."








Enraged by all the "phonies" who make "me so depressed I go crazy," Holden soon became American literature's most famous anti-hero since Huckleberry Finn. The novel's sales are astonishing — more than 60 million copies worldwide — and its impact incalculable. Decades after publication, the book remains a defining expression of that most universal of experiences - growing up.








Salinger was writing for adults, but teenagers from all over the world identified with the novel's themes of alienation, innocence and depression, not to mention the luck of having the last word. Parts of Catcher depict the world as a struggle between the goodness of young people and the corruption of elders, a message that only intensified with the oncoming generation gap.






"Everyone who works here and writes here at the New Yorker, even now, decades after his silence began, does so with a keen awareness of J.D. Salinger's voice," said David Remnick, editor of the prominent magazine where many of Salinger's stories first appeared. "In fact, he is so widely read in , and read with such intensity, that it's hard to think of any reader, young and old, who does not carry around the voices of Holden Caulfield or Glass family members."








Novels from Evan Hunter's The Blackboard Jungle to Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep, movies from Rebel Without a Cause to The Breakfast Club, and countless rock 'n' roll songs echoed Salinger's message of kids under siege. One of the great anti-heroes of the 1960s, Benjamin Braddock of The Graduate, was but a blander version of Salinger's narrator.








"Catcher in the Rye made a very powerful and surprising impression on me," said Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, who read the book, as so many did, when he was in middle school. "Part of it was the fact that our seventh grade teacher was actually letting us read such a book. But mostly it was because Catcher had such a recognizable authenticity in the voice that even in 1977 or so, when I read it, felt surprising and rare in literature."






The cult of Catcher turned tragic in 1980 when crazed Beatles fan Mark David Chapman shot and killed John Lennon, citing Salinger's novel as an inspiration and stating that "this extraordinary book holds many answers."








By the 21st century, Holden himself seemed relatively mild, but Salinger's book remained a standard in school curriculums and was discussed on countless Web sites and a fan page on Facebook.








On the Web Thursday, there was an outpouring of sadness for the loss of Salinger, as many flocked together on social networks to relate their memories of Catcher in the Rye. Topics such as "Salinger" and "Holden Caufield" were among the most popular on Twitter. CNN's Larry King tweeted that Catcher is his favorite book. Humorist John Hodgman wrote: "I prefer to think JD Salinger has just decided to become extra reclusive."








Salinger's other books don't equal the influence or sales of Catcher, but they are still read, again and again, with great affection and intensity. Critics, at least briefly, rated Salinger as a more accomplished and daring short story writer than John Cheever.








The collection Nine Stories features the classic A Perfect Day for Bananafish, the deadpan account of a suicidal Army veteran and the little girl he hopes, in vain, will save him. The novel Franny and Zooey, like Catcher, is a youthful, expertly articulated quest for redemption in 1950s .








Catcher, narrated from a psychiatric facility, begins with Holden recalling his expulsion from a prep school for failing four classes and for general apathy.








He returns home to , where his wanderings take him everywhere from a seedy Times Square hotel to a heartbreaking rainy carousel ride with his kid sister, Phoebe. He decides he wants to escape to a cabin out West, but scorns questions about his future, dismissing them as phony.








The Catcher in the Rye became both required and restricted reading, periodically banned by a school board or challenged by parents worried by its frank language and the irresistible chip on Holden's shoulder.








Salinger also wrote the novellas Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour — An Introduction, both featuring the neurotic, fictional – but in some ways autobiographical – Glass family which appeared in much of his work.








His last published story, Hapworth 16, 1924, ran in the New Yorker in 1965. By then he was increasingly compared to a precocious child whose manner had soured from cute to insufferable. "Salinger was the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school," Norman Mailer once commented.








In 1997, it was announced that Hapworth would be reissued as a book — prompting a negative New York Times review. The book, in typical Salinger style, didn't appear. In 1999, neighbor Jerry Burt said the author had told him years earlier that he had written at least 15 unpublished books kept locked in a safe at his home.








"I love to write and I assure you I write regularly," Salinger said in a brief interview with the Advocate in 1980. "But I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it."








Jerome David Salinger was born Jan. 1, 1919, in NYC. His father Sol, of Polish Jewish descent, was a wealthy importer of cheeses and meat. His mother, Marie Jillich was Irish-Scottish. Though she was called Miriam after her marriage, she never formally converted to Judaism, a fact J.D. wasn't aware of until after his bar mitzva. The family lived for years on Park Ave.








Like Holden, Salinger was an indifferent student with a history of trouble in various schools. He was sent to at age 15, where he wrote at night by flashlight beneath the covers and eventually earned his only diploma. In 1940, he published his first fiction, The Young Folks, in Story magazine.








He served in the US Army from 1942 to 1946, carrying a typewriter with him most of the time, writing "whenever I can find the time and an unoccupied foxhole," he told a friend.








Returning to , the dark-eyed, dark-haired Salinger pursued an intense study of Zen Buddhism – with the knowledge he acquired appearing in Franny and Zooey – but also cut a gregarious figure in the bars of , where he astonished acquaintances with his proficiency in rounding up dates. One drinking buddy, author A.E. Hotchner, would remember Salinger as the proud owner of an "ego of cast iron," contemptuous of writers and writing schools, convinced that he was the best thing to happen to the American alphabet since Herman Melville.








The world had come calling for Salinger, but Salinger was bolting the door. By 1952, he had migrated to Cornish. Three years later, he married Claire Douglas, with whom he had two children, Peggy and Matthew, before their 1967 divorce. (Salinger was also briefly married in the 1940s to a woman named Sylvia; little else is known about her).








Meanwhile, he was refusing interviews, instructing his agent to forward no fan mail and reportedly spending much of his time writing in a cement bunker. Sanity, apparently, could only come through seclusion.








Against Salinger's will, the curtain was parted in recent years. In 1998, author Joyce Maynard published her memoir At Home in the World, in which she detailed her eight-month affair with Salinger in the early 1970s, when she was less than half his age. She drew an unflattering picture of a controlling personality with eccentric eating habits, and described their problematic sex life.








Salinger's alleged adoration of children apparently did not extend to his own. In 2000, daughter Margaret Salinger's Dreamcatcher portrayed the writer as an unpleasant recluse who drank his own urine and spoke in tongues.








Holden Caulfield first appeared as a character in the story Last Day of the Last Furlough, published in 1944 in the Saturday Evening Post. Salinger's stories ran in several magazines, especially the New Yorker, where excerpts from Catcher were published.








The finished novel quickly became a best seller and early reviews were forerunners for the praise and condemnation to come. The New York Times found the book "an unusually brilliant first novel" and observed that Holden's "delinquencies seem minor indeed when contrasted with the adult delinquencies with which he is confronted.”

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