J.D. Salinger passes away at 91

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

salinger 311 (photo credit: AP)
salinger 311
(photo credit: AP)

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

Salinger died of natural causes at his homeon Wednesday, the author's son said in a statement released Thursday by Salinger'sliterary representative. He had lived for decades in self-imposed isolation inthe 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. TheBook-of-the-Month Club, which made Catcher a featured selection, advisedthat 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" whomake "me so depressed I go crazy," Holden soon became Americanliterature's most famous anti-hero since Huckleberry Finn. The novel's salesare astonishing — more than 60 million copies worldwide — and its impactincalculable. Decades after publication, the book remains a defining expressionof that most universal of experiences - growing up.

Salinger was writing for adults, butteenagers from all over the world identified with the novel's themes ofalienation, innocence and depression, not to mention the luck of having thelast word. Parts of Catcher depict the world as a struggle between thegoodness of young people and the corruption of elders, a message that onlyintensified with the oncoming generation gap.

"Everyone who works here and writes here at the New Yorker, evennow, decades after his silence began, does so with a keen awareness of J.D. Salinger'svoice," said David Remnick, editor of the prominent magazine where many ofSalinger's stories first appeared. "In fact, he is so widely read in , andread 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 familymembers."

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

"Catcher in the Rye made a very powerful andsurprising impression on me," said Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist MichaelChabon, 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 actuallyletting us read such a book. But mostly it was because Catcher had such arecognizable 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 in1980 when crazed Beatles fan Mark David Chapman shot and killed John Lennon,citing Salinger's novel as an inspiration and stating that "thisextraordinary book holds many answers."

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

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

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

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

Catcher, narrated from a psychiatric facility, begins with Holden recalling hisexpulsion 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 heartbreakingrainy carousel ride with his kidsister, Phoebe. He decides he wants to escape to a cabin out West, but scornsquestions 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 itsfrank language and the irresistible chip on Holden's shoulder.

Salinger also wrote the novellas RaiseHigh the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour — An Introduction, bothfeaturing the neurotic, fictional – but in some ways autobiographical – Glassfamily 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 comparedto a precocious child whose manner had soured from cute to insufferable. "Salingerwas the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school," Norman Mailer oncecommented.

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

"I love to write and I assure you Iwrite regularly," Salinger said in a brief interview with the Advocatein 1980. "But I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to beleft 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 foryears on Park Ave.

Like Holden, Salinger was an indifferentstudent 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 andeventually 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 canfind 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 alsocut 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 proudowner of an "ego of cast iron," contemptuous of writers and writingschools, convinced that he was the best thing to happen to the Americanalphabet since Herman Melville.

The world had come calling for Salinger, butSalinger was bolting the door. By 1952, he had migrated to Cornish. Three yearslater, he married Claire Douglas, with whom he had two children, Peggy andMatthew, before their 1967 divorce. (Salinger was also briefly married in the1940s 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 ofhis time writing in a cement bunker. Sanity, apparently, could only comethrough seclusion.

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

Salinger's alleged adoration of childrenapparently did not extend to his own. In 2000, daughter Margaret Salinger's Dreamcatcherportrayed the writer as an unpleasant recluse who drank his own urine and spokein tongues.

Holden Caulfield first appeared as acharacter in the story Last Day of the Last Furlough, published in 1944in the Saturday Evening Post. Salinger's stories ran in severalmagazines, especially the New Yorker, where excerpts from Catcherwere published.

The finished novel quickly became a bestseller and early reviews were forerunners for the praise and condemnation tocome. The New York Times found the book "an unusually brilliantfirst novel" and observed that Holden's "delinquencies seem minorindeed when contrasted with the adult delinquencies with which he isconfronted.”