J. D. Salinger
with E. M. Forester, Jerome David Salinger shares New Years day as his natal
date. Born on January
1, 1919, he would go on to become America's most
elusive novelist and short story writer. He published only one novel
and several short story collections between 1948-59; yet, because of his
unique literary style, he remains one of the most influential of American
writers. His best-known work is The Catcher in the Rye (1951), a story about a rebellious teenage schoolboy
and his out-of-the-ordinary experiences in New York.
"What really knocks me out is a book that, when
you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a
terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever
you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though." - Holden Caulfied
in The Catcher in the Rye
J. D. Salinger was raised in the fashionable apartment district
of Manhattan, New York. He was the son of a Scotch-Irish mother and a Jewish
father who was a prosperous importer of
In his youth, young Salinger was nicknamed Sonny. His family lived
in a plush apartment on Park Avenue. After
restless studies in prep schools, he went off to Valley Forge Military
Academy from 1934-36. His schoolmates recall him for his sarcastic wit.
In 1937, when he was eighteen,
Salinger traveled to Europe for five months before returning to the states
and more studies at Ursinus College and New York University. He fell in love with Oona O'Neill,
the daughter of famed playwright Eugene O'Neill, to whom he sent letters
He was crushed when he learned that she had decided to marry Charlie Chaplin, who was
substantially older than she.
In 1939, Salinger took a class in short story writing at Columbia
University under Whit Burnett, founder-editor of Story Magazine. During World War II, he was drafted into the infantry and
took part in the
invasion of Normandy. His comrades found him to be very brave.
In his free time, he traveled to Paris, where he met Ernest Hemingway. Salinger was involved in one of
the bloodiest skirmishes of the war in Hürtgenwald, a useless battle the true horrors of war
In his celebrated story For Esmé - With Love and Squalor, Salinger
depicts a fatigued American soldier who begins corresponding with a
13-year-old British girl who helps him regain the will to live. Salinger, himself, was hospitalized for stress,
according to biographer Ian
After serving in the Army Signal Corps and Counter-Intelligence
Corps from 1942 to 1946, Salinger devoted himself to writing. He played poker with
other aspiring writers, but he was considered a sour character who won all the
time. He considered Hemingway and Steinbeck second-rate writers,
In 1945, Salinger married a French doctor named Sylvia. After
their divorce, he married Claire
Douglas, the daughter of the British art critic Robert Langton Douglas.
In 1967, that
marriage, too, ended in divorce when Salinger's retreat into his private
world and Zen Buddhism grew deeper.
Salinger's early short stories appeared in such magazines as
the Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, and the New Yorker, which published
almost all of his later texts. In 1948, A Perfect Day for Bananafish
introduced Seymour Glass, who commits suicide. It was the
earliest reference to the Glass family, whose stories would go on to form
the main body of his writing. The Glass cycle continued in the
collections, Franny and Zooey (1961), Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963).
Several of the stories are narrated by Buddy Glass.
continued publishing short stories throughout the Forties, most of them in
The New Yorker. In 1949, editor Robert Giroux wrote him
to ask if he wanted to publish a collection of short stories. Giroux didn't
hear back from Salinger for months, and then, one day, the writer walked into
his office. Giroux said, "A tall, sad-looking young man with a long face and
deep-set black eyes walked in, saying, 'It's not my stories that should be
published first, but the novel I'm working on...about this kid in New York
during the Christmas holidays.'" Giroux said he'd love to publish it.
But when it was finished, one of his superiors thought the kid in the book seemed
too crazy; so Salinger published
The Catcher in the Rye with
Little, Brown and Company, which brought it out on July 16, 1951.
Salinger's first novel became
an instant Book-of-the-Month Club selection and won huge international acclaim. It
still sells nearly a quarter of a million copies annually, despite the fact
that the author did
little to help
with the book's publicity, and, in fact, he that his photograph not be used in connection
with the book.
Although the first reviews of the work were mixed, most critics
considered the book brilliant. The story is written in a monologue interspersed
slang. It tells of the 16-year old restless Holden Caulfield (akin to
Salinger in his teens) who runs away from school to New York during his Christmas break.
There, he hopes to find himself and lose his virginity.
After spending an evening of nightclubbing, he has an unsuccessful encounter with a prostitute and the next
day meets an old girlfriend. Caulfield's
former schoolteacher makes homosexual advances to him, and he meets his sister
to tell her that he is leaving home. The quirky humor
of the novel places it in the tradition of Mark Twain's classical
works, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, although in a more
sardonic vein. Caulfield views
life around him as shallow and searches constantly for sincerity.
"What gets me about D. B., though, he hated the war so much, and yet he got
me to read this book A Farewell to Arms last summer. He said it was
so terrific. That's what I can't understand. It had this guy in it named
Lieutenant Henry that was supposed to be a nice guy and all. I don't see how D. B. could hate the Army and war and all so much and still like a phony like
that. I mean, for instance, I don't see how he could like a phony like that
and still like that one by Ring Lardner, or that other one he's so crazy
about, The Great Gatsby. D. B. got sore when I said that, and said I
was too young and all to appreciate it, but I don't think so. I told him I
liked Ring Lardner and The Great Gatsby and all. I did, too. I was
crazy about The Great Gatsby. Old Gatsby. Old sport. That killed me. Anyway, I'm sort of glad they've got the atomic bomb invented. If there's
ever another war, I'm going to sit right the hell on top of it. I'll
volunteer for it, I swear to God I will." - Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye
Over the years, numerous rumors have circulated that Salinger is
preparing another novel for publication. But to date nothing more has
come forth. From the late Sixties, he has studiously avoided all
publicity. In 1974, he reluctantly granted an interview to a reporter. "I like to write,"
he said. "I love to write. But I write just for
myself and my own pleasure."
fire struck Salinger's Cornish, NH, house. When reporters saw the
perfect opportunity to corner the writer for an interview, they flocked to
the scene. But Salinger, ever the recluse, managed to escape both fire
and reporters unscathed.
In 1999, rumors circulated that three of Salinger's neighbors who had
spent time in his home had seen a bank vault in which the author claimed to
have placed "15 or 16" of his completed novels. All are presumably
about the Glass Family.
If it's true that he has written these other books, the question
of the day is what will happen to them after the author's death? His
friends believe that he will either destroy them or authorize their
publication, which would make for one of the most enlightening posthumous
Meanwhile, the author--who leads an ascetic life--refers to himself as a
"failed Zen Buddhist," walks about in a blue mechanic's uniform, and, when
he goes to local restaurants, eats in the kitchen to avoid people.
Since the late Eighties, J. D. Salinger has lived with a younger woman by
the name of Colleen O'Neill.
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