The reclusive writer inspired a generation

In 'Catcher,' he created quintessential teen anti-hero

January 29, 2010|By Elaine Woo | Tribune Newspapers

J.D. Salinger, one of contemporary literature's most famous recluses, who created a lasting symbol of adolescent discontent in his 1951 novel "The Catcher in the Rye," died Wednesday. He was 91.

Mr. Salinger died of natural causes at his home in Cornish, N.H., his son Matthew said in a statement from the author's longtime literary agency, Harold Ober Associates, which made the announcement on behalf of Mr. Salinger's family.

Perhaps no other writer of so few works generated as much popular and critical interest as Mr. Salinger, who published one novel, three authorized collections of short stories and an additional 21 stories that appeared in magazines only in the 1940s. He abandoned publishing in 1965, when his last story - "Hapworth 26, 1924" - was published by the New Yorker. Rarely seen in public and aggressively averse to most publicity, he was often called the Howard Hughes of American letters.

His silence inspired a range of reactions from literary critics, some characterizing it as a form of cowardice and others as a cunning strategy that, despite its outward intentions, helped preserve his mythic status in American culture

Mr. Salinger's stories - heavily autobiographical, humorous and cynical - focused on highly idiosyncratic urban characters seeking meaning in a world transformed by the horrors of World War II, in which he was a direct participant.

His stellar fictional creation was Holden Caulfield, the teenage anti-hero of "The Catcher in the Rye," who was, like Mr. Salinger, unsuccessful in school and inclined to retreat from a world he perceived as disingenuous and hostile to his needs.

A prototypical misfit, Caulfield apparently became a fixation for the criminally disturbed, including Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon, and John Hinckley Jr., who shot President Ronald Reagan. But Caulfield also cared about children and other innocents, exhibiting moral outrage and a compassion for underdogs that resonated with the generation that came of age in the 1960s.

Tom Hayden, the former '60s radical and California legislator who read "Catcher" as a teenager, called Caulfield one of several "alternative cultural models," along with novelists Jack Kerouac and actor James Dean, whose life crises "spawned not only political activism, but also the cultural revolution of rock and roll."

"Catcher" began to appear on college reading lists in the 1960s along with Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" and Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five," but critic John Seelye, among others, would later conclude that in "acting as a transcendental Special Prosecutor of Adult Values and making straight the way for the protest movements of the '60s," Mr. Salinger led the way.

In the ensuing decades, "Catcher" became one of the most banned and most taught books in the country. Mr. Salinger also created the neurotic Glass family, who first appeared in stories published in the 1940s and '50s. Among the best known are two long pieces published in the New Yorker in the 1950s and later combined in the book "Franny and Zooey" by Little, Brown in 1961. The Glasses also were featured in the collections "Nine Stories" (1953) and "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction" (1963).

An unauthorized collection, "The Complete Uncollected Short Stories of J.D. Salinger," was mysteriously published in 1974 and went out of print after some 25,000 copies were sold. It contained 21 pieces that originally appeared in magazines in the 1940s but that Mr. Salinger never wanted reprinted. The bootlegged edition so outraged the author that he broke two decades of silence when he sued to stop its sale.

In a rare interview, Mr. Salinger not only condemned the pirating but tried to explain his extraordinary reluctance to share his writing with readers.

"There is a marvelous peace in not publishing," he told The New York Times in 1974. "It's peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure." In 1997, the announcement by a small literary press that it would reprint his last work - the novella-length "Hapworth 16, 1924, " which was originally published in 1965 - caused excitement among a legion of hungry Salinger devotees. But the book never materialized, its cancellation as mysterious as the author who had led a hermitic life on a 99-acre estate in New Hampshire since 1953.

Jerome David Salinger was born in New York City on New Year's Day, 1919. His Scotch-Irish mother, Marie Jillich, changed her name to Miriam when she married Sol Salinger, a well-to-do importer of meats and cheeses. Jerome, known as Sonny, and his sister, Doris, eight years older, grew up on the fashionable East Side of Manhattan.

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