J.D. Salinger dies at 91; reclusive author of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’

American novelist and short-story writer J.D. Salinger. The new documentary "Salinger" looks into the life of the mysterious author.
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After “The Catcher in the Rye” exploded onto the literary scene in 1951, author J.D. Salinger had what every writer yearns for -- money, fame and critical acclaim. “Catcher” became a touchstone for the teenage culture just emerging in post-World War II America, and has remained one for every generation of youths since.

But instead of basking in celebrity, Salinger walked away and slammed the door.After one brilliant novel, a novella and a couple of dozen short stories, he turned his back on the cult hunger for his writing and after 1965 refused to publish further. He guarded his privacy so fiercely that he sued to keep his words out of print.

Whether a cover-up for writer’s block or the ultimate expression of the alienation that defined his most famous protagonist, Holden Caulfield, Salinger’s stubborn silence only enlarged the cult. He remained an enigma to his death.


Salinger, 91, died of natural causes Wednesday at his home in Cornish, N.H., according to a statement from his longtime literary agency, Harold Ober Associates, which made the announcement on behalf of Salinger’s family.

“Despite having broken his hip in May, his health had been excellent until a rather sudden decline after the new year,” the statement said.

Citing the author’s “lifelong, uncompromising desire to protect and defend his privacy,” the statement said there would be no service and requested “that people’s respect for him, his work and his privacy be extended” to his family.

Asked if any new Salinger writing will be published, his agent, Phyllis Westberg, declined to comment.

Perhaps no other writer of so few known works generated as much popular and critical interest as Salinger, whose oeuvre includes “Franny and Zooey” (1961) and the collections “Nine Stories” (1953) and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction” (1963). The New Yorker published his last short story -- “Hapworth 16, 1924” -- in 1965.

His silence provoked 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 mythical status in American culture. Still others interpreted his withdrawal as the deliberate spiritual stance of a man immersed in Eastern religions, particularly Zen Buddhism and Hindu Vedantic philosophy.


Seeking meaning

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 Salinger was a direct participant.

Caulfield, his stellar fictional creation from “Catcher in the Rye,” was, like the author, unsuccessful in school and inclined to retreat from a world he perceived as hostile to his needs.

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

Renowned psychiatrist Robert Coles said that when he lived in the South in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, “scarcely a day went by that Salinger’s name wasn’t mentioned” by the young civil rights workers. 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 novelist Jack Kerouac and actor James Dean, whose life crises “spawned not only political activism, but also the cultural revolution of rock ‘n’ roll.”

“Catcher” began to appear on college reading lists in the ‘60s along with Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five,” but critic John Seelye, among other analysts, 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,” Salinger led the way. In the ensuing decades “Catcher” became one of the most-taught and most-banned books in the country.


Salinger also created the neurotic Glass family, which 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 into the book “Franny and Zooey.”

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 from the 1940s that 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, Salinger not only condemned the pirating but also 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 known work -- the novella-length “Hapworth 16, 1924” -- thrilled 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.

Fans regularly traveled to the remote New England hamlet to find Salinger but rarely made contact. He lived on a hill behind high walls, where a sign warned trespassers to keep out. He would not allow his photograph or personal information to appear on his book jackets. He even refused fan mail. “He just doesn’t want anything to do with the rest of us,” Lillian Ross, a longtime New Yorker writer and Salinger friend, once noted.


Jerome David Salinger was born in New York City on Jan. 1, 1919. His Scots-Irish mother, Marie Jillich, changed her name to Miriam when she married Sol Salinger, a Jewish importer of meats and cheeses. Jerome, known as Sonny, and his older sister, Doris, grew up on Manhattan’s East Side.

Sonny attended several public schools and the private McBurney School, racking up poor grades at all of them. According to biographer Paul Alexander, McBurney officials offered this withering appraisal when they kicked him out: “Character: Rather hard-hit by [adolescence] his last year with us. Ability: plenty. Industry: did not know the word.”

In desperation, his father sent him to Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania. It was there that Salinger, holding a flashlight under the covers of his dormitory bed, first began to write. His grades improved, and in 1936 Valley Forge awarded him what was to be his only diploma.

In 1939, he entered Pennsylvania’s Ursinus College but dropped out after nine weeks.

Back home in New York, he enrolled in a class at Columbia University taught by Whit Burnett, editor of the influential Story magazine, where such writers as William Saroyan, Norman Mailer and Carson McCullers had made their debuts. Burnett agreed to publish “The Young Folks,” one of the stories Salinger, then 21, had written for the class. A year later, Salinger stories appeared in Collier’s and Esquire.

In April 1942, four months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Salinger joined the Army but did not stop writing. He carried his typewriter all over Europe, reportedly even taking it with him into foxholes, and had several stories published in the Saturday Evening Post.

D-day landing


In 1944, Salinger, who was serving in counterintelligence, landed with the 4th Infantry Division at Normandy on D-day and stayed on through some of the war’s bloodiest campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge. According to biographer Ian Hamilton, the young writer may have experienced a nervous breakdown in July 1945, after fighting for nearly a year in Europe. He was hospitalized in Nuremberg, Germany, where he wrote to his new friend Ernest Hemingway that he faced the possibility of a psychiatric discharge; he was presumed to have earned a regular discharge before returning to civilian life in November of that year.

Stories that Salinger published around this time concerned soldiers on the verge of emotional collapse, including the first story narrated by Holden Caulfield. Published in Colliers in December 1945, it was titled “I’m Crazy.”

Just before he left the Army, Salinger married a French woman named Sylvia, about whom little is known. She was thought to be a doctor with Nazi ties who, according to the author’s daughter, Margaret Salinger, “hated Jews as much as he hated Nazis.” The eight-month marriage ended in 1946 during a Florida vacation, in a hotel much like the one Salinger would describe two years later in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Considered one of his finest stories, it features the sage but mentally fragile Seymour Glass, and ends in an inexplicable tragedy.

The same year that his marriage ended, Salinger received welcome news: The New Yorker had finally decided to publish a story of his that it had been holding for five years. The main character of “Slight Rebellion Off Madison Avenue” was Caulfield, another character in the middle of a nervous breakdown. “Slight Rebellion” later became the basis for a chapter in “The Catcher in the Rye.”

Salinger soon began to write exclusively for the New Yorker. Among the pieces that appeared there during the period leading up to 1951 was “For Esme -- With Love and Squalor,” whose narrator resembles the author. The character, a counterintelligence officer, seeks temporary refuge from World War II by taking tea in an English establishment, where he meets a precocious teenage girl named Esme and promises to write a story for her. It is one of Salinger’s most beloved works and reportedly elicited more reader response than any other story he had written.

Then, in 1951, came “The Catcher in the Rye.”

Salinger spent 10 years writing the novel, which opens with 17-year-old Caulfield in a California mental hospital describing three days he had spent in New York after flunking out of school for the third time. The rest of the book shows Caulfield in a series of misadventures that veer between the screamingly funny and the desperately sad.


The novel is written in the vernacular of an upper-middle-class, adolescent Manhattanite of the era. Caulfield litters his sentences with a lazy “and all” (as in how his parents “were occupied and all before they had me” or how they were “nice and all”) and is generous with obscenities. He is kind to children but distrusts everyone else, calling anyone or anything he dislikes “crumby” or “phony.”

The book stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 30 weeks. The Book-of-the-Month Club made it a main selection, an unusual honor for a first-time novelist. “Read five pages,” club editor Clifton Fadiman wrote, and “you are inside Holden’s mind, almost as incapable of escaping from it as Holden is himself.”

Time magazine also praised the book, noting that it offered “some of the most acidly humorous deadpan satire since the late great Ring Lardner.”

But T. Morris Longstreth in the Christian Science Monitor condemned it as “not fit for children to read” and said Caulfield was “pathetic beyond belief.” In the New York Times, James Stern mocked Salinger’s style, writing that the book “gets kind of monotonous. And [Salinger] should’ve cut out a lot about those jerks and all at that crumby school.” A memorable barb came from Mailer, who wrote, “I seem to be alone in finding [Salinger] no more than the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school.”

Avoiding publicity

Salinger beat his retreat soon after. He went to England to avoid publicity. After the novel went into its second printing, he ordered Little, Brown to remove his photograph from the book jacket. In 1953, he moved to New Hampshire, holing up in a remote rural spot of the sort that Caulfield longed to escape to. Salinger’s interest in Zen Buddhism deepened.


The first literary manifestations of his Buddhist influences appeared in the collection “Nine Stories.” Each story is a puzzle, like the Zen koan that Salinger chose to open the volume. It reads, “We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?”

Despite mixed reviews, “Nine Stories” spent three months on the New York Times bestseller list.

In this period, Salinger focused on the various members of the eccentric Glass family, which consisted of Irish-Jewish vaudevillians Bessie and Les and their brilliant children: Seymour, Buddy, twins Walt and Wake, Zooey, Boo Boo and Franny. Fans lined up at newsstands whenever a new Glass story was published in the New Yorker.

“Franny and Zooey” was a bestseller despite some of the harshest reviews of Salinger’s career. “To be confronted with the seven faces of Salinger, all wise and lovable and simple, is to gaze into a terrifying narcissus pool,” Mary McCarthy wrote.

John Updike allowed that when “all reservations have been entered in the correctly unctuous and apprehensive tone, about the direction [Salinger] has taken, it remains to acknowledge that it is a direction, and the refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all.”

Salinger’s last published word on the Glasses came in the long and rambling “Hapworth 16, 1924.” Consisting largely of a letter from camp written by an exceptionally precocious, 7-year-old Seymour, the story met with much critical disdain.


Nonetheless, the announcement more than three decades after its appearance in the New Yorker that it would be published as a book made headlines across the country. It prompted New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani to reassess the Glass saga, including “Hapworth,” which she concluded was “a sour, implausible, and, sad to say, completely charmless story.”

Shortly after Kakutani’s essay appeared, Orchises Press, the tiny Alexandria, Va., publishing company that had planned to reissue “Hapworth,” announced that publication had been indefinitely postponed. The author, as usual, had no comment.

Salinger was tall (over 6 feet) and darkly handsome. He married Claire Douglas, his second wife, in 1955, when she was a 19-year-old Radcliffe student and he was a 34-year-old rising literary star. The marriage produced two children: Margaret Ann, born in 1955, and Matthew, born in 1960.

Margaret Salinger, who became a lay minister, penned a stinging memoir called “Dream Catcher” (2000), in which she describes an exceedingly lonely childhood: “My father discouraged living visitors to such an extent that an outsider, looking in, might have observed a wasteland of isolation.” His marriage to Douglas ended in divorce in the late 1960s.

In addition to his son, daughter and three grandsons, Salinger is survived by his third wife, Colleen O’Neill, a former nurse about 50 years his junior, whom he was believed to have married in the late 1980s.

His most publicized relationship began in 1972, when the then-53-year-old author began corresponding with Yale University undergraduate Joyce Maynard, who was being touted in the press as her generation’s Holden Caulfield after the publication of her celebrated New York Times Magazine cover story, “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life.” When Salinger invited Maynard to live with him in New Hampshire, she dropped out of school and moved in for 10 months.


In a 1998 memoir, “At Home in the World,” Maynard devoted several chapters to their relationship, writing of their inability to have sexual intercourse because of a medical condition of hers, his absorption in homeopathy and his devotion to Reichian therapy. According to Maynard, Salinger also regularly induced himself to vomit after eating foods he deemed unhealthful and taught her to do the same.

Their relationship ended after a Time magazine reporter obtained Salinger’s unlisted phone number and asked him to comment on a story about Maynard, who had a book coming out. Salinger, apparently incensed by this intrusion, kicked Maynard out of the house.

Lawsuit’s irony

Salinger successfully barred the use of his personal letters in Hamilton’s 1988 biography, “In Search of J.D. Salinger.” Ironically, the author’s lawsuit resulted in broad public access to the very correspondence he was trying to suppress: In order to protect his letters, Salinger had to place them on file in the copyright office in New York, where anyone could read them for a modest fee.

In a deposition for the Hamilton case, Salinger said he was still writing fiction. And Maynard said Salinger had completed at least two books by the early 1970s but kept the manuscripts in a safe, where he wished them to remain. Describing publishing as an “embarrassment,” he told Maynard: “The poor boob who lets himself in for it might as well walk down Madison Avenue with his pants down.”

Nonetheless, he was an inspiration for other writers, such as W.P. Kinsella, who made Salinger a character in his 1982 novel “Shoeless Joe,” and Don DeLillo, who told Esquire magazine that “Mao II,” his 1991 novel about a reclusive novelist, was born in the instant that he noticed a tabloid photograph of Salinger with a haunted look on his face.


Novelist Herbert Gold once asked Salinger for permission to reprint one of his stories in an anthology. As Gold recounted in the 2002 book “Letters to J.D. Salinger,” edited by Chris Kubica and Will Hochman, Salinger wrote back but the answer, of course, was no.

Gold lost the letter but never forgot Salinger’s last words:

“I have my reasons.”