Friday, January 29, 2010

The Late Great J. D. Salinger

Reclusive author J. D. Salinger died Wednesday at the age of 91. He is best known as the author of the classic novel The Catcher in the Rye.

Jerome David Salinger was born on January 1, 1919 in New York City. As of his birth, his family was living in Harlem, but soon moved to West 82nd Street and later Park Avenue. He attended McBurney School in New York City but flunked out after only two years. He was then shipped off to Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania. The he was the manager of the academy's fencing team and editor of the yearbook, Crossed Swords. Salinger attended New York University for a few weeks before dropping out to learn the business of selling ham from his father. Deciding he had little interest in the family business, Salinger then attended Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania briefly. For the most part higher education would make little impact on J. D. Salinger, with the exception of a night class he took at Columbia University under Whit Burnett in 1939. It was that class which would lead J. D. Salinger to his first sale, the short story "The Young Folks" to Story  magazine. Afterwards he sold stories to Esquire, Colliers, and The Saturday Evening Post.

It was in 1941 that he made his first sale to The New Yorker. The story, "Slight Rebellion Off Madison," made the magazine so nervous that they held off publishing it for five years. It was finally published in 1946 and would later provide fodder for one of the scenes in The Catcher in the Rye.  During World War II Salinger was draughted and served in the Counter-Intelligence Corps of the Fourth Infantry Division. He was among the troops who landed at Utah Beach and later saw action in the Battle of the Bulge. He ended the war hospitalised for combat fatigue.

Following the war J. D. Salinger returned to New York and resumed his writing career. In 1948 The New Yorker published "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" to much acclaim. This was the beginning of a close relationship between Salinger and the magazine, who afterwards published several of his stories including "For Esmé - with Love & Squalor," "Franny and Zooey (later the basis for the book of the same name)," "Just Before the War with the Eskimos," and others. He even became close friends with The New Yorker's legendary editor William Shawn.

It was on July 16,1951 that The Catcher in the Rye was published. The genesis of the novel apparently went back to the early Forties, as Salinger told several people that he was writing a novel based around Holden Caulfield, the hero of his short story "Slight Rebellion Off Madison." As published the novel followed Caulfield in New York City after his expulsion from an exclusive prep school. Initial reaction to the novel was decidedly mixed, with reactions ranging from rave reviews to attacks on Salinger's writing style and his use of both sex and profanity. By the end of the Fifties, however, the novel had developed a cult among the nation's youth. Even after becoming regarded as a classic, however, it would still be banned in many high school libraries, and even remains so to this day.

In 1953 J. D. Salinger followed The Catcher in the Rye with the publication of the anthology Nine Stories (known as For Esmé – with Love and Squalor in the UK).  It was that same year that Salinger moved from New York City to Cornish, New Hampshire. Initially in Cornish he was friendly to the local youth, until one of them interviewed him for the school paper. The interview appeared on the editorial page of the local newspaper. Salinger then cut off all contact with the local teenagers and only associated with one local resident, the renowned Judge Learned Hand, with any frequency.

Living the life of a recluse, J. D. Salinger continued to write stories for The New Yorker and other magazines. In 1961 he published the book Franny and Zooey, which examined the lives of sister and brother Franny and Zooey Glass. In 1963 he published Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. Like Franny and Zooey, the book consisted of two novellas and centred on members of the Glass family. Salinger would publish only one more story, "Hapworth 16, 1924 (again centring on a member of the Glass family), in the June 19, 1965, issue of The New Yorker. Reportedly Salinger continued to write for the rest of his life, but for his own pleasure and not for publication.

J. D. Salinger may well be better known for being a recluse than he is for his writing. After all, it doubtful that the average person can name any of his works besides The Catcher in the Rye. In many respects this is a shame. While The Catcher in the Rye is such a monolithic work that it is perhaps natural that it should overshadow every other thing Salinger wrote, his short stories were also masterworks. Perhaps no other author ever wrote so well about young people. Indeed, his style would seem to appear in youth. It was powerful, with dialogue that was both sparse and realistic. His characters were never cardboard cutoffs, but well rounded individuals with a life all their own. Indeed, in later years Salinger nearly did away with plots entirely, concentrating entirely on character. For any other writer this may have been a foolhardy manoeuvre at best, but Salinger made it work and work well. Although he was famous for his reclusiveness, he should perhaps be more famous as one of the great writers of the late 20th century.

1 comment:

Fabienne said...

He was a unique voice and had the unique ability to convey teenage angst. We may have read his books in our teens, they still haunt us in our adult lives...