J.D. Salinger Dies; Reclusive 'Catcher' Author
The news flashed across the wire in an appropriately enigmatic style: "Catcher in the Rye" author J.D. Salinger has died at age 91 in New Hampshire. No date of death, no cause of death, and it all came from a statement from the author's literary representative, quoting a surviving son.
Former staff writer Bart Barnes wrote our obit, which starts this way:
J.D. Salinger, 91, a celebrated author and enigmatic recluse whose 1951 novel, "The Catcher in the Rye," became an enduring anthem of adolescent angst and youthful rebellion and a classic of 20th-century American literature, has died.
To generations of men and women in the years after World War II, "The Catcher in the Rye," was the singular, tell-it-like-it-is story about the mind-set of a sensitive youth, cynical yet romantic; disdainful of hypocrisy, social convention and conformity; self-conscious, and uncomfortable in his own skin; confused and pathetic but also loveable.
The novel is about the adventures and misadventures of a disillusioned 16-year old who knows he is about to be expelled from his boarding school, Pencey Prep, and decides to run away instead. Over three-days in New York City, he has a run of weird encounters with taxi drivers, nuns, an elevator man, three girls from Seattle, a prostitute and a former teacher. In his eyes, the world is controlled and dominated by "phonies," whom he cannot abide, and he struggles with limited success to come to terms with love, sex and, ultimately, himself. In an encounter with his kid sister, Phoebe, he finds affection and salvation.
In the more than half-century since the novel's publication, its protagonist, Holden Caulfield, has joined the ranks of such literary legends as F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn as a folk hero of American fiction, with near-universal name recognition.
It also could have made Mr. Salinger a national celebrity, but he detested the public spotlight and not long after the book appeared, withdrew to the hills of rural New Hampshire, where he lived in seclusion. He shunned contact with the media and the public, and filed lawsuits to block publication or quotes from his personal letters. He continued writing, but not since a short story appeared in the New Yorker in 1965, has any new writing of Mr. Salinger's been published. Earlier, the New Yorker had published J.D. Salinger short stories, but to the majority of the reading public he was known only as the author of "The Catcher in the Rye."
Throughout the 1950s and into the new millenium, "The Catcher in the Rye" had annual sales figures in the hundreds of thousands. Holden Caulfield became a teenage Everyman whose wry and caustic observations seemed to be outrageous, clever and on-the-mark. From the beginning, in its cadence and language, his speech gave the youthful protagonist air of authenticity and timelessness.
"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them."
Sociologist David Riesman assigned the book at Harvard in his course on character and social structure in the United States, perhaps, said Time magazine in a 1961 cover story, "because every campus has its lonely crowd of imitation Holdens -- doomed wearers of raincoats-in-December, who rehearse faithfully their Caulfield hyperbole ('It was the last game of the year, and you were supposed to commit suicide or something if old Pencey didn't win.')"
When "The Catcher in the Rye" appeared in summer 1951, William Maxwell, the author's friend and editor, reported in Book-of-the-Month-Club News that Mr. Salinger had worked on the novel for 10 years and at one point had withdrawn a 90-page version that had been accepted for publication because he felt the work was flawed.
The title is based on a line from the Scottish poet Robert Burns. In the story, a mistaken rendering of the line causes Holden Caulfield to imagine himself as a "catcher in the rye," responsible for keeping the children of the world from falling off "some crazy cliff."
Although he wrote for more than six decades, Mr. Salinger published no other full-length novel. His shorter fiction included "Nine Stories" (1953); "Franny and Zooey" (1961), which combined two stories; and "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction" (1963), which essentially combined two novellas. Much of this work was published initially in the New Yorker magazine, as was his last story to be published, "Hapworth 16, 1924," which appeared in the New Yorker in 1965.
In 1953 Mr. Salinger moved to Cornish, N.H. where he lived in a hilltop cottage overlooking the Connecticut River, jealously guarding his privacy. "There is a marvelous peace in not publishing," he told the New York Times in a rare 1974 telephone interview. "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."
Our full obituary will appear online presently, but tell us your thoughts on Salinger's life and work.
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