Biography of J. D. Salinger

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J. D. Salinger

Name: J. D. Salinger
Bith Date: January 1, 1919
Death Date:
Place of Birth: New York, New York, United States
Nationality: American
Gender: Male
Occupations: writer

Best known for his controversial novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951), J. D. Salinger (born 1919) is recognized by critics and readers alike as one of the most popular and influential authors of American fiction to emerge after World War II. Salinger's reputation derives from his mastery of symbolism, his idiomatic style, and his thoughtful, sympathetic insights into the insecurities that plague both adolescents and adults.

Salinger's upbringing was not unlike that of Holden Caulfield, the Glass children, and many of his other characters. Raised in Manhattan, he was the second of two children of a prosperous Jewish importer and a Scots-Irish mother. He was expelled from several private preparatory schools before graduating from Valley Forge Military Academy in 1936. While attending a Columbia University writing course, he had his first piece of short fiction published in Story, an influential periodical founded by his instructor, Whit Burnett. Salinger's short fiction soon began appearing in Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, and other magazines catering to popular reading tastes. Salinger entered military service in 1942 and served until the end of World War II, participating in the Normandy campaign and the liberation of France. He continued to write and publish while in the Army, carrying a portable typewriter with him in the back of his jeep. After returning to the States, Salinger's career as a writer of serious fiction took off. He broke into the New Yorker in 1946 with the story "Slight Rebellion Off Madison," which was later rewritten to become a part of The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger quickly became one of the top contributors to the prestigious magazine. After The Catcher in the Rye was published, Salinger found himself at the center of a storm of controversy. His novel was lauded by many, but condemned by others for its language and social criticism. When it began to find its way onto the recommended reading lists of educational institutions, it became the target of numerous censorship campaigns. Salinger reacted to all the publicity by becoming increasingly reclusive. As years passed, and his continuing work on the Glass family saga drew increasing critical attacks from even those corners of the literary establishment that had once accorded him an almost cult-like reverence, he withdrew from publishing and public life altogether. His novella-length story "Hapworth 16, 1924," which once again revolved around an incident in the Glass family, appeared in the New Yorker in 1965; it was his last published work. Since the early 1960s, he has lived in seclusion in New Hampshire. Reportedly, he continues to write, but only for his own satisfaction; he is said to be completely unconcerned with his standing, or lack of it, in the literary world.

The Catcher in the Rye and much of Salinger's shorter fiction share the theme of idealists adrift in a corrupt world. Often, the alienated protagonists are rescued from despair by the innocence and purity of children. One of the author's most highly-acclaimed stories, "For Esme--With Love and Squalor" (collected in Nine Stories) concerns an American soldier, also an aspiring writer, who encounters a charming young English girl just before D Day. Almost a year later, suffering serious psychic damage from his combat experiences, the soldier receives a gift and a letter from the girl. Her unselfish gesture of love heals him and he is once again able to sleep and write. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield is driven to the brink of a nervous breakdown by his disgust for the "phoniness" of the adult world which he is about to enter. He finds peace only in the presence of Phoebe, his young sister. Much like Holden, Franny Glass (whose story "Franny" is half of Franny and Zooey) undergoes a physical and nervous collapse due to the conflict between her involvement with a crude, insensitive boyfriend and her desire for a pure, spiritual love experience. In the "Zooey" section of Franny and Zooey, Franny's older brother attempts to help her resolve her confusion by discussing with her the worldly nature of religious experience. But for some of Salinger's characters, like Seymour Glass, the only relief from the anguish of living in the hellish modern world is the ultimate escape. In "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" (collected in Nine Stories), Seymour encounters an innocent young child on the beach and converses with her; later that evening, he shoots himself in the head in his hotel room.

Beginning with The Catcher in the Rye , Salinger's work has provoked considerable comment and controversy. Critic James Bryan summarized the positive response to the work when he observed: "The richness of spirit in this novel, especially of the vision, the compassion, and the humor of the narrator reveal a psyche far healthier than that of the boy who endured the events of the narrative. Through the telling of his story, Holden has given shape to, and thus achieved control of, his troubled past." The book has also been praised retrospectively for its author's early depiction of dissatisfaction with the repression and smugness that characterized post-World War II America. The Catcher in the Rye has recurrently been banned by public libraries, schools, and bookstores, however, due to its presumed profanity, sexual subject matter, and rejection of traditional American values. Nine Stories also drew widely varied response. The volume's first story, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," has been read alternately as a satire on bourgeois values, a psychological case study, and a morality tale. Franny and Zooey, along with several of the pieces in Nine Stories, stands as Salinger's most highly acclaimed short fiction. Critics generally applauded the satisfying structure of "Franny," as well as its appealing portrait of its heroine, while "Zooey" was praised for its meticulous detail and psychological insight. Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction proved less satisfying to literary commentators, who began to find the Glass clan self-centered, smug, perfect beyond belief, and ultimately boring. It was after publication of Raise High the Roofbeam that the cult of Salinger began to give way to an increasing perception that the author was too absorbed in the Glass saga to maintain the artistic control necessary for literary art. Whatever the flaws detected, however, few deny the immediacy and charm of the Glasses, who are so successfully drawn that numerous people over the years have reportedly claimed to have had personal encounters with relatives of the fictitious family. In the decades since Salinger has stopped publishing, a more balanced reading of his work has emerged--one that acknowledges the artistic value of much of his canon, his influence on the style and substance of other writers, and, above all, his place of honor among young readers who have continued to identify with the confusion and ideals of Holden Caulfield.

Among post-World War II fiction writers, J. D. Salinger first rose to prominence with the publication of The Catcher in the Rye in 1951. Prior to that time Salinger had written only a handful of short stories published in popular magazines. The Catcher in the Rye insured his popularity, particularly among young readers, many of whom have found in Holden Caulfield's rebellion against the world of "phoniness" a model for the rejection of adult values and mores. While Salinger's novel is more complex than many first-time readers perceive, its appeal to both adolescents and adults remains strong, conferring upon it the status of a classic novel. Salinger's work following the phenomenal success of The Catcher in the Rye has been modest--even disappointing to some--considering the promise demonstrated by that first book. He has not published what may properly be spoken of as a "novel" during the intervening years, concentrating instead on short story cycles, frequently with interrelated themes and characters. In 1953 he collected a number of short pieces in Nine Stories, most of which had previously appeared in magazines, and each of which demonstrate his command of middle-class American colloquial speech, mastery of eccentric characterization, and deft irony.

Salinger was not to bring out another book until 1961, when his much anticipated Franny and Zooey appeared. This work consists of two long short stories, previously published in the New Yorker. Each concerns a crisis in the youngest member of his fictional Glass family--the quirky characters who populate most of his work. In 1963 Salinger published another Glass family story sequence, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction, again from two previously published New Yorker pieces. Both stories revolve around the life and tragic death of Seymour Glass, the eldest of the Glass children, as narrated by his brother Buddy Glass, who is frequently identified as Salinger's alter-ego. Another part of the Glass family chronicle, "Hapworth 16, 1924," a novella-length story told in the form of a letter, was published in the New Yorker in 1965. Although Salinger has not to date published any subsequent fiction, recurring reports suggest that he has continued to write.

Salinger's absorption with the neuroses of the various members of the Glass family has prompted a generally negative critical reaction to his efforts since the late 1950s. Perhaps part of his problem with critics--even those kindly disposed to him--has been his outright refusal to participate in the debate over his work. He attends no conferences, gives no lectures, and only on the rarest of occasions grants interviews. While Salinger's fictional characters have been endlessly analyzed and discussed, the author himself has remained a mystery. Since the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, he has consistently avoided contact with the public, obstructing attempts by those wishing to pry into his personal life. In 1987 he was successful in blocking in court the publication of an unauthorized biography by Ian Hamilton. In his suit, Salinger claimed copyright infringement on private letters Hamilton had discovered in the course of research and extensively quoted. Even after revising his material, Hamilton was unable to satisfy Salinger or the court and was forced to withdraw the book. In 1988 an extensively revised version of Hamilton's work was published under the title In Search of J. D. Salinger, which represents a comprehensive study of the elusive author and his work.

As a result of his reclusive habits, the record of Salinger's life remains incomplete. What is known, however, tends to confirm an often repeated observation that much of his writing is autobiographical. Salinger was born in New York City in 1919, and like the members of his fictional Glass family was the product of mixed parentage--his father Jewish and his mother Scotch-Irish. Unlike the Glass family with its brood of seven children, Salinger had only an elder sister. He grew up in fashionable areas of Manhattan and for a time attended public schools. Later, the young Salinger attended prep schools where he apparently found it difficult to adjust, causing, as Hamilton reports, concern within his family. In 1934 his father enrolled him at Valley Forge Military Academy near Wayne, Pennsylvania, where he stayed for approximately two years, graduating in June of 1936.

Valley Forge Military Academy provided the model for Pencey Prep in The Catcher in the Rye, though parallels between Salinger and the character Holden Caulfield cannot be drawn too closely. Unlike the academically and socially inept Holden, Salinger maintained average grades and was an active, if at times aloof participant in a number of extracurricular activities. He began to write fiction, often by flashlight under his blankets after lights out. Salinger contributed work to the school's literary magazine, served as literary editor of the yearbook during his senior year, participated in the glee club, and was active in drama club productions. He is also credited with composing the words to the school's anthem.

Salinger briefly attended New York University from 1936 to 1937, withdrawing to pursue a short-lived career as an "entertainer" aboard a Caribbean cruise ship. He then went abroad late in 1937 with his father to learn the operations of the family cheese importing business and to improve his skills in French and German. As the political situation worsened in Europe in 1938, he returned home and in the fall enrolled in Ursinus College at Collegeville, Pennsylvania. While at Ursinus he resumed his literary pursuits, contributing a humorous column to the school's weekly newspaper. He left the school after only one semester. Speaking about the experience in a rare interview, Salinger told Shirley Blaney, a high school student reporting for the school page in the Claremont, New Hampshire Daily Eagle, that he just didn't find college interesting and so left at mid-year. Obviously an intelligent and sensitive man, Salinger apparently didn't respond well to the structure and rigors of a college education. This attitude has found its way into much of his writing as there is a pattern throughout his work of impatience with the tedium of formal learning and academic types.

Despite his aversion to formal education, Salinger attended Columbia University in 1939 and participated in a class on short story writing taught by Whit Burnett. Burnett, a writer and important editor, made a lasting impression on the young author, and it was in the magazine Story, founded and edited by Burnett, that Salinger published his first story, "The Young Folks," in the spring of 1940. Encouraged by the success of this apprentice effort, Salinger continued to write, and after a year of rejection slips finally broke into the rank of well-paying magazines catering to popular reading tastes.

When the United States entered World War II, Salinger volunteered for service but was initially rejected because of a mild heart complaint. In the spring of 1942, however, he was reclassified and drafted into the army where he served until the end of the war. Salinger was stationed at several training centers around the country before going overseas in 1944. He trained with the Counter-Intelligence Corps in England and participated in the Normandy campaign and the liberation of France. Although he had applied for a commission, he never rose above the rank of sergeant, though at one point he was given the responsibility of interrogating enemy prisoners because of his knowledge of German. Salinger also witnessed some of the heaviest combat of the war, and was, as Hamilton reports, profoundly affected by it, being at one time hospitalized for combat-related stress.

Salinger also continued to write, pounding out his stories on a portable typewriter he carried with him in his jeep around the European battle theaters. Back home many of these were being published in the commercially successful magazines for which he had trained himself to write. Among these were Collier's, the Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, and Cosmopolitan, all of which combined a formula of general information, light entertaining fiction, and stylish advertisements meant to satisfy the voracious appetite of the American public for diverting reading material in the days before television. While none of these stories that appeared during the war are particularly noteworthy, they do demonstrate Salinger's developing skill.

The author apparently wished to forget these stories, refusing to republish any of them and doing all he could to prevent their distribution when a pirated edition of his uncollected pieces appeared in two volumes in 1974. Despite the best efforts of his lawyer and the FBI, as many as 25,000 copies of this spurious edition eventually found their way into public hands, mostly on the West Coast. In a telephone interview with Lacey Forsburgh for a November 1974 New York Times, Salinger expressed his outrage over the theft of his copyrighted property, his annoyance at the continued invasion of his privacy, and his reasons for not republishing any of his early work. He denied that he wished to hide anything, as some had charged, insisting instead that he only desired his apprentice work to be allowed "to die a perfectly natural death."

After the war Salinger, who stayed on in Europe as a civilian working for the army, married a French national. Very little is known about this union, except that the woman's first name was Sylvia and that she had some sort of professional credentials, possibly as a psychologist or osteopathic physician. The marriage ended in divorce soon after the couple's entrance into the United States in 1946. In 1955 Salinger married British-born Claire Douglas, whom he met while she was a student at Radcliffe, and by whom he had two children. That marriage also ended in divorce in 1967.

Back home in New York and living with his parents, Salinger continued to write stories for magazine publication. His story "Slight Rebellion Off Madison," which he had sold in 1941, was finally published in the New Yorker in December, 1946, beginning his long association with this important magazine. Although he has not chosen to reprint this story, parts of it were later rewritten for a chapter in The Catcher in the Rye. Another story, "I'm Crazy," which had appeared the previous December in Collier's, also dealt with Holden Caulfield and later found its way into the novel.

It was at this time that Salinger began his career as a writer of serious fiction. Between 1946 and 1951 he published seven stories in the New Yorker. His reception by the editors of this magazine during these years made him one of their top contributors and identified him with what the critic Maxwell Geismar, writing derisively about Salinger, calls the "New Yorker school of fiction." (A portion of Geismar's essay is collected in Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait, an early biographical and critical study edited by Henry Anatole Grunwald). According to Geismar, what typified this "school," for good or ill, was its appeal to a largely young, sophisticated, and well-educated audience, particularly the upper-middle-class sons and daughters of a renewed prosperity in America following the end of the Great Depression and World War II. In spite of its critics, the New Yorker was during these years, and continues to be, the premiere magazine for serious writers.

Among the stories Salinger published during the late 1940s was an account of a somewhat peculiar character who suddenly, violently, and almost inexplicably commits suicide. This story, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," was the first featuring the mysterious, brooding, and tragic Seymour Glass, a character who haunts so much of Salinger's later work. Initiating the long and complex saga of the Glass family, the story examines Seymour's life, spiritual quest, and unhappy end around which all of the Glass stories are organized. It also contains themes and concerns central to Salinger's work: the conflict between the spiritual questor and the crass materialist, the loss of childhood innocence in a perverse world, and the search for genuine love amidst often adulterated human relationships.

Although this story ends with the shocking scene of Seymour calmly sitting on the bed opposite his sleeping wife and blowing out his brains, it does not depend on sensationalism to achieve its impact. Rather, the ending builds naturally from the ambivalence created in the reader's mind toward the troubled character of Seymour, who seems simultaneously innocent and threatening, spiritual and vaguely perverse. This depth of characterization--often beneath the most guileless surface--is a trademark of Salinger's fiction, lending it what Frederick Gwynn and Joseph Blotner, writing in The Fiction of J. D. Salinger, have described as "a power beyond melodrama." In J. D. Salinger, Revisited, Warren French, numbers "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" among the "best-known" stories written since the end of World War II and declares that its complexities and significance make it more than simply a "springboard" to the later Glass cycle.

The stories that Salinger wrote during the later 1940s and early 1950s illuminate not only the author's development as an artist, but also the development of American literature in what critics have come to call the Post-Modernist period--from 1950 on. Writers during this period were responding to what they perceived as the threatening implications of the post-war world, in which whole populations had recently been exterminated and in which there existed the possibility of imminent nuclear destruction. It is little wonder that the art of this period should reflect a growing sense of despair, paranoia, and irrational violence. With writers such as Salinger, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Pynchon, all of whom have emerged in the period since mid-century, there has been just such a shift in perception.

While it is hasty to suggest that Salinger was writing stories completely hopeless in their outlook, most of those he wrote during his most intensely creative period and collected in Nine Stories demonstrate the seemingly insoluble dilemma people face in coming to terms with the hell that has been either self-created in their own minds, or imposed upon them by the hostile conditions of contemporary life. In many of these stories, frequent victims of the sinister nature of the modern world are children groping with the mysterious problems of the adult world. Such is the case in the stories "Teddy," "Down at the Dinghy," and "The Laughing Man." Other stories, however, focus upon the problems of adults, portraying them as hapless figures unable to deal with the complex emotional entanglements of their lives--Seymour Glass for example--or as active exploiters of other people. In the story "Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes," for instance, a man tries to comfort a late night caller who suspects his absent wife of infidelity. As the man calmly and rationally explains away the caller's fears, he is all the while lying in bed next to his friend's wife. Such lapses in personal morality are also a common feature of Salinger's work, making this story typical of what French calls "the pit of the modern urban hell," and one of the writer's most "bitter, cynical stories."

In such a world, Seymour's final gesture seems almost to be a sensible solution to the vulgarity and phoniness of modern life. Although Salinger's world appears to be completely divided between the exploiters and their victims, a closer understanding of the author's work reveals that he offers responses other than suicide to cruelty, betrayal and hostility--responses that involve spiritual approaches to life. Much has been written about Salinger's interests in Zen Buddhism and other Eastern religious philosophies that emphasize the abandonment of material values and the dissolution of the personal ego as a requisite for the enlightenment of the soul. Nonetheless, it is a well-known fact that since the late 1940s he has been an adherent of these ideas and a serious student of the East. His interest in these concepts has obviously crept into his fiction--particularly the later Glass stories narrated by Buddy Glass, which frequently discuss Zen practices. Writing in Modern Fiction Studies, Bernice and Sanford Goldstein demonstrate the degree to which the tenets of Zen inform all of the author's major work, including many of the early pieces collected in Nine Stories .

Although the Goldsteins' approach to Salinger's work has provided an important key for in-depth interpretations of the fiction, a thorough knowledge of Eastern belief is not really necessary for readers' enjoyment or understanding of any of it. In more conventional terms one could say that Salinger's fiction involves the traditional quest motif with characters searching for wisdom or enlightenment (as are Seymour and Buddy Glass) or even more mundane things such as simple decency and a place to belong (as is Holden Caulfield).

Another object of quest in Salinger's fiction, and perhaps the most profound, is what Dan Wakefield describes in an article in Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait as the search for love. Wakefield argues that the search for unadulterated emotional contact is central to Salinger's work, which, he concludes, can be seen as "the history of human trouble and the poetry of love." The power of unqualified love as a restorative agent against the evils of life is perhaps best illustrated in another of the stories appearing in Nine Stories, but originally published in the New Yorker in 1950. This story, "For Esme--With Love and Squalor," is one of Salinger's most expertly crafted and is perhaps, as Gwynn and Blotner suggest, his finest piece of short fiction. It is also among the most celebrated stories coming out of the World War II experience.

In the story a young English girl redeems an American soldier suffering from combat fatigue. The story is told by an unnamed narrator, a striving writer, who recalls his meeting with the thirteen-year-old Esme and her younger brother in a Devon tearoom one rainy afternoon just before D Day. Struck by her innocent beauty, precocity, and native charm, he promises to write a story for her about "squalor." Almost a year later while the soldier is recovering from a nervous reaction to combat, and still surrounded by the lingering hellish images of the just-ended war, he receives a battered package from Esme in which he finds enclosed with a letter the gift of her dead father's watch. In the letter she reminds him of his promise to write a story for her about "squalor," wishes him well, and remarks that she hopes he comes through the war with all of his "faculties intact." Reading her letter and contemplating its unselfish expression of affection, the narrator finds himself able to sleep (a restorative agent in Salinger's fiction). His recovery allows him to write this story and fulfill his promise six years later, which he does after receiving an invitation to Esme's wedding.

This gesture of Esme's--what Ihab Hassan, in Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait, calls "The Rare Quixotic Gesture"--represents Salinger's most eloquent answer to the dilemma of modern life. It also lies close to the center, as Hassan notes, of The Catcher in the Rye. While Holden Caulfield is decidedly a rebel against his society, his rebellion is one that strangely, does not attempt to overturn the established values system; rather, what Holden insists upon is that those values be restored from the perversion they have suffered under the world of "phonies." As Hugh Maclean notes in College English, this novel is in many ways a conservative work, expressing the increasing difficulty of attaining moral stability in a world demonstrably prone to destroying its most treasured values. If such is the case, there has probably not been any other work of traditional values more misunderstood and actively persecuted than The Catcher in the Rye.

Although the completed novel was not published until 1951, Salinger's friend and editor William Maxwell reported in the Book-of-the-Month Club News during the summer of the novel's appearance that the author had worked on the story for ten years. According to Maxwell, Salinger had once had a ninety-page version of the novel accepted for publication but withdrew it because he felt it was flawed. As the novel stands today, it represents perhaps the most sensitive portrait of coming-of-age in America in the years following World War II. Few other books have had as great an impact on a generation--so much so that its main character, the puckish Holden Caulfield, has entered the popular mythology of American culture alongside such figures as F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby and Mark Twain's Huck Finn. As Edgar Branch points out in an essay in Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait, the pattern of similarity between Huck and Holden is striking, making The Catcher in the Rye "a kind of Huckleberry Finn in modern dress."

Holden, like Huck, flees from the world of conventionality. Holden's flight from Pencey Prep a few days before the beginning of Christmas vacation is partly a reaction to his inability to cope with his schoolmates, but also a vain attempt to forestall his flunking out of school. During the course of the story--narrated in the first person by Caulfield--readers learn that this is his third failure at school and part of a pattern of neurotic behavior, much of which, one suspects, is Holden's reaction to the death of a younger brother. Although Holden is well aware of his own limitations, he fails to identify or understand his inability to come to terms with the conditions of the adult world; he instead directs his complaints against the world of "phoniness," which includes most adults.

Taking flight from this world, Holden plans to head west, where he hopes to live a pastoral existence in a log cabin. However, he begins his journey by traveling to New York where he plans to say goodbye to his sister, and on the way he participates in a series of humorous adventures. Such a confusion in direction is characteristic of Caulfield, as there seems to be a pattern of impulsive behavior in many of his actions. In fact, one of Salinger's more subtle devices is to undercut his main character by placing him in situations wherein his own phoniness is exposed, and yet making his character all the more engaging through what readers quickly perceive as his sensitivity and native intelligence. Throughout the story Holden adopts many roles to deceive other people--the parent of an acquaintance, a pair of nuns, and a prostitute. His motivation, however, is not to exploit others, but rather a ploy to establish some contact with other people--regardless of how inappropriate that contact may be. In this respect, much of Holden's sympathetic appeal lies in his loneliness and difficulty in trying to sort out the confusing impulses of the adult world.

Another source of the novel's success lies in its elaborate structure, a structure that on the surface seems rambling and inconclusive. However, as Carl F. Strauch demonstrates in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, a close scrutiny of the novel reveals "complex patterns" of "symbolic structure of language, motif, episode, and character," all of which contribute to its affirmative quality. Strauch also takes issue with critics who discounted the novel's significance, calling it instead a "masterpiece that moves effortlessly on the colloquial surface and at the same time uncovers, with hypnotic compulsion, a psychological drama of unrelenting terror and final beauty."

At the very least, Salinger's mastery of the colloquial speech patterns of a mid-twentieth-century American teenager stands as a major achievement. His achievement is perhaps even more significant, considering that he has not only faithfully reproduced all of the typically adolescent qualities of Holden's voice (its lapses in logic, reliance on redundant expressions, and absolutely flat delivery), but he has also lent it an eloquence which almost magically arises from the seemingly inarticulate.

Despite his confusion and ignorance Holden is able to communicate and even express his experience in metaphoric terms. In the most crucial scene in the novel Holden, misquoting a line from Robert Burns, describes his mission in life as a "catcher in the rye," a figure who wishes to keep all of the children in the world from falling off "some crazy cliff." This, then, is Holden's "quixotic gesture," his reaching out to others in an act of selfless love, even from the depths of his own confusion and grief. The ultimate irony is that Holden's gesture is doomed to failure as he cannot prevent his own fall into the adulterated world of experience, much less the fall of others--a condition he begins to accept at the end of the story. This irony does not diminish the quality of Holden's gesture, making it instead all the more profound.

It is little wonder that The Catcher in the Rye quickly became a favorite among young people because it so skillfully validates adolescent experience with its spirit of rebellion. However, despite its popular success, the critical response to the novel was slow in getting underway. It was not until after the publication of Nine Stories in 1953 that Salinger began to attract serious critical attention. By the mid-1950s to the early 1960s a Salinger industry had developed, particularly among younger scholars, who as college instructors identified with their students' concerns, which Salinger expressed so well. Through the later 1950s his notoriety was further enhanced by the gradual unfolding of the Glass saga in the pages of the New Yorker. Despite Salinger's departure from more conventional modes of narrative, the Glass stories generated considerable interest during this period.

Salinger's most recently published work has been the Glass family saga. Perhaps the best way to grasp the long and complex story of the "House of Glass" (as it is frequently termed) is to consider its separately published parts as a complete unit, as does Eberhard Alsen in his critical study Salinger's Glass Stories as a Composite Novel. According to Alsen, Salinger molds his material into a kind of Kunstler-Roman, or novel about the growth of an artist's aesthetic sensibility. The cycle of Glass stories is therefore comparable in its intention to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Wilhelm Meister or James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The Glass saga consists of six short stories that have been published as "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" (in Nine Stories), Franny and Zooey,Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction, and "Hapworth 16, 1924" (uncollected). Other Glass stories dealing with more peripheral members of the family were apparently also published in Nine Stories, but they contribute little to the development of the central plot and were probably written at a time before Salinger had fully conceived the possibilities for the series. Alsen identifies three major themes in the Glass cycle: 1) the concern for the lack of spiritual values in contemporary America; 2) the development of Buddy as a writer; and 3) Seymour's quest for enlightenment. These themes are also consistent with the concerns Salinger has expressed in much of his other work as well, particularly the relationship between religion and art in human experience.

Although Seymour Glass is at the core of the Glass cycle, he actually appears only in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," in which he commits suicide. Whether or not Seymour's final act confirms his role as a true visionary or a "failed guru" is the subject of considerable critical debate; however, the issue finally is moot since Seymour's success or failure in resolving his own spiritual conflicts is far less important than the effect his teaching has in helping to resolve the conflicts of his younger siblings. It is the latter influence that makes Seymour the crucial figure in the series.

In "Franny," the most conventional story of the cycle, the youngest of the Glass daughters suffers physical and nervous collapse as she tries to reconcile her desire for a pure spiritual experience with her involvement in a sexual relationship with her crude, insensitive boyfriend. Franny's crisis continues into the companion story, "Zooey," in which her elder brother, a successful television actor, is able to mediate her concerns by reminding her of the example of Seymour, who once helped Zooey understand the importance of accepting the worldly nature of religious experience. In his conversations with his sister, and his mother, Zooey also finds his own spiritual awareness enhanced.

In "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters," Buddy Glass retrospectively narrates his attendance at Seymour's wedding in 1942, an event the groom chose not to attend, eloping instead with his fiancee Muriel. Again, in this story Seymour is not physically present; but his peculiar character generates discussion about him by the indignant wedding guests. Buddy overhears and records their negative comments, which reinforce his own understanding of his brother's special sensibility. Buddy recognizes that Seymour will not allow what he actually is to be compromised by the world's perceptions of him.

In another case, the problem of accurately perceiving his brother prompts Buddy years later to write "Seymour: An Introduction," which he intends to serve as a guide for the "general reader" to the saintly nature of his dead brother. In a rambling and at times seemingly chaotic narrative, Buddy often reveals more about himself and his own opinions of life and literature than he does about Seymour. In this respect the "Introduction" is never quite complete; Seymour remains a mysterious presence not fully comprehensible to the reader. Buddy's "Introduction," Salinger's most experimental piece of fiction, is described by French as a fascinating, "even if not a convincing work."

French also notes that as Salinger's concept of the series evolved, his isolation from the public increased, so much so that he began to lose touch with the concerns and tastes of his readers. This observation seems particularly appropriate to the final segment of the Glass cycle--and Salinger's last piece of published fiction to date--"Hapworth 16, 1924." The story consists of a long letter written by Seymour, aged seven, to his family describing his and five-year-old Buddy's experiences at summer camp. The masterful prose and flashy displays of erudition seem entirely implausible for a young child, even one with Seymour's special gifts; however, as French suggests, the disparity between what is plausible and what appears on the page only underscores the "heart-rending evocations of an exquisitely sensitive young person trapped in a situation for which he can find no physical or metaphysical justification." Indeed, French's remarks underline the tragic implications of Seymour's brief and unhappy existence and explain the mournful tone in the Glass stories, which seems always present despite the jaunty, often humorous nature of the surface narrative.

Neither the implications of a writer's work nor his supposed intentions can rescue inferior work. Salinger's absorption with and final disappearance into the Glass cycle may have removed him from a position as a first-rank author, as certain critics contend. While he is generally applauded for The Catcher in the Rye, his later work has raised questions about whether or not he has matured enough as a writer to justify the attention he continues to receive. Novelist Norman Mailer remarks in his Advertisements for Myself that Salinger was "the greatest mind to ever stay in prep school." Mailer goes on to complain that Salinger avoided the discomforting subjects demanded of serious writers. These comments were reinforced two years later by Alfred Kazin who, in a review of Franny and Zooey collected in Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait, accuses Salinger of appealing to a "vast public" of readers "released by our society to think of themselves as endlessly sensitive, spiritually alone, gifted, and whose suffering lies in the narrowing of their consciousness to themselves." The attack on the "House of Glass" was further increased by the novelist John Updike's review of Franny and Zooey in Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait. Updike points to Salinger's apparent loss of artistic objectivity: "Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. Their invention has become a hermitage for him. He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation."

Despite the generally negative reaction to Franny and Zooey, the novel became a popular success, and for a time through the 1960s Salinger's fiction attracted considerable attention. However, interest in his later work began to evaporate with the appearance of the final Glass stories and his abandonment of publishing altogether. The Catcher in the Rye has remained a popular and critical success. It has even become a classroom staple despite its continuing problems with censors. There is little doubt that with this novel alone Salinger has made an enduring contribution; however, major literary reputations are not built on one slim volume. Like many popular writers, Salinger is perhaps a victim of his own success. However, since the clamor surrounding his almost cult status has subsided, more balanced approaches to his canon have appeared--among them those by French, New Republic contributor Robert Coles, and Commentary contributor Terry Teachout.

For years Salinger seemed entirely unconcerned about his critical standing and had frequently expressed contempt for the industry of literary criticism, choosing to withdraw his writing from publication in order to avoid fueling this industry. However, Salinger announced early in 1997 that he is bringing out another book, not a new story, but one called Hapworth 16, 1924, which appeared in the New Yorker in the 1960's. Read in retrospect, that story continues the saga of the Glass family. The New Yorker takes the form of a letter ostensibly written from summer camp by 7-year-old Seymour Glass.

Deemed the "Summer of Salinger" by columnist Liz Smith, the summer of 1999 saw the release of the latest Salinger biography and the sale of love letters the author wrote to a former girlfriend. Paul Alexander's Salinger: A Biography, published on July 15, 1999, is the first full-length Salinger biography since Ian Hamilton's in 1988. Salinger has not made an effort to limit the release of the book, unlike the Hamilton biography. A set of 14 letters Salinger wrote to onetime live-in girlfriend and writer Joyce Maynard were sold for $156,000 at a Sotheby's auction in June 1999. The letters were bought by software millionaire Peter Norton who reportedly planned to return the letters to the author.

Today Salinger lives in seclusion in rural New Hampshire, writing for his own pleasure and presumably enjoying his private world.

Associated Works

Franny and Zooey, Nine Stories, Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters (Short fiction), The Catcher in the Rye (Novel)

Historical Context

  • The Life and Times of J.D. Salinger (1919-)
  • At the time of Salinger's birth:
  • Woodrow Wilson was president of the U.S.
  • Versailles Peace Conference opened outside Paris
  • Race riots erupted in 26 U.S. cities
  • Sir Barton became the first Triple Crown winner in U.S. horse racing
  • The pogo stick was patented
  • The times:
  • 1939-1945: World War II
  • 1950-1953: Korean War
  • 1960-present: Postmodernist period in American literature
  • 1957-1975: Vietnam War
  • 1983: American invasion of Grenada
  • 1991: Persian Gulf War
  • 1992-1996: Civil war in Bosnia
  • Salinger's contemporaries:
  • John H. Johnson (1918-) American publisher
  • Nelson Mandela (1918-) South African president
  • Nat "King" Cole (1919-1965) American jazz singer
  • Malcolm Forbes (1919-1990) American businessman
  • Edmund Hillary (1919-) New Zealand Everest explorer
  • Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) American writer
  • Ray Bradbury (1920-) American writer
  • Selected world events:
  • 1923: First issue of Time magazine was published
  • 1934: Outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were killed in a shootout with lawmen
  • 1955: Tennessee Williams published Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  • 1962: Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was hanged in Israel
  • 1970: French war hero and president Charles de Gaulle died
  • 1974: Richard Nixon resigned from office
  • 1981: Sandra Day O'Connor became first female Supreme Court justice
  • 1993: Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas burned down

Further Reading

  • Alsen, Eberhard, Salinger's Glass Stories as a Composite Novel, Whitson, 1983.
  • Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 2, Gale, 1989, pp. 201-10.
  • Belcher, W. F., and J. W. Lee, editors, J. D. Salinger and the Critics, Wadsworth, 1962.
  • Bloom, Harold, editor, J. D. Salinger: Modern Critical Views, Chelsea House, 1987.
  • Carpenter, Humphrey, Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children's Literature, Houghton, 1985.
  • Children's Literature Review, Volume 18, Gale, 1989, pp. 171-94.
  • Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: The New Consciousness, 1941-1968, Gale, 1987, pp. 448-58.
  • New York Times, February 20, 1997, p. C15.

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