- Biographical Information
- Major Works
- Critical Reception
- Writings by the Author
- Further Readings about the Author
Salinger is recognized by critics and readers alike as one of the most popular and influential authors of American fiction to emerge in the years following World War II. Hailed for his mastery of symbolism, idiomatic style, and thoughtful, sympathetic insights into the insecurities that plague both adolescents and adults, he became equally legendary for his withdrawal from public life at the height of his fame. Critics have lauded his resonant exploration of adolescent angst in The Catcher in the Rye as well as his capacity to express his characters' profound dissatisfaction with the spiritual emptiness that lingers behind the bustle of contemporary life.
Salinger was born in the New York City borough of Manhattan to Sol Salinger, a Jewish importer of meat and cheese, and his Scots-Irish wife, Miriam Jillich Salinger. A subpar and unmotivated student, Salinger attended several public schools as well as the prestigious, private McBurney School. Flunking out of McBurney, he was sent to Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania, which became the model for the prep school in The Catcher in the Rye. After graduating in 1936, he briefly attended New York University before dropping out. Although his father wanted him to take over his import business, Salinger decided against a career in business and enrolled in Ursinus College, a liberal arts school in Pennsylvania. He dropped out after one semester and moved back in with his parents. During this time, he took courses in writing at Columbia University from Whit Burnett, an editor for Story magazine. Impressed by his student's work, Burnett included Salinger's first published story, "The Young Folks," in a 1940 edition of Story. In 1941 the New Yorker agreed to publish "Slight Rebellion off Madison," a story that served as the basis for The Catcher in the Rye, but decided to postpone publication due to the United States' entry into World War II. Although Salinger was drafted into the army in 1942, he continued to write, reportedly bringing his typewriter everywhere during his tour, including the battlefield. Several of the stories composed during the war were published in the Saturday Evening Post. Salinger served in counterintelligence and took part in the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, events that led to his hospitalization for "battle fatigue." In 1946 "Slight Rebellion off Madison" was finally published, and he began an exclusive relationship writing for the New Yorker. His reputation increased over the next few years, but it was the publication of The Catcher in the Rye that brought him widespread fame. The novel stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for thirty weeks and sparked a great deal of controversy over its use of coarse language and denigration of traditional values, which only added to its popularity. The sudden onset of fame unsettled Salinger, and he requested that his photograph be removed from the second printing of the novel. Upon publication of his collection Nine Stories in 1953, he moved to Cornish, New Hampshire, to get away from the press and public. From then onward, Salinger focused his work on the Glass family, a clan of socially maladjusted and psychologically unstable geniuses. After 1965 he largely disappeared from the public view. He resurfaced in the 1970s to file a lawsuit preventing the publication of an unauthorized collection of his short stories, in the late 1990s to decry the publication of a former lover's memoirs, and in the 2000s to fight against a proposed sequel to The Catcher in the Rye. In 2009 Salinger broke his hip but made a full recovery. However, his health went into sudden decline during the first few weeks of 2010, and he died of natural causes at his home in New Hampshire. He is survived by his third wife, Colleen O'Neill; his children, Matthew and Margaret; and three grandsons.
Salinger's achievement lies in his skillful expression of the increasing sense of alienation felt by young people in post-World War II America as they reluctantly faced an ominous future of enforced and thoroughly superficial conventionality. One of the most powerful and controversial aspects of this depiction is his use of colloquial speech to create convincing, accessible protagonists who voice their concerns in a way many can understand. The majority of his work revolves around the Glass siblings. The offspring of vaudeville performers, these seven gifted and emotionally fragile individuals all live under the shadow of Seymour, the eldest, a man of daunting and esoteric intellect who kills himself in his early thirties. "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" takes place during a vacation taken by Seymour and his wife Muriel. It opens with a sustained telephone conversation between Muriel and her mother in which both reveal themselves to be shallow, materialistic, manipulative, and glib. References to Seymour indicate that he has returned from his service in World War II clearly damaged by the experience and that his behavior has been eccentric at best, irresponsible at worst. However, these observations--which come through the overheard words of Muriel and her mother--shed more negative light on the two women than on Seymour, who does not appear until two-thirds of the way through the story. He is on the beach telling a young girl about "bananafish," fish that swim into holes but cannot get out because they have eaten too much. After spinning this strange parable of self-destruction, Seymour returns to his hotel room and, while Muriel is asleep, takes a pistol from his luggage and shoots himself in the head.
The long story "Franny" takes place in the fall of 1954 at an eastern Ivy League college. Franny, the youngest of the Glass daughters, arrives to attend the Yale football game at the college of her boyfriend, Lane Coutell. During their pregame lunch, Lane is depicted as a self-centered snob who dominates the conversation by describing his recent paper on French author Gustave Flaubert. Franny, who has been quiet to this point, sees that Lane epitomizes the phoniness in people that has been disturbing her greatly, and she and Lane get into an agitated discussion about poetry. Excusing herself, she goes to the lavatory and begins to cry. When she takes a small, green book from her purse and presses it to her chest, she is at once soothed. She rejoins Lane and tries to explain to him how disturbed she has become with the pettiness of college life and the egocentricity she observes around her. Reluctantly, she tells him of the green book, The Way of the Pilgrim, which instructs one how to pray until the meditation eventually becomes self-active. Lane, intent on consuming his frog legs, is obviously unmoved by Franny's fervor. More disturbed than ever, Franny attempts to return to the ladies' room but faints on the way. She is revived, and as the story ends her lips are silently moving, presumably forming the words to a prayer. "Seymour: An Introduction" is closer in form to a fictional essay than a proper narrative. It is told in the voice of Buddy Glass, the closest sibling to Seymour in both age and personal experience. At forty years old, Buddy attempts to explain how Seymour came to be viewed by his family as a great poet and holy man. After providing a general description of his brother's background and quirky personality, Buddy describes Seymour's poetry, prose, and physical appearance, ending with a series of anecdotes intended to reveal his brother's purely spiritual state of being. Along the way Buddy--a writer of fiction--ruminates on the writer's debt to his readers, his characters, and himself, and he contrasts his career with that of Seymour, who eliminated these concerns by choosing never to publish. This line of thought is believed to reflect Salinger's own attitude about being a writer; he once referred to Buddy Glass as his alter ego.
Salinger's most famous work, The Catcher in the Rye, focuses on the experiences of a painfully sensitive sixteen-year-old named Holden Caulfield. Set during the 1940s, the novel follows Caulfield as he spends several days wandering around New York City after being expelled from his fourth private school. Instinctively resistant to all authority and conformity, he detests "phonies" and is quick to expose gestures that reveal insincerity. Caulfield's search for authentic human contact and love becomes a frequently humorous parody of the classical heroic odyssey. Intent on finding a bond with someone of substance, he searches for an idealized female figure but instead finds himself interacting with prostitutes and street dwellers. In the end, it is his younger sister Phoebe who epitomizes the untainted feminine principle within the wasteland of adult hypocrisy, lust, and perversion. Caulfield unconsciously projects upon Phoebe all that he seeks in others, even though she is only ten years old. Despite her willingness to run away with him, however, Caulfield decides against drawing her into his unresolved conflict. He also seeks counsel from his former teacher and family friend, Mr. Antolini, but ultimately withdraws from the man's protective gestures. A final note of irony and desolation sounds in the last chapter, when it is revealed that Caulfield has been telling his story from the confines of a West Coast mental institution.
While some critics have claimed that Salinger's work suffers from a maudlin tone of emotional immaturity, most continue to view him as a leading figure in modern American literature. One reviewer who claimed that Salinger lapsed into undisciplined sentimentality in his later work was esteemed author John Updike; at the same time, Updike cited Salinger's early stories, especially "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," as a major influence on his own career. In addition, critics have interpreted "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" as a canny modernization of Aesop's fable "A Case for Patience," which may account for its timelessness. Salinger's stories also have been analyzed from a psychological perspective, with commentators seeking to provide insight into the tumultuous mental landscape of the Glass family. Scholar Senol Bezci, for instance, has invoked psychoanalyst Erik Erikson's theory of social development to underscore the true nature of the relationship between Franny Glass and Lane Coutell. "Traditional readers as well as most critics of Salinger erroneously tend to see Franny and Lane in a binary opposition: they praise Franny for being sensitive and genuine whereas condemn Lane for being shallow and phony," Bezci argued. "However, a beholder equipped with the knowledge of Erikson's theory ... can easily interpret that both characters are confused adolescents who could not successfully complete their identity formation." Furthermore, critics have maintained that, far from idealizing Holden Caulfield in the manner posited by many readers, The Catcher in the Rye condemns the young protagonist's detachment and pessimism. According to Leo Robson, "The book is not especially subtle in expressing its suspicion and criticism of Holden, which makes it all the more disappointing, in literary terms, that he has become a hero to readers young and psychologically unhinged." Moreover, Salinger's retreat from the world has sparked a great deal of interest over the years, with some reviewers speculating upon the author's activities in hiding and others asserting that his legendary status stems, in part, from the mythical air imparted by his disappearance. Ultimately, though, Salinger is remembered most for his unique and profoundly influential contribution to literature.
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
- The Catcher in the Rye (novel) 1951
- Nine Stories (short stories) 1953; also published as For Esmé--With Love and Squalor, and Other Stories
- Franny and Zooey (novellas) 1961
- Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Seymour--An Introduction (novellas) 1963
- The Complete Uncollected Short Stories of J. D. Salinger. 2 vols. (short stories) 1974
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
- duMais Svogun, M. "Repetition, Reversal, and the Nature of the Self in Two Episodes of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye." English Studies 90, no. 6 (December 2009): 695-706.
Underlines the thematic resonance that connects a scene between Holden and Phoebe to a scene between Holden and the prostitute, Sunny.
- Fassano, Anthony. "Salinger's 'A Perfect Day for Bananafish.'" Explicator 66, no. 3 (spring 2008): 149-50.
Notes similarities between Salinger's story and Aesop's fable "A Case for Patience."
- Garett, Leah. "The Kvetcher in the Rye: J. D. Salinger and Challenges to the Modern Jewish Canon." In Arguing the Modern Jewish Canon: Essays on Literature and Culture in Honor of Ruth R. Wisse, edited by Justin Cammy, Dara Horn, Alyssa Quint, and Rachel Rubinstein, pp. 645-59. Cambridge, Mass.: Center for Jewish Studies, Harvard University, 2008.
Compares the echoes of Jewish tradition in the works of Salinger and Franz Kafka.
- Gopnik, Adam. "J. D. Salinger." New Yorker 85, no. 48 (8 February 2010): 20.
Commends the attention to detail and emotional depth of Salinger's fiction.
- "In Memoriam J. D. Salinger." Writer's Digest (27 August 2010): http://www.writersdigest.com/article/in-memoriam-salinger/#
Praises Salinger's meticulous construction of Holden Caulfield's voice as a main reason for the longevity of The Catcher in the Rye.