January 28, 2010 | 5:18 pm
Posted by Tom Teicholz
J. D. Salinger, the novelist whose “Catcher in the Rye,” was the gateway drug for a generation of teenagers, readers and writers resisting the social conformity, and who became almost as famous for being reclusive as he was for his novel and his collections of short stories, died at his home in New Hampshire, at 91. He last published in 1965; Salinger claimed that he continued to write and would no longer be published during his lifetime.
With Salinger’s death, the literary world awaits to find out, after more than 50 years of waiting, whether in fact,Salinger left completed work — stories, novels, even poems — and whether it is coherent and intelligible, interesting or out-of-date — whether any of it is good, or even perhaps, great.
In Catcher in the Rye created a teenager character who spoke the feelings of teenagers of all ages, in decrrying the behavior of “phonies.” In his subsequent short story collections, Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenter” Salinger described characters at odds with themselves — and though many readers found them plain odd, they found them compelling. “The Catcher in the Rye” remains one of the perennial best-selling novels, read in schools across the country and the globe, holding a special place on the bookshelves of many. But Salinger’s last published stories, increasingly influenced by Salinger’s own experiments in eastern thinking, give one pause about what direction his unpublished writing may have taken. Hopefully we will know soon.
After Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon, he was found with a copy of “Catcher in the Rye.” and various writers and filmmakers have expounded on the connections between the two. Readers formed great attachment to “Catcher in the Rye” and perhaps this as much as anything was reason for Salinger to remove himself from society and live as a recluse in New Hampshire.
Born Jerome David Salinger in New York City in 1919, his father Sol, worked in the food industry. One of the accounts I read online claims that Salinger’s mother was born Marie but called herself Miriam and it was only after his bar-mitzvah that Salinger discovered that she was not in fact Jewish.
Salinger attended everal schools in New York including McBurney before attending Valley Forge Military Academy, and several colleges including New York University and Columbia University’s evening program where he attended a writing class taught by Whit Burnett of Story Magazine who would publish some of his early work.
In 1941 The New Yorker Magazine accepted “Slight Rebellion off Madison Avenue,” a short story featuring a character named Holden Caulfield.
At that time, Salinger also courted Oona O’Neil, playwright Eugene O’Neil’s daughter, who was a teenager at the time — she would eventually marry Charlie Chaplin. The courtship is mentioned in Aram Saroyan’s “Trio” his account of the young lives of Oona O’Neil, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Carol Matthau (Saroyan’s mother).
It is also reported that around that time Salinger worked on a cruise ship, and perhaps performed on board.
Salinger served in World War Two, landing in France on D-Day and fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. While in France, he met Ernest Hemingway, who impressed Salinger and who was in turn impressed by Salinger’s writing — they began a correspondence. Salinger also served in a Counter-Intelligence Unit that interrogated prisoners of war and he was among the first soldiers to enter a recently liberated concentration camp. Shortly therafer, Salinger reportedly had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for combat-related stress in an Army hospital.
Upon his return to the States, Salinger continued to write short stories. “A perfect day for Bananafish” was published in the New Yorker and established Salinger as an important contemporary writer. At the same time, Salinger became interested in Buddhism and various variants of eastern religions and religious practices, which he would continue to explore the rest of his life.
With the publication of “Catcher in the Rye,” Salinger who was living in Westport, Connecticutt, moved with his then wife Claire to Cornish N.H., which continued to be his residence until his death. Salinger had two children, Margaret and Matt who survive him.
Salinger continued to publish stories in The New Yorker, many of them about The Glass family, until 1965, with ” Hapworth 16, 1924,” his last published story. After that Salinger claimed that he continued to write but would no longer publish during his lifetime.
At first, Salinger gave interviews to the local paper and high school but he stopped that after a certain while. For awhile, journalists would take it upon themselves to travel to New Hampshire and wait in town for Salinger to pick up his mail and then try and strike up a conversation. Salinger gave his last interview in 1980.
Over the last many decades several persons have written memoirs of knowing Salinger. These include his daughter Margaret, and writer Joyce Maynard who dated Salinger as a teenager.
Salinger was protective of his life and his work and over the years sued to block publications biographies, and unauthorized collections of his short stories, or works too closely inspired by his own.
My own Salinger experiences begin with “Catcher In the Rye,” one of four books a bookstore clerk insisted I needed to read, as a teenager, to educate myself (the other three were Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World” and “George Orwell’s 1984″ and Richard Farina’s “Been Down So Long”) — and yes, I became attached to the book. Whenever I had a swimming meet against the McBurney School I thought of Salinger and his description of his fencing team adventure in Catcher — And when we thought of where to meet near Grand Central, we thought of the clock in the Vanderbilt Hotel.
When the New York Times Magazine published Joyce Maynard on its cover — I was not alone in developing a crush and felt validated in my attraction when it was reported that she had begun an affair with J D Salinger. The fact that Salinger was so much older didn’t matter — the creator of Holden was, no doubt, in touch with his inner teenager.
A few years later, I learned that a friend of mine’s high school girlfriend had also had a relationship with Salinger which had developed by correspondence. According to the gossip, third hand, Salinger loved to come to New York, much like any tourist, and have tea at the Plaza, see a show and visit friends at the New Yorker and in the city — by being a recluse, he had created anonymity for himself in New York — no one knew what he looked like, no one recognized him.
One summer in the mid-1970s I found myself in the Catalyst bookstore in Santa Cruz. There on the counter by the cash register were two paperbacks, “The Uncollected Stories of J.D. Salinger” volumes 1, and 2. Someone had taken all the stories that Salinger had published over the years in magazines that remained uncollected and published them. I remember holding them in my hands and poring over them, looking at stories I had never heard of. Shortly thereafter, Salinger sued to halt what the publishers called a “samidzat publication” — and those copies were not seen again.
Matt, Salinger’s son, is an actor and producer who has lived for many years in LA — I don’t know if he still does — I met him once (possibly twice) — he seemed nice and very unaffected. Given that his father wanted at some point to be an actor and/or entertainer — perhaps his father found some pleasure in his son being a working actor who turns up on TV programs with some regularity. In any event. please accept our condolences on your loss.
Although Salinger had one of his early stories optioned for film, the way in which his work was mangled for the screen convinced never to again option any of his work. Joyce Maynard once commented that the only one who could ever have played Holden was Salinger himself.
Holden is dead. Long Live Holden.
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