washingtonpost.com
Correction to This Article
The obituary for "Catcher in the Rye" author J.D. Salinger misstated the year in which a memoir by his daughter, Margaret Ann Salinger, was published. The book, "Dream Catcher," came out in 2000, not 2009.
J.D. Salinger, 91; 'Catcher in the Rye' author became famous recluse

By Bart Barnes
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 29, 2010; A01

J.D. Salinger, 91, the 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, died Wednesday at his home in Cornish, N.H.

In a statement issued by Mr. Salinger's literary representative, the author's son confirmed the death to the Associated Press. The cause of death was not reported, although the statement said Mr. Salinger broke his hip last year.

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 Holden Caulfield, a disillusioned 16-year-old who knows he is about to be expelled from his boarding school, Pencey Prep, and decides to run away. 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," 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, 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. Reading the book was often described as a rite of passage for adolescents.

Detested the spotlight

Not long after "The Catcher in the Rye" appeared, Mr. Salinger withdrew to the hills of rural New Hampshire, where he lived in seclusion. He shunned the media and the public, and he filed lawsuits to block publication or quotes from his letters. He continued writing, but not since a short story appeared in the New Yorker in 1965 has any new writing of his been published. Earlier, the New Yorker had published J.D. Salinger short stories, but to most of the reading public, he was known only as the author of "The Catcher in the Rye."

Caulfield became a teenage Everyman whose wry and caustic observations seemed outrageous, clever and on the mark. From the beginning, in its cadence and language, his speech gave the youthful protagonist an 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')."

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 appeared initially in the New Yorker, as did his last published story, "Hapworth 16, 1924," which ran in 1965.

In 1953, Mr. Salinger settled in Cornish, where he lived in a hilltop cottage overlooking the Connecticut River. He attended no literary conferences, gave no lectures, and almost invariably spurned all human contact. If anyone approached him in a public street or building, he turned and fled. He was rarely photographed, and he directed his publisher to remove his photograph from the dust jacket of "The Catcher in the Rye." His attorneys and agents were instructed not to answer questions about him.

For nine months in 1972 and 1973, Mr. Salinger had an affair with Joyce Maynard, who dropped out of college during her freshman year at Yale to move in with him. Maynard had written an article for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, "An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life," that had caught Mr. Salinger's attention. He wrote to her, and for several weeks, they corresponded before she left Yale to live with him in New Hampshire.

Twenty-five years later, Maynard wrote about the relationship in a memoir, "At Home in the World." According to Maynard, he told her that she was talented and that he loved her. They talked of having children. But she began to annoy him. Sex was unsatisfactory. Eventually, he sent her away.

A decade earlier, Ian Hamilton attempted to write a biography of Mr. Salinger, relying in part on unpublished letters that Mr. Salinger had written to his friend and editor Whit Burnett and others between 1939 and 1961.

Mr. Salinger won a ruling in federal court that protected the contents of the letters from quotation or extensive paraphrase. He forced a revision of the already printed biography, which was published in 1988 under the title "In Search of J.D. Salinger."

Aura of mystery

The legal proceedings only enhanced the aura of mystery and romance that attended him, and it whetted the appetites of the aficionados of his writing.

In 2009, Mr. Salinger won an order from a federal court in New York blocking publication in the United States of a Swedish novel, "Sixty Years Later: Coming Through the Rye," subtitled "An Unauthorized Fictional Examination of the Relationship Between J.D. Salinger and His Most Famous Character." The novel describes a meeting between Mr. Salinger and a 76-year-old Caulfield. The court held that the novel violated Mr. Salinger's copyright on "The Catcher in the Rye."

Apart from "Catcher in the Rye," Mr. Salinger's published stories were populated chiefly by members of the Glass family, a neurotic and oddball clan consisting of a Jewish-Irish couple, Les Glass and Bessie Gallagher, retired vaudevillians, and their seven quirky children, all of whom were prodigies who had appeared on a children's radio quiz program called "It's a Wise Child."

Six of Mr. Salinger's stories concerned the Glass saga, beginning with "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," which was included in "Nine Stories." Eldest son Seymour Glass, the central figure in most of the Glass tales, remarks to a little girl at the seashore that it's "a perfect day for bananafish," then, an hour later, puts a gun to his head and blows his brains out.

"Franny and Zooey" are companion stories about the youngest of the Glass daughters and her older brother, a television actor.

The creator of this family, Jerome David Salinger was born Jan. 1, 1919, in New York, the son of a Jewish cheese importer and a Scotch-Irish mother. In 1934, his father enrolled him at Valley Forge Military Academy, a Pennsylvania boarding school said to be the model for Pencey Prep.

After graduating in 1936, he accompanied his father to Europe to familiarize himself with the operations of the family business. With the political situation deteriorating in Europe and war appearing imminent, he returned to the United States and in fall 1938 enrolled in Pennsylvania's Ursinus College. He left after one semester, declaring that he found college uninteresting.

He would try college once more, taking a class on short story writing at Columbia University. The class was taught by Burnett, who made a strong impression on the young Mr. Salinger. In Story magazine, founded and edited by Burnett, Mr. Salinger published his first short story, "The Young Folks," in spring 1940. This encouraged him to continue writing, and after a year of rejections, he had stories published by magazines including the Saturday Evening Post and Esquire.

Interrogated POWs

During World War II, he served in the Army and interrogated prisoners of war. He participated in the Normandy campaign and the liberation of France, and was said to have witnessed some of the bloodiest combat of the war. At one point, he was hospitalized for combat-related stress.

In 1948, Mr. Salinger achieved a measure of literary recognition with the publication in the New Yorker of three stories that would later be included in the collection "Nine Stories."

Other stories followed, including "For Esme -- With Love and Squalor," which appeared in the New Yorker. "For Esme" was said by critics to be the best of Mr. Salinger's short stories. It told of an American soldier and the 13-year-old English girl he met in a Devon tea room shortly before D-Day and how their unusual relationship later helped the soldier overcome the psychic damage of war.

While in the Army Mr. Salinger married a former member of the Nazi party named Sylvia, about whom little is known.

They were divorced shortly thereafter, and in later years, Mr. Salinger referred to her only as "Saliva."

Mr. Salinger also married and divorced Claire Douglas, the daughter of the British art critic Robert Langton Douglas. They had two children, Margaret and Matthew, both of whom survive. Later, he married a nurse several decades younger than he, Colleen O'Neill, who also survives.

In 2009, Margaret Salinger published a memoir, "Dream Catcher," in which she described her early life as the daughter of J.D. Salinger. He was an angry man, and he regularly belittled members of his family, she wrote. It seemed to her that he preferred the characters of his literature to the real human beings in his life.

"Unlike me . . . my fictional siblings were perfect, flawless, reflections of what my father liked," she said in the memoir.

In the seclusion of his New Hampshire home, she wrote, her father took walks, maintained an exotic health diet and wrote stories to be published only after he died. He had an unorthodox sense of humor, she recalled, and he liked to play jokes like putting water on his hand and then flicking it on the back of her neck while pretending to sneeze.

He was unable or unwilling to sustain close personal relations with anyone, she said: "His search . . . led him increasingly to relations in two dimensions: with his fictional Glass family, or with living 'pen pals' he met in letters, which lasted until meeting in person when the three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood presence of them would, with the inevitability of watching a classic tragedy unfold, invariably sow the seeds of the relationship's undoing."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company