So intense was his need to be left alone that J.D. Salinger, who died Jan. 27 at his home in Cornish, N.H., at age 91, was once described as ”the Greta Garbo of literature.” And that was putting it mildly. Here, after all, was a celebrated author who spent the last half century in seclusion, guarding his privacy with such fervor that he succeeded only in fanning the flames of curiosity. As Paul Alexander said in Salinger: A Biography, ”He became famous for wanting not to be famous.” But of course, Salinger’s main claim to fame has always been his words. It could hardly be otherwise for the man who wrote The Catcher in the Rye.
First published in 1951, Jerome David Salinger’s only published novel introduced the world to Holden Caulfield, a disaffected 16-year-old just expelled from prep school and roaming the streets of Manhattan, in aimless flight from the parents, teachers, and various other ”phonies” of a buttoned-down, grown-up world. With its slangy, free-associating first-person narrative, the book was a fresh, ballsy blast of literary stylization, flouting everything from Hollywood movies to higher education to ”crumby” old life itself. Holden’s voice caught the ear of a young, restless postwar generation, setting the tone for James Dean, Brando, and Elvis. The book has been rite-of-passage reading ever since. ”Salinger’s influence is so pervasive that it’s easy to forget how different the cultural landscape would be if he’d never come along,” says novelist Jay McInerney.
Salinger also left behind a number of masterful short stories, as well as two volumes of interrelated stories and novellas, Franny and Zooey (1961) and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963). Frequently populated by the gifted, troubled siblings of the deeply dysfunctional Glass family, Salinger’s short fiction continued Catcher’s thematic preoccupation with the fragile innocence of ”very young people.” All his characters were unmistakably alter egos.
Like Franny and Zooey Glass, Salinger had been a bright, sensitive Jewish-Irish child, growing up privileged but vaguely alienated on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Like Holden Caulfield, he’d been a boarding-school misfit, scorning and rejecting the preppy status quo. And like the suicidal Seymour Glass, Salinger had endured a hellish tour of duty during World War II. A witness to unspeakable carnage from D-day to the Battle of the Bulge, Salinger ended his Army stint on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Having published several of his earliest stories about life during wartime — even as he was living it — Salinger returned from Europe an up-and-coming author. Yet, still suffering the aftershocks of war, he was ill-equipped to cope with his burgeoning celebrity. Shortly after The Catcher in the Rye thrust him into the limelight, Salinger fled Manhattan for a modest hilltop home in remote Cornish. Though he married 19-year-old Claire Douglas in 1955 and fathered two children, Margaret and Matthew, he had increasingly less interaction with other people. Indeed, the more famous he got, the less accessible he became, declining to be interviewed, refusing to be photographed, even shunning contact with his book editors and literary agents, whom he apparently blamed for a number of imagined exploitations and betrayals. Finally, in 1965, Salinger stopped producing fiction for public consumption. ”There’s a marvelous peace in not publishing,” he said in a rare 1980 interview. ”Publishing is a terrible invasion of privacy…. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”
That self-imposed silence only added to the solitary Salinger’s mystique, and his public image was largely shaped by speculation and rumor. From afar he was perceived as the paranoid misanthrope who physically threatened trespassers; the Svengali-like lover of women young enough to be his daughter; the overzealous advocate of myriad Eastern religions, austere diets, and alternative medicines; and most intriguingly, the reclusive genius who spent most of his days in a windowless concrete bunker, writing reams of prose that he locked away in a vault, to be seen by no one until after his death. Later, controversial tell-all memoirs by daughter Margaret and former lover Joyce Maynard appeared to confirm that even the strangest of those stories were solidly based in fact.
But not even those who were closest to him can guess what that vault of secret writings has in store. He hinted at various finished manuscripts over the years, and always promised that he’d complete the Glass family saga. Yet it’s just as likely that those private archives may contain only the evidence of an early burnout — the proof that, as he once predicted, Salinger had somewhere along the way gotten bogged down in his own methods, locutions, and mannerisms. ”I suspect we are going to be disappointed, but I would love to be proven wrong,” says McInerney. But even if there are no more brilliant words forthcoming, it’ll do nothing to take away from the artistry that gave us Holden Caulfield and his melancholy bravado, and Franny Glass in her sublimely sophomoric college-girl spiritual crisis. We may wish Mr. Salinger had given us more enduring characters like these, and he may have missed true greatness for not having done so. But all things considered, he gave as much of himself as he could. It was more than enough.