J.D. Salinger, the American author of The Catcher in the Rye who was once described as “the Greta Garbo of literature,” died yesterday of natural causes at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire. He was 91.

The celebrated author chose to spend the last half-century of his life in virtual seclusion, guarding his privacy with such fervor that he only succeeded in fanning the flames of public curiosity. As Paul Alexander put it in his book Salinger: A Biography, “He became famous for wanting not to be famous.” But of course, Salinger’s main claim to fame has always been as the man who wrote The Catcher in the Rye.

First appearing in 1951, Jerome David Salinger’s only published novel introduced the world to Holden Caulfield, a callow, disaffected 16-year-old just expelled from prep school, roaming the streets of Christmastime Manhattan in aimless flight from the parents, teachers, and various other “phonies” of a button-down grown-up world. With its slangy, free-associating, first-person narrative, the book was a fresh, gutsy blast of literary stylization, flouting everything from Hollywood movies to higher education to “crumby” old life itself. Filled with a kind of wiseguy skepticism, Holden’s voice caught the ear of a young, restless postwar generation, setting the tone for the decade of James Dean, the young Brando, the early Elvis. The book has been rite of passage reading ever since. In July 2009, a federal judge in New York blocked the U.S. publication of Swedish writer Fredrik Colton’s novel 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, depicting an older version of Holden dubbed Mr. C; Salinger had sued, arguing that the book constituted an unauthorized sequel.

“There’s a marvelous peace in not publishing,” he said in a rare 1974 interview. “Publishing is a terrible invasion of privacy …. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” But if no more manuscripts are found tucked into a vault, if indeed 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, Franny Glass, in her sublimely sophomoric college girl spiritual crisis, and Franny’s eldest brother Seymour, whose exquisitely tragic post-traumatic stress haunts the almost perfect story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” We may wish Salinger had given us more such enduring characters, 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. –Michael Sauter

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