J.D. Salinger, the famously reclusive author whose novel, “The Catcher in the Rye,” was one of the best-selling books of the 20th century, died Wednesday at his Cornish, N.H., home. He was 91.
In a statement announcing his death, Mr. Salinger's literary agency, Harold Ober Associates, said he died of natural causes. "Despite having broken his hip in May," Mr. Salinger's "health had been excellent until a rather sudden decline after the new year.''
“Catcher” is estimated to have sold more than 60 million copies worldwide since being first published in 1951. It continues to sell some 200,000 copies annually.
Holden is a latter-day Huckleberry Finn: slightly older, far more knowing, and considerably less resilient. At once cynical and sensitive, the 16-year-old Holden has just been expelled from prep school and decides to spend a few days on his own in New York. Manhattan is the Mississippi on which he floats (Checker cabs are for Holden what a raft is for Huck) as he obsessively seeks to pierce the “phoniness” of adult society while trying to maintain his increasingly unsteady equilibrium.
A comparable spiritual yearning characterizes Mr. Salinger’s other best-known literary creation, the Glass family. Their brilliance and neuroses emblazon his other books, “Nine Stories” (1953), “Franny and Zooey” (1961), and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction” (1963).
The Glass family members who figure most prominently in the books are Holden’s rough contemporaries. In other Salinger works, such as the stories “For Esme — With Love and Squalor” and “Teddy,” characters are even younger. Childhood and adolescence held a special fascination for Mr. Salinger, something noted by both admirers and detractors.
The (London) Observer newspaper wrote that Mr. Salinger “seems to understand children as no English-speaking writer has done since Lewis Carroll.” Yet Norman Mailer, fastening on the same attribute, derided Mr. Salinger as “the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school.”
Just as Mr. Salinger’s characters have the means to afford prep school tuitions so do they also suffer from more than their share of youthful angst. His fictional world is one of both material comfort and emotional disarray. Nervous breakdowns, suicide, crises of faith occur throughout his work. Even more than his books’ occasionally frank language and sexual situations, this helps account for the frequency with which Mr. Salinger’s books have been removed from library shelves (it’s been estimated that “Catcher” was the book most often banned in the 1990s).
The disturbed lives of Mr. Salinger’s characters found a mirror in the lives of some readers: most notoriously, Mark David Chapman was clutching a copy of “Catcher in the Rye” when he shot John Lennon.
The success of “Catcher” made Mr. Salinger a cult figure, a fact that surely encouraged the fierceness with which he protected his privacy. “My method of work is such that any interruption throws me off,” he once told a Newsweek photographer. He left New York for Cornish in 1953, publishing less and less, and growing ever leerier of public attention.
Yet such an obsession with privacy all but ensured its invasion. When a British author, Ian Hamilton, tried to publish a biography in 1986, Mr. Salinger took widely publicized legal action to quash the book. He became, if anything, even more famous as a result of so wanting not to be famous. Both a former lover, the writer Joyce Maynard, and his daughter, Margaret, published memoirs about him. Almost any tidbit concerning him found its way into wide circulation.
Mr. Salinger’s relocation to Cornish carried a certain irony with it. “I’m still a man who gauges bucolic distances by New York City blocks,” one of his characters declares. As much as John O’Hara, John Cheever, or John Updike, Mr. Salinger came to be seen as a fiction-writing avatar of The New Yorker magazine.
More generally, his fiction is unthinkable without New York City, which provides it with both a setting and sensibility. His characters skate at Rockefeller Center, meet under the clock at the Biltmore Hotel, shop at Saks Fifth Avenue and Bonwit Teller, wander in Central Park, go to jazz clubs in Greenwich Village.
It was in New York that Jerome David Salinger was born, on Jan. 1, 1919, the son of Sol Salinger and Miriam Jillich Salinger. Mr. Salinger was raised in comfortable circumstances (his father was a successful food importer) and attended several private schools. After graduating from a Pennsylvania military academy, he fitfully pursued his higher education, attending Ursinus College, New York University, and Columbia University.
Mr. Salinger served in the Army during World War II, rising to the rank of sergeant. His unit took part in the D-day landings and the liberation of Paris (during the latter, Mr. Salinger sought out and was befriended by Ernest Hemingway). Shortly before his discharge, Mr. Salinger married a Frenchwoman; only her first name is known, Sylvia. The marriage lasted just eight months. His second marriage, to Claire Douglas, also ended in divorce, lasting from 1955 to 1967.
Mr. Salinger had begun publishing stories before the war. It’s a measure of his success they appeared in such prominent magazines as Collier’s, Esquire, and The Saturday Evening Post. Yet it wasn’t until he finally appeared in the pages of The New Yorker, in 1948, that Mr. Salinger felt he had arrived. That story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” is one of his most famous and introduced readers to the Glass family. Mr. Salinger has allowed none of the 20 stories he wrote before then to be republished.
Over the years, Mr. Salinger was rumored to become increasingly interested in Eastern religions, organic foods, and homeopathic medicine. He claimed to have kept writing but said he’d lost interest in publication.
“There’s a marvelous peace in not publishing,” he told The New York Times in a 1974 interview, one of fewer than half a dozen he gave in his lifetime. “Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I live to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Salinger leaves his wife, Colleen O'Neill; a son, Matt; and three grandsons.
In its statement, his literary agency said there would be no memorial service "in keeping with his lifelong, uncompromising desire to protect and defend his privacy."
On the beat
Columnist Shirley Leung says Boston mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh should focus on middle-class housing. Read more