Take the austere little paperbacks down from the shelf and you can hold the collected works of J.D. Salinger one novel, three volumes of stories in the palm of one hand. Like some of his favorite writers like Sappho, whom we know only from ancient fragments, or the Japanese poets who crafted 17-syllable haiku Salinger was an author whose large reputation pivots on very little. The first of his published stories that he thought were good enough to preserve appeared in the New Yorker in 1948. Seventeen years later he placed one last story there and drew down the shades.
From that day until his death on Jan. 27 at age 91, at his home in Cornish, N.H., Salinger was the hermit crab of American letters. When he emerged, it was usually to complain that somebody was poking at his shell. Over time Salinger's exemplary refusal of his own fame may turn out to be as important as his fiction. In the 1960s he retreated to the small house in Cornish, and rejected the idea of being a public figure. Thomas Pynchon is his obvious successor in that department. But Pynchon figured out how to turn his back on the world with a wink and a Cheshire Cat smile. Salinger did it with a scowl. Then again, he was inventing the idea, and he bent over it with an inventor's sweaty intensity.
Salinger's only novel, The Catcher in the Rye, was published in 1951 and gradually achieved a status that made him cringe. For decades the book was a universal rite of passage for adolescents, the manifesto of disenchanted youth. (Sometimes lethally disenchanted: After he killed John Lennon in 1980, Mark David Chapman said he had done it to promote the reading of Salinger's book. A few months later, when he headed out to shoot President Ronald Reagan, John Hinckley Jr. left behind a copy of the book in his hotel room.) But what matters is that even for the millions of people who weren't crazy, Holden Caulfield, Salinger's petulant, yearning (and arguably manic-depressive) young hero was the original angry young man. That he was also a sensitive soul in a cynic's armor only made him more irresistible. James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway had invented disaffected young men too. But Salinger created Caulfield at the very moment that American teenage culture was being born. A whole generation of rebellious youths discharged themselves into one particular rebellious youth.
Salinger drew from Sherwood Anderson, Isak Dinesen, F. Scott Fitzgerald and especially Ring Lardner, whose wise-guy voice you hear chiming in the snappy banalities and sometimes desperate patter spoken by Salinger's characters, a tone that found its way years later into the neurotic chatter of Woody Allen's New Yorkers. But Salinger bent it all into something new, a tone that drew from the secular and the religious, the worldly and the otherworldly, the ecstatic and the inconsolable. It's customary to assume that the seven Glass children the Glass family, an intricate hybrid of showbiz and spirituality, was Salinger's other enduring creation make up a kind of group portrait of Salinger, each of them a reflection of his different dimensions: the writer and the actor, the searcher and the researcher, the spiritual adept and the pratfalling schmuck. That may very well be true. He made sure we could never be sure. Holden Caulfield says, "Don't ever tell anybody anything." That's one time you know it's Salinger talking.
Jerome David Salinger was born in New York on Jan. 1, 1919. His mother was a Scots-born Protestant who changed her name from Marie to Miriam to accommodate her Jewish in-laws. His father Solomon was a food importer who was successful enough by the time Salinger turned 13 to move the family to Park Avenue and enroll his underachieving son in a Manhattan private school. Salinger flunked out within two years. He was then packed off to Valley Forge Military Academy, outside Philadelphia. It would later be the model for Pencey Prep, the school Caulfield runs away from.
After graduating from Valley Forge, Salinger ran away from several schools. He managed only two semesters at New York University before dropping out. His father decided to take him into the family business and brought his boy along to Austria and Poland to learn all about ham. "They finally dragged me off to Bydgoszcz for a couple of months," Salinger wrote years later. "Where I slaughtered pigs, wagoned through the snow with the big slaughtermaster." Ham was not in his future. Back in the U.S., he made another halfhearted attempt at school, this time at Ursinus College in rural Pennsylvania. He lasted a semester, then drifted back to Manhattan.
By this point Salinger had a general destination in mind: he wanted to be a writer. In the fall of 1939, he signed up for a writing class at Columbia University taught by Whit Burnett, founder and editor of Story, a highly regarded, little magazine that had been the first place to publish William Saroyan, Joseph Heller and Carson McCullers. Burnett quickly took notice of his talented pupil and made sure that his magazine would be the first place to publish Salinger. In its March-April 1940 issue, Story carried "The Young Folks," a brief, acidic vignette of college students at a party, prototypes of all the disaffected young people who would appear in Salinger's fiction.
Over the following months, Salinger broke through to mass-circulation magazines like Collier's and Esquire and had a tantalizing first brush with the New Yorker, the magazine he wanted badly to appear in, the one that could validate him not just as a professional writer but also as an artist. By this time, he had written a story about a boy named Holden Caulfield who runs away from prep school. The New Yorker accepted it, then put it on hold. But Caulfield was a character close to the author's heart, and Salinger wasn't done with him.