Best known for his controversial novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Salinger is recognized by critics and readers alike as one of the most popular and influential authors of American fiction to emerge after World War II. Salinger's reputation derives from his mastery of symbolism, his idiomatic style, and his thoughtful, sympathetic insights into the in securities that plague both adolescents and adults.
Salinger's upbringing was not unlike that of Holden Caulfield, the Glass children, and many of his other characters. Raised in Manhattan, he was the second of two children of a prosperous Jewish importer and a Scots-Irish mother. He was expelled from several private preparatory schools before graduating from Valley Forge Military Academy in 1936. While attending a Columbia University writing course, he had his first piece of short fiction published in Story, an influential periodical founded by his instructor, Whit Burnett. Salinger's short fiction soon began appearing in Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, and other magazines catering to popular reading tastes. Salinger entered military service in 1942 and served until the end of World War II, participating in the Normandy campaign and the liberation of France. He continued to write and publish while in the Army, carrying a portable typewriter with him in the back of his jeep. After returning to the States, Salinger's career as a writer of serious fiction took off. He broke into the New Yorker in 1946 with the story "Slight Rebellion Off Madison," which was later rewritten to become a part of The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger quickly became one of the top contributors to the prestigious magazine. After The Catcher in the Rye was published, Salinger found himself at the center of a storm of controversy. His novel was lauded by many, but condemned by others for its language and social criticism. When it began to find its way onto the recommended reading lists of educational institutions, it became the target of numerous censorship campaigns. Salinger reacted to all the publicity by becoming increasingly reclusive. As years passed, and his continuing work on the Glass family saga drew increasing critical attacks from even those corners of the literary establishment that had once accorded him an almost cult-like reverence, he withdrew from publishing and public life altogether. His novella-length story "Hapworth 16, 1924," which once again revolved around an incident in the Glass family, appeared in the New Yorker in 1965; it was his last published work. Since the early 1960s, he has lived in seclusion in New Hampshire. Reportedly, he continues to write, but only for his own satisfaction; he is said to be completely unconcerned with his standing, or lack of it, in the literary world.
The Catcher in the Rye and much of Salinger's shorter fiction share the theme of idealists adrift in a corrupt world. Often, the alienated protagonists are rescued from despair by the innocence and purity of children. One of the author's most highly-acclaimed stories, "For Esme—With Love and Squalor" (collected in Nine Stories) concerns an American soldier, also an aspiring writer, who encounters a charming young English girl just before D Day. Almost a year later, suffering serious psychic damage from his combat experiences, the soldier receives a gift and a letter from the girl. Her unselfish gesture of love heals him and he is once again able to sleep and write. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield is driven to the brink of a nervous breakdown by his disgust for the "phoniness" of the adult world which he is about to enter. He finds peace only in the presence of Phoebe, his young sister. Much like Holden, Franny Glass (whose story "Franny" is half of Franny and Zooey) undergoes a physical and nervous collapse due to the conflict between her involvement with a crude, insensitive boyfriend and her desire for a pure, spiritual love experience. In the "Zooey" section of Franny and Zooey, Franny's older brother attempts to help her resolve her confusion by discussing with her the worldly nature of religious experience. But for some of Salinger's characters, like Seymour Glass, the only relief from the anguish of living in the hellish modern world is the ultimate escape. In "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" (collected in Nine Stories), Seymour encounters an innocent young child on the beach and converses with her; later that evening, he shoots himself in the head in his hotel room.
Beginning with The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger's work has provoked considerable comment and controversy. Critic James Bryan summarized the positive response to the work when he observed: "The richness of spirit in this novel, especially of the vision, the compassion, and the humor of the narrator reveal a psyche far healthier than that of the boy who endured the events of the narrative. Through the telling of his story, Holden has given shape to, and thus achieved control of, his troubled past." The book has also been praised retrospectively for its author's early depiction of dissatisfaction with the repression and smugness that characterized post-World War II America. The Catcher in the Rye has recurrently been banned by public libraries, schools, and bookstores, however, due to its presumed profanity, sexual subject matter, and rejection of traditional American values. Nine Stories also drew widely varied response. The volume's first story, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," has been read alternately as a satire on bourgeois values, a psychological case study, and a morality tale. Franny and Zooey, along with several of the pieces in Nine Stories, stands as Salinger's most highly acclaimed short fiction. Critics generally applauded the satisfying structure of "Franny," as well as its appealing portrait of its heroine, while "Zooey" was praised for its meticulous detail and psychological insight. Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction proved less satisfying to literary commentators, who began to find the Glass clan self-centered, smug, perfect beyond belief, and ultimately boring. It was after publication of Raise High the Roofbeam that the cult of Salinger began to give way to an increasing perception that the author was too absorbed in the Glass saga to maintain the artistic control necessary for literary art. Whatever the flaws detected, however, few deny the immediacy and charm of the Glasses, who are so successfully drawn that numerous people over the years have reportedly claimed to have had personal encounters with relatives of the fictitious family. In the decades since Salinger has stopped publishing, a more balanced reading of his work has emerged—one that acknowledges the artistic value of much of his canon, his influence on the style and substance of other writers, and, above all, his place of honor among young readers who have continued to identify with the confusion and ideals of Holden Caulfield.
Further Reading on J. D. Salinger
Alsen, Eberhard, Salinger's Glass Stories as a Composite Novel, Whitson, 1983.
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 2, Gale, 1989, pp. 201-10.
Belcher, W. F., and J. W. Lee, editors, J. D. Salinger and the Critics, Wadsworth, 1962.
Bloom, Harold, editor, J. D. Salinger: Modern Critical Views, Chelsea House, 1987.
Carpenter, Humphrey, Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children's Literature, Houghton, 1985.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 18, Gale, 1989, pp. 171-94.
Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: The New Consciousness, 1941-1968, Gale, 1987, pp. 448-58.
New York Times, February 20, 1997, p. C15.