On this day in 2010, J.D. Salinger, author of “The Catcher in the Rye,” the classic American novel about a disillusioned teenager, dies of natural causes at age 91 at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire. Prior to his death, the best-selling writer spent some 50 years shunning the spotlight and living reclusively on a 90-acre hillside compound.
Jerome David Salinger was born on January 1, 1919, in New York City, the second of two children. As a teen, he flunked out of a Manhattan private school and was sent to Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania. The school would later serve as a model for Pencey Prep, which Salinger’s famous character Holden Caulfield is expelled from in “The Catcher in the Rye.” After graduation from Valley Forge in 1936, Salinger did brief stints at several colleges, and traveled to Europe with his father, a successful food importer, before opting out of the family business.
In 1939, Salinger enrolled in a writing course at Columbia University, and soon began publishing his short stories in magazines. In 1941, after previous rejections, he sold his first story to The New Yorker, a leading literary publication of the time. The story, “Slight Rebellion off Madison” marked the first appearance of Holden Caulfield; however, the magazine put off publishing the story until 1946. After being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 during World War II, Salinger saw bloody combat duty in Europe. Back in New York after the war, he continued writing, and by the late 1940s was a regular contributor to The New Yorker.
In 1951, “The Catcher in the Rye” was published and became a best-seller. As The New York Times described the book in Salinger’s obituary: “With its cynical, slangy vernacular voice (Holden’s two favorite expressions are “phony” and “goddam”), its sympathetic understanding of adolescence and its fierce if alienated sense of morality and distrust of the adult world, the novel struck a nerve in cold war America and quickly attained cult status, especially among the young. Reading ‘Catcher’ used to be an essential rite of passage, almost as important as getting your learner’s permit.” Over the years, “The Catcher in the Rye” has sold millions of copies; annual paperback sales continue to top over 250,000 copies.
Having achieved literary success and fame, Salinger soon soured on it. He ordered his publisher to remove his photograph from his book’s back jacket, and in 1953, he moved from Manhattan to New Hampshire, where he built a tall fence around his property and rarely gave interviews to the media.
“The Catcher in the Rye” was the only novel ever published by Salinger, who married three times and had two children. His other works include the 1953 collection “Nine Stories,” along with 1961’s “Franny and Zooey” and 1963’s “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.” The latter two were compilations of previously published stories about the fictional Glass family. Salinger’s last work to appear in print was a story for The New Yorker titled “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which filled most of the magazine’s June 19, 1965, issue.