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Author out of the spotlight: the legacy of J.D. Salinger

Jerome David Salinger was born on January 1st, 1919, in Manhattan, New York. His parents, Sol and Marie Jillich Salinger, were of Jewish descent and had roots in Eastern Europe. Writing from the 1940s onwards, Salinger comes from a rather unconventional background compared to some of his contemporaries. His father was an importer of meat and cheeses, successful to say the least, and was the rabbi for the Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Louisville, Kentucky. His mother worked in the fashion industry, both having gone to university. As a child, he very much struggled to fit in and took measures to conform, such as calling himself Jerry. To his family, he was known as Sonny. Little did they know the attention that the name J.D. Salinger would bring some few years later.  

Salinger attended various schools in New York City before he was sent to Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania. It was there that his literary career began to take shape, writing stories under the covers with the aid of a flashlight. Step by step, he started to get his name in print, becoming the literary editor for the class yearbook. On paper, he was an average student – his 201 file labels him “mediocre” – but with time he would become one of the most established writers in American history.  

The New Yorker rejected many of his stories, however there was one that in time would introduce readers to one of America’s finest protagonists.

In 1936, he enrolled at New York University, however he quickly dropped out to pursue his writing career. He would later meet Whit Burnett, editor of the Story magazine in 1938, who became very fond of Salinger’s writing. After publishing The Young Folks in 1940, Burnett became Salinger’s mentor, the start of several years of correspondence. Although he had his name in print, Salinger faced many challenges getting his stories out there. The New Yorker rejected many of his stories, however there was one that in time would introduce readers to one of America’s finest protagonists. That story was Slight Rebellion off Madison, which brought the infamous Holden Caulfield to the table. Just as it seemed Salinger was in luck, Japan carried out an attack on Pearl Harbour which made his story – one that recounts the story of a teenager with pre-war anxiety – practically unpublishable.  

The war would continue to have a prolonged effect on Salinger’s writing. He was hospitalised for several weeks after a successful war campaign, however he wouldn’t let that stop him from writing. In fact, he would draw upon these experiences in several of his stories, such as For Esme – With Love and Squalor, which is narrated by a traumatised soldier. Salinger regularly discusses themes of anxiety, alienation and the loss of innocence in his works. Such themes are ever so pertinent to the Glass family, whom he would go on to write seven separate stories about, particularly focusing on troubled child Seymour. As his works started to gain popularity, Salinger was approached by various producers to take his works to the big screen. Hoping to achieve financial security, Salinger went on to sell the rights of Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut, which on screen would become known as My Foolish Heart. The film was slated for being so far away from the original story, so much so that Salinger decided to never permit film adaptations of any of his work ever again. Consequently, Salinger stuck to old habits and built on a character he knew all too well. Holden Caulfield, the spotlight is on you now.  

It is the embodiment of what we now consider the “unreliable narrator”, but it’s one that, to this very day, I can’t help but find considerable amounts of truth in.

The year is 1951, and after several years in the making, The Catcher in the Rye breaks through the literary canon. The world stands still and watches as Holden’s testimonial voice speaks to the lives of an entire generation of adolescents, adults and people not yet born. The novel only takes place over the course of a few days, but is powerful enough to span an entire lifetime of readers. The plot is straightforward, to the point, and as identifiable a work of Salinger’s as any. In an interview with a high school newspaper, Salinger would go on to say that the novel is “sort of” autobiographical, drawing connections between his own childhood and that of his protagonist. It’s clear as day how Salinger blends his own voice into Holden’s, expounding the “phoniness” of adulthood through the mind of a rebellious sixteen-year-old. It is the embodiment of what we now consider the “unreliable narrator”, but it’s one that, particularly in my former years, I can’t help but find considerable amounts of truth in.  

Yes, Holden is quite the handful. He’s a teenage boy, expelled from prep school, subduedly meandering the streets of New York City. He’s inexplicably lost, so fixated in his one-dimensional mindset of disapproval, disgust and displeasure. He’s stuck, as many of us are, in the shift from childhood to adulthood – this awkward experimental stage of adolescence. But it’s a voice I think many of us can, and obviously do, take something from. The encounters he has are comical, absurd, and yet, rather truthful. Holden isn’t one to hold back either, often saying things of sheer instinct to what he considers “phony”. I think the portrayal of the lost angsty teenager is, more often than not, going to be relatable to a wide cohort of readers, but Holden’s voice is one that is a cut above the rest. From the very beginning, he makes his opinions clear: he really isn’t going to tell you “all the David Copperfield kind of crap”. It’s ambitious, but it’s a remarkable way of telling a story, one that sticks to its guns the whole way through. It’s no surprise then that it spent thirty weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list and was quickly viewed in the same light as the American greats, such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 

Whether it be a good thing or not, Holden’s voice is, to this very day, in full swing, and continues to speak to millions of readers around the world.

However, with any success comes criticism, and The Catcher in the Rye received it in abundance. It’s widely known as one of the most banned books of all time, chiefly because of its religious slurs, casual sex and “unreliable” perception of the world. It’s a book that, certainly, can be misinterpreted – anyone who knows the name Mark David Chapman knows that his proposed “manifesto” for assassinating John Lennon was in fact The Catcher in the Rye. Whether it be a good thing or not, Holden’s voice is, to this very day, in full swing, and continues to speak to millions of readers around the world. 

But it’s a voice that, as with any of his works, comes directly from Salinger himself. As his work received widespread critical acclaim, both good and bad, Salinger went under the radar. He moved to New Hampshire and gradually became more and more reclusive. He withdrew from the public eye, leaving his college friends behind, burning fan mail and even some of his own manuscripts. Salinger also began to publish less often. After Nine Stories was published in 1953, he only published four stories in the rest of the decade. Of course, at this time producers were battling for the rights to bring The Catcher in the Rye to the big screen, including the likes of Billy Wilder, Steven Spielberg and Jerry Lewis. Salinger repeatedly refused, and in 1999 his ex-lover Joyce Maynard would famously go on to say that “the only person who might ever have played Holden Caulfield would have been J. D. Salinger himself”. 

In time, Salinger would go on to influence many famous writers of the present. Notable examples include Stephen Chbosky, Haruki Murakami and John Green. Speaking to the BBC, Jeff Kinney, author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series claims that protagonist Greg Heffley is “descended from Holden Caulfield”, which I think very much shows the extent to which Salinger, as with Holden, has left his mark. 

Salinger died from natural causes in New Hampshire on January 27, 2010, aged 91. His third wife and widow Colleen O’Neill Zakrzeski Salinger, and his son Matt are now the executors of his estate. In 2019 they announced that “all of what he wrote will at some point be shared” but, as with anything J.D. Salinger, it’s up in the air.  

Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.

If there’s one quote that I think sums up Salinger’s life best, it would have to be “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody”. Those are the exact words that he closes The Catcher of the Rye with, and is where Holden’s voice emphatically comes to a close. But these words ring on to this day – I’ve certainly taken a lot from them, and they continue to be read by millions of people around the world. Whether we will see anything published posthumously under the name of J.D. Salinger remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure, the story of the boy with the red hunting hat is one that will forever rank him as one of America’s finest ever authors 


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