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Best known for his controversial novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Salinger has been one of the most popular and influential authors of American fiction to emerge after World War II.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
New York Upbringing and Trouble in School
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.
Writing through World War II
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 United 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.
Heated Controversy Provokes Author’s Withdrawal
After The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, Salinger found himself at the center of a storm of controversy. The 1950s in the United States were marked by social conservatism, and while his novel was lauded by many, it was condemned by others for its sometimes crude 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. Still, Robert Coles reflected general critical opinion when he praised Salinger as ”an original and gifted writer, a marvelous entertainer, a man free of the slogans and cliches the rest of us fall prey to.” Indeed, The Catcher in the Rye, now regarded as a classic work of adolescent angst, drew such great attention during the 1950s that those years have been called by some ”The Age of Holden Caulfield” in honor of the novel’s sensitive, alienated sixteen-year-old protagonist (who, like Salinger, was expelled from a prestigious boarding school). The 1950s were a time of relative peace and prosperity for many Americans, but they were also marked by what many intellectuals and artists considered moral prudery, ultranationalism, paranoia about the perceived perils of communism, and extreme pressure to conform to social expectations. Holden’s (and Salinger’s) frank expression of dislike for American culture shocked many readers.
An Interest in Eastern Philosophies
The vast appeal of The Catcher in the Rye drew many readers to Salinger’s subsequent short fiction, collected in Nine Stories (1953), Franny and Zooey (1955), and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction (1963). Most of these stories focused on the fictional Glass family, a group of seven gifted siblings led by Seymour, their seer-artist and elder brother. In all his work, Salinger captured a profound feeling of dissatisfaction with the spiritual emptiness of contemporary American life. Salinger attempt to counter his own feelings of disillusionment with an interest in various religions. He followed certain practices of kriya yoga, an ancient Hindu discipline, starting in 1955. He also explored Dianetics and Christian Science. Salinger’s interest in Eastern philosophy was somewhat out of the mainstream at the time, though not entirely unusual. The Beat Generation writers, including novelist Jack Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg, also took a keen interest in Zen Buddhism (Kerouac’s 1958 novel The Dharma Bums shows this influence clearly). In 1951, German writer Hermann Hesse’s 1922 novel Siddhartha about the life of Gotama Buddha appeared in English translation for the first time, and became extremely popular with the growing countercultural movement, selling fifteen million copies by the early 1970s. Salinger’s interest in Eastern philosophies can be seen most clearly in the character of Seymour, who displays familiarity with Zen Buddhism and Hindu sacred texts.
Later Work and Life in Seclusion
Salinger’s later works were not as well received as The Catcher in the Rye. 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. He reentered the headlines in the 1990s after two memoirs of people close to him were published: one by Joyce Maynard (a former girlfriend) and one by his daughter Margaret. 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.
Works in Literary Context
Salinger s reputation derives from his mastery of symbolism, his idiomatic style, and his thoughtful, sympathetic insights into the insecurities that plague both adolescents and adults. The thematic content of his work is said to have been influenced by his own experiences growing up, as well as by published works such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925).
The Idealist Adrift in a Corrupt 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 (the Allied Powers’ invasion of Normandy during World War II). 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 Caufield 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 comes in the form of suicide. In ”A Perfect Day for Banana-fish” (part of Nine Stories), Seymour encounters an innocent young child on the beach and converses with her; later that evening, however, he shoots himself in his hotel room.
Salinger’s fiction remains popular today and continues to exert an influential force on its readers. Among the writers who have been influenced by Salinger are John Updike, Philip Roth, Stephen Chbosky, Carl Hiaasen, Susan Minot, Haruki Murakami, Gwendoline Riley, Tom Robbins, Louis Sachar, and Joel Stein.
Works in Critical Context
The Catcher in the Rye
Beginning with The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger’s work has provoked considerable comment and controversy. Critic James Bryan summarized the common psychological reading of 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. William Faulkner once paid Salinger the compliment of calling him the best of ”the present generation of writing” because The Catcher in the Rye ”expresses so completely” what Faulkner himself had tried to say about the tragedy of a youth who found ”when he attempted to enter the human race . . . there was no human race there.” Later, however, Faulkner expressed the reservation that there was only enough material in the book for a short story.
When The Catcher in the Rye was published in July 1951, reviews were generally good. Reviewing the book for the New York Times, Nash K. Burger called it ”an unusually brilliant first novel.” It was a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and was on the Times bestseller list for seven months, reaching fourth place in October of that year. Yet no reviewer foresaw its becoming the classic novel of a generation. It would be five years before academics began writing about the novel and assigning it to their students. By 1968, however, it was listed as one of the top twenty-five American best sellers since 1895. In the late 1980s it was still selling about a quarter of a million copies per year. The Catcher in the Rye has recurrently been banned by public libraries, schools, and bookstores, however, due to its profanity, sexual subject matter, and rejection of ”traditional American values.”
Nine Stories also drew a 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 Roof beam, 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 its publication 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.
- Alsen, Eberhard. Salinger’s Glass Stories as a Composite Novel. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1983.
- Bloom, Harold, ed. J. D. Salinger: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
- French, Warren. J. D. Salinger. New York: Twayne, 1963; rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1976.
- –. J. D. Salinger Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
- Grunwald, Henry Anatole, ed. Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait. New York: Harper, 1963.
- Hamilton, Ian. In Search of J. D. Salinger. New York: Random House, 1988; London: Heinemann, 1988.
- Miller, James E., Jr. J. D. Salinger. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965.
- Salzberg, Joel. Critical Essays on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.
- Salzman, Jack. New Essays on The Catcher in the Rye. New York & London: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
- Sublette, Jack R. J. D. Salinger: An Annotated Bibliography, 1938-1981. New York & London: Garland, 1984.
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