Author J.D. Salinger Remembered

Reclusive writer J.D. Salinger has died at age 91. His most-famous work, The Catcher in the Rye, with its angst-filled protagonist, Holden Caulfield, inspired generations of teenagers. Later in his life, Salinger become famous for refusing interviews.

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The writer who gave a name and a voice to teen angst has died. J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye died yesterday of natural causes at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire. He was 91 years old. The story of Holden Caulfield caught on with an anxious world in the throes of the Cold War and it never let go. While the Book-of-the-Month Club made Catcher in the Rye one of its featured selections, it was also one of the 20th centurys most banned books.

NPRs Neda Ulaby has an appreciation of an author who in some ways never grew up.

NEDA ULABY: You wont hear J.D. Salinger in the story. NPR was unable to find a single recording of his voice. Salinger retreated to a New Hampshire farmhouse in 1953, a few years after he published The Catcher in the Rye. And there he stayed, scowling at photographers who dared snap his picture.

Salinger agreed to a rare interview with a newspaper reporter in 1980. It helped that she sent her picture. Betty Eppes discussed that meeting on NPR in 1997.

(Soundbite of past interview)

Ms. BETTY EPPES (Newspaper Reporter): He said, I refuse to publish. He said there is a marvelous peace in not publishing. He said, there's a stillness. And he said, when you publish, the world thinks you owe them something. He said, if you dont publish, they dont know what youre doing, and he said, you can keep it for yourself.

ULABY: Rumors have Salinger stashing reams of unpublished fiction in a vault. His last published work was a New Yorker story in 1965. Writer Joyce Maynard moved in with Salinger in 1972 when she was an 18-year-old Yale dropout and he was 53. In a reading from her memoir, Maynard recalled Salingers obsessions with diet and alternative medicine.

Ms. JOYCE MAYNARD (Writer): Speaking of the food most people eat, Jerry uses the word poison. He says Vedantic literature tells us the natural life span of a man is 120 years. He plans to live that long.

ULABY: Salinger came from a Jewish-Scots-Irish New York family that imported meat. In the 1930s, he worked briefly as a cruise ship entertainer. Then came World War II. Andrew Delbanco is director of American Studies at Columbia University.

Professor ANDREW DELBANCO (Director, American Studies, Columbia University): He was a writer who was formed by the 1940s, by his experience, I suspect, in the war. He participated in D-Day and in the Battle of the Bulge. And theres a sense, at least to my ear, in not only Catcher in the Rye but in some of his best stories, that this catastrophe lies in the background of everything he feels and writes.

ULABY: For Esme - With Love and Squalor is about an American soldiers conversation with a 13-year-old English girl.

Unidentified Man #1: I told her that Id never written a story for anybody, but that it seemed like exactly the right time to get down to it. She nodded.

Unidentified Woman: Make it extremely squalid and moving.

Unidentified Man #1: She suggested.

Unidentified Woman: Are you at all acquainted with squalor?

Prof. DELBANCO: For Esme - With Love and Squalor is really one of the most beautiful stories in the American language. He really captures this exquisitely painful sense of lost beauty, lost hope.

Unidentified Man #1: We shook hands.

Unidentified Woman: Isnt it a pity that we didnt meet under less extenuating circumstances?

Unidentified Man #1: I said it was. I said it certainly was.

Unidentified Woman: Goodbye.

Unidentified Man #1: Esme said.

Unidentified Woman: I hope you return from the war with all your faculties intact.

ULABY: The shell-shocked young men in Salingers stories seemed somehow frozen, says Andrew Delbanco. And they wanted children they admire to be frozen, too.

Prof. DELBANCO: He wants these children to remain children. He celebrates their beauty and their innocence in a way actually that to our sensibility today might be a little bit unnerving in fact.

ULABY: A Perfect Day for Bananafish is one of those unnerving stories. Its about a troubled honeymooner who plays with a little girl in the ocean before killing himself. That character is one of seven sensitive siblings who appear in a number of Salinger stories, including Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Franny and Zooey. Stories about the Glass family had already established Salinger as a minor literary star by the time he published The Catcher in the Rye in 1951.

Unidentified Man #2: All of a sudden, this girl came up to me and said, Holden Caulfield. Her name was Lillian Simmons. My brother D.B. used to go around with her for a while. She had very big knockers.

ULABY: A prep school student Holdens age did this reading for NPR.

Unidentified Man #2: How marvelous to see you, old Lillian said. Strictly a phony.

ULABY: The Catcher in the Rye was an instant success. But Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco says it wasnt until the counterculture movement that Holden Caulfield took his place as a classic American anti-hero.

Prof. DELBANCO: Holdens indignation at the world, his sense that it is so filled with people of this sort really struck a nerve particularly in the early and mid 60s. Everybody carries around with them an impulse to say no to the world. The dissident impulse is very strong and powerful in American culture and literature.

ULABY: Delbanco traces that impulse from Americas first immigrants, to Emerson and Thoreau to the Beat writers who were Salingers contemporaries. He says Salinger empathized with young people as outsiders, and he romanticized their straightforward, non-phony impulses. And in J.D. Salingers fiction, innocence was a treasure to be protected.

Unidentified Man #2: I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobodys around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And Im standing on the edge of this some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean, if theyre running and they dont look where theyre going, I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. Thats all Id do all day. Id just be the catcher in the rye and all.

ULABY: The Catcher in the Rye inspired censors, assassins and innumerable ordinary readers who found in Salingers hopeful yet disillusioned heroes an uncompromising kindred spirit.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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'Catcher In The Rye' Author J.D. Salinger Dies At 91

J.D. Salinger portrait i i

J.D. Salinger, pictured in one of the few existing photographs of the author. The 1951 portrait was featured on the original dust jacket of The Catcher in the Rye. The Lotte Jacobi Collection/University of New Hampshire hide caption

itoggle caption The Lotte Jacobi Collection/University of New Hampshire
J.D. Salinger portrait

J.D. Salinger, pictured in one of the few existing photographs of the author. The 1951 portrait was featured on the original dust jacket of The Catcher in the Rye.

The Lotte Jacobi Collection/University of New Hampshire

The famously reclusive author J.D. Salinger has died at his New Hampshire home, his literary representative said in a statement. He was 91 years old.

Jerome David Salinger retreated to a New Hampshire farmhouse in 1953, a few years after he published the high-school classic The Catcher in the Rye. And there he stayed, for the next 50-plus years, scowling at photographers who dared snap his picture.

'I Refuse To Publish'

Salinger's published works include Nine Stories, a short-story collection, and Franny and Zooey, a novella about one of his favorite fictive subjects, the sensitive Glass family. His last published work was a short story that took up almost the whole New Yorker magazine in 1965 — though rumors have Salinger stashing reams of unpublished fiction in a vault.

Salinger rarely explained himself, though the interview requests never ceased. In 1980, reporter Betty Eppes sent her picture along with her request. She was granted one of the only interviews the author ever gave.

"He said, 'I refuse to publish,'" she told NPR in 1997. "'There's a marvelous peace in not publishing,' he said. 'There's a stillness. When you publish, the world thinks you owe something. If you don't publish, they don't know what you're doing. You can keep it for yourself.'"

Catastrophe In The Background

Salinger came from a Jewish-Scots-Irish New York family who imported meat. In the 1930s, he worked briefly as a cruise-ship entertainer. Then came World War II.

"He was a writer formed by the 1940s," says Andrew Delbanco, director of American Studies at Columbia University. "He participated in D-Day and in the Battle of the Bulge. There's a sense to my ear in The Catcher in the Rye and stories [of his] that catastrophe lies in the background of everything he feels and writes."

One of his most popular stories, "For Esme — With Love and Squalor," deals with a soldier on leave who finds solace in a conversation with a 13-year-old English girl. Many of Salinger's shell-shocked heroes click best with children, an allegation that was thrown the author's way as well.

Salinger "celebrates their innocence and beauty in a way that to our sensibility is almost unnerving," says Delbanco. Another favorite, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," is about a troubled honeymooner who plays with a little girl in the ocean before killing himself. The protagonist of "Bananafish" is Seymour Glass, the Glass sibling featured most often in Salinger's stories about that peculiar family. Published stories about the Glasses had already established Salinger as a minor literary star by the time he published The Catcher in the Rye in 1951.

Thoughts On J.D. Salinger

"Salinger transformed the short story in America. He gave it a kind of internal music it hadn't had. And it's possible to make the case that no writer sounded more original."

Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review, on Talk of the Nation

'Holden's Indignation ... Struck A Nerve'

The Catcher in the Rye, starring the disaffected adolescent Holden Caulfield, was an instant success, though it puzzled some reviewers. Long before it became a staple in American high schools — and ever since — screenwriters, novelists and actors begged for the rights to adapt it. Salinger seemed appalled by the attention and withdrew to New Hampshire shortly after its publication. He steadfastly refused to sell the rights to anything he ever wrote.

But the book's popularity soared out of sight as counterculture became mainstream culture in the 1960s, according to Delbanco.

"Holden's indignation, his sense of the world, really struck a nerve," he explains. "Everybody carries with them the impulse to say no. [It's] the dissident impulse that is powerful in American culture and literature."

Delbanco traces that impulse from America's first immigrants through Emerson and Thoreau to the Beat writers who were Salinger's contemporaries. He says Salinger empathized with young people as outsiders, and romanticized their straightforward, "non-phoney" impulses.

Original Catcher in the Rye cover

The title of the book comes from the protagonist's dream to keep everyone from growing up — to preserve the childhood grace Salinger idolized and resist falling headlong into adulthood:

I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in a big field of rye and all. ... Thousands of kids, and nobody big at all, nobody big but me. And I'm standing on the edge of this crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to come and catch them. If they start to fall ... and don't look where they're going. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all.

The Catcher in the Rye inspired censors, assassins and innumerable ordinary readers, who found in Salinger's hopeful yet disillusioned heroes an uncompromising kindred spirit.

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