J. D. Salinger Biography

J. D. Salinger Biography

J. D. Salinger is famous primarily for two things: his novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and his reclusive life. Catcher is a semiautobiographical account of its teenage protagonist, Holden Caulfield. The novel’s first-person narration gave voice to a generation of frustrated young men who longed to escape the strictures of “proper” society. Although the work was an immediate popular success, Salinger has never penned another published novel. He did have success with several short stories, including “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” first published in The New Yorker in 1948. Success also followed with his collection Franny and Zooey in 1961. Despite his enormous acclaim, though, Salinger has rarely published after 1959 and has only granted an occasional interview, preferring a life of anonymity.

Facts and Trivia

  • Salinger’s father wanted him to follow in his footsteps as a meat importer, sending his son to Austria to learn the trade. Salinger left Austria just one month before the country fell to Hitler.
  • He served in the army during World War II, saw action in D-Day, was among the first American soldiers to enter a liberated concentration camp, and interrogated prisoners of war as a counter-intelligence officer.
  • The Catcher in the Rye was one of the most banned books and paradoxically one of the most taught books of the twentieth century.
  • The character Holden Caulfield first appeared in the short story “Slight Rebellion Off Madison.”
  • Salinger has been at various times a Zen Buddhist, a Christian Scientist, and a Scientologist.


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Although Salinger wrote only one novel and thirty-five stories, he attained a degree of international recognition and popularity that is unequaled by most twentieth century American authors.

Early Life

Born in Manhattan, the setting (or focal point) for most of his best fiction, Jerome David Salinger was the second child and only son of Sol and Marie Jillich Salinger. His paternal grandfather, Simon, born in Lithuania, was at one time the rabbi for the Adath Jeshurun congregation in Louisville, Kentucky. His mother, reared a Christian, converted to Judaism upon marrying Sol and changed her name to Miriam. Salinger’s father, an importer of meat (hams from Poland in particular), was a highly successful businessman. The family lived on Riverside Drive during Salinger’s early years. The Salingers were not conventionally religious; the children were exposed primarily to the ideas of Ethical Culture. In 1930, young Salinger, or “Sonny” as he was called by his family, spent the summer at Camp Wigwam in Harrison, Maine (the probable source for the setting of his last published story).

Salinger attended Manhattan public schools until, at age thirteen, he was enrolled in the McBurney School, also in Manhattan, where he earned below-average grades but became manager of the fencing team and was elected sophomore class president in his second year there. In the fall of 1934, hoping for better academic performance from his son, Salinger’s father sent him to Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania, where he participated in all the usual activities, was literary editor of the yearbook, and maintained about a B average.

After Salinger was graduated from Valley Forge in 1936, he attended the Washington Square campus of New York University. He took the following year off to travel with his father in Austria and Poland; while in Europe, Salinger learned German and familiarized himself with the family business. This experience led him back to academe, to Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1938. The columns that Salinger wrote for the Ursinus College newspaper reveal a very literary man most unhappy with college life. Salinger abruptly left Ursinus in December; his train voyage home to New York was perhaps the inspiration for a similar scene in The Catcher in the Rye (1951).

In the spring of 1938, Salinger enrolled in the Extension Division of Columbia University and attended Whit Burnett’s writing class. Within a year, his first story, “The Young Folks,” was published in Burnett’s Story magazine; another appeared in the University of Kansas City Review. In 1941, he cracked the slick magazines, with one story each in Collier’s and Esquire. Thereafter, for ten years or more, regardless of his life circumstances, Salinger regularly published stories in these and such other magazines as The Saturday Evening Post, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s, and The New Yorker. Several of Salinger’s stories, even some of those written as early as 1941, concern a young man named Holden Caulfield, who would become the hero of Salinger’s first and only novel, The Catcher in the Rye.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1942, Salinger was drafted into the United States Army, serving first in the Signal Corps and then later in the Counter-Intelligence Corps, where he was assigned to the Twelfth Infantry Regiment of the Fourth Division. He sailed with the latter for England in January of 1944. On D-Day, Salinger, by then a staff sergeant, landed on Utah Beach with his regiment, five hours after the first assault. The fighting that Salinger witnessed provided the background for the story “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” (1950). In August of 1944, Salinger had a friendly meeting with Ernest Hemingway, in France. Until his discharge in the spring of 1946, Salinger’s duty was to interrogate captured German soldiers and French civilians. In 1945, he married a French psychiatrist, from whom he was divorced soon after.

For the next several years Salinger moved quite often; he lived first with his parents on Park Avenue, then in Westport, Connecticut, and finally in an apartment on East Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan—all the while writing stories, cruising around Greenwich Village in his sports car, and working on the final drafts of The Catcher in the Rye. This remarkable novel about the odyssey of a teenage boy spiritually lost in nighttime Manhattan was an immediate popular success. Salinger obligingly sat for interviewers and photographers. One particular picture of him—the one that appeared on the dust jacket of the first printing of The Catcher in the Rye (and frequently elsewhere)—became so well-known to the public that it became a kind of icon. It shows a handsome young man in three-quarters profile, with dark eyes in a slender and sensitive face and a mouth anticipating a possibly sad smile. The owner of this iconic face was six feet, two inches...

(The entire section is 2084 words.)

J. D. Salinger Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Jerome David Salinger was the second child—his sister, Doris, was born eight years before him—and only son of Sol and Miriam Jillich Salinger, a Jewish father and a Christian mother. His father was a successful importer of hams and cheeses. Salinger was a serious child who kept mostly to himself. His IQ test score was above average, and his grades, at public schools in the upper West Side of Manhattan, were in the “B” range. Socially, his experiences at summer camp were more successful than in the Manhattan public schools. At Camp Wigwam, in Harrison, Maine, he was voted at age eleven “the most popular actor of 1930.”

In 1934, Salinger entered Valley Forge Military Academy, in Pennsylvania, a school resembling Pencey Prep in The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger, however, was more successful at Valley Forge than Holden had been at Pencey, and in June, 1936, Valley Forge gave him his only diploma. He was literary editor of the Academy yearbook and wrote a poem that was set to music and sung at the school.

In 1937, he enrolled in summer school at New York University but left for Austria and Poland to try working in his father’s meat import business. In 1938, after returning to the United States, he briefly attended Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. There, he wrote a column, “Skipped Diploma,” which featured film reviews for the college newspaper. In 1939, he signed up for a short-story course at Columbia University, given by Whit Burnett, editor of Story magazine. In 1940, his first short story, “The Young Folks,” was published in the March/April...

(The entire section is 661 words.)

J. D. Salinger Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Jerome David Salinger was born in New York, New York, on January 1, 1919, the second child and only son of Sol and Miriam (Jillich) Salinger, although details on Salinger and his parents’ life is clouded. Salinger’s father was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and has been noted as being the son of a rabbi, but he drifted far enough away from orthodox Judaism to become a successful importer of hams and to marry a Gentile, the Scotch Irish Marie Jillich, who changed her name soon after to Miriam to fit in better with her husband’s family. During J. D.’s early years the Salingers moved several times, to increasingly affluent neighborhoods.

Salinger attended schools on Manhattan’s upper West Side, doing satisfactory work in all subjects except arithmetic. He probably spent most of his summers in New England camps like most sons of upper-middle-class New York families; he was voted the “most popular actor” in the summer of 1930 at Camp Wigwam in Harrison, Maine. When he reached high school age, he was placed in Manhattan’s famed McBurney School, a private institution, where he was manager of the fencing team, a reporter on the McBurnean, and an actor in two plays; however, he flunked out after one year. In September of 1934, his father enrolled him at Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania.

During his two years at Valley Forge, Salinger did satisfactory, but undistinguished, work. He belonged to the Glee Club, the Aviation Club, the French Club, the Noncommissioned Officers’ Club, and the Mask and Spur, a dramatic organization. He also served as literary editor of the yearbook, Crossed Sabres, during his senior year. He is credited with writing a three-stanza poetic tribute to the academy that has since been set to music and is sung by the cadets at their last formation before graduation. Although not yet the recluse that he would later become, Salinger began to write short stories at that time, usually working by flashlight under his blankets after “lights out.” Astonishingly, he also appeared interested in a career in the motion-picture business, as either a producer or a supplier of story material. He graduated in June of 1936.

It is unclear what Salinger did after graduation, but he enrolled at least for the summer session of 1937 at Washington Square College in New York. Salinger, in one of his rare interviews, mentioned that he spent some time in Vienna, Austria, and in Poland learning German and the details of the ham-importing business; it is not clear if his father accompanied him or not, but his trip probably occurred before Adolf Hitler’s Anschluss, possibly in the fall of 1937.

On his return to the United States, Salinger enrolled at Ursinus College, a coeducational institution sponsored by the Evangelical and Reformed Church at Collegeville, Pennsylvania, not far from Valley Forge. Although he remained only one semester, he wrote a humorous and critical column, “The Skipped Diploma,” for the Ursinus Weekly. He returned to New York and enrolled in Whit Burnett’s famous course in short-story writing at Columbia University. It has been noted that Burnett was not at first impressed with the quiet youth who made no comments in class and seemed more interested in playwriting. However, Salinger’s first story, “The Young Folks,” was impressive enough to be published in the March, 1940, issue of Story, edited by Burnett.

After publishing in a magazine famous for discovering new talent, Salinger spent another year writing without success until, at age twenty-two, he broke into the well-paying mass circulation magazines with a “short, short story” in Collier’s and a “satire” in Esquire; he even had a story accepted by The New Yorker, which delayed publication of “Slight Rebellion off Madison” until after World War II. This story proved to be one of the forerunners to The Catcher in the Rye.

During 1941, Salinger worked as an entertainer on the Swedish ocean liner MS Kungsholm. Upon his return to the United States, he wrote to the military adjunct at Valley Forge, Colonel Milton G. Baker, to see if there was some way that he could get into the service, even though he had been classified as 1-B because of a slight cardiac condition. After Selective Service standards were lowered in 1942, Salinger was inducted and attended the Officers, First Sergeants, and...

(The entire section is 1818 words.)

J. D. Salinger Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The characters in J. D. Salinger’s fiction pursue a search for identity in a world often hostile to them; their creator has apparently found his own salvation in seclusion. Salinger grew up in New York City, attended private schools, and was publishing short fiction in his early twenties. World War II interrupted his career, and he served in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1945, participating in the D day invasion in Normandy, France, in 1944. In the next two decades, he would become perhaps the most famous, and most secluded, contemporary American writer. His best stories—such as “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”—appeared originally in The New Yorker and were collected in Nine Stories. During the following...

(The entire section is 363 words.)

J. D. Salinger Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

As famous for his flight from fame as for the one novel and thirteen short fictions that he produced before retreating into silence, Jerome David Salinger (SAL-ihn-jur) gave voice to the rejection of materialism and regimentation that attracted the generation growing up in the United States after World War II. He was born in New York City on New Year’s Day, 1919, the son of a prosperous Jewish importer and his Scottish-Irish wife. From 1934 to 1936 he attended the Valley Forge Military Academy, a boarding school in Pennsylvania, which was to serve as the model for Pencey Prep in The Catcher in the Rye. After brief stints at Ursinus College and New York University, he studied short-story writing at Columbia University...

(The entire section is 986 words.)

J. D. Salinger Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Because of Salinger’s insistence on preserving his privacy, and the willingness of his family and friends to assist him in doing so, little biographical information on Salinger is available, especially regarding his later life. Moreover, his habit of deliberately misleading would-be biographers with false information further complicates the picture; nevertheless, some elements of Salinger’s biography are generally accepted as true.

Jerome David Salinger was born in New York City on January 1, 1919, to a Jewish father, Sol Salinger, a successful importer of hams and cheeses, and a Christian mother, Miriam Jillich Salinger. He was the second of two children; his sister, Doris, was eight years his senior. Salinger...

(The entire section is 832 words.)

J. D. Salinger Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The stories of Salinger present complex characters—brilliant, sensitive, and prone to nervous breakdowns and suicide—struggling to retain a belief in innocence, goodness. and truth in an increasingly corrupt and artificial world. Through a combination of vividly realistic dialogue and meticulous description of personal characteristics and mannerisms, the characters in Salinger’s stories take on lives of their own and occupy permanent places in the minds of readers who come to know them.

(The entire section is 74 words.)

J. D. Salinger Biography

(Novels for Students)

Although the known facts of his life are sparse and undramatic, J. D. Salinger’s influence on American youth since the 1950s has been...

(The entire section is 843 words.)

J. D. Salinger Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Jerome David Salinger was born on January 1, 1919, in New York City, the second child of Sol and Miriam Jillich Salinger. His father, of...

(The entire section is 709 words.)

J. D. Salinger Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Jerome David Salinger was born in New York City on New Year's Day, 1919. His father, Solomon, was a Jewish cheese importer who hoped that his...

(The entire section is 636 words.)