illustrated portrait of American author J. D. Salinger

J. D. Salinger

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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.


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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...

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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 tall—and soon to be disillusioned about the rewards of popularity.

Life’s Work

The novel The Catcher in the Rye illustrates well the basic features of Salinger’s art. In his novel, as in most of his short stories, Salinger identifies with the concerns of young people who suffer from the hypocrisy of the adult world, and he effectively re-creates their speech. The book also contains numerous examples of Salinger’s distinctive humor—often considered vulgar—for which the book was banned from many libraries and school reading lists. Finally, in a plot development typical of Salinger’s fiction, the protagonist is transformed through spiritual insight, allowing him to accept, at least temporarily, the world as it is. The quest of many of Salinger’s protagonists is religious in character, usually containing elements of both Buddhism (recognition of the pain of life) and of Christianity (Holden, in his desire to protect the children in the field of rye, acting as a savior or Christ figure). Some critics found Salinger mannered, sentimental, and insufficiently interested in social questions, but readers around the world—not merely in the United States—identified strongly with Salinger’s adolescent protagonist. Many readers, together with numerous magazine reporters, sought out the young writer.

To escape from his fans, Salinger ordered his portrait removed from all later printings of The Catcher in the Rye, refused all requests for interviews, and finally, in January of 1953, retired from the world altogether by moving to a rustic cottage near Cornish Flat, New Hampshire—located on a dirt road in the woods, about a mile from St. Gaudens Memorial Park. In the same year Salinger’s collection Nine Stories was published, notable for its chronicles of the Glass family, its use of Zen Buddhist motifs, and for its remarkable “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” a story which presents the agony of war, the Dostoevskian premise that hell is the suffering of being unable to love, and an offer of hope through love from a young girl in England to a battle-weary American sergeant.

Also in 1953, Salinger met nineteen-year-old Claire Alison Douglas at a party in Manchester, Vermont. An English debutante, she had studied at the best private schools and was then a top student at Radcliffe College. She was much influenced by Salinger’s religious preoccupations and became in part the model for Franny Glass, the protagonist of “Franny” (1955). Franny is memorable for her antipathy toward ambitious, egotistical English instructors and for her desperate effort to escape the pain of the world by endlessly repeating the Jesus Prayer of Russian Orthodoxy. Despite her attraction to Salinger, Claire Douglas married (in August of 1953) her fiancé, Colman Mockler, a student at the Harvard Business School. Within a short time, however, this marriage was annulled. On February 17, 1955, Salinger and Claire Douglas were married. On December 10 of that year their first child, Margaret Ann, was born, and on February 13, 1960, their second and last child, Matthew Robert, was born.

During the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Salinger completed his cycle of Glass family stories, publishing two stories each in the books Franny and Zooey (1961) and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963). In 1965, he published “Hapworth 16, 1924” in The New Yorker, consisting chiefly of a long letter home written from camp by Seymour Glass at the age of seven. This strange and precocious document would be the last work of fiction published by Salinger, at least through the late 1980’s.

In 1967, Salinger and Claire Douglas divorced. The cottage was sold. When the children were grown, Claire moved to San Francisco and established herself as a Jungian psychologist. Salinger continued to live in his hilltop chalet, writing daily and trying to avoid intrusive fans and reporters, who, once a year or so, invaded his retreat, hoping to engage him in conversation for a few minutes or at least catch a glimpse of him. To some, Salinger’s withdrawal into almost total privacy seemed psychotic; he has not, however, completely isolated himself from society. For example, romantic interests have been reported in the press—with the nineteen-year-old novelist Joyce Maynard in 1973 and with actress Elaine Joyce in 1982. In 1978, he attended a testimonial dinner in Queens, New York, for an old army buddy. As to what Salinger has written since 1965, Truman Capote reported shortly before he died: “I’m told, on very good authority, that . . . he’s written at least five or six short novels and that all of them have been turned down by The New Yorker. And that all of them are very strange and about Zen Buddhism.” In 1997 Salinger surprised many by allowing a small publishing house to reprint his 1965 short story “Hapworth 16, 1924.”


Salinger’s major work, The Catcher in the Rye, had, by the late 1980’s, been translated into thirty-five languages and sold more than twelve million copies in English-language editions alone. Indeed, it is the income from such unprecedented sales that has allowed Salinger to live his monkish life and to write for himself alone, refusing to conform to the expectations of publishers. Foreign readers have found it easy to identify or sympathize with the sensitive Holden Caulfield. Russians in particular have fallen in love with the young protagonist. Many editions of The Catcher in the Rye (to say nothing of the stories) have been published in the Soviet Union not only in Russian but also in other Soviet languages. (A Russian edition of Salinger’s collected works in one volume was published in fifty thousand copies as late as 1983.) In this way, Salinger has made an important contribution to international understanding and therefore to world peace. Indeed, The Catcher in the Rye has probably done more than any other American novel—in part precisely because of the attacks on it by book censors—to introduce young people to great literature.


Alsen, Eberhard. Salinger’s Glass Stories as a Composite Novel. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston Publishing Co., 1983. A fascinating summary and analysis of the Glass family stories. Includes a helpful chronology of events in the lives of both Buddy and Seymour, as well as of the other siblings. Although little is said about Salinger’s own life, autobiographical elements in the Glass stories become apparent under Alsen’s treatment. Especially useful is a list of all the books that form the basis of Seymour’s (that is Salinger’s) eclectic religious philosophy. All are mentioned in the Glass stories, and they are essential to Alsen’s analysis of Salinger’s religious views.

French, Warren. J. D. Salinger. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976. Both critical and biographical. Has a useful chronology of life and work, updated from the 1963 edition, and a selected bibliography, also updated.

Grunwald, Henry Anatole, ed. Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1962. A good early collection of critical articles, most of them favorable to Salinger. A detailed “biographical collage” forms the first chapter.

Laser, Marvin, and Norman Fruman, eds. Studies in J. D. Salinger: Reviews, Essays and Critiques of “The Catcher in the Rye” and Other Fiction. New York: Odyssey Press, 1963. Balanced collection of critical articles which include incidental biographical information. A checklist of Salinger’s work is appended.

Lundquist, James. J. D. Salinger. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1979. Excellent critical analysis of the fiction, with a chronology of life and work and an extensive bibliography.

Sublette, Jack R. J. D. Salinger: An Annotated Bibliography, 1938-1981. New York: Garland Publishing, 1984. Well-organized bibliography of 1,462 items, with author and title indexes and a detailed chronology of life and work. Annotations are extensive, especially in the section on biography, which contains 175 entries. Sublette’s bibliography essentially incorporates all previous bibliographies and is indispensable to any serious study of Salinger.


Critical Essays