J. D. Salinger Biography

At a Glance

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.)