J. D. Salinger produced some three dozen short stories in a twenty-five year period between 1940 and 1965. Of those, about a dozen were read by millions of readers, and at least three have entered the modern American literary canon. Salinger’s best stories deal with protagonists, often younger protagonists, struggling to find personal identity in an alienated world.
Salinger’s short stories conveniently fall into three distinct periods. His early stories, as Salinger found his own voice, are perishable. The stories of his brief middle period, however—from “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” in 1948 through “Teddy” in 1953—include his greatest achievements. Most of them, such as “Uncle Wiggley in Connecticut” and “For Esme—with Love and Squalor,” are collected in Nine Stories. The stories of his last decade—from “Franny” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” through “Zooey” and “Seymour,” collected in two volumes in 1961 and 1963—all concern the precocious Glass family children and represent an increasingly prolix and self-conscious style. Salinger’s last published story is “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which appeared in The New Yorker in 1965.
Salinger’s stories reveal a quest for spiritual fulfillment that is frustrated in the contemporary world. In Nine Stories, however, Salinger sometimes supposes a Zen Buddhist transcendence of self. In “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” Seymour Glass shoots himself (perhaps heading for another incarnation) rather than continue a shallow holiday with his new wife. In “For Esme—with Love and Squalor,” likewise, only children can offer love for the suffering that adults experience. The last Glass family stories, which focus on various odd, bright children in an Irish Jewish New York family, also focus on the spiritual quest. The young Franny is having some kind of emotional breakdown, but she is helped in “Zooey” when her brother tells her that Jesus is everywhere. In Salinger’s short stories, characters attempt to find personal salvation in a world that denies them a sense of place. The popularity of these stories in the 1950’s indicates that Salinger hit a responsive chord with readers who were suffering their own versions of angst and alienation, and that the quest for identity in his stories was also a quest being undertaken by readers worldwide.