Jerome David Salinger was born in New York City in 1919. The son of a wealthy cheese importer, Salinger grew up in a fashionable neighborhood in Manhattan and spent his youth being shuttled between various prep schools before his parents finally settled on the Valley Forge Military Academy in 1934. He graduated from Valley Forge in 1936 and attended a number of colleges, including Columbia University, but did not graduate from any of them. While at Columbia, Salinger took a creative writing class in which he excelled, cementing the interest in writing that he had maintained since his teenage years. Salinger had his first short story published in 1940; he continued to write as he joined the army and fought in Europe during World War II. Upon his return to the United States and civilian life in 1946, Salinger wrote more stories, publishing them in many respected magazines. In 1951, Salinger published his only full-length novel, The Catcher in the Rye, which propelled him onto the national stage.
Many events from Salinger’s early life appear in The Catcher in the Rye. For instance, Holden Caulfield moves from prep school to prep school, is threatened with military school, and knows an older Columbia student. In the novel, such autobiographical details are transplanted into a post–World War II setting. The Catcher in the Rye was published at a time when the burgeoning American industrial economy made the nation prosperous and entrenched social rules served as a code of conformity for the younger generation. Because Salinger used slang and profanity in his text and because he discussed adolescent sexuality in a complex and open way, many readers were offended, and The Catcher in the Rye provoked great controversy upon its release. Some critics argued that the book was not serious literature, citing its casual and informal tone as evidence. The book was—and continues to be—banned in some communities, and it consequently has been thrown into the center of debates about First Amendment rights, censorship, and obscenity in literature.
Though controversial, the novel appealed to a great number of people. It was a hugely popular bestseller and general critical success. Salinger’s writing seemed to tap into the emotions of readers in an unprecedented way. As countercultural revolt began to grow during the 1950s and 1960s, The Catcher in the Rye was frequently read as a tale of an individual’s alienation within a heartless world. Holden seemed to stand for young people everywhere, who felt themselves beset on all sides by pressures to grow up and live their lives according to the rules, to disengage from meaningful human connection, and to restrict their own personalities and conform to a bland cultural norm. Many readers saw Holden Caulfield as a symbol of pure, unfettered individuality in the face of cultural oppression.
In the same year that The Catcher in the Rye appeared, Salinger published a short story in The New Yorker magazine called “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” which proved to be the first in a series of stories about the fictional Glass family. Over the next decade, other “Glass” stories appeared in the same magazine: “Franny,” “Zooey,” and “Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters.” These and other stories are available in the only other books Salinger published besides The Catcher in the Rye: Nine Stories (1953), Franny and Zooey (1961), and Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963). Though Nine Stories received some critical acclaim, the critical reception of the later stories was hostile. Critics generally found the Glass siblings to be ridiculously and insufferably precocious and judgmental.
Beginning in the early 1960s, as his critical reputation waned, Salinger began to publish less and to disengage from society. In 1965, after publishing another Glass story (“Hapworth 26, 1924”) that was widely reviled by critics, he withdrew almost completely from public life, a stance he has maintained up to the present. This reclusiveness, ironically, made Salinger even more famous, transforming him into a cult figure. To some degree, Salinger’s cult status has overshadowed, or at least tinged, many readers’ perceptions of his work. As a recluse, Salinger, for many, embodied much the same spirit as his precocious, wounded characters, and many readers view author and characters as the same being. Such a reading of Salinger’s work clearly oversimplifies the process of fiction writing and the relationship between the author and his creations. But, given Salinger’s iconoclastic behavior, the general view that Salinger was himself a sort of Holden Caulfield is understandable.
The few brief public statements that Salinger made before his death in 2010 suggested that he continued to write stories, implying that the majority of his works might not appear until after his death. Meanwhile, readers have become more favorably disposed toward Salinger’s later writings, meaning that The Catcher in the Rye may one day be seen as part of a much larger literary whole.