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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

J(erome D(avid) Salinger (1919-2010)


J.D. Salinger's best-known work is The Catcher in the Rye (1951), a story about a rebellious teenage schoolboy and his quixotic experiences in New York. After gaining international fame with this novel, Salinger spent the rest of his life avoiding publicity. Though Salinger served in the U.S. Army in World War II and participated in the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, 1944, only a few of his stories dealt directly or indirectly with the war.

"What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though." (Holden Caulfied in The Catcher in the Rye)

Jerome David Salinger was born and grew up in the fashionable apartment district of Manhattan, New York. He was the son of Solomon Salinger, a prosperous Jewish importer of Kosher cheese, and Miriam, née Marie Jillich, his Scotch-Irish wife. Salinger was only half-Jewish; his mother was a Catholic. In his childhood the young Jerome was called Sonny. The family had a beautiful apartment on Park Avenue. After restless studies in prep schools, he was sent to Valley Forge Military Academy (1934-36), which he attended briefly. His friends from this period remember his sarcastic wit. In 1937 when he was eighteen and nineteen, Salinger spent five months in Europe. From 1937 to 1938 he studied at Ursinus College and New York University. He fell in love with Oona O'Neill, wrote her letters almost daily, and was later shocked when she married Charles Chaplin, who was 55, she was 18.

In 1939 Salinger took a class in short story writing at Columbia University under Whit Burnett, founder-editor of the Story Magazine. His first published story, entitled 'The Young Folks' appeared in the magazine when he was 21. During World War II he was drafted into the infantry and was involved in the invasion of Normandy, landing on Utah Beach on D-Day. Salinger's comrades considered him very brave, a genuine hero.

While in Europe Salinger managed to write stories and meet Ernest Hemingway at the Ritz bar in Paris. He also fought in one of the bloodiest episodes of the war in Hürtgenwald, a useless battle, where over one fifth of the original regimental soldiers were left. Shortly after the Battle of Bulge, Salinger participated in the liberation of Dachau. Curiously, during his career as a writer, Salinger avoided dealing with the Holocaust.

In his celebrated story 'For Esmé – With Love and Squalor' Salinger depicted a fatigued American soldier. He starts a correspondence with a thirteen-year-old British girl, which helps him to get a grip of life again. Salinger himself was hospitalized for stress in 1945. After the war he continued to work as a private investigator for the Counter-Intelligence Corps (CIC), where his job had been to arrest Nazi spies and collaborators.

On his free time, Salinger played poker with other aspiring writers, and was considered a sour character who won all the time. He considered Hemingway and Steinbeck second rate writers but praised Melville. In 1945 Salinger married a woman named Sylvia – she was "some sort of doctor," and not French as it was believed but a German. Salinger's daughter Margaret  claimed that she had been a minor official of the Nazi Party, Salinger had arrested her. "My mother said he told her that Sylvia hated Jews as much as he hated Nazis, and she let him feel it." (Dream Catcher: A Memoir by Margaret Ann Salinger, 2000, p. 71) They were later divorced and in 1955 Salinger married Claire Douglas, the daughter of the British art critic Robert Langton Douglas. They had a daughter and a son. The marriage ended in divorce in 1967, when Salinger's retreat into his private world and Zen Buddhism only increased.

Salinger's early short stories appeared in such magazines as Story, Saturday Evening Post and Esquire, and then in the New Yorker, which published almost all of his later texts. 'Slight Rebellion off Madison' (1946), narrated in the third person, marked the appearance of Holden Morrisey Caulfield. 'A Perfect Day for Bananafish' (1948) introduced Seymour Glass, who commits suicide with a pistol. It was the earliest reference to the Glass family, whose stories would go on to form the main corpus of his writing. The 'Glass cycle' continued in the collections Franny and Zooey (1961), Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (1963) and Seymour: An Introduction (1963). Several of the stories are narrated by Buddy Glass. 'Hapworth 16, 1924' is written in the form of a letter from summer camp, in which the seven-year-old Seymour draws a portrait of him and his younger brother Buddy. "When I look back, listen back, over the half-dozen or slightly more original poets we've had in America, as well as the numerous talented eccentric poets and – in modern times, especially – the many gifted style deviates, I feel something close to a conviction that we have only three or four very nearly nonexpendable poets, and I think Seymour will eventually stand with those few." (from Seymour, An Introduction)

Twenty stories published in Collier's, Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, and the New Yorker between 1941 and 1948 appeared in a pirated edition in 1974, The Complete Uncollected Stories of J. D. Salinger (2 vols.). Many of them reflect Salinger's own service in the army. Later Salinger adopted Hindu-Buddhist influences. He became an ardent devotee of The Gospels of Sri Ramakrishna, a study of Hindu mysticism, which was translated into English by Swami Nikhilananda and Joseph Campbell.

Salinger's first novel, The Catcher in the Rye, became immediately a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and won huge international acclaim. It sells still some 250 000 copies annually. Salinger did not do much to help publicity, and asked that his photograph should not be used in connection with the book. Later he turned down requests for movie adaptations of the book.

The novel, written in a monologue and in lively slang, took its title from a line by Robert Burns, in which the protagonist Holden Caulfied misquoting it sees himself as a "catcher in the rye" who must keep the world's children from falling off 'some crazy cliff'. The first reviews of the work were mixed, although most critics considered it brilliant. Its 16-year old restless hero – as Salinger was in his youth – runs away from school during his Christmas break to New York to find himself and lose his virginity. He spends an evening going to nightclubs, has an unsuccessful encounter with a prostitute, and the next day meets an old girlfriend. After getting drunk he sneaks home. Holden's former schoolteacher makes homosexual advances to him. He meets his sister to tell her that he is leaving home and has a nervous breakdown. The humor of the novel places it in the tradition of Mark Twain's classical works, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but its world-view is more disillusioned. Holden describes everything as "phoney" and is constantly in search of sincerity. Holden represents the early hero of adolescent angst, but full of life, he is the great literary opposite of Goethe's young Werther. "Behind the repulsive mask, barely touched by filth, resides noble humanity, high-hearted and talented," said the Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse in his review of the book. "Perhaps this dear imperiled child will sometime write poems, perhaps too, later on, he will sometime succumb and in some way or another also sell himself to Hollywood." (My Belief: Essays on Life and Art by Hermann Hesse, 1979, p. 351)

From time to time rumors spread that Salinger will publish another novel, or that he is publishing his work under a pseudonym, perhaps such as Thomas Pynchon. "Yet a real artist, I've noticed, will survive anything. (Even praise, I happily suspect.)," Salinger wrote in Seymour – An Introduction. From the late 60's he avoided publicity. He had no name on the mailbox of his house in Cornish, New Hampshire. Journalists assumed, that because he didn't give interviews, he had something to hide. In 1961 Time Magazine sent a team of reporters to investigate his private life. "I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure," said Salinger in 1974 to a New York Times correspondent.

A ccording to Joyce Maynard, who was close to the author in the 1970s, Salinger continued to write alone in his study, but locked the pages into a safe. They met after he had seen her picture on the cover of the New York Times Magazine and read her essay 'An 18-Year-Old Looks Back.' Maynard received a letter from the Catcher in the Rye author, and following an intense correspondence she moved in with him. Maynard, who suffered from anorexia, saw Salinger as her rescuer, and her destination. Salinger lived an austere life, he studied and practiced homeopathy, and ate sparingly, mainly raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, and carefully cooked lamb patties. Together they watched television sitcoms, practiced yoga and meditated. Maynard tells that Salinger forced her to perform oral sex on him. Salinger suddenly broke off their relationship.

Years afterwards, Maynard wrote a novel entitled Baby Love (1981), about a young woman and her much older lover. Joseph Heller and Raymond Carver praised the work, but Salinger dismissed it as " piece of junk." At Home in the World (1998) was Maynard's story of her relationship with the reclusive author. "My experience with Salinger, and the manner in which it ended, left me shattered and lost for time when I was young. But I reclaimed myself. I never saw myself as a ruined person, or a victim. I did not cease to trust, or to be hopeful, or to seek love, and love back. Also, I never stopped being a writer." (p. 17) The book was met with hostile reviews; Maynard was portrayed as a "stalker," "leech woman," "opportunistic onetime nymphet". ('Was She J.D. Salinger's Predator of His Prey?' by Joyce Maynard, The New York Times, September 5, 2018) Salinger himself never made any public statement about the work.

Ian Hamilton's unauthorized biography of Salinger was rewritten, when the author did not accept extensive quoting of his personal letters. The new version, In Search of J.D. Salinger, came in 1988. In 1992 a fire broke out in Salinger's house, but he managed to flee from the reporters who saw an opportunity to interview him. Since the late 80s Salinger was married to Colleen O'Neill, a nurse 40 years his junior. Salinger once wrote to Hemingway that he was going to attempt to find a gil like the nurse heroine of A Farewell to Arms. (Salinger by David Shields, Shane Salerno, 2013, p. 544)

Salinger broke his silence through his lawyers in 2009, when they launched a legal action to stop the publication of an unauthorised sequel to the Caulfield's story, entitled 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye released in Britain under the pseudonym John David California. The 33-year-old Swedish writer, Fredrik Colting, has earlier published humor books. Salinger died at his home on January 27, 2010.

For further reading: J.D. Salinger and the Critics, ed. William F. Belcher and James E. Lee (1962); Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait, ed. Henry A. Grunwald (1962); J.D. Salinger by Warren French (1963, 1976); 'If You Really Want to Know': A Catcher Casebook, ed. Malcolm M. Marsden (1963); J.D. Salinger by James E. Miller, Jr. (1965); J.D. Salinger by J. Lundquist (1979); Salinger: Modern Critical Views, ed. H. Bloom (1987); In Search of J.D. Salinger by Ian Hamilton (1988); Salinger by Paul Alexander (1999); Dream Catcher: A Memoir by Margaret Ann Salinger (2000); At Home In The World by Joyce Maynard (2010); J.D. Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski (2011); Salinger by David Shields, Shane Salerno (2013); J. D. Salinger: the Last Interview and Other Conversations, edited and with an introduction by David Streitfeld (2016); J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye: a Cultural History by Josef Benson (2018); J. D. Salinger and the Nazis by Eberhard Alsen (2018) - Film adaptations: My Foolish Heart (1949), story J.D. Salinger, script Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, dir. Mark Robson. When the director Elia Kazan asked for permission to produce The Catcher in the Rye on Broadway, Salinger replied: 'I cannot give my permission. I fear Holden wouldn't like it.'

Selected bibliography:

  • The Catcher in the Rye, 1951
    - Sieppari ruispellossa (translated into Finnish by Pentti Saarikoski, 1961; Arto Schroderus, 2004)
  • Nine Stories, 1953 (contains A Perfect Day for Bananafish, Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut, Just Before the War with the Eskimos, The Laughing Man, Down at the Dinghy, For Esmé - with Love and Squalor, Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes, De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period, Teddy)
    - Yhdeksän kertomusta (translated into Finnish Marjatta Kapari & Kristiina Kivivuori, 1966)
    - Films: My Foolish Heart (Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut), 1949, prod. The Samuel Goldwyn Company, dir. Mark Robson, screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, starring Dana Andrews, Susan Hayward, Kent Smith; Un Día perfecto para el pez plátano, 2002 (short film), prod. Instituto Cubano de Radio y Televisión (Cuba), dir. Leandro Martínez Cubela
  • Franny and Zooey, 1961
    - Franny ja Zooey (translated into Finnish by Pentti Saarikoski, 1962)
    - Film: Pari, 1995, unauthorized adaptation shot in Iran, dir. Dariush Mehrjui, starring Niki Karimi, Ali Mosaffa, Khosro Shakibai, Melika Sharifinia
  • Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, 1963

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