July 16, 1951, was the date J.D. Salinger’s monumentally successful novel “The Catcher in the Rye” was published. More than 60 years later, it still sells some quarter-million copies worldwide annually.
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Ironically, together with some of Salinger’s more accessible short stories, the book made him a writer that millions of readers identified with and imagined befriending - even as the success and publicity it engendered made him run from his fans and the press. Eventually he stopped publishing altogether.
Jerome David Salinger was born on January 1, 1919, in New York. His father, Solomon Singer, was the son of a rabbi-turned-physician, and he made a fortune importing European cheeses and pork products to the United States. His mother, the former Marie Jilich, was an Iowa-born non-Jew who changed her name to “Miriam” when she married Sol, and presented herself as Jewish, even to her children, though she never underwent conversion.
When a body learn the meat business
As a boy and youth, Jerry seemed to be happy socially, though he was a mediocre student. After he was asked to leave his exclusive New York prep school, his father arranged for him to attend Valley Forge Military Academy, in Pennsylvania. There he developed a reputation as an actor and writer, and graduated in 1936.
After an abortive start at New York University, Jerry's father sent him to Austria and Poland for a year, to learn the meat business, which Sol hoped the son would enter. But World War II was around the corner, and the rising anti-Semitism was palpable in Vienna. Jerry spent the first part of the year living with a Jewish family, whose daughter he reportedly fell in love with. (According to biographer Kenneth Slawenski, the entire family was killed during the Holocaust.)
Returning to New York, and determined to be a success, Salinger devoted himself to his writing. He received encouragement from writing teacher and editor Whit Burnett and kept writing even after being drafted, in April 1942.
Salinger was sent to Europe in 1944, where he participated in the D-Day landings at Normandy, and in the Battle of the Bulge. After the Germans’ surrender, he witnessed the liberation of Dachau and its satellite camps, and served as an intelligence officer in the hunt for and interrogation of suspected war criminals. He also was married briefly to a German woman.
Then he had a nervous collapse. He checked himself into an army hospital for several weeks, and after returning to the U.S., he vowed never to speak of the war.
By the time “Catcher in the Rye” was published, he was selling stories regularly to The New Yorker, and had even seen one of them adapted for the screen – an adaptation that made him resolve never to work with Hollywood again.
Never a number-one seller, more an always-seller
The book, of course, is about a few days in the life of Holden Caulfield, a 17-year-old who has just been expelled from his Pennsylvania boarding school. At loose ends, he heads to New York, where he tries out the worst mannerisms of being an adult, and feels very alone. At the end, Holden tells us he in some sort of hospital, apparently because he is suspected of having tuberculosis (not because of a mental breakdown).
The book’s publication by Little, Brown elicited largely favorable reviews, and it spent much of the next year on the best-seller lists, though never reaching the top. It was followed by three more books, “Nine Stories” (1953) and two volumes containing two novellas each about various members of the Glass family, “Franny and Zooey” (1961) and “Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction” (1963).
Already in 1953, Salinger had fled the city for a 90-acre property in New Hampshire, where he gradually withdrew almost totally from society. He told his agent to burn his fan mail, he stopped giving interviews, and in 1965, he published his last story, the inscrutable “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which probably quenched many readers’ appetite to read anything else by Salinger.
J.D. Salinger died at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, on January 27, 2010.