Biography of J. D. Salinger, American Writer

Famous Author of 'The Catcher in the Rye'

A January 28, 2010 photo shows a copies
AFP via Getty Images / Getty Images

J. D. Salinger (January 1, 1919–January 27, 2010) was an American author mostly known for his seminal teenage-angst novel The Catcher in the Rye and numerous short stories. Though critically and commercially successful, Salinger led a mostly reclusive life. 

Fast Facts: J. D. Salinger

  • Full Name: Jerome David Salinger
  • Known For: Author of The Catcher in the Rye 
  • Born: January 1, 1919 in New York City, New York
  • Parents: Sol Salinger, Marie Jillich
  • Died: January 27, 2010 in Cornish, New Hampshire
  • Education: Ursinus College, Columbia University
  • Notable Works: The Catcher in the Rye (1951); Nine Stories (1953); Franny and Zooey (1961)
  • Spouse(s): Sylvia Welter (m. 1945-1947), Claire Douglas (m. 1955-1967), Colleen O’ Neill (m. 1988)
  • Children: Margaret Salinger (1955), Matt Salinger (1960)

Early Life (1919-1940)

J. D. Salinger was born in Manhattan on January 1, 1919. His father, Sol, was a Jewish importer, while his mother, Marie Jillich, was of Scottish-Irish descent but changed her name to Miriam upon marrying Sol. He had an older sister, Doris. In 1936, J. D. graduated from Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania, where he served as the literary editor of the school’s yearbook, Crossed Sabres. There are claims about the years at Valley Forge serving as inspiration for some of the material of The Catcher in the Rye, but the similarities between his real-life experiences and the events in the book remain superficial. 

Salinger Portrait 1950
J. D. Salinger photographed for the book jacket of 'The Catcher in the Rye,' 1950. Bettmann / Getty Images

Between 1937 and 1938, Salinger visited Vienna and Poland with his father, in an attempt to learn his family’s trade. After returning to the United States in 1938, he briefly attended Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, where he wrote a cultural-criticism column titled “Skipped Diploma.” 

Early Work and Wartime (1940-1946)

  • “The Young Folks” (1940)
  • “Go See Eddie” (1940)
  • “The Hang of It” (1941)
  • “The Heart of a Broken Story” (1941)
  • “The Long Debut of Lois Taggett” (1942)
  • “Personal Notes of an Infantryman” (1942)
  • “The Varioni Brothers” (1943)
  • “The Last Days of the Last Furlough” (1944) 
  • “Elaine” (1945)
  • “This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise” (1945)
  • “I am Crazy” (1945)

After leaving Ursinus, he enrolled in a short-story writing course at Columbia University, taught by Whit Burnett. At first a quiet student, he found his inspiration towards the end of the fall semester, when he turned in three short stories that positively impressed Burnett. Between 1940 and 1941, he published several short stories: “The Young Folks” (1940) in Story; “Go See Eddie” (1940) in University of Kansas City Review; “The Hang of It” (1941) in Collier’s; and “The Heart of a Broken Story” (1941) in Esquire.

When the United States entered World War II, Salinger was called into service and worked as entertainment director on the MS Kungsholm. In 1942, he was reclassified and drafted into the U.S. Army, and worked for the Army Counterintelligence Corps. While in the army, he kept up with his writing, and between 1942 and 1943, he published “The Long Debut of Lois Taggett” (1942) in Story; “Personal Notes of an Infantryman” (1942) in Colliers; and “The Varioni Brothers” (1943) in the Saturday Evening Post. In 1942, he also corresponded with Oona O’Neill, the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill and future wife of Charlie Chaplin. 

On June 6, 1944, he participated with the U.S. Army on D-Day, coming ashore at Utah Beach. He then marched to Paris and arrived there on August 25, 1944. While in Paris, he visited Ernest Hemingway, whom he admired. That fall, Salinger’s regiment crossed into Germany, where he and his comrades in arms endured a harsh winter. On May 5, 1945, his regiment opened a command post at Herman Göring’s castle in Neuhaus. That July, he was hospitalized for “battle fatigue” but he refused a psychiatric evaluation. His 1945 short story “I’m Crazy” introduced material he would use in The Catcher in the Rye. He was discharged from the Army when the war ended, and, until 1946, he was briefly married to a French woman named Sylvia Welter, whom he had previously imprisoned and interrogated. That marriage, however, was short lived and little is known about her. 

Back to New York (1946-1953)

  • “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (1948)
  • “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” (1948)
  • “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor” (1950)
  • The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

Once he was back in New York, he started spending time with the creative class in Greenwich Village and studying Zen Buddhism. He became a regular contributor to The New Yorker. “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” which appeared in the magazine, introduced Seymour Glass and the whole Glass family. “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” another Glass-Family story, was adapted into the movie My Foolish Heart, starring Susan Hayward.

The Catcher in the Rye (1951, first edition dust jacket)
The Catcher in the Rye (1951, first edition dust jacket).  Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

When “For Esmé” was published in 1950, Salinger had acquired a strong reputation as a short-fiction writer. In 1950, he received an offer from Harcourt Brace to publish his novel The Catcher in the Rye, but, upon some disagreement with the editorial staff, he went with Little, Brown. The novel, focusing on a cynical and alienated teenager named Holden Caulfield, was both a critical and commercial success, and forced the very private Salinger into the limelight. This did not sit well with him.

Life as a Recluse (1953-2010)

  • Nine Stories (1953), collection of stories
  • Franny and Zooey (1961), collection of stories
  • Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963), collection of stories
  • “Hapworth 16, 1924” (1965), short story

Salinger moved to Cornish, New Hampshire, in 1953. He made this decision after a visit he made to the area with his sister in the fall of 1952. They were searching for a place where he could write without distractions. At first he liked Cape Ann near Boston, but the real estate prices were too high. Cornish, in New Hampshire, had a beautiful landscape, but the house they found was a fixer upper. Salinger bought the house, almost echoing Holden’s desire to live in the woods. He moved there on New Year’s Day 1953.

Home of J.D. Salinger
(Original Caption) Cornish, N.H.: This is the home of reclusive author J.D. Salinger best known for his book Catcher in the Rye. The sixty-eight year old lives here with two young Doberman Pinchers who bark authoritatively when strangers venture too near. Adults of the town have formed a wall of neighborly protection, refusing to say they have seen him or that they know where he lives. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Salinger soon started a relationship with Claire Douglas, who was still a student at Radcliffe, and they spent many weekends together in Cornish. In order for her to get permission to be away from college, the two invented the persona of “Mrs. Trowbridge,” who would give her visits a semblance of propriety. Salinger asked Douglas to drop out of school to live with him and when she refused to do so at first, he disappeared, which caused her a nervous and physical breakdown. They reunited in the summer of 1954, and by the fall, she had moved in with him. They divided their time between Cornish and Cambridge, which he was not happy about as it caused interruption to his work.

Douglas eventually dropped out of college in 1955, a few months before graduation, and she and Salinger wed on February 17, 1955. Once Claire got pregnant, the couple became more isolated and she grew resentful; she burned the writings she completed in college and refused to follow the special organic diet her husband had become invested in. They had two children: Margaret Ann, born in 1955, and Matthew, born in 1960. They divorced in 1967.

Salinger expanded the character of Seymour Glass with “Raise The Roof Beam, Carpenters,” which narrates Buddy Glass’ attendance to his brother Seymour’s wedding to Muriel; ”Seymour: An Introduction” (1959), where his brother Buddy Glass introduces Seymour, who had committed suicide in 1948, to the readers; and “Hapworth 16, 1924,” an epistolary novella told from the point of view of seven-year-old Seymour while at Summer Camp. 

Salinger's Letters to Joyce Maynard
Author J.D. Salinger's letters to Joyce Maynard auctioned of at Sotheby's to Californian philanthropists Peter Norton. Rick Maiman / Getty Images

In 1972, he embarked on a relationship with writer Joyce Maynard, who was then 18 years old. She moved in with him after a long epistolary correspondence during the summer after her freshman year at Yale. Their relationship ended after nine months because Maynard wanted children and he felt too old, while Maynard claims that she was just sent away. In 1988, Salinger married Colleen O’Neill, forty years his junior, and, according to Margaret Salinger, the two were trying to conceive. 

Salinger died of natural causes on January 27, 2010 at his home in New Hampshire.

Literary Style and Themes 

Salinger’s work deals with some consistent themes. One is alienation: some of his characters feel isolated from others because they’re not loved and lack meaningful connections. Most famously, Holden Caulfield, from The Catcher in the Rye, cannot relate to the people he is surrounded by, dubbing them as “phonies,” and likening his brother’s job as a screenwriter to prostitution. He also pretends to be a deaf-mute in order to be left alone.

His characters also tend to idealize innocence, in direct contrast with experience. In Nine Stories, many of the tales contain a progression from innocence to experience: “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” for example, relates of a couple that stayed at the Florida Hotel before the war in a state of innocence; then, after the war, the husband appears traumatized by the war and is in a general state of disenchantment, while the wife has been corrupted by society.

Illustration of J. D. Salinger used for the cover of Time magazine, Volume 78 Issue 11
Illustration of J. D. Salinger used for the cover of Time magazine, Volume 78 Issue 11.  Public Domain / Getty Images

In Salinger’s work, innocence—or the loss thereof—also goes hand in hand with nostalgia. Holden Caulfield idealizes the memories of his childhood friend Jane Gallagher, but refuses to see her in the present because he does not want his memories to be altered. In “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” Seymour finds himself looking for banana fish with a little girl named Sybil, whom he relates and communicates better than with his own wife Muriel. 

Salinger also has his characters deal with death, exploring their grief. Usually, his characters experience the death of a sibling. In the Glass family, Seymour Glass commits suicide, and Franny uses the Jesus prayer to make sense of the event, while his brother Buddy saw him as being the best at everything and exceptional. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield holds on to his dead brother Allie’s baseball mitt and also writes about it. 

Style-wise, Salinger’s prose is marked by his distinctive voice. A high school teacher, he was naturally inclined to create compelling teenage characters, reproducing their colloquialisms and frank use of language, which are not so predominant in adult characters. He also was a big proponent of dialogue and third-person narrative, as it’s evidenced in "Franny" and "Zoey," where dialogue is the main way for the reader to witness how Franny interacts with others. 

Legacy

J. D. Salinger produced a slim body of work. The Catcher in the Rye became a bestseller almost instantly, and its appeal survives to this day, as the book continues to sell more hundreds of thousands of copies a year in paperback. Famously, Mark David Chapman motivated his killing of John Lennon by saying that his act was something that could be found in the pages of that book. Philip Roth extolled the virtues of Catcher, too, claiming that its timeless appeal revolved around how Salinger rendered the conflict between the sense of self and culture. Nine Stories, with its dialogue and social observation, influenced Philip Roth and John Updike, who admired “that open-ended Zen quality they have, the way they don’t snap shut.” Philip Roth included Catcher in the Rye among his favorite reads when he pledged to donate his personal library to the Newark Public Library upon his death.

Sources

  • Bloom, Harold. J.D. Salinger. Blooms Literary Criticism, 2008.
  • Mcgrath, Charles. “J. D. Salinger, Literary Recluse, Dies at 91.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 Jan. 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/29/books/29salinger.html.
  • Slawenski, Kenneth. J.D. Salinger: a Life. Random House, 2012.
  • Special, Lacey Fosburgh. “J. D. Salinger Speaks About His Silence.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 Nov. 1974, https://www.nytimes.com/1974/11/03/archives/j-d-salinger-speaks-about-j-d-salinger-speaks-about-his-silence-as.html.