Thursday, May 28, 2009

J.D. Salinger: Detailed Introduction and Biography

Editor's Note: The web is awash with numerous biographies and introductions to Jerome David Salinger but none comes close enough to the following introduction. It touches upon almost all facets of Salinger's life and works and going through it is a rewarding experience indeed, greatly helping the reader to understand Salinger and his chief work The Catcher in the Rye on a better footing.


Best known for his controversial novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Salinger is recognized by critics and readers alike as one of the most popular and influential authors of American fiction to emerge after World War II. Salinger's reputation derives from his mastery of symbolism, his idiomatic style, and his thoughtful, sympathetic insights into the insecurities that plague both adolescents and adults. Robert Coles reflected general critical opinion when he lauded Salinger as "an original and gifted writer, a marvelous entertainer, a man free of the slogans and cliches the rest of us fall prey to."

The Catcher in the Rye, now regarded as a classic work of adolescent angst, drew such great attention during the 1950s that those years have been called "The Age of Holden Caulfield," in honor of the novel's sensitive, alienated sixteen-year-old protagonist. The book's vast appeal drew many readers to Salinger's subsequent short fiction, collected in Nine Stories (1953), Franny and Zooey (1955), and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction (1963). Most of these stories focused on the Glass family, a group of seven gifted siblings led by Seymour, their seer-artist and elder brother. In all his work, Salinger captured a profound feeling of dissatisfaction with the spiritual emptiness of contemporary American life.

Biographical Information

Born in 1919, Salinger's upbringing was not unlike that of Holden Caulfield, the Glass children, and many of his other characters. Raised in Manhattan, he was the second of two children of a prosperous Jewish importer and a Scots-Irish mother. He was expelled from several private preparatory schools before graduating from Valley Forge Military Academy in 1936. While attending a Columbia University writing course, he had his first piece of short fiction published in Story, an influential periodical founded by his instructor, Whit Burnett. Salinger's short fiction soon began appearing in Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, and other magazines catering to popular reading tastes. Salinger entered military service in 1942 and served until the end of World War II, participating in the Normandy campaign and the liberation of France.

Salinger continued to write and publish while in the Army, carrying a portable typewriter with him in the back of his jeep. After returning to the States, Salinger's career as a writer of serious fiction took off. He broke into the New Yorker in 1946 with the story "Slight Rebellion Off Madison" which was later rewritten to become a part of The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger quickly became one of the top contributors to the prestigious magazine.

After The Catcher in the Rye was published, Salinger found himself at the center of a storm of controversy. His novel was lauded by many, but condemned by others for its language and social criticism. When it began to find its way onto the recommended reading lists of educational institutions, it became the target of numerous censorship campaigns. Salinger reacted to all the publicity by becoming increasingly reclusive. As years passed, and his continuing work on the Glass family saga drew increasing critical attacks from even those corners of the literary establishment that had once accorded him an almost cult-like reverence, he withdrew from publishing and public life altogether.

His novella-length story "Hapworth 16, 1924," which once again revolved around an incident in the Glass family, appeared in the New Yorker in 1965; it was his last published work. Since the early 1960s, he has lived in seclusion in New Hampshire. Reportedly, he continues to write, but only for his own satisfaction; he is said to be completely unconcerned with his standing, or lack of it, in the literary world.

Major Works

The Catcher in the Rye and much of Salinger's shorter fiction share the theme of idealists adrift in a corrupt world. Often, the alienated protagonists are rescued from despair by the innocence and purity of children. One of the author's most highly-acclaimed stories, "For Esme--With Love and Squalor" (collected in Nine Stories) concerns an American soldier, also an aspiring writer, who encounters a charming young English girl just before D Day. Almost a year later, suffering serious psychic damage from his combat experiences, the soldier receives a gift and a letter from the girl. Her unselfish gesture of love heals him and he is once again able to sleep and write.

In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield is driven to the brink of a nervous breakdown by his disgust for the "phoniness" of the adult world which he is about to enter. He finds peace only in the presence of Phoebe, his young sister.

Much like Holden, Franny Glass (whose story "Franny" is half of Franny and Zooey) undergoes a physical and nervous collapse due to the conflict between her involvement with a crude, insensitive boyfriend and her desire for a pure, spiritual love experience. In the "Zooey" section of Franny and Zooey, Franny's older brother attempts to help her resolve her confusion by discussing with her the worldly nature of religious experience.

But for some of Salinger's characters, like Seymour Glass, the only relief from the anguish of living in the hellish modern world is the ultimate escape. In "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" (collected in Nine Stories), Seymour encounters an innocent young child on the beach and converses with her; later that evening, however, he shoots himself in the head in his hotel room.
Critical Reception

Beginning with The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger's work has provoked considerable comment and
controversy. Critic James Bryan summarized the positive response to the work when he observed: "The richness of spirit in this novel, especially of the vision, the compassion, and the humor of the narrator reveal a psyche far healthier than that of the boy who endured the events of the narrative. Through the telling of his story, Holden has given shape to, and thus achieved control of, his troubled past." The book has also been praised retrospectively for its author's early depiction of dissatisfaction with the repression and smugness that characterized post-World War II America. The Catcher in the Rye has recurrently been banned by public libraries, schools, and bookstores, however, due to its presumed profanity, sexual subject matter, and rejection of traditional American values. Nine Stories also drew widely varied response.

The volume's first story, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," has been read alternately as a satire on bourgeois values, a psychological case study, and a morality tale. Franny and Zooey, along with several of the pieces in Nine Stories, stands as Salinger's most highly acclaimed short fiction. Critics generally applauded the satisfying structure of "Franny," as well as its appealing portrait of its heroine, while "Zooey" was praised for its meticulous detail and psychological insight. Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction proved less satisfying to literary commentators, who began to find the Glass clan self-centered, smug, perfect beyond belief, and ultimately boring.

It was after publication of Raise High the Roofbeam that the cult of Salinger began to give way to an increasing perception that the author was too absorbed in the Glass saga to maintain the artistic control necessary for literary art. Whatever the flaws detected, however, few deny the immediacy and charm of the Glasses, who are so successfully drawn that numerous people over the years have reportedly claimed to have had personal encounters with relatives of the fictitious family.

In the decades since Salinger has stopped publishing, a more balanced reading of his work has emerged--one that acknowledges the artistic value of much of his canon, his influence on the style and substance of other writers, and, above all, his place of honor among young readers who have continued to identify with the confusion and ideals of Holden Caulfield.

Salinger's reputation derives from his thoughtful, sympathetic insights into the insecurities of both adolescence and adulthood, his mastery of symbolism, and his idiomatic style, which helped to rejuvenate the colloquial idiom in American literature.

While his young, endearing protagonists have made him a perennial favorite among high school and college audiences, establishing him as a spokesperson for the goals and values of a generation of youths during the 1950s, The Catcher in the Rye has been recurrently banned by public libraries, schools, and bookstores due to its presumed profanity, sexual subject matter, and rejection of some traditional American values.

Salinger was expelled from several private preparatory schools before graduating from Valley Forge Military Academy in 1936. While attending a Columbia University writing course, Salinger had his first piece of short fiction published in Story, an influential periodical established by his instructor, Whit Burnett. Salinger's short fiction soon began appearing in Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, and, most notably, The New Yorker.

Along with such authors as John O'Hara and John Cheever, Salinger helped to develop the sharp, ironic style that characterizes what critics term the "New Yorker" school of fiction. His many contributions to the magazine include "For Esme--With Love and Squalor," a highly popular and acclaimed story in which a soldier's ingenuous friendship with a young English girl saves him from a nervous breakdown. "I'm Crazy" and "Slight Rebellion off Madison," both of which were published in periodicals during the 1940s, were revised for inclusion in The Catcher in the Rye. These stories introduce Holden Caulfield, the novel's adolescent narrator.

The Catcher in the Rye

Self-critical, curious, and compassionate, Holden is a moral idealist whose attitude is governed by a dogmatic hatred of hypocrisy. The Catcher in the Rye opens in a sanitarium, where Holden is recuperating from physical illness and a mental breakdown. Holden begins by describing his expulsion from Pencey Prep, a select preparatory school, prior to Christmas vacation. Before leaving his dormitory, Holden seeks friendship with Stradlater, his athletic, womanizing roommate.

Upon discovering that Stradlater has a date with Jane Gallagher, a girl with whom Holden once enjoyed a chaste relationship, Holden becomes angry and jealous. This incident reveals two aspects of Holden's moralism: he fears his roommate's sexual prowess and he values children for their sincerity and innocence, seeking to protect them from the immorality that he believes permeates adult society. Both Jane and Holden's younger brother, Allie, who died at eleven years of age, function for Holden as symbols of goodness.

Caught between adolescence and adulthood, Holden seeks the stability that his childhood relationship with Jane allowed him, yet experiences a personal crisis while attempting to embrace a mature adult role. Despite being jealous of Stradlater, Holden agrees to complete an essay assignment for his roommate in which he affectionately describes Allie's baseball mitt. However, Stradlater returns and rejects the composition.

Fearing that Stradlater has had sex with Jane, Holden picks a fight with him and is humiliated. Following a futile attempt to become friends with Ackley, a social outcast, Holden runs away to New York City. Several critics have commented that the characters at Pencey Prep represent facets of Holden's personality. His sexual confusion, for example, is often interpreted as being embodied in the extremes of Ackley, whose repression leaves him socially and sexually undeveloped, and Stradlater, whose sexual prowess arouses Holden's arrogance. The two people he most respects, Allie and Jane, never appear in the novel and symbolize the absence of compassion and decency in Holden's world.

As the narrator of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden offers comments on the flaws and merits of American society, through which readers may evaluate Holden's own morals and values, particularly his need for human clemency. To delay confronting his parents about his expulsion, Holden decides to loiter in New York City. While on a train to Manhattan, he meets the mother of an unpopular student he knew at Pencey and purposely embellishes her son's reputation to spare her feelings.

Once in the city, Holden struggles between wanting to return to scenes of his youth and venturing into a mature adult lifestyle. Arriving at a jazz club where a friend of his older brother plays piano, Holden becomes disillusioned with the gifted musician's contrived performance and is reminded of his brother, whose career as a Hollywood screenwriter Holden regards as a waste of creative talent. In one pivotal scene, Holden decides to lose his virginity to a prostitute but sympathizes with her plight and is unwilling to consummate the act. While many critics have noted that Holden is hypocritical because he frequently complains about the "phonies" that surround him yet lies to the mother of his schoolmate, others cite his reaction to the prostitute as indicative of his compassionate nature.

Wandering through Central Park toward the Natural History Museum, a favorite place of his childhood, Holden reflects on the comfort and stability he has always found there. He decides to remain outside, however, a choice critics have interpreted as a step toward his impending adulthood. Holden's subsequent date with a young woman at a local theater leads to ambivalent feelings when he is besieged by the artificiality of the evening's social proceedings.

Afraid that he too will become a "phony," Holden despises his own conventionality yet causes his date to reject him following his immature and unrealistic proposal to elope in rural New England. Arranging to meet an older schoolmate, Carl Luce, at a hotel bar, Holden becomes intoxicated and asks Luce personal questions about his sex life. Commentators have noted that much of the humor in The Catcher in the Rye stems from Holden's misconceptions of adulthood. Although Luce is more experienced than Holden, the older man is not as mature as Holden believes him to be. After this attempt at communication has failed, Holden flees to his younger sister, Phoebe, the only person he completely trusts.

Many critics concur with S. N. Behrman's comment that Phoebe Caulfield is "one of the most exquisitely created and engaging children in any novel." A clever, precocious ten-year-old, Phoebe functions as Allie's living counterpart and Holden's salvation. After discussing her brother's problems, Phoebe asks if Holden likes anything about his life. Revealing his obsession with the past and inability to cope with the present, Holden can think only of Allie and a former classmate who committed suicide rather than apologize to a bully. In this section, from which the novel's title derives, Holden tells his sister of his wish to be a "catcher in the rye"--one who stands on the edge of a cliff near a rye field where thousands of children play.

Holden explains: "What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff.... That's all I'd do all day." Holden's intentions are honorable yet quixotic, and Phoebe expresses disgust at her brother's unrealistic goals. John Romano remarked of this passage: "This seems to me one of those arresting moments when a writer bravely elects to put in question the very point of view on which, by and large, he has staked his art. Such questioning of its own visionary standpoint is not the least of the reasons why, in the end, The Catcher in the Rye is so noble and honest a piece of work."

After informing Phoebe that he intends to escape his responsibilities and travel west, Holden visits Mr. Antolini, one of the few teachers he admires. Although Salinger leaves the incident ambiguous, the man's advice is tainted by gestures that Holden construes as homosexual advances. Arriving at Phoebe's school to leave her a note, Holden notices obscenities scrawled on the building's wall. Horrified that schoolchildren might glimpse them, he erases the vulgarities but later encounters the same graffiti in the Natural History Museum. Despondent at this perversion of his idealized past, Holden finally accepts that the world will change despite his attempts to preserve it.

When Phoebe announces her intention to go west with Holden, his forbiddance reveals his impending maturity. In the novel's climactic scene, Holden watches as Phoebe rides the Central Park carousel in the rain and his illusion of protecting children's innocence is symbolically shattered. Critics regard this episode as Holden's transition into adulthood, for although his future is uncertain, his severed ties with the dead past have enabled him to accept maturity. James Bryan observed: "The richness of spirit in this novel, especially of the vision, the compassion, and the humor of the narrator reveal a psyche far healthier than that of the boy who endured the events of the narrative. Through the telling of his story, Holden has given shape to, and thus achieved control of, his troubled past."

The Catcher in the Rye is written in a colloquial prose style enhanced by teenage slang of the 1950s. Many critics concur that Holden's candid outlook reflects aspects of adolescence still relevant to contemporary youth. The Catcher in the Rye is often compared to traditional picaresque literature, particularly Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both works feature naive, adolescent runaways as narrators, both comment on the prevailing problems of their times, and both have been recurrently banned or restricted.

Early critics often faulted the narrative style of The Catcher in the Rye as erratic or unreliable, claiming that Holden possesses many of the middle-class values that he rejects. Later commentators, however, have praised Salinger's wry humor, technical virtuosity, and skilled mockery of vocal speech, contending that the novel's structure ideally personifies Holden's unstable state of mind. Alastair Best remarked: "There is a hard, almost classical structure underneath Holden's rambling narrative. The style, too, appears effortless; yet one wonders how much labour went into those artfully rough-hewn sentences."

Subsequent Works

Salinger's subsequent works have also contributed to his fame and popularity. Sensitive to criticism and protective of his privacy, Salinger retreated to a secluded home near Cornish, New Hampshire in the 1950s but continued to publish short fiction until 1965. Following The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger again provoked controversy and commentary with Nine Stories (1953; published in Great Britain as For Esme--With Love and Squalor and Other Stories), a collection of previously published fiction about the Glass family, a group of precocious characters whose quests for personal serenity in a superficial world prefigure those of characters in Salinger's ensuing works.

One of the most popular stories in this collection, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," recounts the puzzling suicide of Seymour, the eldest Glass sibling. Although occasionally faulted for commercialism, Nine Stories was generally praised for its incisive, revealing dialogue. "Franny" and "Zooey," which were originally published in The New Yorker as separate stories, achieved wide acclaim after being collected and republished as Franny and Zooey (1961). "Franny" delineates Franny Glass's emotional and spiritual breakdown while attending college; "Zooey" depicts the attempts of her brother Zooey to alleviate her problems.

Several reviewers faulted Salinger's anecdotes about the Glasses in Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction (1963) as convoluted, asserting that sentimentality had overwhelmed the author's artistic control. Salinger's last published story under his own name, "Hapworth 16, 1924," appeared in The New Yorker in 1965. This piece is written from a summer camp in the form of a letter home by seven-year-old Seymour Glass. According to several reviewers, "Hapworth 16, 1924" ties together the Glass family saga by suggesting reasons for Seymour's later suicide. Although Salinger has published no works since 1965, critics continue to acknowledge the value of his fiction, his influence on the style of other writers, and above all, his place of honor among young readers.


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Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! A great background and one I will share with my grade 9 students.

Academic said...

Thanks for your praise and appreciation. It is my endeavor to make the website academically useful & intellectually stimulating.

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