J.D. Salinger, who was thought at one time to be the most important American writer to emerge since World War II but who then turned his back on success and adulation, becoming the Garbo of letters, famous for not wanting to be famous, died on Wednesday at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, where he had lived in seclusion for more than 50 years. He was 91.
Salinger's literary representative, Harold Ober Associates, announced the death, saying it was of natural causes, "Despite having broken his hip in May his health had been excellent until a rather sudden decline after the new year. He was not in any pain before or at the time of his death."
Salinger's literary reputation rests on a slender but enormously influential body of published work: the novel, The Catcher in the Rye, the collection Nine Stories and two compilations, each with two long stories about the fictional Glass family: Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.
Catcher was published in 1951, and its very first sentence, distantly echoing Mark Twain, struck a brash new note in American literature: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."
Though not everyone, teachers and librarians especially, was sure what to make of it, Catcher became an almost immediate best seller, and its narrator and main character, Holden Caulfield, a teenager newly expelled from prep school, became America's best-known literary truant since Huckleberry Finn.
Catcher no more: A 1951 file photo of Salinger. AP
With its cynical, slangy vernacular voice (Holden's two favourite expressions are phony and goddam), its sympathetic understanding of adolescence and its fierce if alienated sense of morality and distrust of the adult world, the novel struck a nerve in Cold War America and quickly attained cult status, especially among the young. Reading Catcher used to be an essential rite of passage, almost as important as getting your learner's permit.
The novel's allure persists to this day, even if some of Holden's preoccupations now seem a bit dated, and it continues to sell more than 250,000 copies a year in paperback. Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon in 1980, even said that the explanation for his act could be found in the pages of The Catcher in the Rye.
Philip Roth wrote in 1974: "The response of college students to the work of J.D. Salinger indicates that he, more than anyone else, has not turned his back on the times but, instead, has managed to put his finger on whatever struggle of significance is going on today between self and culture."
Salinger also perfected the great trick of literary irony—of validating what you mean by saying less than, or even the opposite of, what you intend. Orville Prescott wrote in The New York Times in 1963, "Rarely if ever in literary history has a handful of stories aroused so much discussion, controversy, praise, denunciation, mystification and interpretation."
As a young man Salinger yearned ardently for just this kind of attention. He bragged in college about his literary talent and ambitions, and wrote swaggering letters to Whit Burnett, the editor of Story magazine. But success, once it arrived, paled quickly for him. He told the editors of Saturday Review that he was "good and sick" of seeing his photograph on the dust jacket of The Catcher in the Rye and demanded that it be removed from subsequent editions. He ordered his agent to burn any fan mail.
In 1953 Salinger, who had been living on East 57th Street in Manhattan, fled the literary world altogether and moved to a 90-acre compound on a wooded hillside in Cornish. He seemed to be fulfilling Holden's desire to build himself "a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life," away from "any goddam stupid conversation with anybody."
After Salinger moved to New Hampshire, his publications slowed to a trickle and soon stopped completely. Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, both collections of material previously published in The New Yorker, came out in 1961 and 1963, and the last work of Salinger's to appear in print was Hapworth 16, 1924, a 25,000-word story that took up most of the June 19, 1965 issue of The New Yorker.
©2010/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Margalit Fox contributed to this story.