The Garbo of the Printed Word: J. D. Salinger 1919-2010



For an author who published little, J. D. Salinger had immense influence on successive generations. His literary creation Holden Caulfield became the American Everyboy, a Huckleberry Finn for baby boomers and beyond. Salinger succeeded in encapsulating adolescent distance from the adult world.

It was a literary feat he seemed incapable or reluctant to repeat. Secretive to the point of paranoia, he became a brooding, beguiling enigma, a one-book wonder, the Garbo of the printed word.

Publishing nothing for half of his long life, this secretive individual maintained that he wrote for his own pleasure, without facing the contradiction that The Catcher in the Rye touched the emotional lives of countless millions.

As he aged, a strange Dorian Gray-like relationship evolved between the elderly hermit and the perennially youthful outsider he had breathed life into. He guarded his privacy with ferocious observance, and only last year, successfully sued in order to halt the publication of Sixty Years Later, an unauthorized sequel to his masterpiece. If Salinger wasn't going to bother to add to his slim output, then nobody else was going to do so either.

Salinger was raised in uptown Manhattan; his Jewish father was a successful importer of fine cheeses. J.D. saw active service in the Second World War and was an Intelligence Officer for the Allies. It was during this period that he met and married a German girl, but the union was childless and short-lived. At the age of 31 he took a 16-year-old schoolgirl admirer as his bride. After twelve years and two children, they divorced. It should be no surprise, although it is of more than spurious interest, that all his significant relationships were with younger women who contacted him as fans.

His year-long affair with Joyce Maynard, when he was 51 and she 18, resulted in a memoir written by her. His final marriage was to another fan, forty years his junior, who had also contacted him by letter. In the 1950s, secure in the trappings of success, he withdrew to Cornish, New Hampshire, where he maintained an extraordinary feat of subliminal privacy. Salinger fended off all attempts at engagement. He steadfastly avoided efforts to make his literary world flesh.

Despite overtures from the likes of Billy Wilder, Steven Spielberg, and Elia Kazan, Holden Caulfield, the eternal troubled boy, never appeared in shimmering gray or Technicolor. His depiction remains a wordly creation. A neighbor tantalizingly admitted that Salinger had ten completed novels under wraps a decade ago, and now the literary world waits to see if death proves the unlikely breaker of Salinger's silence. His major contribution to modern literature was his ability to provide misunderstood adolescents with a voice.

Even now The Catcher in the Rye maintains that feat of freshness; although some of the language may seem a little dated, the feelings and emotions beat as true to life in the new century as they did fifty years into the old one. The swearing it contains caused the book to be banned from schools and libraries, a cruel irony that frustrated Salinger because it was placing his work beyond the reach of those he wished to connect with. His collection of stories For Esme-With Love and Squalour (the title in England; in the U.S. it was called Nine Stories) provides a tantalizing taste of a literary feast that barely reached the first course. Whatever his motives, his lingering presence as an absence was at best eccentric, though it eventually came to seem tiresomely cranky. Books abound that try to crack his enigma.

The British poet and critic Ian Hamilton wonderfully annotated his frustrated efforts to interview his subject. The resulting In Search of J.D. Salinger: A Writing Life (1935-65) is a perfect testament to the means the man employed to avoid exposure. In a suitably cryptic remark, Salinger once admitted, "I am a kind of paranoid in reverse: I suspect people of plotting to make me happy."