J(erome) D(avid) Salinger

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Publisher: Gale
Series: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Document Type: Biography
Length: 3,360 words

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About this Person
Born: 1919 in New York, New York, United States
Died: January 27, 2010 in Cornish, New Hampshire, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Novelist
Other Names: Salinger, Jerome David



  • The Catcher in the Rye (Boston: Little, Brown, 1951; London: Hamilton, 1951).
  • Nine Stories (Boston: Little, Brown, 1953); republished as For Esmé--with Love and Squalor, and Other Stories (London: Hamilton, 1953).
  • Franny and Zooey (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961; London: Heinemann, 1962).
  • Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (Boston: Little, Brown, 1963; London: Heinemann, 1963).
  • The Complete Uncollected Short Stories of J. D. Salinger, 2 volumes, unauthorized edition Berkeley, Cal.?, 1974).

Selected Periodical Publications

  • "The Young Folks," Story, 16 (March-April 1940): 26-30.
  • "Go See Eddie," University of Kansas City Review, 7 (December 1940): 121-124.
  • "The Long Debut of Lois Taggett," Story, 21 (September-October 1942): 28-34.
  • "The Varioni Brothers," Saturday Evening Post, 216 (17 July 1943): 12-13, 76-77.
  • "Both Parties Concerned," Saturday Evening Post, 216 (26 February 1944): 14, 47-48.
  • "Soft-Boiled Sergeant," Saturday Evening Post, 216 (15 April 1944): 18, 82, 84-85.
  • "Last Day of the Last Furlough," Saturday Evening Post, 216 (15 July 1944): 26-27, 61-62, 64.
  • "This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise," Esquire, 25 (October 1945): 54-56, 147-149.
  • "I'm Crazy," Collier's, 116 (22 December 1945): 36, 48, 51.
  • "A Young Girl in 1941 with No Waist at All," Mademoiselle, 25 (May 1947): 222-223, 292-303.
  • "The Inverted Forest," Cosmopolitan, 123 (December 1947): 73-80, 85-86, 90, 92, 95-96, 98, 100, 102, 107, 109.
  • "A Girl I Knew," Good Housekeeping, 126 (February 1948): 37, 186, 188, 191-196.
  • "Hapworth 16, 1924," New Yorker, 41 (19 June 1965): 32-113.


A few writers are so enveloped in their reputations that their work is virtually impossible to read without being distracted by their fame and their relation to the public. No one else has ever been known in quite the way that J. D. Salinger has--first as the creator of a voice and a consciousness in which a vast number of very different readers have recognized themselves, second as an elusive figure uneasy with his audience and distrustful of his public, and finally as a kind of living ghost, fiercely protective of his isolation. Having created a body of fiction in which the author invites the love of his readers, he has become, in biographer Ian Hamilton 's phrase, "famous for not wanting to be famous." The mythic status of Salinger the man is so compelling that trying to look clearly at his fiction, as fiction, is difficult and complicated. Yet the effort justifies the difficulty: many of his stories are evocative period pieces, catching the spirit of that time in which he defined large areas of sensibility; and some of the stories transcend their historical interest, as luminous examples of the art of short fiction.

The biographical record is thin and not very helpful. Jerome David Salinger was born on 1 January 1919 in New York City, the second child of Sol and Miriam Jillich Salinger , his father Jewish, an importer of hams and cheeses, his mother gentile, Scotch-Irish. It is odd that, for a writer who so valued the sensibility of the child, Salinger has said so little about his own childhood. Something can be inferred from the family's addresses, which record an increasingly prosperous life, and from the New York of the time, in many ways an attractive place for a bright and observant child. He attended several New York public schools and in 1932 was enrolled in the McBurney School, on the upper West Side, where he seems to have been quiet, introspective, and academically mediocre. In 1934 Salinger's father enrolled him in Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania, from which he graduated two years later. Remembered as being sardonic and detached, Salinger was also apparently fond of certain aspects of the military experience. It formed the background of his one novel, The Catcher in the Rye (1951); and it was at Valley Forge that Salinger first began to think of himself as a writer.

In 1937 Salinger attended New York University briefly and traveled in Europe, writing continuously and sending his stories to various magazines. In 1938 he enrolled at Ursinus College, near Philadelphia, where he wrote a column for the college paper, but left after a semester. And in 1939 he signed up for a class in the short story at Columbia University, taught by Whit Burnet, editor, anthologist, nurturer of developing talent, and champion of the short story. This was the beginning of Salinger's long friendship and correspondence with Burnet, and the course also marked the start of a new stage in Salinger's growing sense of professionalism. In 1940 Salinger's first story, "The Young Folks," was published in Burnet's Story magazine (March-April), and shortly afterward "Go See Eddie" appeared in the University of Kansas City Review (December 1940).

Usually a writer of quality will leave behind a few apprentice pieces, uncollected, but will gather as he goes most of his short fiction in hardback volumes. In the case of Salinger, however, twenty-three stories appeared before those collected in Nine Stories (1953), few of them reprinted anywhere and none reprinted in an authorized collection of Salinger's own work. Salinger has disavowed those early stories and, on one occasion, took legal steps to enjoin their unauthorized publication. A pirated, two-volume edition was, however, published in 1974, and Salinger sued the owners of the bookstores that sold it.

Few readers of his early work, looking at it through the perspective of the talent he later showed, have ever imagined that it should be honored, studied, and collected. For one thing, until Salinger's 1946 appearance in the New Yorker, his stories appeared in middle-range magazines-- the Saturday Evening Post, Mademoiselle, Good Housekeeping, Collier's--that were known for decades as "the slicks." The fiction that appeared in their pages was, for the most part, undemanding, entertaining, and often formulaic--in a word, commercial. Salinger's stories are not exceptions. Moreover, his early stories are inevitably flawed, their structures puzzling or unrealized, and their tone not fully controlled. Still, they demonstrate the beginning of certain features of craft and vision that were to remain. One of those features is Salinger's placing at the center of his craft the power of voice.

From the start, events are not very important to Salinger: little happens in his stories. Although he has a sharp eye for detail, the background, setting, or locale seems to matter less than it does for almost any other American writer. Even character, as it is usually understood, seems not finally a major interest. What does interest Salinger is the human voice. Stories in which there are large proportions of dialogue are a tradition in American fiction. Mark Twain , Ring Lardner, and Ernest Hemingway wrote brilliant dialogue stories, and much of the commercial fiction surrounding early works by Salinger was heavy with dialogue. But in the case of Salinger, the art and centrality of voice mean something more than simply a preference for the rendering of talk. He had an uncanny knack for producing in print the effect of a character's unique speech, an effect so potent that readers, years after having read The Catcher in the Rye, can still "hear" Holden Caulfield speaking, when everything else in the experience of reading the novel has faded. The effect in the stories is smaller in scale than that in the novel but not different in kind. In "The Young Folks" the character Edna says: "I guess Doris isattractive to men. I don't know. I think I really liked her better though--her looks, I mean--when her hair was natural. I mean bleached hair--to me anyway-- always looks sort of artificial when you see it in the light or something. I don't know. I may be wrong. Everybody does it, I guess." That striking insight into the way Edna would sound is the single feature that redeems an otherwise undistinguished story.

In addition to that remarkable empathy for the expressive power of speech rhythms, Salinger discovered a focus that was to continue through a large proportion of his fiction, namely the use of childhood, adolescence, or youth as both an object of interest in itself and as a thematic lever by means of which the nature of the wider world could be pried open. Sensitive and perceptive, Salinger's younger characters are unable to prevail against the hypocrisy around them. Or, authentic and bright on the one hand, fatally naive on the other, they conspire in their own failure. Something of the energy and fascination with which the young Salinger regarded the child figure is suggested in "This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise" (Esquire, October 1945), in which, six years before The Catcher in the Rye was published, Vincent Caulfield speaks of his brother Holden in a way that indicates the combination of brightness and vulnerability in Salinger's children: "He's only nineteen years old, my brother is, and the dope can't reduce a thing to a humor, kill it off with sarcasm, can't do anything but listen hectically to the maladjusted little apparatus he wears for a heart. My missing-in-action brother." Although some of the stories of the mid 1940s draw upon Salinger's military experience during World War II (he served in the Army Signal Corps and Counter-Intelligence Corps), it is to the image of innocence in a world of vulgarians that he returns again and again.

Salinger married a Frenchwoman named Sylvia (maiden name unknown) in September 1945, but the marriage was short-lived. They were divorced the following year.

In 1948 Salinger published three of the stories of his major phase, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut," and "Just Before the War With the Eskimos," all in the New Yorker. Prior to those three stories, he had published just one story ("Slight Rebellion off Madison") in the New Yorker (21 December 1946); after 1948 he would publish only two stories elsewhere. He soon became "a New Yorker writer" and a friend of its major editorial figures; Salinger was honored by his presence in its elegant pages and by its high standards for fiction. Although he was suspect in some circles because of the arch and rarified tone the magazine seemed to foster, he was encouraged and challenged by the seriousness with which the readers of the New Yorker took its fiction. A few stories in the history of the New Yorker have seemed so powerful and so original that their appearance has constituted a cultural event. "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" (31 January 1948; collected in Nine Stories) is one of them.

The story opens with a sustained telephone conversation between Muriel Glass and her mother in which both reveal themselves to be shallow, materialistic, manipulative, and glib. References to Seymour, Muriel's husband, indicate that he has returned from the war, clearly damaged by the experience, and is eccentric at best, irresponsible at worst. But these observations come through the overheard words of Muriel and her mother, and the reader tends to discount them. Only two thirds of the way through does Salinger present Seymour--on the beach in an encounter with a very young girl, to whom he tells a strange parable about the self-destructive ways of the banana fish. Back at the hotel room, while Muriel is asleep, he takes a pistol from his luggage and fires "a bullet through his right temple."

It is a devastating ending for which the reader is totally unprepared. Yet after reading the story a second time, one sees that the suicide is meticulously prepared for. Seymour's instability is far more ominous than it seems at first, and the gulf between him (he reads Rainer Maria Rilke and T. S. Eliot and has a strongly spiritual dimension) and the meretricious Muriel is immense and obviously demoralizing. Other stories are finer artistic accomplishments, but no other story has drawn more commentary, much of it on the meaning of that odd banana-fish parable and the reasons for the suicide. Like other stories of Salinger's, the most important moment is hauntingly plausible yet finally ambiguous.

American literature contains some distinguished examples of the short-story cycle, integrated collections of stories that circulate themes and motifs from story to story and that cohere, almost like chapters in a novel. "Bananafish" and the other works in Nine Stories may be seen as another example of such a form. Members of the Glass family appear several times. Even in stories very different from each other, aspects of technique and manner demonstrate a consistent sensibility. The same thematic oppositions run through story after story: a quick, precocious intelligence is opposed to a cynical, life-denying knowledge of all the wrong things; authenticity is opposed to the "phony"; often the insights of the young are opposed to the self-serving wisdom of the old--persistent patterns of vulnerability and psychic damage on the one hand, corruption and spiritual malaise on the other. Still, for all of their continuity, not much is gained by trying to see the stories as an integrated cycle, but they are, however they are viewed, a remarkable group of stories showing Salinger at the height of his power. And the best of them, by consensus, is "For Esmé--with Love and Squalor" (New Yorker, 8 April 1950).

The first half of the story places the narrator, an American serviceman during World War II, in England, observing and coming to know Esmé, an English girl, titled, attractive, courageous, and like so many of the young in Salinger 's works, clever, sensitive, and verbal. Learning that the narrator is a writer, she expresses an interest in stories about "squalor." The narrator, amused by her, is also immensely charmed by her, and they part, he, presumably, for combat. The story then shifts its point of view to a third-person account of "Sergeant X," whom readers soon gather is the narrator of the first portion of the story, who is transformed by time and the trauma of the war, recovering in a military hospital. The sergeant moves through a series of encounters with some potent varieties of egotism and viciousness, all of which drive him further inward. But as the story nears its close, he receives a package, long delayed, containing the gift of her dead father's watch from Esmé, along with her wishes for his well-being. Damaged by the brutishness of experience, Sergeant X is redeemed by the gift, which is to say the love, of Esmé. It is a story of extraordinary economy and grace, and the years since 1950 have not diminished its power.

Nine Stories appeared in 1953, two years after the appearance of The Catcher in the Rye had secured for Salinger a reputation and a readership unmatched by any other living writer at the time. In the six years following Nine Stories, Salinger published in magazines four works of fiction, later gathered into two volumes, Franny and Zooey (1961) followed by Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963). In each case, the first story is the shorter of the two, the latter being of novella length. And all four pursue the personalities and relationships of the Glass family, now Salinger's exclusive preoccupation. Two other aspects of these two volumes are immediately apparent. One is that 's interest in Eastern religious philosophy in general, Zen Buddhism in particular, has extended and deepened. A Zen koan, the most famous of them all, is the epigraph for Nine Stories: the master asks the novice to describe the sound of one hand clapping. And Eastern thought is alluded to often enough in Nine Stories to suggest that Salinger considered it an alternative to the superficiality and materialism of the world he portrays. By the time of the two later collections, the Zen interest has become central and pervasive.

What else is apparent is that, despite his continuing ease and grace with the colloquial, and his wit, ingenious detail, and verbal energy, something has begun to go slack in Salinger's sense of rhythm and form, so that the four fictions seem self-indulgent and needlessly expansive. Words like "interminable" began to appear in the reactions even of sympathetic critics. And Salinger's allocation of interest and admiration to the Glass family began, to more than a few readers, to seem narrow, private, and claustrophobic. Of these four fictions, "Franny" (New Yorker, 29 January 1955) is the most durable; its construction is tighter, its scale smaller than the others. Its energies are more convincing, presenting Franny Glass's situation as a bright, attractive twenty-one-year-old on a college weekend, in painful conflict with her sense of self and world--uneasy with the superficiality of her surroundings, its tangle of egos, and her profound wish for a spiritual dimension that would give her life a substance beyond all of the posturing, grasping, and self-assertion that threaten to engulf her.

In one of Seymour Glass's diary entries, in "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" (New Yorker, 19 November 1955), he writes, "I have scars on my hands from touching certain people." It is an arresting sentence, seeming to come from something essential to Salinger himself. In the winter of 1952-1953 Salinger had bought and moved into a primitive country house in Cornish, New Hampshire. What began as a pastoral retreat became Salinger's permanent home. During his early years in Cornish, he married Claire Douglas on 17 February 1955 and eventually had two children, Margaret Ann and Matthew. (Salinger obtained a divorce in 1967.) In Cornish he gradually began to withdraw from his happy but limited involvement in the social life of the community. His extraordinary fame did not come immediately after The Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories. But by 1956 he had clearly found the celebrity and the uninvited guests intrusive and repellent. There was one last story, "Hapworth 16, 1924" ( New Yorker, 19 June 1965), and nothing more.

When The Catcher in the Rye began to garner the attention of critics and literary journalists, bringing also a serious consideration of Salinger 's stories, the first reactions contained a remarkable amount of shock at their candor. That concern either to attack or defend Salinger's "vulgarity" may now seem a quaint and distant moralism, but it is not so bizarre as it might appear. Salinger's fiction issubversive and threatening; he had found his own, original way of undermining the pieties of the official culture. To the young characters in Salinger's fiction who contemplate joining the adult world, there is nothing to celebrate. After a few years, as Salinger's reputation became academically secure, the burgeoning body of criticism that addressed it took mostly a thematic tack, using such words as "innocence" and "alienation," seeking to find the center of the fiction in his images of loneliness and his portrayal of the desire for love. Many of those critical attempts to capture the essence in a sentence now seem either reductive or obvious. One that does not is the statement, in a 1958 study by Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner, that Salinger is "probably the only American writer of fiction ever to express a devotional attitude toward religious experience by means of a consistently satiric style."

Not much is clear concerning the ultimate critical fate of Salinger's short stories, but this much is clear: they are especially expressive of an adversarial posture in the 1940s and 1950s, though it does not necessarily follow that they will seem increasingly dated. The best of the stories will likely continue to be regarded as classics of the genre, and their triumphs of art and spirit will continue to speak to an audience that can find, in Salinger's distinctive voice, a compelling vision of the self in the world.

A fire severely damaged part of Salinger's home on 20 October 1992. The reclusive author successfully eluded reporters and photographers who came to investigate.


There are two substantial collections of Salinger's correspondence: at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, and at the Firestone Library, Princeton University.



Shirley Blaney, "Twin State Telescope," Claremont [N.H.] Daily Eagle, 13 November 1953; reprinted in Edward Kosner, "The Private World of J. D. Salinger," New York Post: Week-End Magazine, 30 April 1961, p. 5; reprinted as "The Last Published Interview with J. D. Salinger," Crawdaddy (March 1975): 39.

Tom Davis, "J. D. Salinger: A Checklist," Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 53 (1959): 69-71.

Maurice Beebe and Jennifer Sperry, "Criticism of J. D. Salinger: A Selected Checklist," Modern Fiction Studies, 12 (Autumn 1966): 377-390.

George Bixby, "J. D. Salinger: A Bibliographical Checklist," American Book Collector, new series 2 (May-June 1981): 29-32.

Jack R. Sublette, J. D. Salinger: An Annotated Bibliography, 1938-1981 (New York & London: Garland, 1984).

Ian Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger (New York: Random House, 1988).

Everhard Alsen, Salinger's Glass Stories as a Composite Novel (Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1983).

S. I. Bellman, "New Light on Seymour's Suicide: Salinger's `Hapworth 16, 1924,'" Studies in Short Fiction, 3 (1966): 348-351.

Harold Bloom, ed., J. D. Salinger: Modern Critical Views (New York: Chelsea, 1987).

Sally Bostwick, "Reality, Compassion, and Mysticism," Midwest Review, 5 (1963): 30-43.

James E. Bryan, "J. D. Salinger: The Fat Lady and the Chicken Sandwich," College English, 23 (December 1961): 226-229.

Bryan, "A Reading of Salinger's `For Esmé--with Love and Squalor,'" Criticism, 9 (Summer 1967): 275-288.

Bryan, "A Reading of Salinger's `Teddy,'" American Literature, 40 (November 1968): 352-369.

Brother Fidelian Burke, "Salinger's Esmé: Some Matters of Balance," Modern Fiction Studies, 12 (Autumn 1966): 341-347.

Richard Allan Davison, "Salinger Criticism and `The Laughing Man': A Case of Arrested Development," Studies in Short Fiction, 18 (Winter 1981): 1-15.

Warren French, "The Age of Salinger," in The Fifties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by French (De Land, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, 1970), pp. 1-39.

French, J. D. Salinger (New York: Twayne, 1963; revised edition, Boston: G. K. Hall, 1976).

French, J. D. Salinger, Revisited (Boston: Twayne, 1988).

Bernice Goldstein and Sanford Goldstein, "`Seymour: An Introduction'--Writing as Discovery," Studies in Short Fiction, 7 (Spring 1970): 248-256.

T. L. Gross, "J. D. Salinger: Suicide and Survival in the Modern World," South Atlantic Quarterly, 68 (1969): 452-462.

Henry Anatole Grunwald, ed., Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait (New York: Harper & Row, 1962).

Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner, The Fiction of J. D. Salinger (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1958).

John V. Hagopian, "`Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes': Salinger's Paolo and Francesca in New York," Modern Fiction Studies, 12 (Autumn 1966): 349-354.

Kenneth Hamilton, "Hell in New York: J. D. Salinger's `Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes,'" Dalhousie Review, 47 (Autumn 1967): 394-399.

Hamilton, Jerome David Salinger: A Critical Essay (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1967).

John Hermann, "J. D. Salinger: Hello Hello Hello," College English, 22 (January 1961): 262-264.

Warren Hinckle and others, "A Symposium on J. D. Salinger," Ramparts, 1 (1962): 47-66.

Alfred Kazin, "J. D. Salinger: `Everybody's Favorite,'" Atlantic, 208 (August 1961): 27-31.

Paul Kirschner, "Salinger and His Society: The Pattern of Nine Stories," London Review, 6 (Winter 1969-1970): 34-54.

Gary Lane, "Seymour's Suicide Again: A New Reading of J. D. Salinger's `A Perfect Day for Bananafish,'" Studies in Short Fiction, 10 (Winter 1973): 27-33.

Jeremy Larner, "Salinger's Audience: An Explanation," Partisan Review, 29 (Fall 1962): 594-598.

James Lundquist, J. D. Salinger (New York: Ungar, 1979).

John O. Lyons, "The Romantic Style of Salinger's `Seymour: An Introduction,'" Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 4 (Winter 1963): 62-69.

Frank Metcalf, "The Suicide of Salinger's Seymour Glass," Studies in Short Fiction, 9 (1972): 136-144.

James E. Miller, Jr., J. D. Salinger (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965).

Laurence Perrine, "Teddy? Booper? Or Blooper?," Studies in Short Fiction, 4 (Spring 1967): 217-224.

Gerald Rosen, Zen in the Art of J. D. Salinger (Berkeley, Cal.: Creative Arts, 1977).

W. B. Stein, "Salinger's `Teddy': Tat TvaM Asi or That Thou Art," Arizona Quarterly, 29 (1974): 253-265.

Terry Teachout, "Salinger Then and Now," Commentary, 84 (September 1987): 61-64.

John Paul Wenke, J. D. Salinger: A Study of the Short Fiction (Boston: Twayne, 1991).

Wenke, "Sergeant X, Esmé, and the Meaning of Words," Studies in Short Fiction, 18 (Summer 1981): 251-259.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200000475