Reclusive author J.D. Salinger, whose seminal novel The Catcher in the Rye has lent voice to the angst and despair felt by generations of rebellious adolescents, turned 90 on Thursday.
But this new milestone in the life of one of America’s most admired and influential writers passed without fanfare, in keeping with Salinger’s jealously guarded privacy.
Despite the success of the 1951 novel and its laconic anti-hero Holden Caulfield, Salinger has not published anything since 1965 and has not been interviewed since 1980.
Mystery surrounds much of his life over the past five decades. Since being overwhelmed by his new fame Salinger withdrew from public life, retreating to his house perched on a tree-blanketed hill in the town of Cornish, New Hampshire.
Memoirs written by his daughter and a former lover affirm that Salinger still writes, but there has been no sign of any new book, even though it would be eagerly seized upon by his legions of fans.
Indeed in a rare interview with the Boston Sunday Globe in 1980, Salinger said: “I love to write, and I assure you I write regularly. But I write for myself and I want to be left absolutely alone to do it.”
News in 1997 that his last published work Hapworth 16: 1924, which appeared in the New Yorker magazine, was about to be reissued in hard print sparked excitement in the literary world. But the publication date has been frequently postponed, with no reason given.
Jerome David Salinger was born on New Year’s Day 1919 in Manhattan, the son of an Irish mother and Jewish father with Polish roots.
As a teenager he began writing stories. And in 1940, his debut story The Young Ones about several aimless youths was published in Story magazine.
Then came America’s entry into the war, and the young Salinger was drafted in 1942. He took part in the D-Day stormings of the Normandy beaches, and his wartime experiences are said to have marked him for life.
He married a German woman after the war, but the marriage fell apart after just a few months, and Salinger renewed his writings with a passion.
In 1948 he published the short story A Perfect Day for Bananafish in the New Yorker, bringing him acclaim and introducing the Glass family and its seven rambunctious children Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, Walt, Waker, Zooey and Franny, who were to populate several of his short stories.
But it was The Catcher in the Rye published three years later sealed his reputation. The book was an instant success, and even today remains recommended reading at many schools, selling around 250,000 copies a year.
Sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield’s adventures and musings as he makes his way home after being kicked out of school touched a raw nerve and have fascinated generations of disaffected youngsters.
Yet the novel was also sharply criticized for its liberal use of swear words and open references to sex, and was banned in some countries.
Always a private person, Salinger found his new fame oppressive, and in 1953 he moved to sleepy Cornish, in the hope of staying out of the limelight.
Other collections of short stories or novellas followed, such as Franny and Zooey, until his last published work Hapworth 16: 1924 appeared in the New Yorker in 1965.
“There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful,” Salinger said in 1974, when he broke more than 20 years of silence in a phone interview with the New York Times.