Prolific and influential author J.D. Salinger passed away on Wednesday, Jan 27th. The 91 year old writer was found dead in his home, due to natural causes.
If you’ve made your way through the American school system, chances are you’ve encountered the work of J.D. Salinger at some point in your life. You were given the slim, white paperback in 9th grade and were curious about the cluster of rainbow stripes on the upper left hand corner, right over the titled The Catcher in the Rye. Or maybe you were given the copy with the novel with the galloping red horse on the cover. Either way, you probably analyzed the symbolism, the imagery, and the peculiarities of main character Holden Caulfield at some point in your high school career. Love it or hate it (and most people love it), the novel originally published in 1951 is a groundbreaking work of literature that in large part defined the American perception of the modern adolescent. Moody, cynical, alienated, and self-doubting, Salinger’s creation of Holden Caulfield marked a visible turning point in the youth of a post-War America. Rebellious and disaffected, Caulfield’s neurotic (and arguably manic) persona that ultimately led to his commitment to a mental hospital was identifiable to every teen grappling with the enormous pressure of trying to understand yourself. Using a first-person writing style and common slang of the period like the practically Holden-patented “phony”, Salinger struck a chord with the American youth that has lasted for over 50 years now.
A recluse who rarely granted interviews, Salinger had decided to be a writer in 1939 after returning from the military school his father had shipped him off to. After seeing his short stories published in magazines like Esquire and Collier’s, Salinger was drafted and sent to England as part of the U.S. Intelligence Army Corps responsible for questioning Nazi soldiers. No one is quite sure what exactly Salinger went through during those campaigns, but it is rumored that he suffered an extreme nervous breakdown once his tour was over. It might have been this experience that affected him deeply, but either way, upon his return to normal life, Salinger began to write a host of short stories and soon the only novel he would ever write, The Catcher in the Rye, would be released. He retired to a small country home in Cornish, New Hampshire in 1953 after releasing a collection of short stories called Nine Stories. In 1961, he published an additional collection of short stories in a single volume, the equally popular Franny and Zooey, which spent six months atop the bestseller list. His final work would be another collection of short stories entitled Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymours: An Introduction.
Despite his reclusive nature, Salinger become the object of unwanted media attention when his former lover, writer Joyce Maynard published a memoir of her time as an 18-year-old living with the 53-year-old writer called At Home In the World. Further negative media attention came his way in 1980 when Mark David Chapman, John Lennon’s killer, claimed that he shot the singer to “promote the reading of The Catcher in the Rye”. Whatever negativity surrounded him, Salinger refused to engage with the public and left his work to be interpreted by the readers alone. His groundbreaking novel still sells over 250,000 copies each year, and is a world-wide standard beloved by English teachers–and students–everywhere.
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