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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
J. D. Salinger shares at least one important trait with his character Holden Caulfield-a powerful urge to separate himself from society.
Holden, the chief character of The Catcher in the Rye, tells us that he wants to live on the edge of the woods; Salinger realized this dream by retreating to a small farm town in New Hampshire, where the townspeople seem as devoted to his privacy as he is himself. There, in Cornish, Salinger has been able to escape the distractions of the literary world and to avoid people who have sought to capitalize on his instant fame following the publication of The Catcher in the Rye in 1951.
Little is known about Salinger's life since he moved to Cornish. Local residents enjoy protecting Salinger's anonymity, and interviews with them typically have produced bland, noncommittal responses that make Salinger sound about as interesting as last month's newspaper. Salinger himself refuses to be interviewed.
The facts of Salinger's earlier life, however, are on the record. Jerome David Salinger was born in New York City in 1919, the son of a prosperous importer of meat and cheese. He was a mediocre student in the public school he attended, and after he flunked out of the private McBurney School, his parents sent him to Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania.
He later spent less than a month at New York University and then took a short-story course at Columbia University. His first story was published in 1940. From 1942 to 1946 he was in the Army, continuing to write "whenever I can find time and an unoccupied foxhole." He returned to New York in 1946, and in the next few years had stories published in various periodicals, notably The New Yorker.
In 1953 Salinger met Claire Douglas, a British-born Radcliffe student. She apparently became the model for more than one of his characters. They were married two years later, and they have two children, Margaret Ann, born in 1955, and Matthew, born in 1960. They were divorced in 1967.
Salinger's later published works have all been stories. Most of them deal with the children of the Glass family, who, like Salinger, have a Jewish father and a Christian mother. These stories have been collected in Nine Stories (1953); Franny and Zooey (1961); and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963). All three books received considerable critical praise and were very popular.
Salinger's published literary output declined over the years. By the early 1980s, he had not published a work in some twenty years. Still, he is considered one of the most vital writers of the century. His reputation rests largely on The Catcher in the Rye. -
In Chapter 12 of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield is at a bar listening to a jazz piano player whose work he enjoys. The applause from the audience, and the musician's acceptance of it, lead Holden to say: "I swear to God, if I were a piano player or an actor or something and all those dopes thought I was terrific, I'd hate it. I wouldn't even want them to clap for me.... I'd play it in the goddam closet."
When you think of the life that Salinger chose while he was still a young man with a promising literary future, you realize that these sentences express his worldview as much as Holden's. Careful readers of Salinger's fiction have found many other statements that might also be the sentiments of a man who deserted fame in order to be able to work on his own.
It's not only the feelings about fame that the author and his character have in common. Salinger has often said that children are the best people he knows, a statement that Holden would happily echo. Salinger left New York City primarily because he found its literary circles at best unsatisfying; Holden can't stand being surrounded by phonies everywhere he goes.
Salinger grew up in New York City, and so did Holden. Salinger went to a prep school, and so does Holden. Like Holden, Salinger was a bright child whose grades in school were not an accurate reflection of his intelligence. It's clear from The Catcher in the Rye and his other works that Salinger is one of those writers whose works seem to flow directly from experience. He tends to write about familiar territory. But this is far from saying that his characters are strictly autobiographical.
In addition, this kind of information is of less importance to a reader of the novel than it is to a biographer. If you were doing research for a biography of Salinger, it could be vital for you to learn that one of his characters was based on a real person. But it's almost irrelevant to an enjoyment of the novel.