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J.D. Salinger: Writing Catcher

16 July 1951, J.D. Salinger's first and only full-length novel was published. He had been working on it for ten years. Its title was The Catcher in the Rye. It is the story of Holden Caulfield, a foul-mouthed prep school dropout who is completely terrified of growing up. After getting kicked out (again) from a fancy private boarding school, Holden spends three days wandering around New York City, torn between the nostalgic memories of childhood and the bitter, cynical world he sees around him now. For 214 pages (in our Little, Brown, and Company paperback copy, anyway), Salinger rants in the voice of his 16-year-old narrator, creating a perfect blend of bitter teenage angst and childlike vulnerability.

Salinger's book was an instant success. Critics were awed by his ability to channel the manic quality of teenage thought into a believable narrative voice, something that had never really been done before in fiction. "This was a perilous undertaking, but one that has been successfully achieved," The New York Times wrote in its 1951 review. "Mr. Salinger's rendering of teen-age speech is wonderful: the unconscious humor, the repetitions, the slang and profanity, the emphasis, all are just right. Holden's mercurial changes of mood, his stubborn refusal to admit his own sensitiveness and emotions, his cheerful disregard of what is sometimes known as reality are typically and heart breakingly adolescent."6 Like Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, Salinger's Holden became a spokesman for a generation. "A case can be made that The Catcher in the Rye created adolescence as we now know it, a condition that barely existed until Salinger defined it," wrote Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post. "He established whining rebellion as essential to adolescence and it has remained such ever since."7

The book was instantly successful, ensuring Salinger lifelong financial independence. Suddenly the world wanted more from this literary sensation. He followed Catcher in 1953 with a book entitled Nine Stories, a collection of—you guessed it—nine short stories, seven of which had already been published. The stories focused on the Glass family, a group of seven siblings and their retired vaudeville parents. The collection's first story was "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," Salinger's first big success in The New Yorker. Virtually all of his published writing after The Catcher in the Rye was about the Glasses. Salinger and the Glass family had developed a rabid following among fans, which also helped make Nine Stories a success.

Around this time, Salinger began to retreat from public life. In 1953, the same year Nine Stories was published, he moved from Manhattan to Cornish, New Hampshire, the small, bucolic town where he lived for the rest of his life. He declined press interviews and appearances. A practicing Buddhist for several years, he also became deeply interested in Hindu texts. Though Salinger was 34 years old when he moved to Cornish, he primarily became friends with students at the nearby high school, inviting them to his home and giving his only interviews to the school newspaper. "I always write about very young people,"8 he said during an interview in 1946, and it seemed that he gravitated toward youth in his personal life as well. In the end, though, Salinger abruptly cut off contact with these friends from Cornish High School after the school paper printed an interview with him that received more attention that he had expected it to.

In 1955, when he was 36, Salinger married Claire Douglas, a young undergraduate student at Radcliffe College. The couple had two children, a daughter named Margaret and a son named Matt.

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