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J.D. Salinger, the legendary author, youth hero and fugitive from fame whose
“The Catcher in the Rye” shocked and inspired a world he increasingly shunned, has
died. He was 91.
Salinger died of natural causes at his home on Wednesday, the author’s son said in a
statement from Salinger’s literary representative. He had lived for decades in
self-imposed isolation in the small, remote house in Cornish, N.H.
“The Catcher in the Rye,” with its immortal teenage protagonist, the twisted, rebellious
Holden Caulfield, came out in 1951, a time of anxious, Cold War conformity and the
dawn of modern adolescence. The Book-of-the-Month Club, which made “Catcher” a
featured selection, advised that for “anyone who has ever brought up a son” the novel
will be “a source of wonder and delight — and concern.” Enraged by all the “phonies”
who make “me so depressed I go crazy,” Holden soon became American literature’s
most famous anti-hero since Huckleberry Finn. The novel’s sales are astonishing —
more than 60 million copies worldwide — and its impact incalculable. Decades after
publication, the book remains a defining expression of that most American of dreams —
to never grow up.
Salinger was writing for adults, but teenagers from all over identified with the novel’s
themes of alienation, innocence and fantasy, not to mention the luck of having the last
word. “Catcher” presents the world as an ever-so-unfair struggle between the
goodness of young people and the corruption of elders, a message that only intensified
with the oncoming generation gap.
Novels from Evan Hunter’s “The Blackboard Jungle” to Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Prep,”
movies from “Rebel Without a Cause” to “The Breakfast Club,” and countless rock ’n’ roll
songs echoed Salinger’s message of kids under siege. One of the great anti-heroes of
the 1960s, Benjamin Braddock of “The Graduate,” was but a blander version of
The cult of “Catcher” turned tragic in 1980 when crazed Beatles fan Mark David
Chapman shot and killed John Lennon, citing Salinger’s novel as an inspiration and
stating that “this extraordinary book holds many answers.” By the 21st century, Holden
himself seemed relatively mild, but Salinger’s book remained a standard in school
curriculums and was discussed on countless Web sites and a fan page on Facebook.
Salinger’s other books don’t equal the influence or sales of “Catcher,” but they are still
read, again and again, with great affection and intensity. Critics, at least briefly, rated
Salinger as a more accomplished and daring short story writer than John Cheever.
The collection “Nine Stories” features the classic “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” the
deadpan account of a suicidal Army veteran and the little girl he hopes, in vain, will save
him. The novel “Franny and Zooey,” like “Catcher,” is a youthful, obsessively articulated
quest for redemption, featuring a memorable argument between Zooey and his mother
as he attempts to read in the bathtub.
“Catcher,” narrated from a mental facility, begins with Holden recalling his expulsion
from a Pennsylvania boarding school for failing four classes and for general apathy.
He returns home to Manhattan, where his wanderings take him everywhere from a
Times Square hotel to a rainy carousel ride with his kid sister, Phoebe, in Central Park.
He decides he wants to escape to a cabin out West, but scorns questions about his
future as just so much phoniness.
“I mean how do you know what you’re going to do till you do it?” he reasons. “The
answer is, you don’t. I think I am, but how do I know? I swear it’s a stupid question.”
“The Catcher in the Rye” became both required and restricted reading, periodically
banned by a school board or challenged by parents worried by its frank language and
the irresistible chip on Holden’s shoulder.
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