Salinger caught the attention of the world – then hid from it

The extraordinary man who wrote 'The Catcher in the Rye' has died aged 91

J.D. Salinger, the reclusive American author whose classic novel of adolescent angst and discovery, The Catcher in the Rye, was illuminated by torchlight beneath the bedcovers of generations of readers transfixed by the emotional turmoil of its pages, died yesterday aged 91 at his New Hampshire home.

The writer, as fierce in the defence of his literary legacy as he was about protecting his privacy, died of natural causes, his agent said. Only last year, he sued to block the publication of a non-authorised sequel to Rye called 60 Years Later by someone calling himself John David California.

In a statement announcing his passing, the author's literary representative, Harold Ober Associates, said: "Despite having broken his hip in May, his health had been excellent until a rather sudden decline after the new year. He was not in any pain before or at the time of his death."

Jerome David Salinger, the son of a Scots-Irish mother and a Jewish businessman – a prolific importer of cheeses and meat – was raised in uptown Manhattan. Published in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye introduced the rebellious and iconoclastic teenager Holden Caulfield. It became Salinger's pinnacle achievement, surviving on school curricula the world over and hailed through the decades as one of the most influential of all modern American novels.

For "anyone who has ever brought up a son" the novel will be "a source of wonder and delight – and concern," the Book of the Month Club said. But never mind parents. Written by a grown-up, the book spoke first to young readers who recognised in Caulfield exactly the alienation they felt from the older generations.

If calculating the book's cultural import is impossible, its sales tell their own story; more than 60 million copies have sold worldwide. To American critics it was clear at once: Caulfield was on course to replace Huckleberry Finn as America's favourite fictional truant.

Salinger spent most of his adult life avoiding the fame that the book had afforded him, hiding, to all intents and purposes, in the remote town of Cornish in New Hampshire. Journalists were turned away, as were all requests for his most famous work to be parlayed into new forms, including celluloid.

His literary output was frustratingly limited. He had not published a new work since 1965. That was Hapworth 16 1968, a short story published in the New Yorker. Narrated by Caulfield from a mental institution, The Catcher in the Rye tells of his expulsion from a private school in Pennsylvania and return to his native Manhattan where he wanders through Central Park and Times Square searching less for urban landmarks than for the geography of his own young soul and the outline of a future he is reluctant to embark upon. Shocking in its frankness and some of its language when America was in the freeze of the Cold War, it was periodically banned by some schools and libraries.

"I'm aware that a number of my friends will be saddened, or shocked, or shocked-saddened, over some of the chapters of The Catcher in the Rye. Some of my best friends are children. In fact, all of my best friends are children," Salinger wrote in 1955. "It's almost unbearable to me to realise that my book will be kept on a shelf out of their reach."

The writer's fascination with youth and the impossibility of relinquishing it prompted one fellow wordsmith, Norman Mailer, to note that "Salinger was the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school". Most readers of The Catcher in the Rye will say they were hooked before finishing even the first line.It ran: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

The book's message went on to inform other works of both literature and cinema. More darkly, Mark Chapman who assassinated John Lennon said his motivation came from the pages of Rye. "This extraordinary book holds many answers," Chapman once stated.

Even in the last years of Salinger's life, hope always lingered that he might come up with some great and unexpected new work. In 1998, it was announced that he would expand Hapworth into a full-length book. It never happened.

Most tantalising now is a remark made by a neighbour of Salinger more than ten years ago that he had indeed written 15 more novels but that he had never let them out of his sight, let alone sought their publication. Instead, Jerry Burt said, they were locked in a safe in his home. As his estate goes through the legal process of probate, scholars will be agog to know if the claim was true and what fate might await the unseen novels if, indeed, they exist.

All attempts to lure Salinger out of his isolation came to nought. "I love to write and I assure you I write regularly," Salinger said in a brief interview with the Baton Rouge Advocate in 1980. "But I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it."

Like the character he created, Salinger was troubled at school and was sent to a military academy in Pennsylvania at 15. At the academy he began writing – often by torchlight under the blankets in fact –and when he served in the US Army from 1942-1947, he carried a typewriter at all times, writing, he told a friend, "whenever I can find the time and an unoccupied foxhole".

Catcher in the Rye: Lines from a tale of teenage angst

* "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, my parents would have about two haemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They're quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They're nice and all – I'm not saying that – but they're also touchy as hell. Besides, I'm not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I'll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy."

* "What I like best is a book that's at least funny once in a while... What knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much."

* "Sex is something I really don't understand too hot. I keep making up these sex rules for myself, and then I break them right away. Last year I made a rule that I was going to quit horsing around with girls that, deep down, gave me a pain in the ass. I broke it, though, the same week I made it."

* "I was about half in love with her by the time we sat down. That's the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty... you fall half in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are."

* "Boy, when you're dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something."

J.D. Salinger: In his words – and those of others

Salinger on Salinger...

"A writer, when he's asked to discuss his craft, ought to get up and call out in a loud voice just the names of the writers he loves. I love Kafka, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Proust, O'Casey, Rilke, Lorca, Keats, Rimbaud, Burns, E. Brontë, Jane Austen, Henry James, Blake, Coleridge. I won't name any living writers. I don't think it's right."

"It is my rather subversive opinion that a writer's feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him during his working years."

"I am a kind of paranoid in reverse: I suspect people of plotting to make me happy..."

"There is a marvellous peace in not publishing. It's peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure."

"I'm known as a strange, aloof kind of man. But all I'm doing is trying to protect myself and my work."

... and literary tributes

Novelist Michael Chabon: " Catcher in the Rye made a very powerful and surprising impression on me. Part of it was the fact that our seventh-grade teacher was actually letting us read such a book. But mostly it was because Catcher had such a recognisable authenticity in the voice that even in 1977 or so, when I read it, felt surprising and rare in literature."

Humorist John Hodgman: "I prefer to think JD Salinger has just decided to become extra reclusive."

David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker: "Everyone who works here and writes here at The New Yorker, even now, decades after his silence began, does so with a keen awareness of JD Salinger's voice. In fact, he is so widely read in America, and read with such intensity, that it's hard to think of any reader, young and old, who does not carry around the voices of Holden Caulfield or Glass family members."

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