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John Walsh: At last, here was an author who wrote the way people spoke

J.D. Salinger was one of the great enigmas of literary history. For the last half-century, since he moved from his native Manhattan to Cornish, New Hampshire, he has lived in hermit-like reclusion, seldom seen by anyone from the outside world. His relations with the publishing and literary-critical fraternity have been fraught and often bitter, as he has sought, time after time, to fend off biographers, film-makers, interviewers, journalists and those who wish simply to quote from his works.

And what extraordinary works they are. Salinger has published nothing since 1965, but his oeuvre is remarkable. His first novel, The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951, has sold over 60 million copies and sells in umpteen thousands every year. His other works are novellas or collections of stories: For Esme – With Love and Squalor, Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. They offer a puzzling, but internally coherent, mosaic of narrative about the Glass family, whose individual stories turn up randomly and out of sequence. Seymour, for instance, the eldest child of the Glass siblings, kills himself in "A Perfect Day For Bananafish" published in 1948, but readers learned about his life and influence on the family only 11 years later, in Seymour: An Introduction (1959.)

The Glass family saga has been celebrated and derided over the years, but the reputation of The Catcher in the Rye seems set to endure as the classic novel of teenage rebellion. It heralded something new and different in serious literature – a modern vernacular voice, hesitant, shrugging, slangy, occasionally obscene – narrating a story in the first person as though talking to the reader, complete with a full repertoire of verbal tics like "goddam" and "or something". It told the story of Holden Caulfield, a troubled teenage scholar who has been expelled from his preparatory school in Pennsylvania and, instead of heading home, goes walkabout in New York. He has encounters with a young prostitute, with his old English master (who makes what seems to be a sexual pass at him in the middle of the night) and his adored younger sister, Phoebe; only at the conclusion do we learn that Holden is currently being treated in some kind of sanitarium. The 1940s Manhattan slang may have dated, but the novel still impresses for Holden's wholesale dismissal of the "phonies" in the adult world, and his neurotic inspection of his own feelings, in search of the truth about his world.

Since its first appearance, The Catcher in the Rye has been mired in controversy. Is it the perfect book to give schoolchildren, to show them how literature can articulate their feelings of confusion and alienation? Or it is an unhealthy work with a repellent, lying, foul-mouthed, apparently deranged and unstable narrator at its heart? The novel has been banned in many schools in successive decades, and teachers who have brought it to the attention of their students have sometimes been fired. The constant succession of "goddams", "Chrissakes" and indeed "fucks" hasn't helped endear Salinger or his hero to adult educationalists.

Salinger's name, however, has always been best known as a useful shorthand for the writer as recluse, as precious, pretentious, noli-me-tangere mystic who cannot stand the world's slavering attention to his private life, even as their money makes him rich. A veteran of the Second World War – he is probably the only half-celebrated writer to have been present on Utah beach on D-Day in June 1944, and to have seen combat in the Battle of the Bulge – he was a notoriously prickly author who responded badly to rejection, or to having his work edited. After Sam Goldwyn bought the rights to film his story "Uncle Wriggly in Connecticut" and filmed it as My Foolish Heart, a dreadful heap of romantic slush, Salinger never again allowed film adaptations to be made from his work – though he was approached by, among others, Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan, Harvey Weinstein and Steven Spielberg. After 1953, he never permitted his publishers to allow any depictions of his characters – or, indeed, any kind of blurb, or puff, or author information – to appear on the dust jackets of his books. "It is my rather subversive opinion," he once wrote, "that a writer's feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him during his working years."

As Salinger withdrew more and more into the comforts of alternative religion (he once met L Ron Hubbard, but was soon disenchanted with Scientology) a number of authors tried to track him down and secure his permission for some kind of biographical work. All were discouraged, but the books were published anyway – most notably, In Search of Salinger, by the British poet and editor Ian Hamilton.

The literary world will wait, hardly daring to breathe, to find out exactly what this deeply talented, original and intensely self-conscious writer had been doing in his study for the last 55 years, since he withdrew from the world that wanted to find out too much about him.