When the author J D Salinger died on Wednesday at the age of 91, his obituaries were as one in crediting him with the invention of teenage angst. His only published novel, The Catcher in the Rye, is regarded as the quintessential expression of adolescent alienation, while his refusal to explain himself intrigued critics.
Such stubborn resistance to celebrity culture – Salinger disliked it before the term was invented – is a luxury few authors can afford. But it also means that he is misunderstood; most commentators harp on the obvious – Salinger was one of the first to give a fictional voice to people who were no longer children but not quite adults – and fail to recognise the origins of what is really a brilliant imposture.
Salinger was 32 when The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, not quite twice the age of his anti-hero, Holden Caulfield. First-rate novelists are able to simulate the emotions of characters far removed from themselves, but there are clues to suggest that Salinger immersed himself in Caulfield in a retreat from adult experiences he could not process.
Men and women who grew up in the 1920s and 30s, as Salinger did, were plunged into unimaginable horrors in young adulthood. I was an adult when I realised that my father suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder after joining the Royal Navy in 1940 and spending most of the war on Atlantic convoys.
Salinger was three years older than my father. Drafted into the US Army in 1942, he took part in the Normandy landings and the Battle of the Bulge, and witnessed the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp. His daughter, Margaret Salinger, recognised that he too suffered from PTSD, and thought it explained the coldness and obsessive behaviour she wrote about in her memoir, Dream Catcher.
The opening paragraph of The Catcher in the Rye, in which Holden says he isn't going to write "all that David Copperfield kind of crap", signals that its teenage narrator is having to cauterise his emotions.
Holden is in a clinic after being thrown out of school and running away to New York, where he shows off, feels lost and covers his misery with teenage bravado. His most striking characteristics are vulnerability and a protective instinct towards his 10-year-old sister, the only person he can talk to. This is explained by the loss of a brother from leukaemia but Holden is also distancing himself from feelings of emptiness and parental neglect.
This is exactly the emotional damage many post-war children encountered at home; in wealthy families, the kids were sent to boarding school. In working-class families, we were exhorted to work hard at school and go to university. Few of us returned home.
Holden's denunciation of the older generation as "phonies" provided a vocabulary of rejection for kids who felt – often with justification – rejected by their own parents.
There are many ironies in this, not least the fact that Salinger was old enough to be the father of his first teenage fans and shared the emotional paralysis which created their hero. "You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nostrils," he told his daughter in a rare moment of openness about his war.
Salinger was indubitably a great novelist, but I suspect he wrote so well about teenage misery because he belonged to a generation which created so much of it.