by Dan Geddes
It will probably be impossible for future generations to understand the special place that J.D. Salinger held in the minds of readers in the mid-to-late twentieth century.
The Catcher in the Rye remains a classic statement of youth alienation, and continues to attract defenders and detractors. Many of its young readers are grateful to find a book that not only understands them, but also articulates their misgivings about growing up and joining the compromised adult world, where there seems to be little room for ideals.
J.D. Salinger remained one of the great legends in American writing throughout his life even though he stopped publishing in 1965. He enjoyed an era of preeminent literary fame in the 1950s and 1960s, yet, in the spirit of Holden Caulfield or Buddy Glass, he himself dropped out of society, living a reclusive life in Cornish, New Hampshire. Salinger’s “reclusiveness,” however, only reinforced his fame. Here was a writer who practiced what he preached. The implication was that Salinger found society — at least New York literary society — too phony. He retained a strong readership, and even gained new fans, many of whom discovered his books from school reading lists.
For Baby Boomers, Holden Caulfield represented an important milestone on the way to Sixties culture. When Franny and Zooey (1961) came out in book form (both stories were published earlier in The New Yorker magazine), it rekindled interest in Salinger’s novel. So, the early 1960s were probably the peak of his fame. Whenever he published it was an “event,” and no one knew yet that he would soon stop publishing for good. Since “Hapworth” (1965) Salinger has given very few interviews. He emerged from his lair a few times to sue people, most famously Ian Hamilton, a biographer who intended to use excerpts from Salinger’s unpublished letters. Salinger sued, the case went to the Supreme Court, and Hamilton was forced to paraphrase most passages from the letters. In 2009, Salinger sued to stop the US publication of 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, which was presented as a sequel to The Cather in the Rye, but was probably more like fan fiction. However, many people began to think that Salinger’s attempts to keep his privacy only drew attention to himself.