J. D. Salinger The worth of a book is to be measured by what you can carry away from it. -James Bryce* In 1945, a novel was published that would forever change the way society views itself. The book, entitled The Catcher in the Rye, would propel a man named Jerome David Salinger to fame as one of the most famous authors of the twentieth century. This same man, not ten years after the publication and while still in the peak of his career, would depart from this society- the one that he so greatly changed leaving nothing but his literature to be his lasting voice. However one may view this mysterious life of J.
D. Salinger, there is but one thing for certain: J. D. Salinger has provided the reader with a controversial look at society which is greatly enhanced by the integration of his own life experiences, dialect and religious philosophies into his stories. Salinger was the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school. -Norman Mailer (qtd.
in Salinger SSC 291) The story of J. D. Salinger begins in downtown New York, NY, where he was born on January 1, 1919. Little is known about his early childhood, but his parents; Sol and Miriam, were known to be of upper-middle class stature and the family dwelled in downtown New York. As Salinger began to attend junior high school, his grades began to drop so his parents decided to send him to Valley Forge Military Academy, which is located in Pennsylvania.
While enrolled in Valley Forge, Salinger’s IQ level was tested at 115, which is slightly above average but far from the genius or even superior category (French 45). At Valley Forge, however, Salinger’s grades rose considerably and he earned a scholarship to New York University. Salinger attended New York University for two years and went on to Ursinus College and then to Columbia University, where he studied with Whit Burnett (Salinger CA 997). After receiving an English degree at Columbia, Salinger worked briefly as an entertainer on the Swedish Liner MS Kungsholm in the Caribbean in 1941. In 1942 Salinger enlisted in the United States Army and fought in World War II, where he eventually became a staff sergeant earning five battle stars. The time spent overseas played a major role in what would ultimately be the basis of most of Salinger’s short stories.
World War II is also where Salinger met one of his major literary influences, Ernest Hemingway. Although Salinger’s style stems from Hemingway, their first encounter was not one that sat well on Salingers’s mind. The story goes that while Hemingway was serving as an author-correspondent, he visited Salinger’s regiment and that Salinger became disgusted when Hemingway shot the head off a chicken to demonstrate the merits of a German Lager (French 25). The incident so affected Salinger that he incorporates it into his short story, For Esme: with Love and Squalor, with a corporal named Clay shooting the head off a cat and constantly dwelling upon the senseless act. The relationship between Hemingway and Salinger would last until Hemingway’s death in 1961.
Despite having a personal relationship with Hemingway, according to Harold Bloom, ..[Salinger’s work actually] derives from F. Scott Fitzgerald (qtd. in Salinger SSC 2: 318). Such a conclusion can be drawn for a number of reasons. First, Salinger’s narrative style shows a striking similarity to Fitzgerald’s; and second, many of Salinger’s characters, like Holden Caulfield and Seymour Glass show a close resemblance to Fitzgerald’s character Jay Gatsby. Another interesting stylistic distinction is the dependable presence of a child in a major role in the storyline.
Much like William Wodsworth, Salinger appreciates childhood innocence. It is the wisdom and spontaneity that is lost in the distractions and temptations of adult life (Gorden 2040), that Salinger and Wodsworth both incorporate into their work. Salinger eventually became drawn to Eastern philosophy, especially Zen Buddhism. This affliction pushed Salinger in his later works to stray from his original foundation and fundamental Western ideals of literature and begin incorporating Eastern philosophy into his work. Many critics condemn these resulting works and a few even go as far as saying that Salinger has lost his touch.
Possibly due to such criticism, but for still unknown reasons, after the publication of his short story, Seymour: An Introduction, Salinger fled to a remote cabin outside the tiny town of Cornish, New Hampshire (population 1,659) in 1953. Since 1953 there been no public statement from Salinger himself and little knowledge has ever leaked out beyond his fence line regarding his personal life and habits. However, Salinger’s monolithic silence appears to be ending. Late in 1999 Salinger’s first publication in 36 years was made available, a short story entitled Hapworth 16, 1924, which is the finale to the Glass family story that is contained in all of Salinger’s works except his novel The Catcher in the Rye. The signifigance of the date of publication is undetermined, but it may be a sign that, at the age of 80, Salinger may finally be ending his reclusive demeanor. Currently, Salinger is still the mystery of the literary world. Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger.
-Franklin Jones* As with any famous author, criticism is never a unanimous voice. Critical evaluations of Salinger’s work is divided, with some critics going as far as to labeling the work profound and others to denouncing it as immature (CA 997). As for the negative criticism that Salinger receives, the majority of it derives from the questionable importance and impact of Salinger’s incorporation of Eastern philosophy into his later works. Linda Gorden attributes the integration of Eastern philosophy to [Salinger’s] no longer trying to please the conventional readers but ridding himself of conventional forms and methods accepted by Western society (Gorden 2046). The obvious conclusion is that Salinger is no longer writing for the reader, but rather for himself; and his values and beliefs are therefore going to unconsciously show up in his work.
However it is in Salinger’s post classic period, particularly after the generation engulfed by The Catcher in the Rye, during which the degeneration of the criticism of Salinger’s work really begins. Critics are quick to become more critical and are labeling [Salinger] as ‘cute,’ ‘repressed,’ ‘Puritanical,’ and ‘grossly sentimental,’ as writes William Wiegand (qtd. in Salinger CA 999). Even the preceding is not as harsh as the critical reception of his later works. Some critics began to state that Salinger has lost the artisitic ability shown during his classic period (Gorden 2044). One critic has gone as far as labeling the short story Zooey as the ..longest and dullest story ever to appear in The New Yorker .. (Gorden 2045).
Although there is a substantial amount of negative criticism of Salinger’s literary works, the positive criticism is greatly in the majority. Not always considered Salinger’s masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye has been his most famous and influential to date and is arguably the most influential novel of the mid- twentieth century. With the publication of this, his first novel, Salinger accumulated a substantial corps of disciples, especially among the young people (Salinger CA 998). Walter Allen goes on to state …