NEW YORK (AP) — J.D. Salinger, the legendary author, youth hero and fugitive from fame whose “The Catcher in the Rye” shocked and inspired a world he increasingly shunned, has died. He was 91.
Salinger died of natural causes at his home on Wednesday, the author’s son, actor Matt Salinger, said in a statement from Salinger’s longtime literary representative, Harold Ober Associates, Inc. He had lived for decades in self-imposed isolation in a small, remote house in Cornish, N.H.
Although a great force in literary culture, Salinger famously shunned publicity and later in life even considered publication of his books an invasion of his privacy.
He specifically rejected the calling of Hollywood after one of his short stories, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” was turned into a movie, “My Foolish Heart,” and was roundly lambasted by critics. Curiously, the film was nominated for two Oscars in 1949.
Yet his influence on popular culture could not be stymied.
Novels from Evan Hunter’s “The Blackboard Jungle” to Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Prep,” movies from “Rebel Without a Cause” to “The Breakfast Club,” and countless rock ‘n’ roll songs echoed Salinger’s message of kids under siege. One of the great anti-heroes of the 1960s, Benjamin Braddock of “The Graduate,” was but a blander version of Salinger’s narrator.
Salinger will always be best known for “The Catcher in the Rye,” with its immortal teenage protagonist, the twisted, rebellious Holden Caulfield,. It was published in 1951, a time of anxious, Cold War conformity and the dawn of modern adolescence.
Enraged by all the “phonies” who make “me so depressed I go crazy,” Holden soon became American literature’s most famous anti-hero since Huckleberry Finn. The novel’s sales are astonishing — more than 60 million copies worldwide — and its impact incalculable. Decades after publication, the book remains a defining expression of that most American of dreams: to never grow up.
Although Salinger initially contemplated a theater production of “Catcher,” with the author himself playing Holden, he turned down numerous offers for film or stage rights, including requests from Billy Wilder and Elia Kazan. Bids from Steven Spielberg and Harvey Weinstein were also rejected. In recent years, he was a notable holdout against allowing his books to appear in digital form.
Jerome David Salinger was born Jan. 1, 1919, in New York City. His father was a wealthy importer of cheeses and meat and the family lived for years on Park Avenue. Like Holden, Salinger was an indifferent student with a history of trouble in various schools. He was sent to Valley Forge Military Academy at age 15, where he wrote at night by flashlight beneath the covers and eventually earned his only diploma.
Salinger was writing for adults, but teenagers from all over identified with the novel’s themes of alienation, innocence and fantasy. “Catcher” presents the world as an ever-so-unfair struggle between the goodness of young people and the corruption of elders, a message that only intensified.
“‘Catcher in the Rye’ made a very powerful and surprising impression on me,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, who read the book, as so many did, when he was in middle school. “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 recognizable authenticity in the voice that even in 1977 or so, when I read it, felt surprising and rare in literature.”
“The cult of “Catcher” turned tragic in December 1980 when crazed Beatles fan Mark David Chapman shot and killed John Lennon, citing Salinger’s novel as an inspiration and stating that “this extraordinary book holds many answers.” A few months later, a copy of “Catcher” was found in the hotel room of John David Hinckley after he attempted to assassinate President Reagan.
Salinger’s other books don’t equal the influence or sales of “Catcher,” but they are still read, again and again, with affection and intensity.
The collection “Nine Stories” features the classic “For Esme — with Love and Squalor,” the deadpan account of a suicidal Army veteran and the little girl he hopes will save him. The fictional work “Franny and Zooey,” is a youthful, obsessively articulated quest for redemption.
Salinger fans shared their grief Thursday on social networks. Topics such as “Salinger” and “Holden Caufield” were among the most popular on Twitter. CNN’s Larry King tweeted that “Catcher” is his favorite book. Humorist John Hodgman wrote: “I prefer to think JD Salinger has just decided to become extra reclusive.”