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This Day In Writing History
On January 1st, 1919, the legendary American novelist J.D. Salinger was born. He was born Jerome David Salinger in Manhattan, New York City. His mother Marie was Scotch-Irish, his father Sol was Polish-Jewish and earned his living by selling kosher cheese. J.D. had an older sister, Doris, who died in 2001. His mother had changed her name to Miriam and passed herself off as Jewish. He would not learn of her true identity until after his bar mitzvah.
J.D. Salinger attended public schools until ninth grade, when he transferred to the private McBurney School. He acted in several school plays and showed a talent for drama, but his father was opposed to him becoming an actor. Later, he entered the Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania. There, he was able to get away from his overprotective mother. He had begun writing for the McBurney School newspaper; at the military academy, he wrote stories "under the covers [at night], with the aid of a flashlight."
In 1936, at the age of 17, Salinger entered New York University, where he considered studying special education. He dropped out the following spring. His father wanted him to learn the meat-importing business, so he went to work for a company in Vienna, Austria. He spent only six months in Austria, leaving shortly before the country was annexed by Hitler in the spring of 1938.
After spending a semester at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, Salinger attended a writing class at Columbia University taught by Whit Burnett, editor of Story magazine. Burnett noted that Salinger was an average student at first, but then, about three weeks before the end of the second semester, "he suddenly came to life" and wrote three stories, all of which impressed Burnett. He praised Salinger's talent and accepted one of his stories, The Young Folks, for publication in Story magazine.
In 1941, Salinger met and began dating Oona O'Neill, daughter of legendary playwright Eugene O'Neill. Although he found her to be a self-absorbed debutante, he fell in love with her. He called her often and wrote her long letters. Their relationship ended when Oona began dating film legend Charlie Chaplin, whom she would later marry. That same year, Salinger began submitting short stories to The New Yorker magazine. It rejected seven of his stories, but in December of 1941, the magazine accepted Slight Rebellion Off Madison, a short story that introduced Salinger's most popular character - a disaffected teenager named Holden Caulfield, who had "pre-war jitters." After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the story was deemed unpublishable. It would not appear in The New Yorker until 1946.
Several months after the Pearl Harbor attack, in the spring of 1942, J.D. Salinger was drafted into the U.S. Army. He saw action with the 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, at Utah Beach on D-Day, and at the Battle of the Bulge. During the Normandy campaign, he arranged to meet a fellow writer named Ernest Hemingway, who had influenced him and was working as a war correspondent in Paris. Salinger was impressed with Hemingway's friendliness and modesty, despite his gruff public persona. Hemingway was impressed with Salinger's writing, saying of the author, "Jesus, he has a helluva talent." The two men began corresponding; Salinger would later say that his talks with Hemingway were among his few positive memories of the war.
As the war continued, Salinger was assigned to a counter-intelligence division, where he used his fluency in French and German to interrogate prisoners of war. He would later become one of the first American soldiers to enter a liberated concentration camp. He later told his daughter, "You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live." The war would leave lasting psychological scars on Salinger; he had to be hospitalized for combat stress for a few weeks after the defeat of Germany.
After he recovered, Salinger signed up for a six-month period of "denazification" duty in Germany. During this time, he fell in love with and married a German girl named Sylvia Welter. He brought her back with him to the U.S., but the marriage only lasted eight months, and Sylvia returned to Germany. In the late 1940s, Salinger became a follower of Zen Buddhism, the first of many spiritual pursuits. He resumed his writing career, and in 1948, submitted a new story to The New Yorker titled A Perfect Day For Bananafish. The editors were so impressed with the story that they accepted it immediately and signed the author to a contract.
A Perfect Day For Bananafish was the first story that introduced Salinger's recurring characters, the troubled Glass family, consisting of two retired vaudeville performers and their seven precocious children, Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, Walt, Walker, Zooey, and Franny. A Perfect Day For Bananafish featured Seymour Glass. On a second honeymoon with his wife Muriel, Seymour spends a day at the beach while Muriel remains in their hotel room, talking to her mother on the phone. At the beach, Seymour meets and befriends Sybil Carpenter, a cute and inquisitive six-year-old girl. He enjoys her company and tells her a story about bananafish. Later, Seymour returns to his hotel room and finds his wife asleep. Removing a gun from his luggage, Seymour sits next to Muriel on the bed and blows his brains out.
Not long after the success of Bananafish, Salinger was approached by film producer Samuel Goldwyn, who wanted to buy the rights to his earlier short story, Uncle Wiggily In Connecticut. Salinger immediately agreed, as Hollywood had shown interest in another of his stories, The Varoni Brothers, but nothing ever came of it. Salinger hoped that Uncle Wiggily "would make a good movie," but when it was released as My Foolish Heart in 1949, the film proved to be a critical and commercial failure that had little to do with the story on which it was based. A furious Salinger vowed that no more film adaptations of his work would be made - a vow he has kept despite Hollywood's persistent interest in adapting his celebrated first novel, which was published in 1951, just a couple of years after the Uncle Wiggily film fiasco.
The Catcher In The Rye, Salinger's poignant coming-of-age story, opens with teenage student Holden Caulfield being expelled from Pencey Prep, his boarding school in Pennsylvania. An angry young man, Holden believes that his fellow students and his teachers are all a bunch of phonies. After an altercation with his roommate, Holden packs up and leaves school in the middle of the night.
He takes a train back to New York City, but doesn't want to go home to his parents, so he checks into the shabby Edmont Hotel instead. There, he dances with some tourist girls, has a clumsy encounter with a prostitute, and gets assaulted by her pimp when he refuses to pay her more than the agreed upon amount.
Holden spends the next two days wandering around the city, drunk and lonely. He sneaks into his parents' apartment while they're out so he can visit his precocious little sister Phoebe - the only family member that he can communicate with. He shares with her a fantasy (based on a misinterpretation of Robert Burns' Comin' Through The Rye) where he watches over children playing in a rye field near the edge of a cliff. He must make sure that they don't wander too close to the edge; he must become a "catcher in the rye."
After leaving his parents' apartment, Holden visits his old English teacher, Mr. Antolini, who offers him a place to sleep and gives him a speech about life - while guzzling highballs. Later that night, Holden is awakened to find Mr. Antolini patting his head in a "flitty" way. Whether or not this is a sexual advance is up for speculation and ultimately left to the reader to decide.
When Holden tells his little sister that he plans to move out West, Phoebe wants to go with him. He refuses to take her and she becomes upset, so he tells her that he won't move. The book ends with Holden taking Phoebe to the Central Park Zoo. He watches with melancholy joy while she rides the carousel. He alludes to possible future events, including "getting sick" and living in a mental hospital, and attending another school in September.
That's just a bare outline of The Catcher In The Rye. You must read it for yourself. It truly is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. It's also one of the most controversial. The American Library Association (ALA) has listed it as the 13th most challenged book from 1990-2000 and one of the ten most challenged books of 2005. The complaints range from profanity - including words such as goddamn and fuck - to blasphemy. When high school English teachers assign the book to their classes, they are often met with protests from disgruntled parents and conservative activist groups who demand that book be removed from both the teachers' assigned reading lists and the school libraries' shelves.
J.D. Salinger followed his famous novel with a short story collection, Nine Stories, (1953) which would include both A Perfect Day For Bananafish and another celebrated tale, For Esme - With Love And Squalor. The haunting story is narrated by an American Army officer known only as Sergeant X. While waiting to be sent into combat, Sergeant X goes to an English tearoom, where a young teenage British girl named Esme approaches him and offers to write to him. He immediately agrees. Thirty minutes later, Esme leaves, telling X "I hope you return with all your faculties intact." It's because of Esme's letters that X is able to retain his faculties after facing the horrors of war.
In 1955, Salinger married Claire Douglas, a Radcliffe student with whom he would have two children, Margaret and Matthew. He continued to write and publish short stories. In 1961, he published a short novel, Franny And Zooey, which originally appeared as two separate short stories in The New Yorker. The book tells another story of the Glass family, narrated by Buddy Glass, who tells of how his sister Franny, a college student, has a Holden Caulfield-esque nervous breakdown while having lunch with her boyfriend Lane, troubled by the phoniness of her classmates and the egotism of the faculty. At the request of their mother, Franny's brother Zooey helps her recover from her nervous breakdown through a long and intimate talk wherein he helps her sort out her personal and spiritual beliefs.
J.D. Salinger would continue to publish sporadically. In June of 1965, his last published work, a novella titled Hapworth 16, 1924, appeared in the New Yorker. Afterward, at the age of 47, Salinger retired from writing, tired of all the media attention his novel The Catcher In The Rye continued to bring him. He began to withdraw from public life. His last interview was given in 1980, after which, he became a recluse, appearing only to defend his privacy and his works in court.
In 1986, when British biographer Ian Hamilton planned to publish In Search of J.D. Salinger - A Writing Life (1935-65), Salinger learned that the book contained a collection of letters that he'd written to friends and fellow authors. So, he sued to halt its publication. After two years of legal wrangling, the biography was published in a revised version, with the letters' contents paraphrased. In 1995, Salinger had his lawyers block the American premiere of Pari, an unauthorized adaptation of Franny And Zooey by Iranian filmmaker Dariush Mehrjui. Most recently, in June of 2009, Salinger obtained an injunction to block the publication of 60 Years Later: Coming Through The Rye, an unauthorized sequel to The Catcher In The Rye, written by Swedish publisher Fredrik Colting under the pseudonym J.D. California. Colting filed an appeal, and the case will soon be heard in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
In 1999, Salinger's daughter Margaret published a memoir, Dream Catcher, where she described her father as a control freak who exerted harrowing control over her mother and suffered from severe post traumatic stress disorder all his life. Margaret claimed that Salinger maintained his service haircut, wore his Army jacket, and drove around his estate (and town) in an old Jeep. She dispelled the Salinger myths established by Ian Hamilton in his book and discussed her father's passion for films. Despite his negative experiences with Hollywood studios, Salinger was a huge film buff and possessed a large collection of 16mm film prints.
A few weeks after Dream Catcher was published, Margaret Salinger's brother Matthew wrote a letter to the New York Observer denouncing his sister's "gothic tales of our supposed childhood" and discrediting her memoir.
J.D. Salinger is still alive at the age of 91. He remains one of the greatest American writers of all time.
Quote Of The Day
"The true poet has no choice of material. The material plainly chooses him, not he it." - J.D. Salinger
Today's video features a short film adaptation of J.D. Salinger's classic short story, A Perfect Day For Bananafish. Enjoy!