Reclusive author J. D. Salinger has died. He was 91. Salinger, creator of Holden Caulfield and the Glass family, was an unofficial spokesman for every alienated or precocious teenager in the English-speaking world.
Jerome David Salinger was raised in New York and began writing fiction as a student. The New Yorker rejected seven of his stories before finally publishing one just before the US entered World War II and Salinger was drafted.
The Catcher In the Rye's protagonist and narrator is Holden Caulfield, a disaffected 17-year-old who, in what was slightly revolutionary for its time, talked (and narrated!) like a disaffected 17-year-old. The book pretty much just follows Caulfield as he wanders around New York after being expelled from prep school. Salinger acknowledged that the novel was semi-autobiographical, and his ability to channel the internal monologue of a bright-but-alienated kid made the book essential reading for generations of high school students.
Salinger soon moved on to what he considered his life's work: the Glass family. The half-Jewish half-Irish brood of brilliantly precocious children ("the Glasses were a bunch of insufferably 'superior' little bastards that should have been drowned or gassed at birth" is how Buddy Glass paraphrases a popular criticism) who all grew into impossibly fucked-up adults were the subjects of everything else Salinger wrote while he was still publishing. A Perfect Day For Bananafish, the story of eldest Glass Seymour's suicide, is pretty damn close to the perfect short story (the fact that Salinger eventually quasi-disowned it by having his Glass family alter-ego Buddy claim authorship notwithstanding).
As Catcher in the Rye became a sensation, Salinger moved to New Hampshire and began withdrawing into Buddhism and Kriya yoga (and, if his daughter's account is to be believed, other assorted forms of mysticism and nonsense). By 1961 Time had already declared him a recluse. He published one more short story, and (after one disastrous experience) never allowed anyone to film any of his work, despite his reported fondness for movies.
Supposedly, he's still been writing constantly over these last 50 years. The battle over his unpublished work will probably be drawn out and bitter, but a nation of former insufferably precocious little bastards waits with bated breath.
Suggested Reading: Janet Malcom's Justice to J.D. Salinger