if you haven't read Catcher In The Rye, just do it.
J.D. Salinger, as legendary for his embrace of privacy as for his postwar literary creation Holden Caulfield, died Wednesday in Cornish, N.H., the small New England village where he spent the last half of his life and whose residents made a community project out of helping the reclusive literary giant fend off fans and media.
Salinger, 91, published only four books in his lifetime, and none since 1963 (his last published short story ran in The New Yorker in 1965). But it was his first book, 1951's "The Catcher in the Rye," with its poke-in-the-eye opening, that became the voice for a confused generation:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Caulfield, the cynical and profane scion of a wealthy family, captured the sense of postwar ennui that also cropped up in the works of other World War II veterans, like William Styron, and it infused the works of later writers like Philip Roth. John Updike, who died last year, also cited him as an influence.
But Salinger was also darkly funny.
"I think Salinger will be read as long as there are misunderstood adolescents, or students of fine writing -- especially funny writing," said critic David Kipen, the former director of literature for the National Endowment for the Arts. He added that he suspected most obituaries of Salinger will overlook "Salinger's great gifts as a comic stylist."
And there were memorable lines. "In my mind," Caulfield says, "I'm probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw." And later in "The Catcher in the Rye," in talking about another character, Salinger writes, "Bourgeois. That was his favorite goddam word. He read it somewhere or heard it somewhere. Everything I had was bourgeois as hell. Even my fountain pen was bourgeois. He borrowed it off me all the time, but it was bourgeois anyway."
Prep-school life had been written about before Salinger, but not with the kind of bite that propelled "The Catcher in the Rye."
"Most everything we knew of that life was the sanitized version available in Tom Brown's 'School Days' or 'The Lawrenceville Stories' or, heaven help us, Owen Johnson's 'Stover at Yale,'" Kipen said. "Come to think of it, what is Harry Potter but the Salinger-esque story of an underestimated hormonal misfit boy packed off to private school?"
Caulfield might have been a child of the '50s, but his fierce grip on, and exploration of, his own angst carries through the generations.
"J.D Salinger was probably the most influential American writer since Ernest Hemingway," said author Jay McInerney. "In the years following the Second World War, he reinvigorated the language with his ear for contemporary colloquial speech and redrew the cultural landscape with his empathetic exploration of teen angst."
But after a time, it was Salinger's embrace of privacy that came to outshine his work. Journalists vied to be the one to crack the wall, but none managed. Salinger once sued a biographer, Ian Hamilton, to keep him from using private letters. The case went to the Supreme Court in 1986, and Salinger prevailed.
Salinger was less successful in fending off memoirs by his one-time lover, author Joyce Maynard, in 1998, and his own daughter, in 2000. Neither portrait was flattering, and they helped cement Salinger's image as a difficult and, at times, manipulative man.
Salinger fans have long held out hope that he continued to write in seclusion, and that in death the works would be published -- fueled in part by statements from both Maynard and his daughter that he continued to write but didn't publish. There was no immediate indication whether that is the case.
Salinger's literary representative, Harold Ober Associates, issued a statement confirming the death and said the author had suffered a broken hip last May but otherwise had been in good health "until a rather sudden decline after the new year. He was not in any pain before or at the time of his death."