J.D. Salinger was 91 when he died in his New Hampshire home on January 27, 45 years after he published his last known story, "Hapworth 16, 1924," in the New Yorker. He was often called the Greta Garbo of the writing world (she, too, retired from the public eye with roughly half of her life before her), and like Garbo's, his achievements have often seemed to be eclipsed by the mystique of his reclusiveness. He published only four slim volumes, two in the early '50s, two in the early '60s: one novel, nine short stories, and two collections containing a pair each of longer stories. (He didn't reprint "Hapworth 16, 1924" in book form.)
But he was a magical writer whose characters — though some of them bore superficial resemblance to Fitzgerald's, O'Hara's, and Updike's — had a spiritual and emotional restlessness and spoke in a brittle, reflective prose all their own. The most famous, of course, is Holden Caulfield, the teen hero of Salinger's first book, The Catcher in the Rye (1951), which is still popular. My college friends and I theorized that the interior life of every American adolescent approximated either Holden's or that of Frankie Addams in Carson McCullers's The Member of the Wedding. Frankie is the artist as a young woman, her loneliness driving her to seek connection with everyone in the wide world. Holden is the teenager as misanthrope, distrustful of almost everyone, ever on the lookout for phonies. If you encounter him for the first time at 15 or 16, chances are you won't question his point of view, though it's clear that Salinger does, whatever his empathy for his wayward protagonist.
Most of Salinger's other memorable characters were spun out of a single extended act of sympathetic imagination, the creation of the Glass family, seven siblings in a half-Irish, half-Jewish Manhattan family (like Salinger's own) who, as gifted children, all appeared on a popular radio program called It's a Wise Child. By the time we meet them, they're (mostly) damaged adults; only Boo Boo, a sensitive mother trying to determine the cause of her little boy's distress in Nine Stories' "Down at the Dinghy," has managed to graduate past It's a Wise Child into a relatively unfraught adulthood.
The most deeply unmoored of the Glass clan, Seymour, shoots himself while on vacation with his wife in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." But this turns out to be only the beginning of Salinger's fascination with him — both halves of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, suggest how he wound up dead in that Florida hotel room, and he's the subject of "Hapworth 16, 1924," as well. Franny, too, the youngest Glass prodigy, appears in Franny and Zooey to be unsettlingly fragile, though Salinger graciously ends her story on a hopeful note.
The Glass kids are all drawn to religion, though generally not in any conventional way: they become obsessed with Chinese sages or, like Franny, with the prayer of a mediæval pilgrim. (Only Walt, whom we never see, enters the priesthood.) Their collective story, however, is really about the quest for happiness. Seymour marries a woman of no special sensitivities or intellectual talents because he falls in love with her normality, which he believes will make him happy. His despair when she can't give him what he needs — presented by Salinger in reverse chronology — is one of the saddest stories any American writer has ever set down.
Steve Vineberg teaches theater at Holy Cross. He can be reached email@example.com.