By any reckoning of sales, critical respect, or cultural influence, J.D. Salinger is one of the most important contemporary authors of fiction, and has been since his prime from the late '40s through the early '60s. Yet because of his career arc and personal preferences, his association with movies lies principally in their references to him, rather than with actual adaptations of his work. He has only ever permitted a single one of his stories to be turned into a movie, which resulted in an insignificant, critically reviled (and ever more obscure) modest box-office success, My Foolish Heart (1949). But within the scripts of such major films as Igby Goes Down and The Good Girl (both 2002), characters emulate the behavior of Salinger's most famous literary creation, the youthful rebel Holden Caufield, and, in the latter movie, the character and the book The Catcher in the Rye are actually cited by name, and done so with the same expectation of audience understanding as if they were referring to creations of William Shakespeare. But even long before such references, Salinger had already become one of the most enigmatic modern literary figures ever to achieve any impact on the screen.
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Jerome David Salinger was born in 1919 in New York City, the son of a Jewish food-importer father and a Scotch-Irish mother. He grew up in a well-off, distinctly upper-middle-class environment in Manhattan, but had a strained relationship with his parents, especially his father. He passed through a variety of schools during his youth, including Valley Forge Military Academy, without distinction. Even as a boy, he was thought to have a fairly aloof personality, except when he was cutting up with sarcasm and jokes. He spent the late '30s studying in Europe and turned to writing while taking a short story course at Columbia University in 1939. Salinger began selling his stories in 1940 to magazines such as the The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, and, most notably, The New Yorker, the publication in which he published the most celebrated of his short works. During World War II, he served in the army and saw combat in the months following the Allied invasion of Normandy, later working in counter-intelligence from 1944 until 1946. He resumed writing as soon as he returned to civilian life, and it was during this period that he created the fictitious Glass family, whose strangely dysfunctional nature -- embodied by the depressed war veteran Seymour Glass, who commits suicide in the first of the stories, A Perfect Day for Bananafish (1948) -- would figure in his most important short fiction for the next 15 years.
By the late '40s, Salinger had come to the attention of Hollywood, and, at the urging of screenwriters Julius Epstein and Philip Epstein, producer Samuel Goldwyn bought the film rights to one of his stories, Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut. Goldwyn enjoyed one of the best reputations in the industry for his treatment of underlying works; he had produced respected adaptations of plays such as Street Scene, Dodsworth, The Children's Hour, and Dead End, as well as numerous novels and short stories, and, unlike most Hollywood producers, had not displeased their original authors. With Salinger's story, however, the producer's creative organization and professional instincts failed him. The movie's script awkwardly fleshed out the original story into a weepy, melodramatic soap opera starring Susan Hayward and Dana Andrews. And though the resulting film, My Foolish Heart, was a modest box-office success helped by a lush Victor Young score, it was such a critical disaster and so appalled Salinger that he never again allowed any of his works to be adapted to the screen.
With the publication of The Catcher in the Rye in 1951, Salinger became one of the most important writers of the 20th century and a fixture on the bookshelves of high school libraries and student reading lists for generations to come. The book's rebellious student protagonist, Holden Caufield, would also become one of the most familiar literary creations of the century, rivaling such figures as Margaret Mitchell's Scarlett O'Hara and Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar. Salinger, himself, remained a cipher to his ever-widening public, although, for all of his anonymity as a person, he also took a surprisingly direct interest in the details of the way his work was presented. For example, he was so displeased with the cover art of the early paperback edition of the novel, that, in subsequent printings from new publisher Bantam Books, he insisted on what would later be called minimalist graphics: nothing more than the title on a flat reddish background that wasn't changed for decades. (It was referred to jokingly in a script for the '90s sitcom The Single Guy -- hooked around Salinger's celebrated reclusiveness -- as "the maroon book.")
By the 1960s, amid the growing independence of teenagers and their search for meaning in their lives, Salinger's story of 16-year-old Holden Caufield and his Christmas season jaunt in 1940s Manhattan seemed even more relevant than it had been in 1951. Sales grew rapidly as teenagers began reading the novel not only to satisfy class requirements (the book proved ideal for teachers seeking to connect their students with literature), but also as a source of answers, guidance, and inspiration in their own lives. Amid the war in Vietnam and a burgeoning counter-culture, even adults who found themselves perplexed by the younger generation began referring to the novel in new and immediate terms. This made Salinger a vastly popular and influential literary presence in a decade in which he published very little new work. Indeed, his output had slowed down considerably by the '60s, and he became known principally through his works of the 1940s and '50s, particularly The Catcher in the Rye and the anthologies that had been assembled of his shorter works, such as Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey. The man, himself, however, was (and remained) a mystery, which, apparently, is how he had always wanted it. Even when his stories began appearing in print in the early '40s, Salinger did not allow his editors to include any information about him, ostensibly because he didn't want any personal details to distract the reader from the writing. By all accounts, the author's desire for privacy only increased in the decades to follow. Salinger pursued several legal avenues to preserve it, and specifically tried to prevent the publication of letters that he had written to others. The demand for his work was such that, in 1974, an enterprising pirate had published two volumes of The Uncollected Short Stories of J.D. Salinger, made up of several short works (principally from the early '40s) that the author had chosen not to include in his official anthologies. Both volumes were quickly suppressed by legal action, but, as late as 1988, they could still be found (albeit with difficulty) on the collector's market, costing several hundred dollars each and handled under the strictest security.
Although Salinger refused to permit any further adaptations of his stories, he did begin figuring as an influence on a number of filmmakers, including Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums ) and as a reference point in dramas such as The Good Girl and Igby Goes Down. Despite his continued reclusiveness and the fact that he hadn't published anything new since the early '60s, Salinger remained an important, widely read, and highly influential author into the 21st century. He died at age 91 in January 2010. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi