Still Paging Mr. Salinger





On Thursday, J. D. Salinger turns 90. There probably won’t be a party, or if there is we’ll never know. For more than 50 years Mr. Salinger has lived in seclusion in the small town of Cornish, N.H. For a while it used to be a journalistic sport for newspapers and magazines to send reporters up to Cornish in hopes of a sighting, or at least a quotation from a garrulous local, but Mr. Salinger hasn’t been photographed in decades now and the neighbors have all clammed up. He’s been so secretive he makes Thomas Pynchon seem like a gadabout.

Mr. Salinger’s disappearing act has succeeded so well, in fact, that it may be hard for readers who aren’t middle-aged to appreciate what a sensation he once caused. With its very first sentence, his novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” which came out in 1951, introduced a brand-new voice in American writing, and it quickly became a cult book, a rite of passage for the brainy and disaffected. “Nine Stories,” published two years later, made Mr. Salinger a darling of the critics as well, for the way it dismantled the traditional architecture of the short story and replaced it with one in which a story could turn on a tiny shift of mood or tone.

In the 1960s, though, when he was at the peak of his fame, Mr. Salinger went silent. “Franny and Zooey,” a collection of two long stories about the fictional Glass family, came out in 1961; two more long stories about the Glasses, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour: An Introduction,” appeared together in book form in 1963. The last work of Mr. Salinger’s to appear in print was “Hapworth 16, 1924,” a short story that took up most of the June 19, 1965, issue of The New Yorker. In the ’70s he stopped giving interviews, and in the late ’80s he went all the way to the Supreme Court to block the British critic Ian Hamilton from quoting his letters in a biography....


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