Franny and Zooey | Study Guide

J. D. Salinger

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J. D. Salinger | Biography


Early Life and Education

J. D. (Jerome David) Salinger grew up in New York City, where he was born on January 1, 1919. He had one older sister, Doris (1912–2001). Salinger's father, Sol, was a Jewish rabbi's son and the owner of a cheese and meat import business. Though Salinger's mother was not Jewish, she changed her given name, Marie, to Miriam to give the impression of being Jewish.

Salinger's family moved several times, eventually landing in an apartment on Park Avenue in New York City in 1932. He attended the private McBurney School in his high school years. His grades were so bad that the school asked him not to return after the 1934 school year.

Salinger's parents next sent him to the Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania, where he finished his last two years of high school. There, he participated in many extracurricular activities, including several school plays. He was also the literary editor of the yearbook during his senior year.

Somewhat reluctantly, Salinger enrolled at New York University, where once again his work was undistinguished; he dropped out in the spring of his freshman year. Then, following his father's suggestion, he spent five months in Vienna learning about the meatpacking business. The training didn't suit him, however, and when he came home, Salinger enrolled at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. Once again he left without his degree. Returning to New York City, he began taking classes at Columbia University in 1939.

Writing Life

It was at Columbia that Salinger's professional writing career took root. His creative writing professor, Whit Burnett (1899–1973), was also the editor of the popular Story magazine. Burnett published Salinger's first short story—"The Young Folks"—in the March/April 1940 issue. Then 21, Salinger decided to become a professional writer.

Salinger wrote several other short stories in 1940, but he struggled to sell them. In October of 1941, The New Yorker finally bought his story "Slight Rebellion Off Madison." It was about a preparatory school student named Holden Caulfield, the protagonist who would reappear in The Catcher in the Rye (1951).

Two months later, on December 7, the United States entered World War II (1939–45). Salinger was drafted into the military in April 1942. In April 1945 his unit helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp—a traumatic experience for Salinger and many other soldiers. Salinger suffered a depressive breakdown and checked into a Nuremberg hospital in July. At some point during his recovery, he met a German woman named Sylvia Welter. They married after a short time and separated eight months later.

In the late 1940s Salinger started studying Zen Buddhism. At about the same time, he began to find living around other people intolerable. In 1947 he rented a small house in Stamford, Connecticut, and wrote in a letter that he was finding "all the quiet in the world." In January 1948 The New Yorker published Salinger's short story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." This event could be said to mark the beginning of Salinger's real writing career and longtime association with The New Yorker. It was also the first time he wrote about a character from the Glass family, of which Franny and Zooey are members. He followed "Bananafish" with "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut," in which a character called Walter Glass is tangentially featured, and "Just Before the War with the Eskimos," both in 1948.

In 1950 Salinger took a break from short story writing and began to work in earnest on the novel that would become The Catcher in the Rye. When The Catcher in the Rye was published in July 1951, despite the difficulty Salinger had faced in finding a publisher, it received extremely positive reviews. Two months later, it had already been reprinted four or five times and was on the New York Times Best-Seller list. At around this time, the 32-year-old Salinger began dating 19-year-old Claire Douglas (b. 1933), a student at Radcliffe College.

Franny and Zooey and Beyond

Salinger worked on the story "Franny" for most of 1954, and it was published in The New Yorker on January 29, 1955. When he and Claire Douglas were married about three weeks later, he gave her an inscribed copy—appropriately, since Claire had been the inspiration for much of Franny's character.

When Salinger submitted the first draft of "Zooey" in April 1956, it was unanimously rejected by The New Yorker editorial staff as being too long and too religious. Luckily for Salinger, The New Yorker editor in chief, William Shawn (1907–92), loved the story. Over the objections of the editorial board, Shawn announced that "Zooey" would be published and that he would edit it himself. "Zooey" was published in May 1957. Many critics were lukewarm, but the magazine's subscribers liked the story.

In the second half of the 1950s, Salinger became troubled by the attention his writing was bringing and began to refuse interviews. As rumors grew that a new Salinger book was in the works, Newsweek magazine decided to run a story on the reclusive author. Salinger, his wife, and their two children, Margaret Ann (Peggy) and young Matthew, refused to have any contact with the Newsweek reporter. "Salinger simply does not want to be written about," said William Shawn.

In January 1961, Salinger's publisher, Little, Brown and Company, began advertising Franny and Zooey, the next book Salinger had decided to publish. For years, the reading public had imagined that Salinger was writing a new novel about the Glass family. When Franny and Zooey appeared instead, book reviewers were dismissive. Salinger's New Yorker colleague John Updike (1932–2009) wrote, "'Zooey' is just too long; there are too many cigarettes, too many goddams, too much verbal ado about not quite enough." Salinger's fans either didn't care or didn't agree. Within two weeks of publication, the book had sold over 125,000 copies and was number one on the New York Times Best-Seller list.

When Franny and Zooey was published in hardcover, Salinger wrote a signed message to readers on the jacket's back flap—an unusual step for an author. He indicated that "some new material" was coming to The New Yorker soon and that he was working on other "unscheduled" projects.

The day after Franny and Zooey appeared in stores, Time's cover story on Salinger appeared on newsstands. Consequently, by the early 1960s the author had cut out of his life any friends who had spoken to Time reporters, and since he was refusing to leave Cornish, his wife and children began taking vacations without him.

Salinger's final book was published in 1963. Like Franny and Zooey, the book contained no new material. It was a reprint of two previous short stories, "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" (1955) and "Seymour: An Introduction" (1959). Again Salinger wrote jacket copy for the back flap. Again he implied that more Glass stories were on the way

Salinger's short story "Hapworth 16, 1924," which purported to be a letter home written by seven-year-old Seymour Glass, was published in The New Yorker in June 1965. This time, few critics even bothered to review the latest Glass installment. Salinger never submitted anything for publication again.

Family, Death, and Legacy

In the summer of 1966, the Salingers announced plans to divorce. When the divorce was final, Claire and the children kept the Cornish house. Salinger, who became increasingly reclusive, built a new house across the street so he could maintain contact with his daughter and son.

Around 1970 Salinger returned a $75,000 book advance to Little, Brown—a definite sign that the public was unlikely to see more of his writing. Around 1988 Salinger married a local woman, a nurse named Colleen O'Neill (b. c. 1958). She was some 40 years younger than he, but the marriage was a success. The couple lived together until Salinger's death on January 27, 2010.

Salinger's legacy, however, lives on. Over 65 million copies of The Catcher in the Rye have been sold since it was first published. Like The Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey is widely read in high school and college classes. Salinger's writing speaks especially to student readers, as his young protagonists tend to focus on a search for identity. However, the richness, realism, and humor of his prose—his dialogue especially—are ageless.

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