JD Salinger, counter-culture creator of the immortal anti-hero, dies at 91

JD SALINGER, author of the classic American novel The Catcher in the Rye, has died at the age of 91, his son said yesterday.

In a statement from the author's literary representative, his son said Salinger died of natural causes at his home. He had lived for decades in self-imposed isolation in a small remote house in Cornish, New Hampshire.

The Catcher in the Rye with its immortal teenage protagonist – the twisted, rebellious Holden Caulfield – was published in 1951 during the time of anxious Cold-War conformity. Salinger, whose mother was Scots-Irish, wrote for adults, but teenagers all over the world identified with the novel's themes of alienation, innocence and fantasy.

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The title of the novel is believed to have been inspired by the Robert Burns song Coming Through the Rye and the book has been part of the Scottish education curriculum for many years.

The novel was described by critics as a work that would be read for probably the rest of time. It has sold more than 65 million copies and its impact has been described as "incalculable".

In later years, Salinger, a reluctant celebrity, became most noted for refusing interviews. Neighbours in Cornish rarely saw him and he never returned phone calls or answered letters from readers or admirers.

In 1961, Time magazine published an article headlined "The Search for the Mysterious JD Salinger". The writer, whom the magazine dubbed "the recluse in the rye", gave what was probably his longest interview to a school newspaper near his home.

Salinger was born on New Year's Day in 1919 in New York to Sol Salinger, a Jewish cheese importer, and Marie Jillich. He attended three colleges, but never graduated.

He began writing magazine stories in 1940, before joining the US army during the Second World War and seeing combat as part of the D-Day invasion and the Battle of the Bulge.

The Book-of-the-Month Club, which made Catcher a featured selection, advised that for "anyone who has ever brought up a son" the novel will be "a source of wonder and delight – and concern".

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Enraged by all the "phonies" who make "me so depressed I go crazy", Holden became American literature's most famous anti-hero since Huckleberry Finn.

Salinger published only a few books and collections of short stories, including Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour – An Introduction. He last published work in 1965.

Last night, tributes poured in. Ion Trewin, the author and literary director of the Booker Prizes, said: "It's interesting how one book can become an institution. It has meant so much to several generations, particularly young people growing up.

"I can't think of any book that does it in the same way … with that one book he will go on being read for probably the rest of time."

Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, who read the book as a teenager, said: "The Catcher in the Rye made a very powerful and surprising impression on me."

The cult of Catcher turned tragic in 1980 when crazed Beatles fan Mark David Chapman shot and killed John Lennon, citing Salinger's novel as an inspiration and stating that "this extraordinary book holds many answers".

Last year, Salinger took action to block the publication of a book by a Swedish writer – 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye – that was billed as a follow-up.

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He ad taken legal steps to protect his copyright on previous occasions, but never appeared in court.

Cynical voice of teenage rebellion

"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, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

That's how we meet Holden Caulfield, in the first sentence of The Catcher in the Rye. Back in 1951, this was a new voice in American literature, halfway between a sulk and a snarl, a voice that echoes down across the decades in such fictional characters as DBC Pierre's 2003 Man Booker-winning novel, Vernon God Little.

If John Osborne gave Britain its Angry Young Man, Salinger gave the world the Angry Young Teenager. In Cold War America, this was the voice that raged against the "phoney" (a key Caulfield word) certainties of the adult world. As the decade wore on, and teenagerdom spread into films and music, that cynical voice of a teenage truant became emblematic of it.

America was rather frightened by Holden Caulfield. At least the schools were, and for a two decades The Catcher In The Rye was the most censored book in US schools.

To our age, it might seem as though there was actually something "phoney" about Holden's rebellion. He was, after all, a child of privilege: that school he was bunking off from to hang around drunks and prostitutes in New York was an elite boarding school.

But that didn't matter. Salinger's anti-hero and his curled lip, his alienation, had already become a cult success.

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Although The Catcher in the Rye remains influential, today's critics are kinder to the short stories in Salinger's 1953 book Nine Stories and two collections of stories about the fictional Glass Family, Franny and Zooey (1961) and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (1963).

One line from Franny and Zooey perhaps sums up Salinger's life work – and even his status as the Great Recluse: "An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's."

David Robinson