J.D. Salinger

American novelist and short-story writer J.D. Salinger. The new documentary "Salinger" looks into the life of the mysterious author. (Evening Standard / Getty Images / July 16, 1951)

After "The Catcher in the Rye" exploded onto the literary scene in 1951, author J.D. Salinger had what every writer yearns for -- money, fame and critical acclaim. "Catcher" became a touchstone for the teenage culture just emerging in post-World War II America, and has remained one for every generation of youths since.

But instead of basking in celebrity, Salinger walked away and slammed the door.After one brilliant novel, a novella and a couple of dozen short stories, he turned his back on the cult hunger for his writing and after 1965 refused to publish further. He guarded his privacy so fiercely that he sued to keep his words out of print.

Whether a cover-up for writer's block or the ultimate expression of the alienation that defined his most famous protagonist, Holden Caulfield, Salinger's stubborn silence only enlarged the cult. He remained an enigma to his death.

Salinger, 91, died of natural causes Wednesday at his home in Cornish, N.H., according to a statement from his longtime literary agency, Harold Ober Associates, which made the announcement on behalf of Salinger's family.

"Despite having broken his hip in May, his health had been excellent until a rather sudden decline after the new year," the statement said.

Citing the author's "lifelong, uncompromising desire to protect and defend his privacy," the statement said there would be no service and requested "that people's respect for him, his work and his privacy be extended" to his family.

Asked if any new Salinger writing will be published, his agent, Phyllis Westberg, declined to comment.

Perhaps no other writer of so few known works generated as much popular and critical interest as Salinger, whose oeuvre includes "Franny and Zooey" (1961) and the collections "Nine Stories" (1953) and "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction" (1963). The New Yorker published his last short story -- "Hapworth 16, 1924" -- in 1965.

His silence provoked a range of reactions from literary critics, some characterizing it as a form of cowardice and others as a cunning strategy that, despite its outward intentions, helped preserve his mythical status in American culture. Still others interpreted his withdrawal as the deliberate spiritual stance of a man immersed in Eastern religions, particularly Zen Buddhism and Hindu Vedantic philosophy.

Seeking meaning

Salinger's stories -- heavily autobiographical, humorous and cynical -- focused on highly idiosyncratic urban characters seeking meaning in a world transformed by the horrors of World War II, in which Salinger was a direct participant.

Caulfield, his stellar fictional creation from "Catcher in the Rye," was, like the author, unsuccessful in school and inclined to retreat from a world he perceived as hostile to his needs.

A prototypical misfit, Caulfield became a fixation for the criminally disturbed, including Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon, and John Hinckley Jr., who shot President Reagan. But Caulfield's compassion for children and other underdogs resonated with the generation that came of age in the 1960s.

Renowned psychiatrist Robert Coles said that when he lived in the South in the late 1950s and early '60s, "scarcely a day went by that Salinger's name wasn't mentioned" by the young civil rights workers. Tom Hayden, the former '60s radical and California legislator who read "Catcher" as a teenager, called Caulfield one of several "alternative cultural models," along with novelist Jack Kerouac and actor James Dean, whose life crises "spawned not only political activism, but also the cultural revolution of rock 'n' roll."

"Catcher" began to appear on college reading lists in the '60s along with Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" and Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five," but critic John Seelye, among other analysts, would later conclude that in "acting as a transcendental Special Prosecutor of Adult Values and making straight the way for the protest movements of the '60s," Salinger led the way. In the ensuing decades "Catcher" became one of the most-taught and most-banned books in the country.

Salinger also created the neurotic Glass family, which first appeared in stories published in the 1940s and '50s. Among the best-known are two long pieces published in the New Yorker in the 1950s and later combined into the book "Franny and Zooey."

An unauthorized collection, "The Complete Uncollected Short Stories of J.D. Salinger," was mysteriously published in 1974 and went out of print after some 25,000 copies were sold. It contained 21 pieces from the 1940s that Salinger never wanted reprinted. The bootlegged edition so outraged the author that he broke two decades of silence when he sued to stop its sale.

In a rare interview, Salinger not only condemned the pirating but also tried to explain his extraordinary reluctance to share his writing with readers.

"There is a marvelous peace in not publishing," he told the New York Times in 1974. "It's peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure."