Illustration of J. D. Salinger on front cover of Time magazine, Volume 78 Issue 11.
|Born||Jerome David Salinger
January 1 1919
Manhattan, New York
|Died||January 27 2010 (aged 91)
Cornish, New Hampshire
|Notable work(s)||The Catcher in the Rye (1951)|
|Influences||Sherwood Anderson, Anton Chekhov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gustave Flaubert, Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, Ring Lardner, Leo Tolstoy|
|Influenced||Wes Anderson, Stephen Chbosky, Carl Hiaasen, Haruki Murakami, Tom Robbins, Philip Roth, Louis Sachar, John Updike, Richard Yates|
Jerome David Salinger (January 1, 1919 - January 27, 2010) (pronounced /ˈsælɨndʒɚ/) was an American author, best known for his 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, as well as for his reclusive nature. He published his final original work in 1965 and gave his last interview in 1980.
Raised in Manhattan, New York, Salinger began writing short stories while in secondary school, and published several stories in the early 1940s before serving in World War II. In 1948 he published the critically acclaimed story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" in The New Yorker magazine, which became home to much of his subsequent work. In 1951 Salinger published his first novel, The Catcher in the Rye, an immediate popular success. His depiction of adolescent alienation and loss of innocence in the protagonist Holden Caulfield was influential, especially among adolescent readers. The novel remains widely read, selling about 250,000 copies a year.
The success of The Catcher in the Rye led to public attention and scrutiny; Salinger became reclusive, publishing new work less frequently. He followed Catcher with three collections of short stories: Nine Stories (1953), Franny and Zooey (1961), and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963). His last published work, a novella entitled "Hapworth 16, 1924," appeared in The New Yorker in 1965.
Salinger was a noted spiritual searcher, who tried numerous different religious traditions. His life as well as his fiction was very much in sync with his era.
Jerome David Salinger was born in Manhattan, New York, on New Year's Day, 1919. His mother, Marie Jillich, was half-Scottish and half-Irish. His father, Sol Salinger, was a Jewish man of Polish origin who sold kosher cheese. When they married, Salinger's mother changed her name to Miriam and passed for Jewish. Salinger did not find out that his mother was not Jewish until just after his bar mitzvah. He had only one sibling: his sister Doris, who was born in 1911.
The young Salinger attended public schools on the West Side of Manhattan, then moved to the private McBurney School for ninth and tenth grades. He acted in several plays and "showed an innate talent for drama," though his father was opposed to the idea of J.D.'s becoming an actor. He was happy to get away from his over-protective mother by entering the Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Though he had written for the school newspaper at McBurney, at Valley Forge Salinger began writing stories "under the covers [at night], with the aid of a flashlight." He started his freshman year at New York University in 1936, and considered studying special education, but dropped out the following spring. That fall, his father urged him to learn about the meat-importing business and he was sent to work at a company in Vienna, Austria.
He left Austria only a month or so before it was annexed by Nazi Germany, on March 12, 1938. He attended Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, for only one semester. In 1939, Salinger attended a Columbia University evening writing class taught by Whit Burnett, longtime editor of Story magazine. According to Burnett, Salinger did not distinguish himself until a few weeks before the end of the second semester, at which point "he suddenly came to life" and completed three stories. Burnett told Salinger that his stories were skillful and accomplished, and accepted "The Young Folks," a vignette about several aimless youths, for publication in Story. Salinger's debut short story was published in the magazine's March-April 1940 issue. Burnett became Salinger's mentor, and they corresponded for several years.
In 1941, Salinger started dating Oona O'Neill, daughter of the playwright Eugene O'Neill. Despite finding the debutante self-absorbed (he confided to a friend that "Little Oona's hopelessly in love with little Oona"), he called her often and wrote her long letters. Their relationship ended when Oona began seeing Charlie Chaplin, whom she eventually married in June 1943 despite a 36-year age difference (Chaplin was 54 and O'Neill was 18.) In late 1941, Salinger briefly worked on a Caribbean cruise ship, serving as an activity director and possibly as a performer.
In the spring of 1942, several months after the United States entered World War II, Salinger was drafted into the Army, where he saw combat with the U.S. 12th Infantry Regiment in some of the fiercest fighting of the war. He was active at Utah Beach on D-Day and in the Battle of the Bulge.
During the campaign from Normandy into Germany, Salinger arranged to meet with Ernest Hemingway, a writer who had influenced him and was working as a war correspondent in Paris. Salinger was impressed with Hemingway's friendliness and modesty, finding him more "soft" than his gruff public persona. Hemingway was impressed by Salinger's writing, and remarked: "Jesus, he has a helluva talent." The two writers began corresponding; Salinger wrote Hemingway in July 1946 that their talks were among his few positive memories of the war. Salinger added that he was working on a play about Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of his story "Slight Rebellion off Madison," and hoped to play the part himself.
Salinger was assigned to a counter-intelligence division, where he used his proficiency in French and German to interrogate prisoners of war. He was also among the first soldiers to enter a liberated concentration camp. Salinger's experiences in the war affected him emotionally. He was hospitalized for a few weeks for combat stress reaction after Germany was defeated, and he later told his daughter: "You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live." Both of his biographers speculate that Salinger drew upon his wartime experiences in several stories, such as "For Esmé with Love and Squalor," which is narrated by a traumatized soldier.
After Germany's defeat, Salinger signed up for six months of "de-Nazification" duty in Germany. He met a French woman named Sylvia, and they married in 1945. They lived in Germany, but their marriage fell apart for unknown reasons, and Sylvia left for France. In 1972, his daughter Margaret was with her father when he received a letter from Sylvia. He looked at the envelope, and without reading it, tore it apart. It was the first time he had heard from her since the breakup, but as Margaret put it, "when he was finished with a person, he was through with them."
In June 1955, at the age of 36, Salinger married Claire Douglas, a Radcliffe student. They had two children, Margaret (b. December 10, 1955) and Matt (b. February 13, 1960). Margaret Salinger wrote in her memoir, Dream Catcher, that she believes her parents would not have married—nor would she have been born—had her father not read the teachings of a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda, which held out the possibility of enlightenment to those following the path of the "householder" (a married person with children). After their marriage, they were initiated into the path of Kriya yoga in a small store-front Hindu temple in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 1955. They received a mantra and breathing exercises to practice for ten minutes twice a day.
Salinger also insisted that Claire drop out of school and live with him, only four months shy of graduation, which she did. Certain elements of the story "Franny," published in January, 1955, are based on his relationship with Claire, including the fact that Claire owned the book The Way of the Pilgrim. Because of their isolated location and Salinger's proclivities, they hardly saw other people for long stretches of time. Claire was also frustrated by Salinger's ever-changing religious beliefs. Though she committed herself to Kriya yoga, she remembered that Salinger would chronically leave Cornish to work on a story "for several weeks only to return with the piece he was supposed to be finishing all undone or destroyed and some new 'ism' we had to follow." Claire believed "it was to cover the fact that Jerry had just destroyed or junked or couldn't face the quality of, or couldn't face publishing, what he had created."
Salinger's family life was further marked by discord after the first child was born; according to Margaret, Claire felt that her daughter had replaced her in Salinger's affections. The infant Margaret was sick much of the time, but Salinger, having embraced the tenets of Christian Science, refused to take her to a doctor. According to Margaret, her mother admitted to her years later that she went "over the edge" in the winter of 1957 and had made plans to murder her 13-month-old infant and then commit suicide. Claire had intended to do it during a trip to New York City with Salinger, but she instead acted on a sudden impulse to take Margaret from the hotel and run away. After a few months, Salinger persuaded her to return to Cornish.
In the 1960s, Salinger had isolated Claire from friends and relatives and made her—in the words of Margaret Salinger—"a virtual prisoner." Claire separated from him in September 1966; their divorce was finalized on October 3, 1967.
In 1972, at the age of 53, Salinger had a year-long relationship with 18-year-old Joyce Maynard, already an experienced writer for Seventeen magazine. The New York Times had asked Maynard to write an article, which, when published as "An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back On Life" on April 23, 1972, made her a celebrity. Salinger wrote a letter to her warning about living with fame. After exchanging 25 letters, Maynard moved in with Salinger the summer after her freshman year at Yale University. Maynard did not return to Yale that fall, and spent ten months as a guest in Salinger's Cornish home. The relationship ended, he told his daughter Margaret at a family outing, because Maynard wanted children, and he felt he was too old.
Salinger continued to write in a disciplined fashion, a few hours every morning; according to Maynard, by 1972 he had completed two new novels. In a rare 1974 interview with The New York Times, he explained: "There is a marvelous peace in not publishing.… I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure." According to Maynard, he saw publication as "a damned interruption."
Salinger was romantically involved with television actress Elaine Joyce for quite a few years in the 1980s. The relationship ended when he met Colleen O'Neill (b. June 11, 1959), a nurse and quiltmaker, whom he married around 1988.
By the late 1940s, Salinger had become an avid follower of Zen Buddhism, to the point that he "gave reading lists on the subject to his dates" and arranged a meeting with Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki.
After several years of practicing Zen Buddhism, in 1952, while reading the gospels of Hindu religious teacher Sri Ramakrishna, Salinger wrote friends of a momentous change in his life. He became an adherent of Ramakrishna's Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, which advocated celibacy for those seeking enlightenment, and detachment from human responsibilities such as family. Salinger also studied the writings of Ramakrishna's disciple Vivekananda; in the story "Hapworth 16, 1924," the character of Seymour Glass describes him as "one of the most exciting, original and best-equipped giants of this century."
After abandoning Kriya yoga, Salinger tried Dianetics (the forerunner of Scientology), even meeting its founder L. Ron Hubbard, according to Claire. This was followed by adherence to a number of spiritual, medical, and nutritional belief systems including Christian Science, homeopathy, acupuncture, macrobiotics, the teachings of Edgar Cayce, fasting, vomiting to remove impurities, megadoses of Vitamin C, urine therapy, "speaking in tongues" (or Charismatic glossolalia), and sitting in a Reichian "orgone box" to accumulate "orgone energy."
Salinger died of natural causes at his home in New Hampshire on January 27, 2010. He was 91.
Salinger wrote while serving in World War II, publishing several stories in slick magazines such as Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post. He began submitting short stories to The New Yorker in the 1941. A selective magazine, it rejected seven of Salinger's stories that year, including "Lunch for Three," "Monologue for a Watery Highball," and "I Went to School with Adolf Hitler." In December 1941, however, it accepted "Slight Rebellion off Madison," a Manhattan-set story about a disaffected teenager named Holden Caulfield with "pre-war jitters." When Japan carried out the attack on Pearl Harbor that month, the story was rendered "unpublishable"; it did not appear in the magazine until 1946. He continued to submit stories to The New Yorker, but with little success; it rejected all of his submissions from 1944 to 1946, and in 1945 rejected a group of 15 poems.
In 1946, Whit Burnett agreed to help Salinger publish a collection of his short stories through Lippincott's Story Press imprint. Titled The Young Folks, the collection was to consist of 20 stories–ten, like the title story and "Slight Rebellion off Madison," were already in print; ten were previously unpublished. Though Burnett implied the book would be published and even negotiated Salinger a $1,000 advance on its sale, Lippincott overruled Burnett and rejected the book. Salinger blamed Burnett for the book's failure to see print, and the two became estranged.
In 1948, he submitted a short story titled "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" to The New Yorker. The magazine was so impressed with "the singular quality of the story" that its editors accepted it for publication immediately, and signed Salinger to a contract that allowed them right of first refusal on any future stories. The critical acclaim accorded "Bananafish," coupled with problems Salinger had with stories being altered by the "slicks," led him to publish almost exclusively in The New Yorker. "Bananafish" was also the first of Salinger's published stories to feature the Glasses, a fictional family consisting of two retired vaudeville performers and their seven precocious children: Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, Walt, Waker, Zooey, and Franny. Salinger eventually published seven stories about the Glasses, developing a detailed family history and focusing particularly on Seymour, the troubled eldest child.
In the early 1940s, Salinger had confided in a letter to Whit Burnett that he was eager to sell the film rights to some of his stories in order to achieve financial security. According to Ian Hamilton, Salinger was disappointed when "rumblings from Hollywood" over his 1943 short story "The Varioni Brothers" came to nothing. Therefore he immediately agreed when, in mid-1948, independent film producer Samuel Goldwyn offered to buy the film rights to his short story "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut." Though Salinger sold his story with the hope—in the words of his agent Dorothy Olding—that it "would make a good movie," the film version of "Wiggly" was lambasted by critics upon its release in 1949. Renamed My Foolish Heart and starring Dana Andrews and Susan Hayward, the melodramatic film departed to such an extent from Salinger's story that Goldwyn biographer A. Scott Berg referred to it as a “bastardization.” As a result of this experience, Salinger never again permitted film adaptations to be made from his work.
In the 1940s, Salinger confided to several people that he was working on a novel featuring Holden Caulfield, the teenage protagonist of his short story "Slight Rebellion off Madison." The Catcher in the Rye was published on July 16, 1951. The novel's plot is simple, detailing 16-year-old Holden's experiences in New York City following his expulsion from an elite prep school. The book is more notable for the iconic persona and testimonial voice of its first-person narrator, Holden. He serves as an insightful but unreliable narrator who expounds on the importance of loyalty, the "phoniness" of adulthood, and his own duplicity. In a 1953 interview with a high-school newspaper, Salinger admitted that the novel was "sort of" autobiographical, explaining that "My boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book.… It was a great relief telling people about it."
Initial reactions were mixed, ranging from The New York Times's praise of Catcher as "an unusually brilliant first novel" to denigrations of the book's monotonous language and the "immorality and perversion" of Holden, who uses religious slurs and casually discusses premarital sex and prostitution. The novel was a popular success; within months of its publication, The Catcher in the Rye had been reprinted eight times, and it went on to spend 30 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list.
The book's initial success was followed by a brief lull in popularity, but by the late 1950s, according to Ian Hamilton, it had "become the book all brooding adolescents had to buy, the indispensable manual from which cool styles of disaffectation could be borrowed." Newspapers began publishing articles about the "Catcher Cult," and the novel was banned in several countries—as well as some U.S. schools—because of its subject matter and what Catholic World reviewer Riley Hughes called an "excessive use of amateur swearing and coarse language." One irate parent counted 237 appearances of the word "goddam" in the novel, along with 58 "bastard"s, 31 "Chrissakes," and 6 "fucks."
In the 1970s, several U.S. high school teachers who assigned the book were fired or forced to resign. In 1979 one book-length study of censorship noted that The Catcher in the Rye "had the dubious distinction of being at once the most frequently censored book across the nation and the second-most frequently taught novel in public high schools [after John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men]." The book remains widely read; as of 2004, the novel was selling about 250,000 copies per year, "with total worldwide sales over – probably way over – 10 million."
In the wake of its 1950s success, Salinger received (and rejected) numerous offers to adapt The Catcher in the Rye for the screen, including one from Samuel Goldwyn. Since its publication, there has been sustained interest in the novel among filmmakers, with Billy Wilder, among those seeking to secure the rights. Salinger stated in the 1970s that "Jerry Lewis tried for years to get his hands on the part of Holden." The author has repeatedly refused, though, and in 1999, Joyce Maynard definitively concluded: "The only person who might ever have played Holden Caulfield would have been J. D. Salinger."
In a July 1951 profile in Book of the Month Club News, Salinger's friend and New Yorker editor William Maxwell asked Salinger about his literary influences. Salinger responded: "A writer, when he's asked to discuss his craft, ought to get up and call out in a loud voice just the names of the writers he loves. I love Kafka, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Proust, O'Casey, Rilke, Lorca, Keats, Rimbaud, Burns, E. Brontë, Jane Austen, Henry James, Blake, Coleridge. I won't name any living writers. I don't think it's right." In letters written in the 1940s, Salinger had expressed his admiration of three living, or recently deceased, writers: Sherwood Anderson, Ring Lardner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald; Ian Hamilton wrote that Salinger even saw himself for some time as "Fitzgerald's successor."
In 1953, Salinger published a collection of seven stories from The New Yorker ("Bananafish" among them), as well as two that the magazine had rejected. The collection was published as Nine Stories in the United States, and For Esmé with Love and Squalor in the UK, after one of Salinger's best-known stories. The book received grudgingly positive reviews, and was a financial success–"remarkably so for a volume of short stories," according to Hamilton. Nine Stories spent three months on the New York Times Bestseller list. Already tightening his grip on publicity, though, Salinger refused to allow publishers of the collection to depict his characters in dust jacket illustrations, lest readers form preconceived notions of them.
As the notoriety of The Catcher in the Rye grew, Salinger gradually withdrew from public view. In 1953, he moved from New York to Cornish, New Hampshire. Early in his time at Cornish he was relatively sociable, particularly with students at Windsor High School. Salinger invited them to his house frequently to play records and talk about problems at school. One such student, Shirley Blaney, persuaded Salinger to be interviewed for the high school page of The Daily Eagle, the city paper. However, after Blaney's interview appeared prominently in the newspaper's editorial section, Salinger cut off all contact with the high schoolers without explanation. He was also seen less frequently around town, only seeing one close friend with any regularity, jurist Learned Hand.
Salinger published the collections Franny and Zooey in 1961, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction in 1963. Each book contained two short stories or novellas, previously published in The New Yorker, about members of the Glass family. On the dust jacket of Franny and Zooey, Salinger wrote, in reference to his interest in privacy: "It is my rather subversive opinion that a writer's feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him during his working years."
On September 15, 1961, TIME magazine devoted its cover to Salinger, in an article that profiled his "life of recluse"; TIME reported that the Glass family series "is nowhere near completion…. Salinger intends to write a Glass trilogy." However, Salinger has only published one other story since. His last published work was "Hapworth 16, 1924," an epistolary novella in the form of a long letter from seven-year-old Seymour Glass from summer camp. It took up most of the June 19, 1965 issue of The New Yorker.
In her memoir, Margaret Salinger describes the detailed filing system her father had for his unpublished manuscripts: "A red mark meant, if I die before I finish my work, publish this 'as is,' blue meant publish but edit first, and so on."
Although Salinger tried to escape public exposure as much as possible, he struggled with unwanted attention from both the media and the public. Readers of his work and students from nearby Dartmouth College often came to Cornish in groups, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Upon learning in 1986 that the British writer Ian Hamilton intended to publish In Search of J.D. Salinger: A Writing Life (1935-65), a biography including letters Salinger had written to other authors and friends, Salinger sued to stop the book's publication. The book was finally published in 1988 with the letters' contents paraphrased. The court ruled that Hamilton's extensive use of the letters went beyond the limits of fair use, and that "the author of letters is entitled to a copyright in the letters, as with any other work of literary authorship."
An unintended consequence of the lawsuit was that many details of Salinger's private life, including that he had spent the last 20 years writing, in his words, "Just a work of fiction.… That's all", became public in the form of court transcripts. Excerpts from his letters were also widely disseminated, most notably a bitter remark written in response to Oona O'Neill's marriage to Charlie Chaplin:
I can see them at home evenings. Chaplin squatting grey and nude, atop his chiffonier, swinging his thyroid around his head by his bamboo cane, like a dead rat. Oona in an aquamarine gown, applauding madly from the bathroom.
In 1995, Iranian director Dariush Mehrjui released the film Pari, an unauthorized and loose adaptation of Salinger's Franny and Zooey. Though the film could be distributed legally in Iran since the country has no official copyright relations with the United States, Salinger had his lawyers block a planned screening of the film at the Lincoln Center in 1998. Mehrjui called Salinger's action "bewildering," explaining that he saw his film as "a kind of cultural exchange."
In a contributor's note Salinger gave to Harper's Magazine in 1946, he wrote: "I almost always write about very young people," a statement which has been referred to as his credo. Adolescents are featured or appear in all of Salinger's work, from his first published short story, "The Young Folks," to The Catcher in the Rye and his Glass family stories. In 1961, the critic Alfred Kazin explained that Salinger's choice of teenagers as a subject matter was one reason for his appeal to young readers, but another was "a consciousness [among youths] that he speaks for them and virtually to them, in a language that is peculiarly honest and their own, with a vision of things that capture their most secret judgments of the world." Salinger's language, especially his energetic, realistically sparse dialogue, was revolutionary at the time his first stories were published, and was seen by several critics as "the most distinguishing thing" about his work.
Salinger identified closely with his characters, and used techniques such as interior monologue, letters, and extended telephone calls to display his gift for dialogue. Such style elements also "[gave] him the illusion of having, as it were, delivered his characters' destinies into their own keeping." Recurring themes in Salinger's stories also connect to the ideas of innocence and adolescence, including the "corrupting influence of Hollywood and the world at large," the disconnect between teenagers and "phony" adults, and the perceptive, precocious intelligence of children.
Contemporary critics discuss a clear progression over the course of Salinger's published work, as evidenced by the increasingly negative reviews received by each of his three post-Catcher story collections. Ian Hamilton adheres to this view, arguing that while Salinger's early stories for the "slicks" boasted "tight, energetic" dialogue, they had also been formulaic and sentimental. It took the standards of The New Yorker editors, among them William Shawn, to refine his writing into the "spare, teasingly mysterious, withheld" qualities of "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," The Catcher in the Rye, and his stories of the early 1950s. By the late 1950s, as Salinger became more reclusive and involved in religious study, Hamilton notes that his stories became longer, less plot-driven, and increasingly filled with digression and parenthetical remarks. Louis Menand agrees, writing in The New Yorker that Salinger "stopped writing stories, in the conventional sense.… He seemed to lose interest in fiction as an art form—perhaps he thought there was something manipulative or inauthentic about literary device and authorial control." In recent years, Salinger's later work has been defended by some critics; in 2001, Janet Malcolm wrote in The New York Review of Books that "Zooey" "is arguably Salinger's masterpiece.… Rereading it and its companion piece "Franny" is no less rewarding than rereading The Great Gatsby."
Salinger's writing has influenced several prominent writers, prompting Harold Brodkey (himself an O. Henry Award-winning author) to state in 1991: "His is the most influential body of work in English prose by anyone since Hemingway." Of the writers in Salinger's generation, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist John Updike attested that "the short stories of J. D. Salinger really opened my eyes as to how you can weave fiction out of a set of events that seem almost unconnected, or very lightly connected. Salinger's writing in my mind has really helped me move a step up, as it were, toward knowing how to handle my own material." The critic Louis Menand has observed that the early stories of Pulitzer Prize-winner Philip Roth were affected by "Salinger's voice and comic timing."
National Book Award finalist Richard Yates told The New York Times in 1977 that reading Salinger's stories for the first time was a landmark experience, and that "nothing quite like it has happened to me since." Yates describes Salinger as "a man who used language as if it were pure energy beautifully controlled, and who knew exactly what he was doing in every silence as well as in every word."
In 2001, Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker that "Catcher in the Rye rewrites" among each new generation had become "a literary genre all its own." He classed among them Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (1963), Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City (1984), and Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). The writer Aimee Bender was struggling with her first short stories when a friend gave her a copy of Nine Stories; inspired, she later described Salinger's effect on writers, explaining: "[I]t feels like Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye in a day, and that incredible feeling of ease inspires writing. Inspires the pursuit of voice. Not his voice. My voice. Your voice." Authors such as Stephen Chbosky, Carl Hiaasen, Susan Minot, Haruki Murakami, Gwendoline Riley, Tom Robbins, Louis Sachar, Megan McCafferty, and Joel Stein, along with Academy Award-nominated writer-director Wes Anderson, have cited Salinger as an influence.
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