Me and J.D. Salinger

JD Salinger,January 1, 1919 January 27, 2010)


Somewhere in the ’80’s a NY newspaper carried a story that JD Salinger’s house in New Hampshire had burnt to the ground due to a faulty smokestack. Well, it kind of touched me.  I was busy working on the best American novel myself. I looked at my own meager fireplace (which somehow had never set my old carriage house in Brooklyn aflame) and I looked at my typewriter and reams of paper filled with blackset hieroglyphics and I looked at my hands and maybe I even looked out the window and in a mirror then my purse. I’ve had some of my life in robust income, this was not one of those times. But I had five bucks and so I handwrote a note to Mr Salinger and wrote out an envelope with his name and the town’s name and the state on it and mailed it to him. 

I said something like I was a writer too and felt bad for his loss and I also had a fireplace and this was the best I could do but I hoped 5 bucks would help with the re-build fund. And thanks for Catcher in the Rye, and Franny and Zooey. Salinger had pretty much vanished from the radar and I’d pictured him kind of lost and alone and poor and now with a house, and his always house there, no longer around him then I forgot about it.

About a week later I got a plain envelope in the mail with no return address, just mine in the middle, typed I think.  I opened it and my Salinger 5 fell out of a plain piece of paper that without anything but the one brief paragraph typed and no tomfoolery hello or goodbye or signature were his words, “The story was completely untrue.” Maybe something like thanks anyway, or I’m okay, but I’m not sure about that. And if I still have the letter I’d be surprised, and I don’t have the five, but I might go hunting it down in the multitude of portfolios and saved correspondence and drawings, and find it tucked in. Sometimes writers just don’t want help from anybody.

(First sentence of Catcher in the Rye).   “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 like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

Though not everyone, teachers and librarians especially, was sure what to make of it, “Catcher” became an almost immediate best seller, and its narrator and main character, Holden Caulfield, a teenager newly expelled from prep school, became America’s best-known literary truant since Huckleberry Finn.” (NY Times obit)

And there’s a revival of maybe public Salinger based on newly discovered/unpublished manuscripts and the promise of seeing them in print by 2015. I think his shock and awe to my generation was what the hell have we got ourselves into and how to we get out of it and this guy is writing like my secret conversations with my brain and nobody addressed the moaning wail of teenager agony before.  Hello compatriot. Thanks, JD.


8 thoughts on “Me and J.D. Salinger

  1. Interesting. Does what he did match how he was supposed to be? I know next to nothing about him.
    I was never able to read Catcher – which means going past the first couple of pages, and skipping lots of text at that. Your final comment makes me think that perhaps I did not relate to this writing because of my coming from a different cultural mind-set and life experience.

    • Salinger got world famous fast, his writing style an abrupt change from writers of the time, even new compared to the generation which rose immediately out of WWII whose stories were dark, existential. It was like Bob Dylan’s songs a few years later matching up to a mood that reached so many and part of an iconoclastic trend. My parents of the Depression and WWII era fought for stability and appliances and desperately a level of safe comfort that turned out ultimately to be false. Though understandable entirely from the ashes of such chaos and pain, loss, deprivation, death. They did, after all, long for a civilized world. My generation born from that did not, essentially I think, like all the rules for HOW to live that came with it, along with the grownup’s fear of losing what materially had at last been gained. And God knows we hardly suffered as our predecessors had done. And yes, I imagine Salinger was a very American voice.

    • By the “appropriateness” of his not revealing any information I was referring to the fact that he was famously reclusive (a la Howard Hughes) for almost 50 years. The world was screaming for more books and interviews but he just clammed up after about 1965.

      PS – I reread ‘Catcher’ a few years ago and found it just as compelling. Then again, I’ve always been a misfit. 🙂

      • Darling misfit….yes, vanish-ed to the world. In one recent report I read something about his being thrilled just to write without a publisher…oh the freedom! he said. I haven’t read Catcher in decades and I adored Franny and Zooey, but I remember them indespensible. We all gobbled up literature and new movies like underfed wolves in a chicken coop and so much brilliant and being produced.
        A young girl he loved then abandoned has come forward along with the new work, she’d promised silence these years. He’s apparently got a grown son who handles his estate. But doesn’t talk much. I wonder at Salinger’s unpublished work and how it will be received by a generation of young– infused with ennui and living in parent’s basements, drug addled, tatooed, complacent, unemployed, frightened of life. He wrote to gobblers, ferverish for experience. Positively feverish.

    • Now that I hadn’t considered. Thanks.
      I think I was a bit miffed actually. It was before computers and eBay and never crossed my mind to exploit the scribbling of a writer who I liked. Did give me some insight into the man. That would in itself probably miff him.

  2. No idea why this seems relevant, but have been digging into much stuff about introverts. seems there’s a lot of us in the blogging world and then there’s two books I’ve run across with my forever search for quotes. One of the authors did a TED talk I found fascinating:
    Perhaps it’s because she claims that our society tends to discount those who are introverted, yet they tend to be the most creative….. could it be an explanation for your ‘encounter’?

    • I think there’s way too much stock in extroverts, and introvert is considered a character flaw which I don’t see. Anyone doing creative work needs to be left alone. There’s a nice bit in the Thurber story where he’d drift off and at the dinner table the daughter would ask of the mother, Is Daddy okay? And mom would say, He’s writing. So I guess it can be done in a crowd too. But I’ve frequently had to do battle to make time for my pursuits and always annoyed at explaining myself like it was a disease that needed circumventing. Seems like the lease peculiar thing in the world.

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