Return to sender

A collection of letters to J.D. Salinger, many from well-known writers, shows how the author of "Catcher in the Rye" went from man to myth.


Jonathon Keats
April 17, 2002 11:47PM (UTC)

Virtually everybody has a story to tell about J.D. Salinger. Some can claim once to have seen him on the street while passing through the New Hampshire town where he lives, not stalking him quite, yet drawn, undeniably, to press some unspoken boundary. Others are content to repeat familiar rumors, recalling failed attempts to lure him into a liaison or interview, or speculating about the vault in which he allegedly has confined everything he's written since he stopped publishing in the mid-'60s. But, for the vast majority of readers, the crucial story about Salinger only incidentally involves the author. What most people want to talk about when they discuss the famously reclusive writer is themselves.

As might be expected, there are almost as many variations on the theme "the first time I read 'The Catcher in the Rye'" as there are copies of the book in print. And in that respect it isn't so dissimilar from how earlier generations must have remembered their initial encounters with the "Iliad" or "Hamlet" or "The Howdy-Doody Show." The difference is that, in the case of Salinger, we seem to have the insatiable urge to share with him our experience of his work.

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So perhaps we shouldn't be surprised to find a Web site dedicated to correspondence with the man who gave us Holden Caulfield and the Glass family and who followed them with more than 30 years of silence. Nor should we be disappointed if it offers little new in the way of biography: That site and the book that comes out of it this month are, ironically enough, the truest portrait we'll likely ever have of Salinger.

He'll never write back, not to the name-brand authors who have contributed to "Letters to J.D. Salinger" -- Barry Gifford and Jim Harrison and George Plimpton -- nor to the dozens of anonymous others. That doesn't matter. Since he published his last book, Salinger has been alive, really, only in our imagination. By now, he can't tell us anything we don't already fundamentally know. If we honestly want to understand him, we need to read ourselves.

Of the few actual encounters with Salinger recalled in the book, the one thing all have in common is that they're utterly, wonderfully, mundane. The novelist Herbert Gold recounts in his letter to J.D. an actual exchange by mail they had back in the '60s, the closest we come to epistolary intimacy:

"Dear Mr. Salinger,
Some forty years ago, along with David Lloyd Stevenson, I was preparing an anthology that was published under the title, 'Stories of Modern America.' We requested permission from you to reprint one of your stories. You wrote a short note to deny us the privilege. Alas, your note seems to have disappeared ... But the mysterious last sentence ... is fixed in my memory. It read: 'I have my reasons.'"

Gold goes on, with his typically insightful wit, to ponder what reasons Salinger might have had, reasons the stoic author so obviously intended to persuade nobody but himself. ("Did your rejection of our offer mean," Gold asks, "that you wanted your story to be the only one in our anthology?") Yet the greater significance to this tale isn't what Salinger said, but rather that "the mysterious last sentence" hasn't after all these years been forgotten by Gold.

"I have my reasons" is memorable because, without telling us anything about Salinger, it expresses our image of him as succinctly as the perfect epigram -- or, better, epitaph. (After all, we've heard his last words. In every meaningful sense, Salinger is already gone.) "I have searched for clues to your disappearance," writes Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson, another "Letters" contributor. "When I first read 'The Catcher in the Rye' and 'Franny and Zooey' as a teenager, you had already stopped publishing more than three decades before. I figured you were dead." If over time she's modified her initial postmortem, it's but slightly: "I can't help but wondering why, for so many years, you've decided to play your music in the closet of your own making, leaving the rest of the world increasingly deaf."

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I figured you were dead: The truth is that, when we speak of J.D. in the present tense, it's in the sense that we'd say "Ovid is the author of 'The Metamorphoses,'" or even, maybe, "Narcissus is the author of his own fate." It's the present tense of timelessness, not the immediacy of now. The character we call J.D. Salinger is literary, and our interpretation of it is our legacy.

So it begins to make sense why the majority of encounters with Salinger found in these letters are at least a step removed from the man who once authored "Catcher." "The girl I desire desperately to marry," writes Darren Ursino on the Jdsalinger.com Web site, "is from your hometown, Cornish, NH, and, as things are in NH, her father works as a volunteer fireman and has been inside your house. Imagine that." Or consider a note to Salinger from Dex Westrum, who writes, with strikingly direct honesty, "I was always looking for you." In the late '60s, Westrum taught English at Windsor High School in Vermont. "I learned that even though you lived in New Hampshire, you picked up your mail in Windsor," he continues in his letter. "I never saw you at the post office." Nor did he happen upon Salinger elsewhere: "The kids told me you talked to them, but you didn't talk to adults because they would go around telling everybody they had talked to you." Five years passed like that. Then, Westrum writes:

"In June of 1972 I decided to return to the Midwest. I was living in Woodstock then and the night before I left I took one last walk around. I stopped to look over an old desk in the window of an antique store. I felt a presence behind me and looked up at the reflection in the window and it was you. I looked right into the reflection's eyes with a shock of recognition and you looked right into my eyes and nodded, Yes, and then shook your head, No. I waited until you walked down the street before I turned around."

Westrum's spectral evidence, like Ursino's hearsay, sets Salinger apart from us in ways that seem strange when speaking of a person, yet are typical to the expression of myth. An urban legend is inevitably hearsay even to the one who relates it, and folklore speaks of beings seen but obliquely, out of reach, often under cover of night. Even if Salinger isn't a pixie, hobgoblin or abominable snowman, he has attained in our vision an extra-human quality that puts him in a sort of conceptual purgatory between this world and the hereafter. It's a strange place, largely unfamiliar to our matter-of-fact culture, a space we feel the need to enter, whether by seeking a chance meeting or composing letters to somebody who's famous for throwing them away. "I don't expect a response," novelist Nicholas Delbanco writes in his note to J.D. "In some ways your silence determines our speech." Or, a corollary: Salinger's absence defines our presence.

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That, then, explains why the vast majority of the correspondence in "Letters to J.D. Salinger" is in first rather than second person -- why those writing to Salinger fall back on "the first time I read 'The Catcher in the Rye.'" Short story writer Donald Anderson: "I was seventeen years old. The copy of Catcher I bought, I still have. It cost $1.25." Poet Rachel Hadas: "I first read a paperback edition of Catcher. I forget the publisher (Avon? Pocket books?) and the price (25 cents?), but I clearly remember the shiny cover." Novelist Robert O'Connor: "Here was the first time I connected to a character: someone who felt out of place, who yearned to escape, but didn't know what from." Short-story writer David Means: "My first glimpse of who I might be, my first invitation to become urbane, to shed my midwestern garb (except for the hunting cap with the earflaps to remind me of the hinterlands), to become hopefully not a phony but someone versed in spotting the phonies, came from your book." Songwriter Ellis Paul: "I have read 'The Catcher in the Rye' a half dozen times, and each time I'm older, though it's still reading fine." Salinger's books, initially encountered so early, afford an opportunity for continuity in our lives. So long as we remember that first time with his fiction, we can always return, momentarily, to who we were then.

But remembering, like reading, is a private activity. Certainly we don't need Salinger's permission, or even acknowledgment, to bring us back. Who are we writing? One another?

Like any legendary figure, Salinger provides a means by which we can connect as a culture. Private as reading his books may be, experiencing his writing is something we hold in common. He is one man, essentially gone, but also Salinger is all of us. He is all of us as Ovid is ours, as we are all Narcissus, and those letters are an effective conduit for our collective thought. As the fate of Narcissus did in ancient culture, his life has become a metaphor for our entire society. (Novelist Joseph Skibell: "What, I wonder, is your famous retreat paradigmatic of?" George Plimpton: "Is there some hidden meaning here?")

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"When a stranger approaches me," recounts fabulist John McFarland, "and proudly proclaims that he or she is a writer, I simply ask, 'Are you J.D. Salinger?' It stops them cold." Nobody would ever claim to be that reclusive author. Yet, in his purgatory, there is already a little of him, his legend, in everybody.


Jonathon Keats

Jonathon Keats is an artist and writer. His collection of fables, "The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six," was published this year.

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