The Salinger letters

The browsers ecstasy

The Salinger letters

I hadn’t come to the city looking for the letters, but with just a day left to my departure, I chanced on a Village Voice copy that listed the exhibition— for the first time ever, letters by Salinger were to go on public display.

I ditched every other appointment for the rest of the day (including a chance to sample Thiru Kumar’s New York dosa on a cart at NYU) to make way for the letters. Here, finally was that elusive opportunity — to get a long, leisurely and close look at eleven letters by Salinger, a few of them even handwritten!

The provenance of these letters, however, made me hesitate a bit. I felt saddened for the way Salinger had been betrayed. Salinger had felt close to the commercial artist who had designed the jacket cover of the hardback edition — Michael Mitchell and his wife Bet. They began a correspondence that stretched over 40 years with the first letter dated May 22, 1951 and ending sometime in 1992 — a total of 11 letters, with a few postcards included in them.

In the early letters, he speaks of this “tri-cornered comradeship” as one of the dearest of his life. At some point, Mitchell perhaps realising how valuable a signed copy of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ had become in the market for its sheer scarcity (bids start at 100, 000 dollars at auctions) asked S for a signed copy. The author may have sniffed this out and turned him down, saying, “Most stuff that is genuine is better left unsaid.” That is the last letter. Not very long after, Mitchell sold off the letters to a book dealer who then sold it to a famous collector, Carter Burden. Burden in turn gifted it to The Morgan Library, which stashed them away in a vault these many years. And now with Salinger’s passing, the Museum felt freed to bring them out. The letters proved to be revelatory, giving us the first glimpse into some, if not all of those obscure and hermetic years.

The letters were housed in two glass cases, and lay flat so you could read them through the glass casing. A fairly long queue had formed, and I discovered to my chagrin that after standing for as much as half an hour, had not moved. With paintings, visitors gaze but don’t linger, but here each patron was a Salinger fan, bent on reading and re-reading each letter before they moved to the next set of letters. When I finally got my turn, I had to huddle around the glass case with four others, each of us craning our necks to read. This made it a bit of a chore, dampening my pleasure in the whole affair. I felt restless, unable to focus.

I read snatches from the letters, rather than from beginning to end, taking in his unmistakably slanted, spaced out handwriting, the yellowing paper he had used, the little doodling on the side, and the inevitable and welcome bouquet of parentheses. It was like suddenly coming upon something new Buddy Glass had written.

As late as the 80s, the letters show that he still continued a disciplined regimen of writing, starting at 6 am and ending at 7 pm, tolerating no interruptions. A letter from the late 60s even notes, “I have ten, twelve years of work piled around two particular scripts — books really — that I’ve been hoarding at and picking at for years.”

Attending a party in London soon after Catcher’s release, he reports, “Naturally some gin went up my nose. I damn near left by the window.” He speaks of loving being a parent, enjoying rides on the subway, eating Chinese and Indian food, walks with his children on “a darkened Fifth Avenue.”  But as the letters progress, New York City’s charms have less and less appeal and it gets to a point where “there aren’t any places I like or love there any more. With the exception of the Museum of Natural History.”

Soon he is even unable anymore to answer the phone at home “without unconsciously gritting my teeth.” He writes of self-doubt, middle age, and his self imposed isolation. There’s a line here that I liked so much I kept going back to it over and over again, trying to memorise it. “I have stuff going that I love, but oh God, so slowly, so hesitantly… The trick is to use the disbeliefs in the work, and not shy away from them, and that seems to me what we both must do.”

True to form, he reports with a little despair that “I feel closed off from all general or personal conversation, these years, and consort with almost no one but one or two local drunks or distant madwomen.”  Elsewhere he writes of lost love and how “you can’t erase a person anymore than they can erase you.”

He ends most letters with Jerry, but one he signs off with, “Many thoughts of you, old fart.” The letters surprised everyone with how jolly and affectionate he sounded most of the time. Not the misanthrope, child hater and nasty recluse that most of the world had made him up to be. Mostly, it confirmed that he had been writing steadily and feverishly all these years. And even if we never see what he had been working on, we know now that long after he stopped publishing, nothing mattered more to him than writing.

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