ArchiveSynopsis: J. D. Salinger Archive of 11 typed letters signed, with more information about his young life at the age of Holden than we have ever seen from the secretive author. In correspondence lasting 1971-76, Salinger reveals details of growing up in New York that bear striking resemblance to his character Holden in The Catcher in the Rye, including his revelation that "I spent most of my childhood plotting my escape from New York." In 1971 Salinger received a letter from budding writer and boarding school student Eileen Paddison. She reminded him of his young self, spurring him to share many remembrances that apply to both him and Holden: "When I was a kid I used to take great pleasure in shocking anyone who euphemized plain facts." These letters show Holden's adolescent alienation based on Salinger's own young life "a kind of lingering non-membership…far from grievous, since all the Clubs are awful, and who wants 'em." He writes of how he hated prejudice, as in Catcher, the corruption adults inflict upon children, "When we're little kids, we can be reduced, little by little, by remarks made by grownups." And his longing to escape, "I got out of the house as soon as I could, to escape it, at fifteen, but I sometimes wonder if it was soon enough." Like Holden, his escape was boarding school: "Boarding schools have a bad name, but they oddly suit some kinds of kids." As an institution, boarding school was far from perfect; but his young classmates fed his inspiration, "awful, fourth-class schools and colleges-a military school, for one…but it was full of misfits…terrific company…private types, clever, secretive, original." He may have revealed more than he intended, "I think you're confusing my first-person narrator with me. We're not entirely one and the same person." Later, his wartime experience filled him with "a sense of lastness," fear of impending death and nostalgia for the young life left behind, bringing him to quickly write Catcher even as the bullets were flying, as possibly the last thing he would do, "a last cruise, a last fling, a last time to do this, do that, wear a bought or rented dinner jacket." Years later his pain fostered a desire to protect his own children, like Holden's wish to be a figurative "catcher" of children in danger, "I don't like anything aimed at the kids, not excepting a camera." And with his children, he found the family he missed growing up, "I have never liked being a son and have never had any talent for belonging to any family except my kids." Over half the letters discuss his current writing, past published works, the writer Isak Dineson who was also one of Holden's favorites, and writing in general, "No writer knows anything about sex." In the most personal communication we have ever seen from the reclusive writer, Salinger reveals his belief in the "everlasting obligation to live on conscionable and deeply suitable terms with himself" and how his outsider status in childhood, difficult family, and desire to protect children transformed into unforgettable fiction, "Certain kinds of fiction writers simply do not get born in secure and untroubled families…"
Important J.D. Salinger Archive of 11 typed letters (signed "JDS" or Jerry)" with all original mailing envelopes, including one fully handwritten. From 1971 to 1976, Salinger opens up to a hopeful young writer with secrets of his childhood in New York City, move to boarding school, and how it all enabled him to write fiction. An archive with more information about his young life at the age of Holden then we have ever seen from the secretive author.
After The Catcher in the Rye inspired a generation, many young people reached out to Salinger, believing they shared a bond. Eileen Paddison was no different, except for "touches of sameness between us" inspiring the author to share the hidden story of his youth. He speaks of their "matching awkward background," of "Irish and Jewish," and how he felt estranged as a child, "There's not much that halfers relate to, when they're young. They get thoroughly absorbed exactly nowhere. An alien-or, rather, half alien, world all around…" Like himself, Holden was a product of a mixed marriage, and felt like he belonged nowhere. He states in Catcher, "my parents are different religions, and all the children in our family are atheists." Holden's father was a former Catholic, like Salinger's mother. Salinger explains, "In my day…it was…at the very least, a mixup in identity, a difficulty, psychological or social or some other way or several ways. It made for a pretty rotten form of self-consciousness." He recalls in these letters how much he hated the question, "What religion are you?" Likewise in Catcher, Holden talks to a Catholic friend about tennis, then realizes the boy is subtly trying to determine if he is Catholic. "That kind of stuff drives me crazy," says Holden. Religion, in Catcher, is not faith, but a kind of Club membership, as Salinger describes it here "a kind of lingering non-membership, or at any rate never a charter membership anywhere. Which is far from grievous, since all the Clubs are awful, and who wants 'em." He finds comfort in sharing with Eileen,"the special self-consciousness holds true for you in 1971 as it did for me a lot of years ago."
Although he cautions, "I think you're confusing my first-person narrator with me. We're not entirely one and the same person. Never mind, it's the kind of misconception I'm pretty used to," He subsequently reveals their similarity, "I spent most of my childhood plotting my escape from New York, and all concrete areas of the world." Like Holden, Salinger's father was a businessman who didn't understand his sensitive son, "My father once called me a bum when I was a kid. I can't remember whether it bothered me or not. Surely not in the way he would have wanted it to bother me. I thought him a fake, a crybaby, a tyrant." Being fake or "phony" was also Holden's main beef with adults. Like Holden, he was a complex, conflicted, character from his youth, "An Apathetic Bum is often not apathetic, at all, nor a bum, but something by a dozen other words or shadings none of which really express what he is." Holden's mother alienated him by being distant and nervous, but Salinger recalls, "My mother…imposed her point of view on almost everything her children did or thought." As a result, Salinger intensely wanted to create a better life for his own children, "I have never liked being a son and have never had any talent for belonging to any family except my kids. I'm a little rough on the subject of Families, not very tolerant, not always fair enough."
Catcher's recurring theme is the desire to protect children from corrupt adults. These letters explain the role of prejudice in that danger, "When we're little kids, we can be reduced, little by little, by remarks made by grownups, especially old or venerated grownups. They can say things 'cheerfully,' as if they didn't have a ghost of an ulterior motive, that can wither us where it doesn't show." This criticism is not limited to his parents, but the prejudice of his extended family, "there were plenty of Jew haters on my mother's undistinguished but exquisitely Christian side. A mid-Western brother of hers once phoned the apartment in N.Y. when I was a kid, and I talked to him on the phone. When I know you a few hundred years, I'll tell you how the charmer introduced himself over the phone. Not that my father's relatives were prizes, either. Anything but." There is a silver lining to Salinger's troubled past; it gave voice to his fiction, "In a way, I've learned to be grateful to the whole motley bunch of them. Certain kinds of fiction writers simply do not get born in secure and untroubled families…"
As for Holden, boarding school was Salinger's escape from troubled family life, "I got out of the house as soon as I could, to escape it, at fifteen, but I sometimes wonder if it was soon enough." While he didn't exactly enjoy school, it was better than the alternative, "I understand about being glad, sort of, to get back to your little cell at school. So many complicated thoughts go into that feeling, though. Not just divorce or stepparents or blah vacations, but so many things in combination, and with X thrown in." School includes roommate problems, of which Holden has his share, and Salinger writes in these letters, "Sorry things went wrong with your roommate at school. Is the basement room all right? Not damp? Dark?" When he speaks of life at school, Salinger's voice becomes the voice of Holden, complete with Holden's tendency to be "depressed" by moral failure: "Any form of stealing depresses me…It could all be a throwback to my own boarding-school days. But I doubt it. I just can't stand any form of swiping, stealing, whatever." At school he found his niche as a loner among loners, "I went to awful, fourth-class schools and colleges-a military school, for one, that couldn't have been worse, but it was full of misfits, kids that didn't fit in anywhere, and some of them were terrific company, very private types, clever, secretive, original. If one's going to be away at school or in prison or in the Army, it's only fair that a few congenial types be around, one or two or three." These "clever, secretive, original" types eventually formed the basis for Holden and his friends. In fact, his adolescent self sounds remarkably like Holden, "When I was a kid I used to take great pleasure in shocking anyone who euphemized plain facts." Boarding school was a positive experience for Salinger and later for his daughter, "Boarding schools have a bad name, but they oddly suit some kinds of kids. Peggy's one, and so was I, in a way."
When speaking of his children, Salinger becomes a "Catcher"-protector of the young. He doesn't have photos because, "I don't like anything aimed at the kids, not excepting a camera." He proudly protects their uncomplicated childhood, with his daughter "away to boarding school, on her own choice," and his son entertained with "marbles and kickball and good Field Days in June," but admits to being "a tiny bit paranoic-that he's surrounded by idiots who don't look after him in a good way." He is happy to see them retaining so many of the good qualities of childhood, "There's such a lot of old-fashioned horse's ass in every male… Little boys…have the least of it. I have days when I walk around smiling because I see so little of the horse's ass in my own son Matthew." More than anything, he doesn't want them exposed to the harm that plagued his own childhood, "Both my parents are…full of little rancorous opinions about this and that, and I had to quit taking my children to see them, because I couldn't stand the little 'harmless' prejudices and ignorances of their minds entering into the kids' minds."
Salinger first began writing Catcher as a soldier in World War II. He recalls a "Christmas vacation, between one college and another" right before he was drafted. "The Draft was coming up, and all the working college boys had a sense of lastness-a last cruise, last fling, a last time to do this, do that, wear a bought or rented dinner jacket, etc." Holden's story also takes place between schools, on Christmas vacation, and every move he makes is filled with "a sense of lastness," a dread of impending death. The war traumatized Salinger, and years later, "I haven't been back to Europe, the continent, I mean, since the war." Yet as he writes these letters, he begins a tentative plan for his first trip back "to France-to Brittany" then "to Vienna for a couple of days, and then maybe back to Paris on a nice 1937 Blue Train, full of spies and distressed girls needing rescuing, etc."
Salinger considered his work habits as immensely private, however, he came to trust Eileen enough to open up about his current writing, "As you can safely impart news…to me, I can, I feel, just as safely spill a few beans about my typing habits to you." 7 of the 11 letters mention his writing, including inspirational flow, "I'm working long hours on stuff I like and love. It's been going on for years, but the last four or five or so have been especially good or ripe or whatever," writerly quirks, "I can't seem to manage unless I pull everything in-like a turtle," and his reclusiveness, "I get too pleased with the way solitary work goes, my own pace, way of living in the country, and I get annoyed, snotty, about anything that interrupts what I like doing." He discusses his published work, including a favorite scene in "Roofbeam, yes. I liked that one, too. All the stuff in the car amused hell out of me to write." Regarding "an article about a book of mine," Salinger expresses frustration with literary critics, "You ask if that bothers me…I don't enjoy it, surely. For the most part, I hate it, loathe it. The 'favorable' stuff is usually unreadable…I can't say I kept my cool about it, though, in the old days, when I was young."
Salinger writes of holding nuance over clarity in fiction, "There are probably no good or really weatherproof generalizations about Independence, Sex, or any other (sic) the other woof-woof topics." It is by trying to impose an artificial framework on these "woof-woof topics" that other writers become inauthentic, particularly on the topic of sex. "Almost everything written about [sex] by writers seems to me a lie or a bore. It's always sex as Performance full of peaks and climaxes and gold stars for effort or achievement, and always in someone else's image…No writer knows anything about sex, and that's a fact." One writer he respects, Isak Dineson, is also a favorite of Holden's. Salinger writes here that, "Isak Dinesen used to say that women never looked more feminine than when their heads were shaved." However, he questions the universality of this statement, "Is there any possibility of 'truth' in this world when vantage points and reasoning powers depend so heavily on conditioning, heredity, culture, language, geography, etc., etc.?" Likewise, he advises her not to worry if her own writing is "contradictory." "Relationships shift so, from black to gray, gray to black, gray to almost-white, etc. And again and again, back to gray." In the end, very little that Salinger reads "rings true;" he blames this on the fact that "So much of what's available to adults is so heavily conditioned." Salinger's overarching principle, in writing and life, is authenticity, "I agree vociferously, that everybody, male or female, has an everlasting obligation to live on conscionable and deeply suitable terms with himself."
A fascinating archive of 11 letters. A revealing window into the psychology of one of the greatest fiction writers of our time: his childhood, personal and family attitudes, and feelings about writing and being a writer.