From J.D., P.O. Box 32 By ADAM KIRSCH
On March 16, the Morgan Library will open its new exhibition, “Letters by J.D. Salinger.” Measured in pages, the amount of Salinger’s writing that will be on view is not large: There are 10 letters, most of them brief, and one postcard, all written to his friend Michael Mitchell, the painter and illustrator who designed the cover for the first edition of “The Catcher in the Rye.” But in terms of Salinger’s legacy, the exhibition—which will run until May 9—is a major milestone. Less than two months after his death on Jan. 27, the dam of silence Salinger spent half a century building has sprung its first leak.
Salinger himself recognized that his correspondence represented a “most uncommonly valuable literary property.” That’s how he put it in 1986, in the affidavit he gave in his lawsuit against his would-be biographer, Ian Hamilton. It was Hamilton’s attempt to quote passages from Salinger’s letters that provoked a legal battle that led all the way to the Supreme Court and ended with a victory for the reclusive novelist. The biographer was found to have infringed on his subject’s copyright, and Hamilton’s book, “In Search of J.D. Salinger,” had to be published without what he called, wistfully, the “expressive heart” of Salinger’s distinctive style.
It is in search of that heart that Salinger’s readers, so long deprived of any glimpse of his private life, will surely start flocking to the Morgan. Even before you read them—as I had the opportunity to do during a recent visit—the letters’ mere physical presence has a certain aura. The paper (Salinger had a fondness for goldenrod-colored sheets) and the typeface, ordinary in themselves, are the same ones with which the writer, in between letters, must have been producing hundreds of pages of extraordinary, unpublished fiction.
Even the envelopes tell a story of growing fame and isolation. Salinger’s earliest letters to Mitchell bear the return address “J. Salinger” or just “Salinger.” Then the name disappears, leaving only “P.O. Box 32, Windsor, Vt. 05089″—as though he wanted his letters to be secure against prying mailmen, who might be tempted to steam them open if they knew whose words they were handling. Finally, with the last couple of letters—written in the early 1990s—there is no return address at all; Salinger has effaced himself completely.
The letters offer an indirect chronicle of this growing isolation, and of the inevitable toll it took on the Salinger-Mitchell friendship. The earliest letter in the group—which the Morgan acquired in 1998, as part of the Carter Burden Collection of American Literature—is dated May 22, 1951, less than two months before the publication of “The Catcher in the Rye.” Salinger was not yet a celebrity, but he already dreaded publicity: According to Hamilton, it was to avoid seeing his American reviews that Salinger spent two months that summer in England.
He could hardly escape Holden Caulfield, however. Writing to Mitchell from London, it is remarkable how much like his creation Salinger sounds. He begins with “Dear Buddyroos”; observes that Laurence Olivier (whom the novelist met through his English publisher) appeared “knocked out” about the actor’s wife, Vivien Leigh; and assures his friend, “miss you . . . like hell.” “Catcher” fans will note the irony, not mentioned in the letter, of Salinger going to see Olivier on stage. “I just don’t see what’s so marvelous about Sir Laurence Olivier, that’s all,” Holden muses at one point.
After this there is a 15-year gap in the correspondence, and when it resumes the debut novelist has already evolved into the famous solitary. Salinger reports to Mitchell about one of his rare trips from Cornish, N.H., into New York City, which he usually visits only to see the dentist. (This is a nice touch—no amount of rustication can teach the New York native to trust country dentists.) But this time he’s visiting with his children, and the trip he describes is like a child’s dream of New York: a suite at the Sherry-Netherland, staying up late, watching cartoons on Saturday morning.
In fact, the letter is almost entirely filled with Salinger’s doting observations of his children, and for as long as they remain children, they will be his favorite subject. Later letters to Mitchell relate his daughter Peggy’s “enthusiastic” description of vomiting, and enclose a page from one of his son Matthew’s school papers. But it seems telling that once the children are grown, Salinger no longer finds them worth writing about to Mitchell—their lives are now “just worldly grownup stuff,” he writes dismissively in 1985. Salinger’s sentimentality about innocent young children is a constant in his fiction, from “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” onward, and it is one of the things that made his critics suspicious. Was it a way of retreating from the complexity and compromises of adult life? Would his unpublished writing follow the trajectory of his last public stories, getting lost in the minutiae of the Glass siblings’ precocious childhoods?
The letters lend some indirect support to this view, but the only way to know for sure would be to read the fiction Salinger was producing during these years. And the letters leave no doubt that he kept writing, at least through the 1980s. “The scripts at hand, the fiction growing,” he tells Mitchell on Christmas 1984. In a long and unusually revealing letter written the following year—evidently in response to some complaint from Mitchell—Salinger apologizes for being such an elusive friend and correspondent. His whole life, he explains, is devoted to “exploring things, looking into things with my writing, my fiction,” and there was no room left for social amenities. Perhaps it was inevitable that the correspondence would break off acrimoniously, when Salinger refused his friend’s request for a signed copy of “Catcher.”
Such remoteness was, in Salinger’s view at least, the price to be paid for his writing. When a fire destroyed most of his house, in 1992, Salinger wrote that “providentially, my back workroom” was spared—presumably it was full of manuscripts. Unless and until they are made public, exhibitions like “Letters by J.D. Salinger” will keep us speculating about whether the price was worth it.
Mr. Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for Tablet Magazine.