February 8, 2010

The Day J.D. Salinger Wrote Me A Letter

That would have been January 2nd, 1980.

Here's the story: I sent a birthday card to J.D. Salinger 
c/o General Delivery, 
Windsor, Vermont,
because I knew, from my research, that was where he picked up his mail.
I can't remember exactly what I wrote in the card, but believe I included a Japanese Haiku.
Awhile later I received a letter postmarked "White River Junction / PM 3 Jan 1980" 
with a 15¢ Oliver Wendell Homes stamp. My name and address typed on the envelope,
and a short hand written note inside that read (in it's entirety):

Windsor, VT
Jan. 2/80

Thank you for
your good wishes,
P. McKinnon. Returned
in full, surely.

That was it. That was all. That was enough.

Thirty years later JDS has passed on, just after his 91st Birthday.

***    ***   ***

What to say about Jerome David Salinger?

Here's the thing >
The last story J.D. Salinger officially published was in 1965.
He only ever published ONE novel.
He only ever published FOUR books.

"What's he building in there?"
- Tom Waits

What was Salinger doing since 1965?
Well, by all accounts, he was writing.
And that, apparently, was just about ALL he was doing.

He was a writer.
He wrote.
And he wrote.
And he wrote.
And he wrote some more.

He just never published anything after 1965.
He didn't have to.
The royalties from "The Catcher In The Rye" made him a wealthy man.
And he lived like a monk.
Cloistered away in a cell somewhere in the backwoods of New Hampshire.

Will any of his work ever see the light of day?
Will we ever get to read any more tales of The Glass Family?
Who knows?
Not me.

And what kind of stuff does someone write about when they've been
living in the woods for 40 years?
What would he have come up with after all that time?

One could never call J.D. Salinger an "ordinary" writer.
"Catcher" blew the doors off the 20th Century American Novel.
And things just got stranger from there.
I mean, what would you even call "Seymour: An Introduction", anyway?
Some kind of "Fictional Memoir"?
"Hapworth 16, 1924", Salinger's last published piece of writing
is, essentially, a seven year old boy's letter to his parents from Summer Camp.

"Hello Mudda/
Hello Fadder..."

Salinger's passing prompted me to start re-reading my copy of "Dream Catcher"
a memoir written by Salinger's daughter Margaret.
It's not very well written, and could have used a good editor, but it did
tell me a few things about JDS that put his writing into a slightly different perspective.
One of those things are the little details of his life that he sneaks into his stories.
The other is Salinger's experience during World War Two.
I knew he was in the war, that was no secret, but I didn't know how DEEPLY
he was in the war. He was a staff sergeant The Twelfth Infantry division,
and landed on Utah Beach on D-Day. He helped liberate Paris.
He was "in the thick of it" - taking part  in some of the most strategically 
important battles of the war. He saw some pretty brutal stuff.
And he suffered a nervous breakdown, known back then as "battle fatigue."
And he carried the scars long after the war.

Anyone who's read "The Catcher In The Rye" knows that, at one point in the story,
all Houlden Caulfield wants to do is find a girl, and go live in a cabin in the woods,
far way from everybody, and everything, and have a couple of kids.

In an amazing example of Life imitating Art, that's exactly what the book
allowed its author to do.
Things didn't exactly turn out as planned.
But that's another story.

Jerome David Salinger
Rest In Peace.

Thanks for the stories
...and the letter.


  1. Paul, what a great story about the exchange of mail. Regrettably, that would never happen in today's e-mail era, and if it did, it just wouldn't be the same. I can only imagine what JD likely thought of the social media revolution and e-mail.

  2. Thanks YRS - I dug out the letter from the files this evening,
    such a thrill/sadness in opening it again. The envelope is a
    little scruffy, but the letter itself, unevenly folded in three,
    is still crisp. There is a tactile element to a "real" letter that
    vanishes with e-mail. Don't get me wrong, I love what we are
    able to do with e-mail and other forms of cyber communication,
    and in many ways I'm just starting to explore the possibilities
    myself, but I've still got boxes and boxes of old letters and
    postcards people have sent me over the years. Cheers to those.
    And amen to that.