November 21, 2014
In letters, J.D. Salinger bemoans trappings of fame
In a letter to his college friend, a young J.D. Salinger writes about yearning for fame. In ensuing correspondence to the same woman and her son over the next four decades, the American author describes how much he loathes his status as a celebrity.
In the letters from Salinger to Ruth Smith Maier, a woman he met while attending Ursinus College in Pennsylvania in 1938, the two share stories about parenthood, working as a writer and general banter about popular culture.
The letters, which experts say humanize the notoriously reclusive author as he experiences a range of life-changing events, were acquired by the Harry Ransom Center, a humanities research library at the University of Texas, and made available to researchers this week.
In the earliest correspondence from January 1941, a confident 22-year-old Jerry Salinger writes to Ruthie that he intends to leave his mark as an author.
"Oh, but I'm good," he says in the single-spaced, typewritten letter. "It will take time to convince the public, but (it) shall be done."
He reminisces about his time and the people at Ursinus, giving a hint of themes that would be a part of his later work.
"For every hundred phonies, there is one goodie, and that is a better ratio than I find here in savage hometown New York," he says.
The next letter is dated 17 years later in 1958. During the intervening years, Salinger has been published in the New Yorker magazine, served as a soldier in some of the most brutal World War Two fighting in Europe, released his most famous novel "The Catcher in the Rye" and the book "Nine Stories".
Alarmed by his sudden fame, Salinger had also become reclusive since 1953, fiercely guarding his privacy in Cornish, a small town in northwest New Hampshire.
In the letter, Salinger talks lovingly about his young daughter Margaret, his fond memories of Ursinus and his disdain for the trappings of fame.
"These days, almost any incoming news of my fiction either irritates or chills, or just doesn't reach at all," he says.
Kenneth Slawenski, author of the acclaimed biography "J.D. Salinger: A Life", said long-running correspondences were common for the writer - such as one with a roommate from Valley Forge Military Academy - but that few scholars knew about the stream of letters that flowed between him and Maier.
"To my knowledge, Salinger never damned fame in itself (it is, after all, essential to selling books) but his letters frequently expressed disgust with the consequences of fame," Slawenski told Reuters in an email.
DISTRUST OF PUBLICATION
By 1969, Salinger was entrenched in the American mind as one of the country's best-known recluses. He writes to Ruth that year about taking enormous pleasure in watching his children grow and leaving celebrity behind.
"In my worst times, years back, all letters addressed to me were written in part or entirety in Holden Calfieldese (sic). It was like being in Hell," he wrote, referring to Holden Caulfield, the main character in "The Catcher in the Rye" and mail he received from fans and scholars.
About nine years later, Salinger wrote to Ruth to talk about the fun he had visiting his son Matthew, who was studying in France, as the two went to cafes and took a road trip through the Alps.
Salinger and Maier shared news about their children, praise for the actress Mary Tyler Moore and snippets from their daily lives, which - by Salinger's account - had grown quite dull.
"I have no real news, and so little to say. I tend to think almost exclusively in Fiction, these years. Which seems fair enough to me, and after my taste, but leaves me short on any sparkling personal news."
But Salinger was busy writing, telling Ruth's son Christopher that for most of the decade of the 1970s, he had been turning out some of his best fiction, writing "slowly, erratically but rather enormously."
Biographer Slawenski said it is difficult to find any period of Salinger's life when he did not claim to be producing his best fiction.
Much of what Salinger wrote during his period of isolation will not be seen until 2060, 50 years after his death, as he had stipulated. The author was 91 when he died in 2010 of natural causes.
Three of those unpublished stories were leaked online late last year with the source likely being from an unauthorized book printed without Salinger's permission.
In his letters, Salinger also says he has no intention of having his fiction staged or filmed, a comment likely directed at Hollywood producers who have tried for years to bring works like "Catcher" to the big screen.
In a 1977 letter to Maier's son, Salinger wrote that he wants his fiction to be published, eventually, but not now.
"Publication tends, for me, at least, to put all work still in progress in dire jeopardy. One reason being that I distrust the finality of publication," Salinger said.