Reactions to J.D. Salinger’s death have touched on two themes: the impact that Salinger’s writing, especially The Catcher in the Rye, had on the lives of those who came of age in the decades that followed its publication in 1951; and fascination with Salinger’s gradual retreat from New York literary circles to small-town New Hampshire.

The treatment of his life in new Hampshire tended to depict him as a half-mad hermit — like Ben Gunn in Treasure Island, who is discovered on the island, unhinged from having been marooned by pirates on the island for three years, living on a diet of goats, berries and oysters, and longing for cheese. The implication seemed to be that Salinger’s failure to continue publishing after such a spectacular debut, and his withdrawal from literary society, were the strongest evidence of aberrance.

In fact, Salinger seems to have been at least not quite so isolated, or at least not quite so crazy, as he was generally depicted.  He had two children, one of whom is a film and television actor who has appeared on Law & Order, Picket Fences, and Disneyland.  He appears to have been in regular touch with his literary agent and perhaps his attorneys, contesting efforts to adapt his work for film or create a sequel.  He was married twice and had at least two other romantic relationships with women in the public eye.  He met regularly with Judge Learned Hand, who had a summer home in the same small New Hampshire town where Salinger lived.  Around town, reported the New York Times, “Mr. Salinger was just Jerry, a quiet man who arrived early to church suppers, nodded hello while buying a newspaper at the general store and wrote a thank-you note to the fire department after it extinguished a blaze and helped save his papers and writings. Despite his reputation, Mr. Salinger ‘was not a recluse,’” a neighbor told the Times.

As late as 1996, he agreed to have his last story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” published in book form by a small publisher in the Washington suburbs who was previously unknown to Salinger but had sent him a letter inquiring about the possibility of publication.  Salinger traveled to Washington and met the publisher for lunch at the cafeteria of National Gallery of Art (Salinger recommended the Parmesan soup) where they discussed the book Primary Colors and began a months-long correspondence, dealing with the details of production and publication.  Salinger ultimately withdrew permission after the Washington Post found out about it and published an article.

This sampling includes only information that I have come across since Salinger’s death.  I have done no extraordinary research.  If I ran across this number of stories through casual reading, perhaps there are other stories of Salinger’s contact with the civilized world in publications that I don’t read regularly.  All of which is to suggest that although Salinger was clearly averse to socializing, he was in touch with the world and the people in it, or at least with those parts of the world and those people with whom he desired to be in touch.

Salinger’s isolation put me in mind of a story that writer Jane Leavy tells about the great Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax in her book, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy.  Leavy writes about her efforts to interview the elusive Koufax for the book, a quest that yielded only a single meeting.  Why, Leavy asked Koufax, are you so reclusive?  I’m not reclusive at all, Koufax replied.  My friends can always find me.  I coach at spring training with the Dodgers every year.  But I’m no longer a public person, I no longer live a public life, and I resist efforts to draw me into such a life.

Like his withdrawal, Salinger’s refusal to publish after the appearance of “Hapworth” in the New Yorker in 1965 is treated as prima facie evidence of aberrance.  Numerous accounts refer to his love of writing but his abhorrence of publication as an interruption of his work and an invasion of his privacy.  Perhaps.

But maybe he knew what he was doing.  Maybe he published everything he ever wrote that he considered worth publishing.  The Catcher in the Rye was not his first fiction.  He wrote several stories for popular magazines that the New York Times’ obituary described as “formulaic work that gave little hint of real originality.”  His first enduring work, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” published after his service in World War II, “suggested, not wrongly,” said the obituary, “that he had become a very different kind of writer.”  Symmetrically, his last work, “Hapworth,” has been described by novelist Jay McInerny as “’an insane epistolary monologue, virtually shapeless and formless.’”

Maybe, in other words, J.D. Salinger had certain insights and certain things to say about certain kinds of people to a certain generation—the post-mortem encomiums cited many baby-boomer types whose lives were altered by reading The Catcher in the Rye, but few devotees from more recent generations; the fact that a book continues to be assigned reading, even the fact that it continues to have literary value, does not guarantee that it retained over more than a half-century the kind of meaning that Catcher had for the post-war generation—and nothing more.  Maybe his refusal to publish after “Hapworth” represented his recognition that he had said what he had to say.

He wouldn’t be the first author to make a lasting impact with a debut or early novel and then to run out of inspiration.  Henry Roth wrote his Depression-era masterpiece Call It Sleep, in 1934 at age 28 and, suffering from writer’s block, did not publish another novel for sixty years.  In 1946, more than twenty years before MASH, Thomas Heggen captured the insanity of war with a best-selling novel, Mr. Roberts, which was made into a long-running Broadway play starring Henry Fonda, and a movie that starred Fonda, Jack Lemmon and James Cagney. Three years after publishing his novel, without writing another book, Heggen died, possibly by his own hand.  Ross Lockridge published Raintree County, a sprawling candidate for the great American novel, in 1948.  Before the year was out (and almost a decade before the blockbuster movie, which starred Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, was released), Lockridge, suffering from depression, committed suicide.

Salinger produced his masterpieces in his thirties, lived sixty more years, presumably on his royalties, and died at home in bed of natural causes.  There have been worse lives.


  1. Mary P. Stitt
    February 8th, 2010 | 9:20 pm

    I’m told that upon reading “Raintree County” my grandmother predicted that the author was so depressed it was likely he would commit suicide.

    Excellent essay, as always.

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