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My Salinger Year Extract | Part I: Winter

Joanna Rakoff

We all have to start somewhere. For me, that somewhere was a dark room, lined from floor to ceiling with books, rows and rows of books sorted by author, books from every conceivable era of the twentieth century, their covers bearing the design hallmarks of the moments in which they’d been released into the world – the whimsical line drawings of the 1920s, the dour mustards and maroons of the late 1950s, the gauzy watercolor portraits of the 1970s – books that defined my days and the days of the others who worked within this dark warren of offices.

When my colleagues uttered the names on the spines of those books, their voices turned husky and reverential, for these were names of godlike status to the literarily inclined. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas, William Faulkner. But this was, and is, a literary agency, which means those names on the spines represented something else, something else that leads people to speak in hushed voices, something that I’d previously thought had absolutely nothing to do with books and literature: money.


When I returned to my desk, overpriced and unremarkable cup of coffee in hand, Hugh came by and dropped a bundle of letters in front of me. I looked at him questioningly. I was getting used to the long silences of the office.

‘These are the Salinger letters,’ he said.

‘Oh?’ I asked.

‘Fan letters. To Salinger.’ He sighed and shifted the bundles in his arms. ‘We need to answer them.’

‘Okay.’ I took a sip of coffee. ‘Does it matter what I say?’

Hugh nodded. ‘There’s a form letter. Somewhere. I’ll find it.’ Hugh could, to my continual amazement, pull anything one needed from the mountain of paper on his desk. A few minutes later, he returned bearing a disintegrating sheet of the yellow paper used for carbon copies, its edges faded and frayed and soft with handling.

Dear Miss So-and-So:

Many thanks for your recent letter to J. D. Salinger. As you may know, Mr Salinger does not wish to receive mail from his readers. Thus, we cannot pass your kind note on to him. We thank you for your interest in Mr Salinger’s books.

The Agency

The date at the top of the carbon: March 3, 1963.

‘So I just send this, verbatim? I just retype it?’

Hugh nodded. ‘Yep. You don’t need to keep a carbon’ – the Xerox machine was still new enough that many Agency employees still referred to copies as ‘carbons’; I loved this – ‘and you can toss the letters, too.’

‘Really?’ I asked, surprised. Nothing was tossed at the Agency. Every bit of correspondence was meticulously copied and filed. I couldn’t believe they’d throw out anything to do with Salinger, in particular. ‘Just put them in the garbage?’

‘Yeah, we can’t keep them.’ Hugh smiled a little. ‘They’d take up the entire office. Or, we’d need a separate archive.’

I nodded. ‘It’s a lot,’ I admitted, gesturing toward the bundle, which still sat where Hugh had left it on the corner of my desk.

‘And that’s just what came in today,’ said Hugh.

I laughed. ‘Of course,’ I said.

‘No,’ said Hugh. ‘That’s really just what came in today.’

‘You’re kidding. Where’s the rest?’

Hugh resumed his habitual sigh. ‘In my office. Somewhere. I tried to respond to some of it back in December.’

‘Does this much come in every day?’ If so, I would henceforth spend my entire day, every day, retyping the letter in my hand.

‘No. It ebbs and flows. We always get a lot right after the New Year.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘I’ll start on this right now.’ I pulled the bundle toward me and began unwinding the rubber band.

‘There’s no rush.’ Hugh shrugged. ‘Just when you get to it. Maybe on Fridays, when your boss isn’t here. If you have nothing to do.’ Sighing, he bent his neck awkwardly, trying to crack it. This was either a new nervous habit or one I’d not noticed before. ‘They’re just fans. It’s sort of the least important thing.’

‘Okay,’ I said again, but as soon as he returned to his office, I took the rubber band off one packet and sifted through the letters, which bore postmarks from all over the world: Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Japan, any number of Scandinavian countries, Germany, France, the Netherlands, everywhere. Quietly, I began slitting open the envelopes with my thumb, unfolding the letters inside. They were long, these letters, far longer than I expected, though what had I expected? I’d never written such a thing myself. What did I know? Some were typed on typewriters, in the style of the Agency. Some were modern missives, unfurled from laser printers on plain white paper. Many were written on stationery – pink, blue, fragile airmail, creamy white from Smythson, Hello Kitty, Snoopy, rainbows and clouds – the small, thick pages covered densely with words. One contained a friendship bracelet, woven of embroidery thread; another a photo of a small white dog. And yet another, inexplicably, some coins, taped to a sheet of ripped, dirty paper.

Over the next hour, I read and read and read, ignoring my typing and filing, impatient with the ringing phone. Many of the letters came from veterans – mostly but not entirely American – confiding in Salinger about their experiences during the war. Now, like Salinger, they were in their seventies and eighties, and they found themselves – they explained – thinking more and more about the friends who’d died in their arms, the cadaverous bodies at the death camps they’d liberated, the despair they’d felt when they returned home, the sense that no one understood what they’d undergone, no one except Salinger. Some, many, were turning to his stories again, they said, and finding that they loved them even more. They wanted Salinger to know, to understand, all this, they explained, with an urgency that made me slightly uncomfortable.

What else? Who else? There were what I came to think of as the Tragic Letters: missives from people whose loved ones had found solace in Salinger during their years-long struggles with cancer, who’d read Franny and Zooey to their dying grandfathers, who’d obsessively memorized Nine Stories in the year after losing their children or spouses or siblings. And there were the Crazies, of course, ranting about Holden Caulfield in smudged pencil, a dirty lock of hair falling out of the creased paper and on to my dark desk.

But probably the largest group of fans were teenagers, teenagers expressing a sentiment that could be summed up as ‘Holden Caulfield is the only character in literature who is truly like me. And you, Mr Salinger, are surely the same person as Holden Caulfield. Thus, you and I should be friends.’ Schoolgirls professed their love for Holden. They understood Holden, they explained, and they wished they could find a boy like him, someone who understood the hypocrisies of the world, someone who understood that people have emotions, but all of the guys they knew were morons like Stradlater. ‘My mother says you won’t write back,’ wrote a Canadian high school girl, ‘but I told her you would. I know you will, because you understand what it’s like to be surrounded by phonies.’

These young people deployed language that I knew derived from The Catcher in the Rye. The repeated use of ‘goddam’ and ‘crumby’ and ‘as hell’ and, of course, ‘phony.’ The boys, I suppose, inclined more toward such imitation than the girls, for the boys wanted to be Holden, while the girls wanted to be with Holden. One letter caught my eye:

I’ve read your book The Catcher in the Rye three times now. It’s a masterpiece, and I hope that you’re proud of it. You certainly should be. Most of the crap that is written today is so uncompelling it makes me sick. Not too many people have anything to write that even approaches sincerity.

The flat-out nerve of this particular kid – who was, I checked, from Winston-Salem, North Carolina – impressed me. Who writes to possibly the most famous living American writer to inform him that his beloved, best-selling book is a masterpiece and he should be proud? Amazing. But the boy’s brio came straight from Holden. He was hoping to impress Salinger with his likeness to Salinger’s hero.

I was finishing this letter – eventually, he gets around to seeking romantic advice from Salinger (‘I used to get nervous as hell around girls’) – when Hugh returned, materializing at my desk so silently that I started, as if he were a ghost. ‘I just realized,’ he began. ‘You should actually read them.’

‘The letters?’ I asked, gesturing to my desk, which was covered with stationery.

‘Yeah. Just in case.’ For a moment he stood up perfectly straight, as if he might balance a book on his head, then his normal slouch returned. ‘They’re mostly harmless, but occasionally we’ll get a death threat. Back in the ’60s, Salinger got some pretty scary letters. Threatening him. And his kids.’ He grimaced.

‘What should I do,’ I asked, ‘if I find something scary?’

He considered. ‘You can bring them to me. I’ll decide if it’s worth bothering your boss. We’ve been pretty careful since the Mark David Chapman thing.’ I nodded, knowingly, though it was only later that the significance of this name would come to me, with a shudder: Mark David Chapman, the man who’d shot John Lennon, then sat down on the steps of the Dakota and read The Catcher in the Rye. When the police confiscated the book, they found he’d scrawled ‘This is my statement’ on the title page. Holden Caulfield, he said, had made him do it.

I gestured to my desk, the letters piled on it, robbed of their envelopes. ‘I’ve been reading them,’ I said. ‘I was curious.’

‘Great,’ said Hugh, but he didn’t leave. Did my face, my tone, betray something? Some sentiment of which I wasn’t even aware? ‘Don’t get too caught up in them.’

Extract from Part I: Winter
Slightly Foxed Edition No. 66: Joanna Rakoff, My Salinger Year
© Joanna Rakoff 2014

My Salinger Year Extract | Part I: Winter

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