A New York exhibit offers glimpses into the private world of J.D. Salinger.
Of the more than 200 objects documenting J.D. Salinger’s personal and professional life now on display at the New York Public Library — manuscripts bearing his revisions, his 1948 Royal typewriter, the notebooks he used to record his thoughts — perhaps the most poignant has nothing to do with writing.
It’s a small copper bowl Salinger carefully hammered into existence when he was about 10 years old. Its smooth surface and perfect shape speak volumes about the craftsmanship and perfectionism he would bring to his writing.
The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger’s classic and beloved coming-of-age novel, has sold tens of millions of copies since its release in 1951. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is the sullen, self-absorbed poster boy for teenage angst; his creator, who jealously guarded his privacy and took refuge in rural New Hampshire, has become a caricature of the literary recluse.
“If I’d had any sense,” fellow introvert Harper Lee confided to a friend when the adulation over To Kill a Mockingbird became too much to bear, “I’d have done a J.D. Salinger.” And, of course, she did.
The exhibit, which runs until January 19, 2020, draws back the curtain on this most private of private lives. Matt Salinger, who organized the exhibition with the author’s widow, Colleen, told the New York Times the goal is to reveal his father’s human side — balancing evidence of his “principled, prickly nature,” as he put it, against touching family photographs with his children and grandchildren and a playful reply to a young fan he considered “a superlatively discriminating reader of contemporary American novels.” Handwritten recipes (Salinger liked to cook) and a Marx Brothers video from his movie collection offer more glimpses of the man behind Holden.
Salinger’s unpublished fiction remains under wraps, but among the exhibit’s highlights is a one-page letter he drafted for a 1980s court case, asserting that, despite publishing “very seldom and very reluctantly…I positively rejoice to imagine that, sooner or later, the finished product safely goes to the ideal private reader.”
There are time-yellowed letters exchanged with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, who praised Salinger’s writing as “straight, good and fine” after they met in France during World War II. A row of his books, translated into a dizzying array of languages, encircles the intimate exhibit space. And who would have guessed that the detective novels of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Georges Simenon were at his bedside during his final years?
The venue and the holiday-season timing are fitting. In the novel, Caulfield, facing expulsion from private school, crashes for the night at nearby Grand Central Terminal and then wanders along Fifth Avenue, scoffing at the “fairly Christmasy” atmosphere and the “scraggy-looking Santa Clauses” on the street corners.
And the timing is apt in another way; almost 10 years after Salinger’s death at age 91, the fiction he once confessed to writing “passionately” and “insatiably” in the decades after Catcher is being prepared for publication. The New York Public Library exhibit is a window into Salinger’s life (his life “and all,” as Holden Caulfield is fond of saying) during those long years of seclusion.
We’ll soon see what he was up to.
[Photo by Dean Jobb.]
Dean Jobb is the author of Empire of Deception, the true story of a master swindler who scammed the elite of 1920s Chicago. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Follow him on Twitter at @DeanJobb.