Displayed under glass in the hushed, marbled precincts of the Morgan Library in Manhattan, the letters of J.D. Salinger to his friend Michael Mitchell feel incongruous. It’s not just their colloquial, occasionally profane tone, instantly recognizable to anyone who has read Catcher in the Rye. Reading the personal letters of America’s most famous literary recluse would be discomfiting under any circumstances, but somehow it feels particularly transgressive here, under the vigilant eye of a security guard in a room that also houses a Gutenberg Bible. The Morgan, which held the letters in secrecy until now (apparently not even the curators were allowed to read them), has said that Salinger’s death absolved the library of any obligation to preserve his vaunted privacy. This logic isn’t entirely convincing, and even the head of the literary and historical manuscripts department admits that Salinger would be “irate, to say the least, that we’re showing them.” Is there any defense for violating the wishes of a man so private that, as he confesses in one of these letters, “I don’t think I have ever in my life answered a ringing telephone without unconsciously gritting my teeth a bit”?
Not that there are any shocking revelations. More than anything else, the letters remind us of how little is actually known about Salinger’s life. Mitchell designed the dust jacket for the first edition of Catcher, showing a giant red carousel horse above a black-and-white sketch of Central Park, and Salinger seems to have counted him among his closest friends. Yet this is what the record of their relationship amounts to: eleven letters over 42 years, with only a few references to visits or meetings. Were there more that Mitchell chose not to sell? (One suspects not, considering the uneven interest of this collection.) Or was this what friendship meant for Salinger? It was a friendship of affection and intimacy, with Salinger addressing Mitchell as “old fart” and sharing numerous thoughts about his writing. But the moments of intimacy, to Mitchell’s evident frustration, seem to have been spaced out over long periods of no contact, as Salinger’s absorption in his work grew more and more complete.
The friendship began in the early 1950s, when Salinger and Mitchell were living near each other in Connecticut. In the first letter, dated May 1951, Salinger gives an account of a visit to his publisher in London. He was 32 years old, Catcher was about to come out (he had already had a number of stories in The New Yorker), and he was thoroughly enjoying life. He gives a joyful account of “tearing around to theater, supper parties,” including a production of Caesar and Cleopatra with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh: “Very good, very pure,” although “the audiences here are just as stupid as they are in New York.” Afterwards he had supper at the Oliviers’ in Chelsea, “a marvellous little house, very posh evening—formal clothes, and all that.” Olivier was a “very nice guy, very bright. He’s knocked out about his wife, which was nice to see. She’s a charmer. Naturally, while we were having drinks in the living room, some gin went up my nose. I damn near left by the window.” This is a Salinger whose voice—snappy and funny, at once worldly and naïve—hasn’t been seen in print before, except in the guise of Holden Caulfield.
Then there is a gap that lasts for all of Salinger’s publishing career. The next letter is dated October 16, 1966, more than a year after The New Yorker published “Hapworth 16, 1924,” the last work of his to be published during his lifetime. By this point Salinger has already been living in seclusion in New Hampshire for about a dozen years. There’s a bit of the old tone in his charming account of a visit to New York with his two children, Peggy and Matthew. “Her usual speed at a restaurant is a double portion of shrimp cocktail, dessert, and milk, with a pickle on the side, if available. Matthew eats lamb chops, almost exclusively.” But his mood is darker. “Thank God we had what we had, Mike,” he says of their Connecticut years. “It’s a big shitty world, and it gets shittier by the minute.”
This letter and the next make it clear that Salinger was continuing to write as committedly as ever. After the children go to sleep in the hotel room, he stays up until 4 a.m. working; later, he describes going to his desk every morning at 6 a.m. and writing until noon. “I have ten, twelve years’ of work piled around, but I don’t know how soon it will be before I feel up to unloading any large part of it. I have two particular scripts [manuscripts]—books, really—that I’ve been hoarding and picking at for years. … I don’t know, though, when I’ll feel moved to take any action with them.” In the next letter, just a few months later, he speaks openly of the significance that writing still has for him:
I have stuff going that I love, but oh God, so slowly, so hesitantly. … So many middle-aged disbeliefs and burdensome doubts at work in the mind. The trick is to use the disbeliefs in the work, not to shy away from them, and that seems to me what we both must do. I mean something much more complicated and subtle than that, but I’ll let it stand. I think I mostly mean that it’s more important, more necessary than ever for us, in our forties, to write and paint only what we want to, in whichever way it comes, and as slowly as it comes.
There is a scribbled note in 1969 to set up a meeting, and then the letters break off till 1979. By this point Salinger is 60 years old; he has been living in New Hampshire for 26 years, and hasn’t published for the last 14. His language hasn’t changed at all, perhaps owing to his isolation: of a woman he writes that “she’ll either turn out to be a knockout or a very interesting-looking long drink of water.” But his tone has altered considerably, from darkness to anger. He writes of two “shitty literary kids” who ambushed him for the sake of a photograph: “The wonder is that I have any kind of face at all left, grim or otherwise. Piss on ’em all.” In the next, at the end of 1983, he seems equally upset about the political situation and about the readers who continually hound him: “Murder in my heart, daily, hourly, incessantly, and you ask if I feel as nasty as ever about planetary affairs. … How ready this wretched planet is for the bomb or more Nancy Reagan.”
In this letter Salinger refers to “our seemingly imperfect rythms [sic] of communication.” Mitchell seems to have chided him for his lack of contact, and if this set of letters is complete, it’s hard to blame him. In the next, not till the following Christmas, Salinger explains that, “I feel closed off from all general or personal conversation, these years, and consort with almost no one but one or two local or distant madwomen.” (He is so out of touch with his family that he flew to London to visit his daughter only to discover she was on vacation in the United States.) Apparently this did not satisfy Mitchell, because the next letter, in April 1985, responds to “the very gray mood that must have brought on your letter.” (Mitchell’s side of the correspondence, presumably somewhere with the rest of Salinger’s papers, has not been made public.) Salinger is defensive but unapologetic. “Much of what is uncomplaining but gently, personally elegiac in your letter has a lot less to do with my prolonged absenteeism than it does with the shittiness of life on the planet.” But he does acknowledge that he has been a difficult friend, though his life, he explains, is not “tellable in any of the normal ways that friends tell each other how things are going”:
For the last twenty years, and more, against very peculiar odds, despite quite a variety of interruptions, intrusions (a lot of them unnecessary and even malefic), I’ve been exploring things, looking into things with my writing, my fiction. What the result of it will ultimately be, I can’t say, and I’m not sure that it’s any of my business. The attractive assignment or task alone is what I wanted. … What I’m mainly trying to say, though, is that I’ve felt unable to afford the marvellous distraction of first-class friendship. … I’ve needed to stew endlessly, unrelievedly in my own juice. That sentence says it all, as far as I know. … Old goat that I am, I still occasionally propose marriage to anybody who passes by my window, but always under the same old selfish terms: that I don’t have to leave my desk, my scripts and my books unless absolutely necessary or convenient.
And then Salinger apparently did not write again for nearly five years, until Christmas 1990, when he sent a short postcard. Another, two years later, reports of a fire at the house that destroyed almost everything except his workroom, where he kept his manuscripts. The final, undated letter comes about a month afterwards, in January 1993. Here Salinger refuses Mitchell’s request for a signed copy of a book. He does it gently: “What’s wrong is that I don’t think I can sign a book anymore. I never did much of it, and the little I did had a peculiarly depressing effect on me, as though the act had nothing whatever to do with real reading and real writing and no good, possibly some ‘bad,’ could come of it. Most stuff that is genuine, anyway, is better left unsaid.” But Mitchell was apparently offended enough by this not only to end their friendship, but to sell the letters—the one thing, he surely knew, that would hurt Salinger most.
It is hard to read these letters, to quote from them, to analyze them, knowing that they come to us through a betrayal. I still have reservations about the Morgan’s decision to put them on display: they might have been kept in the files, accessible on request but not paraded before the public. But I’ve chosen nonetheless to quote from them at length here because of their obvious literary worth. Salinger’s reputation has taken some hits, and critics remain divided over the ultimate value of his work. Perhaps the “scripts” that he was “picking at” for so many years will restore him as one of the great writers of postwar America. Or perhaps they will reflect the hermetic mind of an old crank who eschewed the “distraction of first-class friendship” to “stew” in his “own juice.” Regardless, they offer a view into the writing life of a man whose books—as the crowds at the Morgan attest—were deeply, personally important to his readers. That may not have been any of Salinger’s business, but it is ours.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic.