The Booky Man: Private Thoughts on J.D. Salinger

Books Features J.D. Salinger
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The most famous anonymous citizen of Cornish, New Hampshire, in a desperate move for more privacy, recently relocated at age 91 to Writer’s Heaven.

He lives on the back forty of paradise, some sugar maples around the cabin, a couple of three-headed dogs in the yard. There’s a chain across the driveway to keep out litourists.

He’s already complained to local authorities about the noise from nightly parties at the nearby Capote and Fitzgerald mansions. Random gunshots from the Hunter S. Thompson cabin have also drawn angry calls.

Salinger’s only visitor to date, Emily Dickinson, floated over at twilight the week after his arrival. She wore gauzy, Stevie-Nicks flowing white, something she found in an old truck. She brought a pot roast.

Booky Man reader, has there been a better story in all of literature, a better mystery, than why J.D. Salinger went into self-imposed seclusion in 1953?

Bad news followed when Hemingway pulled that trick back in 1962 in his Idaho cabin. They found him with a big red Rorschach blot on the ceiling over his head. (It looked like his mother.)

Ditto when Richard Brautigan dropped from view in 1984. A private eye found Brautigan a month after he’d parked a .44 slug in his head. The home in California where he’d holed up was also shot to hell—bullet holes in walls, doors, ceilings.

Salinger’s withdrawal didn’t appear to be motivated by depression. He did crack up after terrible experiences in World War II, but the PTSD appeared to be manageable. By every account, Salinger simply coveted normal, mundane days.

Maybe he just wanted hours the doorbell didn’t ring with someone asking to have a book signed. Days the phone didn’t ring with questions from students about how to get an agent. Months not duckbit down to hours by the starmaker machinery. The luxury of time to sit down at the typewriter and do what writers do—write.

Or, if you believe the unflattering words penned by his daughter, Margaret, published in a year 2000 memoir called Dream Catchers: A Memoir, Salinger needed his privacy to speak in tongues and drink his own piss. He also—famously—needed privacy to carry on a year-long affair at age 53 with an 18-year-old Yale coed.

Most fascinating—if true—is a neighbor’s account of a huge safe in Salinger’s home stuffed with completed manuscripts—new novels. The British gossip tabloid, The Mirror, gave the neighbor’s story, reporting “as many as 15 books” in Salinger’s safe. If true, Salinger wrote them in a concrete bunker in his Cornish home after he published his last short story in 1965.

Is there really a safe filled with 45 years of Salinger novels? If so, it’s the greatest hidden literary treasure since the Dead Sea Scrolls.

But I wonder something. Doesn’t the most fervent Salinger fan consider hoarding works a deeply heinous crime? Is the crime so wicked it would justify his relocation to a hot, not heavenly, afterlife? Should Salinger burn in hell for all eternity…on weekends?

What does a writer really owe the world? Himself? His readers?

Heaven knows. New Salinger manuscripts could leave us hotly engaged in discussing these questions very soon, very loud, and for a very long time.

Charles McNair is Paste‘s books editor. His novel Land o’ Goshen was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.