Peter W. Fulham | Writing from: The College of the Holy Cross
In 1981, the summer after my father’s junior year in college, his girlfriend at the time invited him to stay with her family at their summer home in Cornish, N.H. They went out to take a walk one day and came across a secluded driveway. My father’s girlfriend turned to him and said, “Let’s go say hello to J.D.” My father stared back. “J.D. who?” he asked.
His girlfriend replied, nonchalantly, “J.D. Salinger.”
My father had read The Catcher in the Rye by then, but he was not completely aware of Salinger’s reputation for reclusiveness. He remembered, however, as they approached the house, having “the sense not to stick a notebook in front of him and ask for his autograph.” They walked up the long driveway and saw Salinger – who, it turns out, was a family friend of his girlfriend – on the second-floor porch of his chalet style house. My father’s girlfriend waved to the famous author, and Salinger waved back. ”Come on up!” Salinger called, and the two of them climbed an outside staircase to the porch.
Salinger, according to my father, wore rumpled khakis and a button-down Oxford shirt and had, by then, salt and pepper hair. They talked for about twenty minutes. The visit, my father said, “was not just a polite fluff-off. He was genuinely interested in us and in our lives.” He was “soft spoken but warm.” They talked about the girlfriend’s family, about college, their plans for the day. And that was that. Everyone shook hands, and my dad left, in awe, trying, as he remembered, “to play it cool.” This was, of course, nearly impossible. Who else stopped by J.D. Salinger’s house “just to say hello”?
This story – which is, of course, hardly my own – is my one claim to a piece of J.D. Salinger, a man it seemed almost everyone wanted a piece of. His life stands, in many ways, in defiance of everything that constitutes modern Celebrity Culture in America. He lived in almost complete isolation from the literary world, and although many suspect he continued to write late into his life, the last story he published was in 1965, for The New Yorker. He once told The New York Times: “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing… I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”
The main character of Salinger’s third book, Franny and Zooey, perhaps gives us a hint into the author’s reasoning. As Salinger’s Franny Glass explains: “Just because I’m so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else’s values, and just because I like applause and people to rave about me, doesn’t make it right. I’m ashamed of it. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I’m sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of a splash.”
Salinger made a splash even when he didn’t want to – famous for not wanting to be famous, admired for wanting more than anything to be left alone.
But his writing was anything but reclusive. His sentences were miraculous, emerging onto the page as though they were direct transcripts of conversations in prep school dorm rooms, in hotel bars across New York. The first time I read The Catcher in the Rye, I was in eighth grade, at summer camp. I read it again as a junior at boarding school, and I was even more impressed. It seemed as though everyone I knew had once dealt with some real life rendition of Stradlater – Holden Caulfield’s unbearable roommate – or an even more condescending version of Holden’s history teacher, Mr. Spencer.
As I grew older, I would hustle Catcher on almost every friend I made. (“You have to read this. It will change your life,” I would always explain.) And I’m happy to say that many of my friends enjoyed it in the same way as I did. The joy you extrapolated from The Catcher in The Rye was the much-needed reminder that whenever you felt overwhelmed by the falseness of the people around you – as teenagers often do – at least you weren’t alone. You could read J.D. Salinger.
This week, many news organizations tried to remember Salinger, who died on Wednesday, by showing the haunting picture of the fearful and elderly author fending off a photographer or by re-visiting the two memoirs – one by his daughter, Margaret, and another by his former lover, Joyce Maynard – that eroded some of his cherished privacy.
But I will always remember Salinger as the author of a very good book, whose narrator once explains what many of his readers must realize, especially right now, to be true: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”