Page last updated at 14:13 GMT, Tuesday, 16 March 2010

JD Salinger letters shine light on a recluse

By Claire Prentice
New York

JD Salinger
JD Salinger comes across as a good friend and devoted father in his letters

A collection of previously unseen letters written by the famously reclusive Catcher in the Rye author JD Salinger, who died in January, has gone on show at a New York museum.

Out of respect for the author's desire for privacy, the Morgan Museum & Library has kept the letters under lock and key since it acquired them in 1998.

But now, following Salinger's death, aged 91, the museum is making the manuscripts public, and shedding light on one of the 20th Century's most elusive authors.

"The letters don't detract in any way from the image people have of Salinger, they enhance and burnish it," says Declan Kiely, the curator of the exhibition.

"They show that he wasn't this weirdo, reclusive, bizarre man that many people have come to think of him as."

Written between 1951 and 1993, the letters are full of acerbic wit, insight, playfulness, self-deprecating humour and a nostalgic yearning for simpler times.

Almost everybody I've ever known lets me know... how unhealthily, how selfishly, how unproductively I'm living my life, going years without publishing, not meeting anybody
JD Salinger in one of his letters

They provide a revealing insight into the thoughts, interests and daily habits of the New York-born author.

The recipient of the letters, which were mostly written on a typewriter and signed "Jerry" in Salinger's own hand, was E Michael Mitchell.

A friend and former neighbour, Mitchell designed the book jacket for Salinger's best-selling novel, The Catcher in the Rye.

In a voice which could be that of The Catcher in the Rye's central character, disaffected teenager Holden Caulfield, Salinger variously addresses Mitchell as "buddyroo", "old orange" and "old toot".

Avid writer

The publication in 1951 of his seminal coming-of-age novel brought Salinger fame and the adoration of fans. It has sold 65 million copies worldwide.

Salinger loathed the attention and soon after its publication he became a recluse.

JD Salinger letters
The letters suggest self-doubt prevented Salinger from publishing new work

Until now, little has been known about Salinger's life during his lengthy self-imposed seclusion. The letters reveal that, though he stopped publishing in 1965, he continued to work steadily.

He reports that he would sit down at his desk at 6am each day to write, not stopping until noon.

In a letter dated 16 October 1966, Salinger writes, "I have 10, 12 years' work piled around... I have two particular scripts - books, really - that I've been hoarding and picking at for years... I don't know when I'll feel moved to take any action with them."

The words he speaks of were never published.

Now scholars, publishers and fans are eagerly waiting to see whether any new Salinger works will appear.

The letters are peppered with references to politics and figures from popular culture, including John Wayne, Eddie Murphy and Nancy Reagan.

"They show he was fully engaged with the world even after he withdrew from it," says Kiely.

'Old goat'

The author describes his growing disillusionment with the world and his anger at the intrusions of the media, fans and would-be biographers.

Salinger writes, "almost everybody I've ever known lets me know... how unhealthily, how selfishly, how unproductively I'm living my life, going years without publishing, not meeting anybody".

Kiley says the letters never "reveal his reasons for not publishing but it seems to be largely self-doubt".

In one letter, the author describes having "so many middle-aged beliefs and burdensome doubts at work in the mind," he notes.

Salinger was married three times and had two children. In a letter written in 1985, when he was 66, he writes, "Old goat that I am, I still occasionally propose marriage to anybody who passes by my window."

The dark tone of the later letters is in stark contrast to his earlier missives in which Salinger describes riding on the New York subway, visiting the Natural History Museum, eating Chinese food and going to a party at the London home of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.

Overall, says Kiely, the letters illuminate "a much more attractive, fully human side of Salinger".

"You come away with the impression that he was a very good friend and a devoted father."

JD Salinger's letters are on display at the Morgan Museum & Library in New York, in two phases, from 16 March until 9 May.

Print Sponsor

Catcher In The Rye novelist dies
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