David Itzkoff's piece in The New York Times today about nine letters sent from a 22-year-old (pre-Catcher in the Rye) J.D. Salinger to a young Toronto woman reveals that the author was flirty, a bit of a fibber, and maybe a little bit heartbroken, with all the tenuous bravado of a young man. It was in 1941 that Salinger began to write to Marjorie Sheard, who was also in her 20s and also dreamed of becoming a writer. Salinger's short story about "a prep school kid on his Christmas vacation" named Holden was about to be published in The New Yorker, and his editor wanted more about the character. (Catcher would be turned down for excerpt by the magazine, though. Editors told him that the "precocity of the four Caulfield children was not believable, and that the writing was showoffy.")
But before all that, Salinger, who signed his name "Jerry S.," was writing to Marjorie. "In this correspondence, which has been acquired by the Morgan Library & Museum and shared with The New York Times," writes Itzkoff, "the unsettled young Salinger reveals himself to be as playful, passionate and caustic as Holden Caulfield, the self-questioning adolescent who would become his most enduring creation."
Kenneth Slawenski, author of a Salinger biography, says the author's bravado at that time may have been "all he had at that point." In Jerry's letters to Marjorie, he advises her on literary magazines to submit to, and shows the fine art of a backhanded compliment, telling her “seems to me you have the instincts to avoid the usual Vassar-girl tripe." He asks her what she looks like, requests a large photo, and then apologizes for that request. After she sends a picture, he tells her she's pretty. He also tells her he was supposed to get married on furlough but didn't, which may refer to his brief relationship with Oona O'Neill, Eugene O'Neill's daughter. (Slawenski says O'Neill broke his heart by marrying Charlie Chaplin.) Oh, and then there are book recommendations! Salinger tells Marjorie to read Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon. She responds that she doesn't much like Fitzgerald or Hemingway, considering them manipulative: "one feels oneself tricked into feeling sympathy for entirely undeserving and rather tiresome people" in their writing, she explains.
Lost-and-found letters can only say so much, but there's something deeply romantic about the way they bring the past to the present again. Sheard is now 95 and living in a nursing home. She gave the letters to a relative and they were sold to the Morgan to help pay for her healthcare. The history, or at least, what we know of it for the reclusive Salinger, is public history. But the letters also reveal truths about Sheard, who "never became a published writer and lived most of her life as a housewife in a modest apartment," with a shoebox of letters from a famous author stashed away in her closet.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.