Desperately Seeking Salinger
Our quest for the country’s most elusive author ends where it began, but along the way, lessons are learned.
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where he was born, and what his lousy childhood was like, and how his parents were occupied and all before they had him, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place that stuff bores me, and in the second place he and his lawyer would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told you anything pretty personal about him. He’s quite touchy about anything like that.
You probably know much about J.D. Salinger already. In 1951, he wrote a book called “The Catcher in the Rye,” which was about a restless, unstable prep school kid who thinks everyone’s a phony, wonders where the Central Park ducks go when the lagoon freezes, and has an endless supply of cab fare to get around Manhattan for 15 chapters. Salinger wrote some other things, none of which got the same kind of acclaim that his one novel did.
In 1953 the man who was on his way to selling 40 million rufous-colored books, left Cosmopolita for Cornish, N.H. For the elites who dissected every page of Catcher as if it were the Torah, for the thousands of English teachers who assigned it in class, and for the rabble-rousers who couldn’t get it banned fast enough, Cornish seemed like the most far-flung place a man could go. To them, it seemed like Salinger had removed himself to the end of the earth.
Which really ought to rub Cornish the wrong way.
For more than 50 years, Jerome David Salinger has been a resident of New Hampshire. Today there some legitimate heavyweight authors who call the Granite State home – Jodi Picoult, Janet Evanovich, Tomie DePaola and some teacher from the Rye who wrote a DaVinci book of some note. But the giant of giants, the Grand Pooh-bah of the written page, is J.D. Salinger.
In Catcher, Holden Caulfield said that after reading a great book “you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Well, don’t bother looking up Salinger’s number. If you didn’t know that the writer of the most revered 20th-century novel lived in New Hampshire, it’s probably because the man keeps an extremely low profile. Since 1980 there’ve been more Loch Ness sightings than Salinger sightings.
Much of his acclaim is from inking a for-the-ages novel of teenage ennui, but much of his mystique comes from his self-imposed exile in the woods of the Upper Valley. Salinger made Holden Caulfield, but New Hampshire made J.D. Salinger.
At least the myth of J.D. Salinger.
On this particular Saturday, I find myself at the 12% Solution convenience store on Route 12-A in Cornish. Although I have no facts to back this up, I believe this store is where the famous author comes to get his Hot Lotto tickets and his Slim Jims.
“Can you point me to J.D. Salinger’s house,” I ask 19-year-old cashier Kelly Gray.
“Um, I don’t know where it is.”
This, of course, is part of the mystique – the myth of J.D. Salinger. Everyone knows despite his millions the old man lives in a humble home in the woods. He goes about town in a Jeep, sporting a high-and-tight regulation haircut. (Salinger was a World War II veteran who landed at Utah Beach on D-day. He was among the first Americans to liberate a German concentration camp, an experience so traumatizing he was later hospitalized with “battle fatigue.”) Salinger passes among the other residents of Cornish, who seem to have an otherworldly ability to recognize him. But none of the residents will tell an outsider where Salinger lives or how to otherwise disturb his exile.
For Cornish residents, nothing will break this Omertà. Not charm. Not threats. Not even an Alpha Ceti V desert eel dropping in your ear canal (like happened to Chekov in “Wrath of Kahn”).
“During fall,” Gray says, “tourists come and ask where the house is. But I don’t know. If he came in here I wouldn’t know him.”
It’s probably true. Perhaps not everyone in town can identify the man who’s spent half a century as America’s best-known recluse. The uninvited and unannounced who darken his door are run off by Salinger, who imparts no bon mots for them.
Salinger’s reluctance to seek attention, his spurring of the press and public, only makes him that much more desirable to readers and reporters alike. His audacity to fade away resulted in hundreds making pilgrimages to find him, talk to him, understand him. French writer Frédéric Beigbeder documented his trip to the hermitage in the 2008 film “Catching Salinger.” This April a British journalist knocked on Salinger’s door and was turned away without an interview (the reporter was later skewered by critics for pointlessly harassing a 90-year-old man). In 1988 two New York Post photographers stalked Salinger for three days; they finally boxed in his car at the Purity Supreme in West Lebanon and lens-raped the old man like he was Amy Winehouse stumbling out of Le Circe.
Legend has it that Salinger’s favorite restaurant is Lou’s in Hanover, around the corner from Dartmouth. I sit at the counter, where I imagine Salinger has ordered numerous BLT’s and buffalo chicken wraps over the years, and work on my opening line. What does one say to the reclusive genius to gain entry to his home?
Though he has not published a book since 1963, Salinger continues to make headlines. While his editors have been given little to do in decades, his lawyers stay busy – mostly blocking books and articles written about him or his works. (Note to any Salinger lawyer reading this article: the correct spelling of my name is J-O-H-N C-L-A-Y-T-O-N.) In June of this year Salinger’s lawyers moved to stop publication of an unauthorized sequel to Catcher written by a knave named “J.D. California.” In 1996, Salinger won the battle with Ian Hamilton to keep his private letters out of his biography, but he lost the war as those letters were made public as part of the court record.
“Hey,” I ask the veteran waitress at Lou’s, “how often does J.D. Salinger come in here?”
“Who?” she responds. “I’ve never seen him.”
Either the Omertà is pretty solid or I just have no luck. Something deep inside makes me want to call her a “crummy phony.”
Salinger’s attempts to avoid publicity in New Hampshire have been thwarted often. In 1972 the 53-year-old divorcee began a brief relationship with 18-year-old writer Joyce Maynard who later discussed their intimate details in her 1998 book, “At Home in the World.” (Contacted for this article, Maynard said all she had to say about JDS she put in her book.) His daughter, Margaret, wrote a 1999 memoir titled “Dream Catcher.”
Both women described a man – still shell-shocked from the war – who spent cher. his Cornish years writing new works with no intention to publish them. The manuscripts were kept in a locked safe in his study. Book lovers with a Godot-like desire for a new Salinger tome salivated.
In 1992 a fire destroyed half of his woodland house. Salinger and his younger third wife, Colleen O’Neill, were not hurt. What the fire did to his decades of unpublished works is unknown.
I ask Paul Toms, owner of the Salmon P. Chase Bed and Breakfast, if tourists ask for directions to Salinger’s home. “Um . yes.” he cryptically answers. Why is it, I quizzed, that everyone in town plays along? Why don’t people point him out? Why don’t they sell maps to his house? Why don’t moose tours swing past his driveway?
“He moved here for his privacy since before I was born,” Toms answers. Why not spill the bean? The answer is steeped in small town culture, older than any book or reclusive celebrity. “I expect I don’t say for the same reason that I would want them to respect my privacy.”
Salinger’s address can be obtained. The house is near the junction of two obscure roads. It’s set back down a wooded driveway. It’s a long, contemplative walk to the front door. This must be what Dorothy felt like walking into Oz’s throne room.
Before I knock and ask for the mysterious author, I must ask myself why? Why would anyone really want to come to this place and defy his clear wishes to be left alone? Why do we want to pull back the curtain on his mystique?
His lawyers say that the 90-year-old Salinger is now completely deaf, and is recovering from a recent hip replacement. I had to read his book in 10th grade; does the author owe me something for that? Or do I owe him something for his contribution to my understanding of literature? My understanding of my own dissatisfaction?
I turn around and leave the door undisturbed. J.D. Salinger is no longer an author. For the better part of his life he’s been Jerry, a resident of Cornish, N.H.
Catch my drift? NH
Encounter with Salinger by By Edward Jackson Bennett
About 35 years ago I was a neighbor of the reclusive writer, J.D. Salinger in Cornish, New Hampshire, where the author still lives.
I had moved to Cornish to live alone for a year. I was going through a divorce, and after attending to the responsibilities as publisher of the Claremont Daily Eagle, my remote cottage in Cornish was a place to retire alone to read, write, take long walks on remote country roads, and to generally lick my wounds and reassess life.
I soon learned that the mysterious and celebrated author lived not far away, and it was not long before we silently passed on our solitary walks about the countryside. I knew who he was and I’m sure Salinger knew who I was, but since the Eagle had been the only newspaper in the country to have published an interview with the reclusive author, he was not about to cozy up to its publisher.
Several years before, a Cornish girl attending Windsor, Vermont High School was able to charm Salinger into giving this interview. Salinger no doubt thought the interview would not go beyond the high school paper, but like others in the area, the school paper was in fact a high school page that appeared periodically in the Claremont Daily Eagle, and was an integral part of the afternoon daily newspaper. It was not long before the interview was picked up by other newspapers and the wire services. For many years after its first publication, the Eagle received requests for copies of Salinger’s interview, many world-wide.
As the harsh winter of 1968 gave way to long days of March sunshine, I would often make up a small pitcher of martinis on Sundays and sit outside in the sunshine, hand-feeding chickadees and watching flocks of pine siskins and evening grossbeaks sweep in and out of the branches of the large sugar maple in front of the cottage.
On such a Sunday, J. D. Salinger sauntered by. We waved our usual silent exchange; then on the spur of the moment I said, “Come up and have a martini.”
Salinger paused, I’m sure to consider the dangers of any such rupture in our mute relationship. Then he made his move, striding up to me with a hand extended. We made no introductions, nor were names exchanged. Instead we chatted about the hard winter, the birds, and whether or not we’d be planting peas this May in that upland country.
I did not mention Salinger’s books, all of which I had tried to read, but later set aside as incomprehensible. To excuse myself and my ignorance, I reasoned that Salinger was a genius, whereas I, a pedestrian plodder in the world, was an unworthy beggar at the shrine of enlightenment.
Salinger thanked me for the libation, but before he left I said, “I see by Friday’s Eagle that we do have something in common besides being silent neighbors.” Salinger was puzzled. I pointed out to him a clipping which listed divorces granted at the January term of court. The name Salinger appeared next to Bennett. Our divorce decrees had been granted, quite coincidentally, at the same time. A trace of what might be called a smile creased Salinger’s somber countenance.
“You have a point there,” he said, “and perhaps we share other similarities, too. Thanks for the drink.” If there were any other likenesses between Salinger and me I never found them out, for so long as I lived in Cornish we resumed our previous relationship -passing by one another, like ships in the night.
Edward Jackson Bennett is a former N.H. State Senator and Representative who at one time owned weekly and daily newspapers in N.H. and Vermont. His paper the Claremont Daily Eagle became The Eagle Times in 1974 and served the region until announcing it was ceasing operations just as this issue went to press. Bennett was a resident of Bridgewater and at last report was on assignment in Honduras with the Peace Corps.