To J.D. Salinger, With Love, Gratitude and Frustration

Special to the Times

“J.D. Salinger is about as likely to discuss his writing craft on national television as he is to respond to any of the letters in this book,” admits Will Hochman in “Letters to J.D. Salinger,” a book he co-edited with Chris Kubica collecting epistolary thoughts composed to Salinger by readers, fellow writers and scholars. The fact that no response can be expected from the recluse author is a primary reason for the book. Salinger’s work has always stirred fiery emotion in his readers and there’s dammed-up frustration among his fans due to his immutable silence of nearly four decades.

In the half-century following publication of “The Catcher in the Rye,” a novel that celebrated antihero traits such as alienation and disaffection, Holden Caulfield’s creator remains an enigma. Certainly, Salinger’s work has stood the test of time. He’s received more critical attention than almost any other post- World War II American writer, and his short stories featuring the Glass family as well as “Catcher” continue to capture readers as each new generation encounters them. My 13-year-old son is one of his most recent fans. Yet Salinger refuses communication with those wishing to lionize him. In choosing aloofness, Salinger has cemented the intrigue with which we view him and heightened our desire to know him.

The question of whether an author owes his audience anything after the fact of publication is at the core of this book. Many letter writers feel cheated by Salinger’s silence, personally affronted by his refusal to engage in public discourse. Others believe they’ve received from Salinger all they could hope for and write simply to express gratitude. Some ask craft questions; still others lay the blame of their own writing at his feet. “Composing the pieces that make up ‘Nine Stories,’ you probably had no inkling of the damage for which you would be responsible, and my own stories are some of it,” writes poet and fiction writer David Huddle, adding: "[S]hould you run across a story of mine in some journal that makes its way to your house, don’t read it. It’ll just irk you.” “I imagine this book as a sort of shadow (or readers’) biography of Salinger,” explains co-editor Kubica. The letters are for us, Salinger’s readers. In fact, some of the letters only touch on Salinger, yet show how deeply his words affect us. The novelist Melanie Rae Thon writes as much to her deceased father as to Salinger: “My dear father. I am supposed to write a letter to J.D. Salinger, and I am writing to you instead, but I am thinking of a girl in one of his stories....” The poet and fiction writer Adrian C. Louis tells Salinger flat out that “this letter is not to you. And, it’s not really to me either. It’s to Maurice Moyle, my high school English teacher in Yerington, Nevada ... the guy that made me love literature.” In the entries we get a sense of the impact the author’s words have had on everyone from prep-school kids to inner-city adults, those raised to love literature and those who stumbled upon it via Salinger’s words. This is the reader-response school of literary theory in action, giving us not an ivory-tower look at Salinger’s place in the canon of American literature, but a personalized exploration of what his works mean. As a project, it’s a fascinating demonstration of how powerful literature can be. It also prompted me to dust off my old Salinger volumes to relive the moment when I first discovered him.

The final section of the book features a sampling of posts from Kubica’s Web site and is by far the least interesting. Rife with bad writing, these postings are more reflective of how poorly we communicate electronically and how free we feel to spew venom when we’re not writing hard-copy letters. The rest, though, is worth a read.

Katharine Weber, a novelist and Yale writing teacher, describes receiving six advance copies of her first novel in 1995 and sending one, with a touching inscription, to Salinger in thanks for his inspiration. The package was returned, a month later, marked “refused.” “Ever since then, it has sat on a high shelf in my study, a constant rebuke to me from you. How dare I send you my first novel with its presumptuous inscription! Who did I think I was? Who did I think you were?”

Fiction writer Andy Selsberg counsels Salinger that he doesn’t have to read the letters. “You don’t have to explain. We’ve got what we need.” Novelist Tom Robbins tells Salinger that by disappearing, he made the right decision. “I’ve sometimes wished that I’d followed your example, although I’d have missed meeting hundreds of wonderful people,” and novelist Jim Harrison offers this uplifting thought: “Tu Fu, perhaps the greatest Chinese poet, published no books in his lifetime but did quite well afterwards.”