Handling mail for J.D. Salinger is an eye-opener

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Every culture has its central rite of passage--a pilgrimage, a quest, a time of testing.

For Americans and their cultural fellow travelers, the defining experience is adolescent alienation. What better preparation, after all, for life in a society where the worship of autonomy has turned individualism into isolation?

Hence the enduring popularity of J.D. Salinger and his iconically alienated creations, Holden Caulfield and the family Glass.

Earlier this year, for example, Web sites across the Internet fairly vibrated with excitement over reports that the reclusive author would soon be bringing out his long-anticipated, book-length version of “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which appeared as a novella in a 1965 issue of the New Yorker. even began booking advance orders. But although Salinger’s agent and publisher confirmed that such a manuscript exists, both denied that publication was imminent.

Salinger, in fact, has not published new work in almost 40 years, which is why the September/October issue of Book magazine promises to be something of an event. It contains an article by novelist Joanna Smith Rakoff--"My Salinger Year"--in which she recounts the months she spent working as a secretary at Harold Ober Associates, the Manhattan literary agency that represents the author of “The Catcher in the Rye.”

One of her duties at the agency was answering the author’s fan mail, an assignment that was hers because Salinger refuses to read or even to take receipt of the letters that continue to pour in from around the world.

How Rakoff changed the way the mail was handled--and how she, in turn, was changed by it--is the narrative spine of her extended reflection on Salinger’s enduring popularity.

Her story, which included a meeting with Salinger, is a source of satisfaction to Book’s editor, Jerome V. Kramer. [“Salinger is the Holy Grail for people on the pop cultural side of the literary world,” he said. “He is so successfully secretive that anything that provides this sort of neat insight into him is fascinating.

“Salinger still captures our imagination because the wisdom and specificity of his characters have made him the philosopher of adolescence,” Kramer said, “and I think this piece helps explain why new generations are still being drawn to him at a certain period in their lives. Part of his appeal is that nobody has ever come up with a better strategy for maintaining their integrity in this media-saturated culture than by bowing out of it. Just getting a glimpse of him, as you do in Joanna’s piece, is a reaffirmation for many people.”

Committed Salingerites probably will delight in Rakoff’s crisp description of their idol’s current living arrangements:

“Finally, you need to go to New Hampshire, where a tall, dark-eyed man meditates in the back room of his simple, wood-frame house. In his eighties now and mostly deaf, he thrives on routine: Each morning, he rises, eats breakfast, kisses his wife goodbye and heads to his study, where he meditates and, allegedly, writes. He is a Buddhist, a vegetarian, the son of a man who made his living processing meat. His wife, 30 years his junior, is a nurse at the local hospital. She enjoys weaving tapestries. He enjoys watching television. A satellite dish crowns the top of their farmhouse.

“Every five years or so, he visits New York, the city in which he was born and raised, the city he made intimate--and eccentrically romantic--for several generations of readers. He hates the city now, but he needs to come, needs to meet with his agent [Phyllis Westberg], make sure she’s handling the business of his books in exactly the way he likes. He visits her office and they head out to lunch. He says hello to the low-voiced girl who assists his agent, the girl who fields his questions about royalties and contracts, repeating her answers three and four times on the days when he doesn’t feel like using his special amplified phone, bought for him by his wife.”

When she was first assigned to answer Salinger’s mail, Rakoff recalls, she was handed “a few crumbling, yellowed carbon copies of sample responses,” composed in the 1960s. At first, she used them, but gradually her impression of Salinger’s fans changed. They were, she writes “smart. They were misfits. And, for all their cynical posturing, what they loved about Holden was not just his smart-alecky whining or his refusal to conform to adult expectations, but his hopeless, dewy-eyed naivete, his utter idealism.

“If Holden were to write a letter to Salinger, he too would hope to hell that somehow, some way, that irascible hermit would write a ... letter back.”

And since the hermit wouldn’t, Rakoff did--individual, not form, replies. She was particularly taken with a remarkably eloquent and sincere 16-year-old from North Carolina, who had read “The Catcher in the Rye” three times and hoped one day to write a novel like it of his own. Rakoff had the boy’s letter in her desk drawer one day in 1996, when she met Salinger face to face.

Two questions occur:

“‘You are probably wondering, right about now,” she writes, “if I signed my own name to the letters I wrote to Salinger’s fans--or if I actually pretended to be Salinger, signed a loopy ‘J.D.’ at the bottom of the page.”

And, finally, what did Rakoff do when she finally met the author?

“When the actual J.D. Salinger--with his thin gray hair and saucer-sized ears and self-deprecating smile--visited our office,” she writes, “I shook his hand (or, really, he shook mine), said, ‘Nice to meet you,’ smoothed my skirt and turned back to my typing. In my desk lay the letter from North Carolina, two neatly typed pages, unfurled from a laser printer, and ending:

“ ‘I’ll write you again soon. I can hardly wait. Anyway, my line of thought is this: If I was the guy who put myself onto paper and I came out in the form of “The Catcher in the Rye,” I’d get a bang out of the [person] who had the nerve to write me a letter pretending (and wanting) to be able to do the same thing.’

“As the door to my boss’ smoke-clogged office closed, a thought slashed through my brain: What if I gave Salinger the letter?”

So, did Rakoff sign her replies with Salinger’s name? Did she violate his decades-long order and hand him the letter from the young man whose idealism and sincerity had touched her so deeply--made him, in her eyes, worthy of his idol’s notice?

The answers, along with other things worth knowing, can be found in the forthcoming issue of Book magazine.

Work in Progress

Daniel Berrigan, now 82, is a Jesuit priest, peace activist and the author of more than 50 books, including “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine":

“I am just finishing reading the proofs for a book that will be coming out in a couple of months. It grows out of our common experience of Sept. 11 here in New York and is a study of the Book of Lamentations of Jeremiah from the Hebrew Bible. It just seemed to me very apropos of what we have been through here. When I began reading that book again shortly after Sept. 11, I thought it offered a genuine biblical counterpoint to the ethos of revenge and war that has so thoroughly gripped Mr. Bush and those around him.

“The Lamentations seemed to me to be a book trying to guide us through our recovery from anger and grief by going through them rather than taking refuge in retaliation. It runs the whole emotional gamut experienced by those of us who have taken care of survivors and the families of those who didn’t survive. It points the way to something better than killing for killing, which is mainly what our government has offered us.”