Previously unseen letters written by JD Salinger and donated to the University of East Anglia shed new light on the ‘reclusive’ American author.
Salinger, who died a year ago aged 91, is best-known for his novel The Catcher in the Rye, which became a bestseller when it was published in 1951. In subsequent years he gained a reputation as an eccentric recluse who fiercely guarded his privacy and shunned the publishing world.
However, the UEA collection of 50 typed letters and four handwritten postcards, which date from October 22 1986 to January 30 2002, show a different side to Salinger - one of warmth, humour and friendship.
The letters were sent to Donald Hartog, from London, who met Salinger in 1937 when they were both 18 and sent by their fathers to learn German in Vienna, Austria. The pair stayed in touch after their return home in 1938 and continued to write to each other until the 1950s, though these early letters no longer survive.
Mr Hartog worked in the food trade as an importer and exporter, and after several decades with no contact wrote to Salinger in 1986, following reports of a planned unauthorised biography of the writer. Salinger replied and their correspondence started up again, with the frequency of letters varying from once a month to every few months over the years. When Mr Hartog died in 2007 the letters passed to his children, who have now donated them to the UEA Archives.
“Although the letters are about quite mundane subjects, they are very moving, especially the way Salinger refers to my father and their old friendship,” said his daughter Frances. “There is tremendous warmth and affection towards my father and this is so different to the man Salinger is often portrayed as. The letters have been sitting in a drawer, but hopefully by being in the archive they will show people another side to him.”
Ms Hartog added: “I think there was this extra bond between my father and Salinger because they met before the war. The letters are very touching, because it’s a man growing older, and they are written very much in the style of his books - casual but using exactly the right words.
“This isn’t the fighting Salinger of the 1960s, though he talks quite aggressively about publishing and publicity. He wanted to be published, but what he appears not to have liked was that it wasn’t just about what you published, it was about you.”
Addressing Mr Hartog as Don and signing the letters as Jerry, Salinger talks about everyday topics; from politics, the weather, his family and being a grandfather, his home in Cornish, New Hampshire and the vegetables he grows, to his views on tennis and who should win Wimbledon, his enjoyment of church suppers and recommending fast-food chain hamburgers.
He refers to their increasing old age and various associated health issues, and remembers fondly the time he spent with Mr Hartog in Vienna, before Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany, and the people they met and places they went to, such as the Eislaufverein skating rink. Salinger takes an interest in Mr Hartog’s family, at one point offering to his help his three children, and suggests books that might be of interest and sends cuttings of magazine articles he might like.
The letters also reveal that despite the public perception of Salinger as a recluse he did travel, though he admits he does not enjoy it. Among the trips he describes are driving from Vienna to Southampton with his son, going on a three-day bus tour to Niagara Falls and visiting the Grand Canyon.
In April 1989 Salinger travelled to London to visit Mr Hartog and attend his 70th birthday dinner. In a letter just before the trip, he talks about their plans, which include seeing a Chekhov or Alan Ayckbourn play, visiting Whipsnade Zoo and dinner at the Savoy Hotel.
Ms Hartog, who met Salinger when he visited, said: “I didn’t really want to meet him because I liked his writing and was worried he might live up to his reputation and be rather unpleasant, but he wasn’t at all, he was utterly charming.”
In October 1992 Salinger describes the fire that badly damaged his home and how he and his wife Colleen O’Neill had to escape through a window in his workroom. A year later he talks about the ongoing rebuilding work and plans for a visit Mr Hartog made to them in the US in 1994. Salinger is honest about his dislike of publishers but says he continues to work on his writing, and in 1997 is considering publishing a short story, Hapworth 16, 1924, which appeared in The New Yorker in 1965, as a book.
The correspondence from Salinger stops in 2002 but his wife continued writing to Mr Hartog until his death. Ms Hartog decided to donate the letters from Salinger to UEA because of its reputation for literature, creative writing and American studies.
Professor of American Studies Chris Bigsby said the letters provide a unique insight into someone who was the subject of much controversy. He added: “Salinger had this reputation as a recluse, that he kept himself to himself. There is nothing startling in these letters, but that is what is so interesting about them. This is another Salinger, this is an ordinary Salinger, not the reclusive, angry person people thought he was.”
The JD Salinger – Hartog Letters are available for interested members of the public and researchers to consult, by appointment only. For further details visit www.uea.ac.uk/is/archives
Photo: UEA/Tristan Conor Holden