Friday, January 29, 2010

One Day in Spring 1981

I'd spent part of the day dragging out to the swim club with my mom to get my photo taken for a membership card for the upcoming summer. On the way back, I got her to drop me off at the used bookstore where my literary-magazine friend Dina, a few years older than me, worked part-time. I went home and lay around reading one of the books I'd bought there. Then, late in the evening, inspired by the book and procrastinating on the Hebrew-school homework that was due the next day (I was nearly fifteen, finishing 9th grade, almost two years past my bat mitzvah, but was going to Hebrew high school voluntarily because that's the kind of Jewish dork I was), I got out some lined notebook paper and wrote a letter to the author.

As far as I can remember, I wrote about what I'd done that day, with the swim club and the bookstore, and confessed that I should be doing my Hebrew homework, and enthused about how much I loved the book I'd just finished, and just generally yammered in the kind of artfully artless half-imitative way that a sticky-eared kid of literary inclination is wont to do, especially one who has just finished reading something by an author with a strong and distinctive and catchy style.

I addressed the letter to the publishing company listed on the inside front cover, and more or less forgot about it.

It couldn't have been more than a month later when the envelope came. At first glance, I thought it was junk mail, the kind of junk mail that pretends to be a real letter. The return address was a P.O. box, typewritten, as was my address, with my name spelled correctly, for once.

By the time I got to my room and opened it I could see that it wasn't junk mail. There was a 3-cent stamp stuck next to the 15-cent "America's Cup" pre-stamp printed on the small envelope. The typewriting showed unmistakable signs of being genuine: I'd learned to type on a manual typewriter, myself, and recognized the way the periods in the "N.J." of my address punched practically through the paper. And what kind of junk-mailer would be based in Vermont? I didn't even know anyone in Vermont. Who could...

The way I remember it, I knew before I drew out the single yellow sheet of folded, typewritten paper, before I read the opening lines diffidently expressing surprise that my letter had even reached him, before I saw that distinctive--and rare, even at 14 I had some idea how rare--signature. I swear it's not just hindsight that the buzz of knowing started in my hands, in my stomach, reached somewhere in the back of my brain, before I'd even finished ripping the envelope open (with my fingers, so that the top parted raggedly. Even then, I remember thinking maybe I should detour to the kitchen and get a knife. But I was too impatient.)

I'd be lying if I said I'd never thought about the money. But if I sold it, what would I have? A few thousand dollars, based on prices I've seen for similar items up at auction (and there are similar items; I was far from the only teenage girl who received such a letter. Joyce Maynard complained that when she lived with him he used to hole up in his cottage for hours, writing to adolescent fans. I was a little retrospectively creeped out, hearing that, years later, but the letter I got wasn't creepy at all in itself, certainly wasn't sexual) . And then I would no longer have a letter from Jerome David Salinger, thanking me for my fannish gushings about his last-published, least popular book, Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction.

It's not that I'm so pure that I don't have a price: unlike Maynard, I didn’t have a personal relationship with the letter-writer to betray. But my price for not having that letter any more is a lot higher than the market will bear.

A former teacher who knew me then mentioned the letter in her Facebook status report yesterday, and one of her friends brushed it off as "shallow celebrity chasing." It wasn't. Or mostly not. The second letter –that I wrote a few months later, spurred by the P.O. address and the feeling that I might as well, and which, predictably, went unanswered--sort of was, though. I don’t tell people about that part; it’s too embarrassing, and I felt for a long time that my writing again diminished the meaning of the first letter. But it’s part of the story, too.

Which is what all Salinger's writing is about, really. The trying desperately, and mostly futile-ly, to be pure, to be GOOD, in all the meanings of that word. And the tendency, in people the age of his protagonists—and the age I was when I read those books, and the age of person he became famous for connecting with—to scorn all those who have given up the fight, to rail against the bitter compromises most of us make as adults. (Franny and Zooey Glass, and the unnamed narrator of “For Esme, with Love and Squalor” negotiate those compromises more or less successfully. Holden Caulfield and Seymour Glass never really do. )

I loved the books when I was fourteen. I still like the books a lot, not Catcher in the Rye so much, but the others. In Franny and Zooey, he wrote about things I was grappling with back then, even if I only partly recognized it: the feeling of wanting to be special, and despising oneself for wanting to be special; of grappling with one's own ego and fear of failure; of being a girl and an artist and a sexual being and a grownup and wanting to retreat to the couch in the apartment (I always superimposed the Upper West Side apartment my dad lived in with his girlfriend for a few years onto all those scenes in the Glass family home) even though the painters are coming and your mother keeps bringing soup, of being a smart kid who was going to have to grow out of being a prodigy, and damn soon.

Getting back to that second letter that I wrote, the letter I tell even fewer people about than the first one: I always, solipsistically, had the feeling that not getting an answer was a fair judgment of me, not of me personally so much, but of my growing up—just like Wendy gets too old to see Peter Pan, I was too old, by the time I wrote the second letter, to have that kind of purity that the characters in Salinger’s stories are always yearning after in themselves. For one thing, I had a boyfriend by then. I went to parties and rock concerts. I was consciously turning myself into as normal a teenager as I could manage. Salinger doesn’t have much use in his writing for grownup, sexualized women (Boo-Boo Glass aside), and I was doing my best to be one of those. His writing wasn’t the touchstone for me that it had been even a few months earlier.

So, why does that letter matter so much to me, even today? At the time, it felt like a sign: if I could write a letter good enough to coax a response out of that notoriously reclusive author, I must be A Real Writer. I held onto it as a talisman, and have managed not to lose it through all my moves. It still feels like that, with a bit of “if I’ve done nothing else…” tacked on to the front.

The funny thing is how receiving a gift like that—and it was a gift, sent, I’m sure, out of as muddled a cocktail of motives (kindness; genuine appreciation; desire for whatever reason to connect with youth; maybe some egoistic thrill at the thrill I’d get) as was the letter I sent him—threw me into a lifelong Salinger-worthy dilemma that started as soon as I opened it, and continues right up to the present. Every time I tell someone, it feels like a little bit of a betrayal of that desperately publicity-wary person, a little cashing in on a celebrity I have no real connection to at all. So I don’t tell people, much. (Of course, I’m writing this post for the whole Interweb to see. Pseudonymously, but still. So you can see how impure and compromised I am about that.)

Yesterday, when friends’ Facebook status updates were full of links to obituaries (this one is my favorite), people who knew about it remembered me and that letter. And I did, too. But mainly I thought about the writing. My favorite parts are the redemptive ones, like the end of “Zooey:” Zooey’s long lecture to his younger sister about the Fat Lady: about going forward into the crassness and imperfection of the world, and doing what you need to do—what you’re called to do, what you’re good at. At the end of “Seymour, an Introduction,” the last story in his last published book, Buddy Glass—that cynical struggler, that Zen-wrangling stand-in for the author—prepares to go teach an English class, reminding himself that “There isn’t one girl in there, including the Terrible Miss Zabel, who is not as much my sister as Boo Boo or Franny. They may shine with the misinformation of the ages, but they shine.”

That’s the double thread running through those books: not just that we’re all phonies, but that we shine anyway. You could say it’s a Christian message, or a Buddhist one, or just Salinger rowing hard at compassion against a constant inner storm of cynicism and curmudgeonliness. But it’s the one that’s stuck with me at forty-three, and the one I was so happy and grateful to read, at fourteen, that I wrote to thank the author.