When J.D. Salinger was 18, unpublished and spending long hours at his typewriter, he received an encouraging letter from an admirer.
“I accept your story. Consider it a masterpiece. Check for $1,000 in the mail. Curtis Publishing Co.”
It wasn’t really from a publisher — those notices wouldn’t arrive for years. It was from Salinger’s mother, who slipped it under his bedroom door one night when she heard him typing. He kept the note for 73 years, until his death in 2010.
The handwritten note is now on display at the New York Public Library, in the first public exhibition from Salinger’s personal archives.
The exhibit, which opened Friday and runs through Jan. 19, includes more than 200 items on loan from the J.D. Salinger Literary Trust, including photographs from Salinger’s life; a meticulously hammered metal bowl he made when he was a boy; his correspondence with friends, family, fans and prominent writers and editors, including Ernest Hemingway and William Maxwell; and the original typescripts of “The Catcher in the Rye” and “Franny and Zooey,” with the author’s notes and revisions.
Some items give new insights into Salinger’s creative process. Others offer a rare window into his private life. There are notebooks where he jotted down passages from spiritual texts he was studying. There are shelves of books that he kept in his bedroom at the end of his life because he wanted them to be close at hand: titles about Eastern medicine and acupuncture; books by Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Michael Gilbert, Ivan Turgenev, Penelope Fitzgerald and Anton Chekhov; and spiritual tomes from Hindu, Taoist, Christian Science and Zen Buddhist traditions. There are photos of him beaming at his grandchildren, and heartfelt letters to his son Matt Salinger, who helped organize the exhibit.
J.D. Salinger, who was fiercely protective of his private life and abhorred the spotlight, would likely have objected to having aspects of personal life on display. But his son said he wanted to show sides of his father that have long been overlooked or misrepresented.
“It ended up being a little more personal than I thought it would be,” said Matt Salinger. During a tour, he explained what some of the items meant to his father and their family.
‘I publish my fiction very seldom and very reluctantly’
One of the items on display is an addendum for an affidavit from Salinger’s 1982 lawsuit against Steven Kunes, a con artist who attempted to sell People magazine a fake interview with Salinger. (It was never published.)
“It was important to me that I not only present the warm and fuzzy stuff,” his son said. “This shows his very principled, prickly nature. He could be prickly as hell with people, professionally. He was fiercely protective of his work. Having some letters like that was important, to have that balance.
“Each one of these entanglements took a toll on him. As much as spiritually he was detached from the world, these things would yank him back into it.”
‘You’re given things to share by whatever God you think is operative’
Salinger detested representational cover art on his books and preferred plain, abstract designs. So he created his own minimalist one and sent it to his agent, Phyllis Westberg, and requested it be used for all four of his books.
“He sat down in his leather chair in the living room. I remember it was winter time. And he sketched it out. He was focused,” Matt Salinger said. “He writes about distrusting the word ‘creativity.’ He always thought it was a space you’re allowed to enter. You’re given things to share by whatever God you think is operative. There’s a release in that, and an ease. It’s not the tortured artist, pounding things out. That was not his affect at all when he was writing. There was joy in it.”
Family photos, ‘certainly something he would not have included’
“I debated whether to include these for a while, just because it’s certainly something he would not have included,” Matt Salinger said. “But this exhibit is to show sides of him that have not been shown, or that have been misrepresented. I think the best way to do it was to present factual pieces. He was loving and humorous and thoughtful.”
His spiritual guidebooks
“He always had a couple of these tucked away in his pocket. He kept passages from whatever spiritual text he was reading,” Matt Salinger said. “He’d write them in bed by hand and he’d then go back to them and highlight things that jumped out at him. He had about 20. I would love to do something with them one day. He thought they would be particularly useful in prisons where people can’t have a normal life, so where can they go, but inward.”
‘I accept your story’
“One of the myths I read a lot is how he turned his back on his parents and wanted nothing to do with them,” Matt Salinger said. “This shows the feelings he had much later. It was in one of his notebooks.”
Metal bowl that Salinger made as a child
“This speaks volumes to me,” Matt Salinger said. “It says a lot about who he was as an artist, the meticulousness, and the care and the focus and the attention.”
‘You sound like a very good kid’
“It’s not the image anyone has of my father,” Matt Salinger said. “It was the rare reader, the rare letter, that struck a chord. But if he felt their need, if he felt their authenticity, especially if he felt their distress, he would try to respond. It puts the lie to so much of what has been written about him. And look, he could be an S.O.B., but he more often than not he was not, and was a hugely thoughtful and sensitive and caring man.”
Produced by Erica Ackerberg.