Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Today I post a quotation from real nonfiction, which is to say, from a letter written by J.D. Salinger.

Now: some people like pie and some like ice cream and some like Napoleons. Some like novels and some like histories and some like journal entries. I happen to like all of the above, but, I have always liked letters through and through. Even if they're part of a marketing ploy involving a Gutenberg Bible at the Morgan Library. Today was the first day his letters were exhibited to the public.

(Question: where are/what happened to the envelopes?)

It is difficult to read Salinger's May 22, 1951 typewritten letter without seeing a Holden Caulfield watermark. It sounds like Holden. Good letter.

Another letter goes on at length about his children; I didn't take any notes on the subject of Salinger's delight in his children, but this passed my personal watermark test, which is to say, this is what I remember second-most from the exhibit. There's a sentence about how he stayed up reading one night in the Sherry-Netherland and the children were sleeping, and he got such a kick out of that--being awake while his kids' sleeping bodies lay nearby. Then there's an anecdote about Peggy relating to him in great detail how she had vomited, and what and how and etc., and that she did it in such a way that the fact of her tossing her cookies actually came off as an accomplishment. So I imagine that there is quite a bit of young Peggy in young Phoebe.

Perhaps the best argument for Salinger's works to never be made into motion pictures or movies or films or video games or really anything that isn't printed matter alpha and omega is a postcript to his letter dated December 27, 1966: "One of Matthew's school papers enclosed, just for the sake of the way he spaces his signature on the line." If Salinger is paying attention to spacing--even if kerning isn't what he has in mind--then it's clear that he loves words the way so many of us do: for their physical address. Yes, he loves his son's unique signature, but he loves reading the words and viewing them. He likes their bodies. This is part of what makes Franny and Zooey (yes, they were stories first, so what?) such a pleasure to read. His story (okay, granted, stories) is the story it is because it is printed. It is not only told, it is written.

After I read the letters, I viewed the Hours of Catherine of Cleves exhibit. They had this nice supplementary audio component (I could have done with more non-English, however). The miniatures are of course exquisite and the bright blue Os and red As are, debatably, the ancestors of Matthews Salinger's spaced signature. They are pleasing to behold.

In any case, back to this blog. Salinger writes to his friend that he's having a "studio-house" built.

It's high, high up on the sedge-y and open high ground across the road from the house, set on ledge.

Almost in the spirit of horsey, though not quite.

Placing Salinger's letters in the same room as one of the Gutenbergs is, I imagine, supposed to bring on such expressions and headlines as "God bless J.D. Salinger," or "Gutenberg, Morgan, and Salinger: Three Men for the Books." But that really isn't what came to mind. Really nothing came to mind. No words came to mind. I read the letters, took the bus uptown, and later walked back across the Park and then sat in a sunny spot on the steps at the Met and peeled an orange.

One sentence from the October 16, 1966 letter did make me happy, though: "I'm so glad I have your address."

Isn't this great? Here it is again: I'm so glad I have your address.

Thinking of Salinger living in a world less insta-, imagining him not being able to Google an address--with all the variety and topographical drama that such a condition implies--and simply encountering a meaningful lifeline to that era: more than words can say.

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