Peter Shelton

Salinger letter surfaces in Ouray

Posted in Watch columns by pshelton on February 11, 2010

I was intrigued to learn, a few days after J.D. Salinger’s death on January 27, that Mary Ann Dismant, for many years the director of the public library in Ouray, had a letter from the famously reclusive author.

Salinger wrote stories in the 1950s and 60s that deeply affected millions of readers, me included. I devoured Catcher In The Rye, of course, and clutched its irreverent teenage hero, Holden Caulfield, to my equally (or so I thought) sensitive/rebellious heart.

Holden is so funny—unintentionally most of the time—and so right on: “Take most people, they’re crazy about cars. . . I mean they don’t even interest me. I’d rather have a goddamn horse. A horse is at least human, for God’s sake.”

Or: “That’s the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they’re not much to look at, or even if they’re sort of stupid, you fall half in love with them, and then you never know where you are. Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. They really can.”

In 1965, when I was 16, I read the last thing Salinger published, a very long short story (it took up nearly a hundred pages in The New Yorker) called “Hapworth 16, 1924.” It is in the form of a letter home from summer camp, fictional Camp Hapworth, in Maine. The writer is seven-year-old Seymour Glass, a character who had appeared, as an adult, in earlier Salinger stories.

This is no ordinary seven-year-old. He addresses his parents by their first names, Bessie and Les—they’re a song-and-dance team who perform in and around New York. He uses words like fustian, expugnable, and guerdoning. He describes Camp Hapworth as “quite in the lap of the gods!!” He has a precocious carnality: Mrs. Happy (a camp counselor) “shares with you, Bessie, a quite touching heritage of quite perfect legs, ankles, saucy bosoms, very fresh, cute hind quarters, and remarkable little feet. . .”

He thinks and expounds on all manner of things, from the possible existence of God to the nature of love and creativity. The world weighs heavy on his little shoulders, and sometimes, as he writes, often under the sheets with a flashlight, he finds himself “crying or weeping, which ever you prefer to say. It will pass in a trice.”

Seymour, we learn, can see ahead to his own death. But he takes pains to reassure his parents. “I personally will live at least as long as a well-preserved telephone pole, a generous matter of thirty (30) years or more, which is surely nothing to snicker at. Your son Buddy has even longer to go, you will freely rejoice to know.” It’s as if Seymour knows his tremendous empathy for all things human and imperfect will become uncontainable by then.

In fact, in one of Salinger’s early short stories, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” published in 1948, Seymour shoots himself in the temple at age 31.

Mary Ann Dismant met me at the library to show me her Salinger letter. She is tall, 70, and wore an elegant, long coat. She doesn’t have the letter she wrote to Salinger, care of The New Yorker, in 1975. So she remembered it as best she could for me. “I wrote, probably in June, and said they were going to invade Cambodia. I was very upset about the Vietnam war. I said, ‘I don’t know what to do. So, I’m writing to you.’”

Dismant had discovered Salinger in the 60s during a tumultuous time in her life. She was considering leaving her husband, Carl, and “becoming a Carmelite nun! It [reading Salinger] was kind of a saving thing. I just liked his humor. I just liked him.”

She told me she wasn’t asking for writing advice from Salinger. “I wasn’t a writer then,” though she’d always kept a journal. She just implored him to “please write. Not please write back to me. Please keep writing. I wanted more Seymour stories.”

By 1975 Salinger had been holed up for a decade already in a house in Cornish, New Hampshire. He was rich—Catcher has sold over 60 million copies—and famous, and while he did see friends and apparently was an active participant in his little community, he grew increasingly isolated. He granted few interviews, the last in 1980, and successfully prevented an unauthorized biography from being published. He always insisted, though, in his rare communiqués, that he continued to write. For his own pleasure. He never published another word.

Salinger’s typed reply to Mary Anne Dismant is dated July 3, 1975, and begins: “I’m sorry, but I can’t think of any valid or really thinkable reply to you that isn’t inexhaustibly complicated, and just not suited to letter-writing (or, for that matter, any other form of communication I’m familiar with). I wonder, though, if it mightn’t do, amount to a little something in the right direction, if I tell you straight out truthfully that about all I seem to know for sure about my professional writing is that it tends to get done in its own time and possibly no other way. The whole thing has baffled me mightily, sometimes almost unbearably, ever since I started out. I work, I can tell you, and I care very much how it goes. Thanks very much for your letter.”

“I’m glad people will get to read the letter,” Mary Ann told me. “One of my high priorities, I guess, is a kind of defense of Salinger. He was not sitting around staring at his navel. He was working. He was writing.”

Maybe. The mystery of his 55-year-long silence remains. We never got any more Seymour stories. But Mary Ann and Carl are still together. And she has just published her first book, Growing Up in Denver 1944-1957: A Memoir.

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