April 2, 2009


What I heard at J.D. Salinger’s doorstep: Tom Leonard makes a pilgrimage to Cornish, New Hampshire, where the 90-year-old author of The Catcher in the Rye leads a reclusive existence with his third wife (Tom Leanard, 4/02/09, Spectator)

J.D. Salinger is in the kitchen when I turn the corner of his farmhouse, his reported deafness probably explaining why he doesn’t hear me until I am a few feet from him and ringing the doorbell. His wife correctly guesses the identity of the caller and, apprised of the information out of my hearing, the author shouts something that sounds like ‘Oh, no!’

It may be succinct but it is the most he has said to the media for years. A tall but stooped figure in a blue tanktop, Salinger won’t even look at me as he sidles crab-like out of his small kitchen with his back to the window. His wife soon appears at the same window and opens it to talk, but the great man — who was 90 in January — has gone. Time may soften many things, but Salinger’s complete disengagement from public life sadly isn’t one of them.

The recluse’s recluse, Salinger has lived in seclusion in the small rural community of Cornish, in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, for more than 50 years. After writing The Catcher in the Rye in 1951 — his generation-shaping masterpiece about teenage angst and rebellion — he published only a few collections of short stories. A short piece of fiction for the New Yorker in 1965 was his last published work. He hasn’t spoken to the media since the early 1950s, breaking his Trappist silence only once in 1974 for a brief phone conversation with a New York Times journalist in which he said there was ‘a marvellous peace in not publishing... I write just for myself and my own pleasure.’ He added: ‘I’m known as a strange, aloof kind of man. But all I’m doing is trying to protect myself and my work.’ [...]

[T]here was a time when those who knew where he lived didn’t even let on to their neighbours, said Janice Orion, a retired British schoolteacher who moved there in 1989.

‘I guess he asked them not to. When I moved here and asked where he lived, I was met with a blank stare,’ she said. ‘I was told “Oh, we don’t talk about him”, which I thought was a bit odd.’ Her friend, Beth Lum, added, ‘Not talking about him is a Cornish ritual. Someone asks you where he lives and you point vaguely in the wrong direction.’ [...]

Locals concur that Salinger is seen out far more infrequently than in the past. Apart from the supermarket, he and his wife occasionally go to a local café in Windsor, the nearest town, for coffee and a sandwich (‘he likes the spinach and mushroom wraps’, said the manager), and a restaurant there. As for socialising, the only events he has attended regularly for years are the monthly turkey dinners at the little Universalist Unitarian church ten miles away in the town of Hartland.

Salinger has experimented with many religions over the years, including Zen Buddhism. Unitarianism, which welcomes all religions, seems an obvious home for him. ‘Nobody is supposed to acknowledge that he’s there. You just treat him like he’s just another normal person,’ said Kay Cavendish, a churchgoer who attends the dinners.

The rule is that if you have to talk to him, make sure you never acknowledge that he is famous, said Robert Dean, who runs a smart Windsor B&B. ‘If you see him, you know not to talk to him unless he talks to you. He’s not one for chitchat,’ he said.

However, it's a helpful reminder to dig out your copy of Shoeless Joe and read it again.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 2, 2009 8:07 AM
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