The Young Salinger, Mordant Yet Hopeful
By Dave Itzkoff
Published: April 23, 2013
On Nov. 18, 1941, a struggling Manhattan author wrote to a young woman in Toronto to tell her to look for a new piece of his in a coming issue of The New Yorker. This short story, he said, about “a prep school kid on his Christmas vacation,” had inspired his editor to ask for an entire series on the character, but the author himself was having misgivings. “I’ll try a couple more, anyway,” he wrote, “and if I begin to miss my mark I’ll quit.”
He ended the letter by asking for her reaction to “the first Holden story,” which he said was called “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” and signing, simply, “Jerry S.”
The writer was J. D. Salinger, then just 22, with works like “The Catcher in the Rye” still ahead of him and his literary success hardly assured. When Salinger died in seclusion in 2010, at the age of 91, he remained a mystery to his millions of readers, having shared little of himself with the world beyond the few fictional works he had published.
But this elusive author comes vividly to life in a series of letters he wrote from 1941 to 1943, which few people have seen in the 70 years since.
In this correspondence, which has been acquired by the Morgan Library and Museum and shared with The New York Times, the unsettled young Salinger reveals himself to be as playful, passionate and caustic as Holden Caulfield, the self-questioning adolescent who would become his most enduring creation.
“He’s just at the threshold of his career, but his voice is there,” said Declan Kiely, the Morgan’s curator and department head for literary and historical manuscripts. “It’s a wonderful opening onto his earliest years as a writer.”
The young Salinger also shows an aptitude for self-mythology and misdirection in these letters, as he obfuscates difficult truths about his personal life, his professional accomplishments and his entrance into World War II.
“It was a good time for bravado,” said Kenneth Slawenski, the author of “J. D. Salinger: A Life.” “That’s probably all he had at that point.”
In the summer of 1941, Salinger began exchanging letters with Marjorie Sheard, a Toronto woman about his age, who had been reading his earliest short stories in publications like Esquire and Collier’s.
An aspiring author herself, Ms. Sheard asked Salinger for advice, and he encouraged her. “Seems to me you have the instincts to avoid the usual Vassar-girl tripe,” Salinger wrote in a letter dated Sept. 4, 1941, suggesting some smaller literary magazines where she could submit her work.
“You can’t go around buying Cadillacs on what the small mags pay,” he wrote, “but that doesn’t really matter, does it?”
Over the next two years, Salinger sent Ms. Sheard a total of nine letters that were often humorous and occasionally flirty. “What do you look like?” he wrote to her on Oct. 9, 1941, asking that she send him a large photograph. One month later he apologized for his brazen request: “I wrote from a mood — and not a nice one.”
But when Ms. Sheard complied nonetheless and sent along a picture, Salinger replied: “Sneaky girl. You’re pretty.”
Ms. Sheard, now 95, stored these letters in a shoe box in a closet. About six years ago, she moved to a nursing home and gave the letters to a relative, who kept them in a dresser drawer.
More recently, as the cost of Ms. Sheard’s care increased, she and her family decided to sell the letters to the Morgan, which collects and displays Salinger correspondence. (The museum declined to say how much it paid for the letters.)
Liza Sheard, a niece of Ms. Sheard’s, said in a telephone interview that the letters held a strong sentimental value, particularly because her aunt never became a published writer and lived most of her life as a housewife in a modest apartment.
“It’s fantasy-like, because this was not her life at all,” Liza Sheard said. “It’s a young woman writing to a superstar and talking to him as if they were peers.”
In their earliest, playful exchanges, Salinger says he is rereading “Anna Karenina,” which he says is not as good as “War and Peace” but “a far craftier job.” (Of Tolstoy, he writes cheekily, “I think he’ll go places.”)
In addition to recommending his own stories, he suggests that Ms. Sheard read “The Great Gatsby” and “The Last Tycoon,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. She replies that both Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway “annoy me in the same way — one feels oneself tricked into feeling sympathy for entirely undeserving and rather tiresome people.”
But at the start of 1942, Salinger’s correspondence takes a sardonic turn, and he asks Ms. Sheard not to bring up his as-yet-unpublished Holden Caulfield story. “God and Harold Ross alone know what that bunch of pixies on the staff are doing with my poor script,” he writes, referring to the founding editor of The New Yorker.
In fact, Salinger had recently learned that the magazine was postponing publication of “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” in view of the recent attack on Pearl Harbor — it would not be published until 1946 — and he knew that he too would soon be drawn into the war.
In later dispatches from Fort Monmouth, N.J., and Bainbridge, Ga., Salinger jokes about his initiation into military life, closing his letters with comical pseudonyms like “Fitzdudley,” “Wormsley-Bassett” and “Flo and Benjy.”
But other details that Salinger volunteers about himself at this time are ambiguous, if not fictitious. “I was supposed to get married on furlough,” he writes in a letter from Nov. 28, 1942, “but she wanted it all said and done at her Daddy’s house in Hollywood. So I picked up where I left off with an old typewriter.”
Mr. Slawenski, the Salinger biographer, said he could not be certain if this was a veiled reference to Salinger’s relationship with Oona O’Neill, the daughter of the playwright Eugene O’Neill, or to some other matrimonial near miss.
Though Salinger and Oona O’Neill dated briefly in the early 1940s, Mr. Slawenski said she did not return his affection and broke his heart when she married Charlie Chaplin.
It is more likely, he said, that Salinger was puffing himself up to Ms. Sheard while privately nursing his romantic wounds.
“He makes himself feel better in the process, because he’s secretly hurt,” Mr. Slawenski said. “Romantically, he’s really been crushed.”
Elsewhere, Salinger mentions that he is trying to forge ahead on his short-story series for The New Yorker, and makes tantalizing references to other unpublished and presumably lost works from this period.
One piece, titled “Harry Jesus,” comes “straight from the belly,” he says.
“It will doubtless tear the country’s heart out,” Salinger writes, “and return the thing a new and far richer organ.”
The possibility that he could succeed on such a scale was apparently too outrageous a dream for the young Salinger. After making this boast, he adds: “(I’ll probably fail completely with it.)”