My adventures answering J.D. Salinger's mail.

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Feb. 3 2010 10:39 AM

Dear Jerry, You Old Bastard

My adventures answering J.D. Salinger's mail.

Also in Slate: Ron Rosenbaum on Salinger, sex, and the road not taken; Troy Patterson on the two Salingers; Stephen Metcalf on Salinger's genius; Nathan Heller on Nine Stories; Chris Wilson on " Seymour: An Introduction"; Jody Rosen on Salinger's New York; Dana Stevens on Hollywood Holdens; Donald Fagen on his love for Franny Glass.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

On my first day of work at Harold Ober Associates—one of New York's oldest and most storied literary agencies—I was shown the enormous, outmoded IBM Selectric on which I would type letters for my boss, the clunky Dictaphone that would provide me with the content of those letters, and the vast metal cabinets in which I would file all correspondence with authors. I was then escorted into the dimly lit corner office occupied by Phyllis Westberg, the company's president, whom I would be assisting.

"Sit down, sit down," said Phyllis. "We need," she said, as I arranged myself in the chair across from her large wooden desk, "to talk about Jerry." I nodded in an attempt to mask the fact that I had no idea what she was talking about. This was 1996, and the first "Jerry" to come to mind was Seinfeld. It was only later, when I noticed a wall of books opposite my new desk—all with plain spines, in maroon, yellow, and white—that I realized the Jerry in question was Jerome David Salinger.

"Now, his address and his phone number are in the Rolodex on your desk," Phyllis explained. "People are going to call and ask for his number. You think it won't happen, but it will." She paused to light another cigarette. "Grad students. Reporters. Just … people. They may try to trick you or manipulate you. They may give you some song-and-dance routine." She laughed a throaty laugh, then fixed me sharply in her pale blue eyes. "But you can never, ever give out that address. Or that phone number. NEVER. OK?" I nodded and gave her my most professional smile. "Because it's happened before," she told me. "I've had assistants who just don't understand."

"I understand," I told Phyllis, though really I didn't. I knew almost nothing about Salinger. I had been perhaps the only American teenager—or, the only bookish, angry, misfit American teenager—to have graduated from high school without reading The Catcher in the Rye, though it had sat on my parents' bookshelf, right next to Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. Once or twice, on rainy afternoons, I'd skimmed the first pages of the latter books and found the writing overly cute, the subject matter tired. I knew, I suppose, that Salinger was a recluse, but I didn't understand the extent of his removal from society, in general, and the realms of literature and publishing, specifically. Nor did I understand—naive as this sounds—the cultlike devotion of his fans, that there were people in the world—many people—whose entire existence seemed to revolve around their identification with Holden Caulfield or Franny Glass.

My naiveté didn't last long at Ober. Every day, a bundle of mail was dropped on my desk by the office secretary, much of which consisted of letters addressed to Salinger. The letters came from Sri Lanka or the Netherlands or Arizona. They included deeply personal admissions—cancer diagnoses, bankruptcy, divorce—and were often written in Salinger's own brash style or, at the very least, incorporated the slang of the period he chronicled. "Dear Jerry, you old bastard," they tended to start. "I gotta tell you. The Catcher in the Rye is one helluva goddamn book."

Some of these letter writers wanted something specific from Salinger—his permission to make a film version of one story or another, often—but most simply wanted a letter back from him. For the most part, they knew that Salinger didn't read his fan mail—in fact, he'd insisted that nothing, not one letter, be passed on to him—but each was convinced that his letter was going to be the one that was so moving, so brilliant, so funny, so perfectly aligned with Salinger's interests and sensibilities, that we, at Ober, would pass it on to him. And that Salinger would then, of course, recognize the writer—the teenage girl from Japan, the World War II veteran in Kansas—as a kindred spirit and write back. Though the authors of these letters varied in age and nationality, there was a theme common to nearly all the letters: Salinger was the only person who understood them.

All of this seemed ridiculous to me, at first, as ridiculous as the quasi-religious way in which Salinger was regarded in the Ober office. My position was less, I realized, a run-of-the-mill publishing job and more akin to entering the novitiate. We were Salinger's gatekeepers—charged with protecting his life and work—but in order to do so, we had to buy into the mythology that had sprung up around the man, too. We had to believe that Salinger's privacy was the most important thing in the world, to be protected at all costs. And in order to make this leap of faith, we needed to believe that Salinger, as his fans insisted in the letters I fielded daily, was the greatest writer of the 20th century. It was an honor I wasn't willing to bestow.

With regard to Salinger's correspondence, I had specific instructions. I had been given, along with my first batch of letters, a yellowing carbon of a standard form letter, which had been composed sometime in the 1960s and passed through the hands of, presumably, dozens of obedient, bored assistants before landing in mine. "Many thanks for your recent letter to J.D. Salinger," the letter went. "As you may know, Mr. Salinger does not wish to receive mail from his readers. Thus, we cannot pass your kind note on to him. We thank you for your interest in Mr. Salinger's books."

At first, I dutifully retyped this form, over and over again, uncomfortably scrawling my own name at the bottom, as instructed, then tossing the letters in the trash, also per office protocol. But as the months wore on, I found myself increasingly unable to ignore the raw emotion of the letters. Even the angry teens struck a chord with me. These were not letters that the writers had tossed off carelessly, but notes that had clearly been written and rewritten, until just the right tone was struck. How could I simply throw them away? I began sending them personal letters telling them how much we appreciated hearing their stories and explaining, more gently, that we were prohibited from sending Salinger his mail, but we so often wished that we could. I offered unsolicited advice to a few, which was perhaps not the best idea, and simply an ear to others, mostly his older fans, many of whom were war veterans like Salinger and had questions about possible mutual acquaintances or experiences.

On Friday afternoons, when the agency gathered for scotch in the foyer, talk would eternally turn to stories about Jerry, most of which were less about Jerry himself and more about those who had violated his privacy: the assistant who'd been fired because he gave out Jerry's phone number. The writer—Slate's Ron Rosenbaum, then on assignment for Esquire—who had shown up at Jerry's home in New Hampshire. Shyly, I chimed in with news of the middle-school administrator who'd called asking whether Salinger might be interested in speaking at his institution's commencement and was absolutely shocked when I explained that no, Mr. Salinger did not accept speaking engagements. My co-workers laughed uproariously, which instilled in me a mix of pleasure and guilt. I realized I had become one of them, a keeper of the Salinger flame.

What was missing from this equation was, of course, Salinger himself. Normally, I was told, he phoned to check in once in a while, sometimes sending the whole office into a tizzy with a bizarre request, for copies of his royalty statements from 1986 or press clippings from 1974 or some such thing. During my first months on the job, however, he remained a comfortably abstract concept. Then, in June, he called, anxious to speak to Phyllis. My stomach lurched a little when I realized that it was Salinger, for real, on the other end of the phone, speaking rather too loudly and seeming a bit confused by my voice, though I tried to speak brightly and enunciate. He was, alas, somewhat deaf and refused to use the amplified phone his wife, a nurse, had installed for him.

It turned out something momentous was afoot in Salingerland: Eight years earlier, a small publisher in Alexandria, Va., had written to him, asking whether they might put out a book consisting solely of Salinger's novella "Hapworth 16, 1929," which had appeared in The New Yorker in 1965. To the shock of Phyllis—and everyone else at Ober—Salinger had, after years of thought, decided that this "fellow in Virginia" could publish "Hapworth." Suddenly, he was calling all the time, anxious about the details of this new deal, which seemed like it might mark a tentative re-entry into the world he'd abandoned 30 years earlier. Ober, just as suddenly, seemed charged with a frenetic energy. Phyllis bustled around the office and had long, loud conversations with Salinger, going over the details of the new book, from the cloth of the binding to the font to the paper stock. She asked him about the publisher, a retired professor, whom Salinger seemed to like very much, to Phyllis' surprise. It was not often, I supposed, that Salinger took a shine to someone new. In a way, I realized, the Virginia publisher was simply one of the fans whose letters I fielded, one who had managed to break through the wall of Ober's protectorate and prove to Salinger that, yes, they really were kindred spirits.

One day, as I transcribed a round of letters for Phyllis, a tall man with dark eyes and thinning gray hair arrived in the little antechamber in which I sat. He glanced in my direction, seemed confused, then gave me a small yet warm smile. Before I could ask if he needed help, Phyllis came running out of her office, shouting, "Jerry! There you are!" A moment later, I was standing in front of my desk, just below the wall of Salinger's books, shaking his large, dry hand. "Hello," he said. "Nice to meet you. We've spoken on the phone many times."

"We have," I said, smiling stupidly.

"OK, we have a lot to talk about," Phyllis said, guiding Salinger into her office. "This is a big year."

The Hapworth book never materialized. The publisher gave an interview to a local magazine, and Salinger decided his new friend was a phony after all. But before things went bad, around the time of Salinger's visit, I realized that I wanted to see what kind of writing could inspire such frenzied devotion. One night, I grabbed copies of his books off the shelf opposite my desk and devoured them in a weekend. These were not, as I'd thought, precious, nostalgic trifles of old New York, but strange, difficult, and, in many ways, deeply weird pieces of fiction. Salinger's narrative voice, 30, 40 years later, felt as fresh and shocking as any of the contemporary writers I was reading at the time—Mary Gaitskill, Martin Amis, Jonathan Franzen—or more so, even. He broke every rule and, with some exceptions, got away with it.

Six months later, I left Ober, unsure exactly of what I would do next but certain I couldn't spend another minute behind that old Selectric, secretly consoling the readers of a writer who didn't care to receive their letters. Over the ensuing years, as I became a writer myself, I returned regularly to Franny and Seymour and Buddy and Zooey—and even, on occasion, Holden—often at those moments when I felt unsure of what turn to take in a story. People often talk about outgrowing Salinger, about returning to Catcher as an adult and finding it silly, histrionic, annoying. But the stories have grown with me, as the best fictions do. I still have some of those letters—the letters I couldn't bear to throw in the trash—and I look at them from time to time, too, if I'm feeling strong enough. They still break my heart, those old bastards, almost as much as the work that inspired them.

Joanna Smith Rakoff is the author of the novel A Fortunate Age.