Time for the Salinger Estate to Come Clean

Scrutinizing culture.
June 27 2013 7:32 AM

Salinger, the Swamis, and the Secrets

New letters shed light on J.D. Salinger’s spiritual life—and reinforce the need for his estate to come clean about what, if any, works remain locked in the vault.

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The New York headquarters of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Society.
The New York headquarters of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Society.

Courtesy of Google Street View

The Salinger estate would be a tougher nut to crack. “Dear Mr. Rosenbaum, I do not answer questions about J.D. Salinger,” his longtime literary agent Phyllis Westberg responded curtly to my email inquiry about what Salinger might have left behind. That's more than I got from his son Matthew, an executor of the estate along with Salinger’s widow Colleen, who didn’t respond to the email I had asked his agent to forward.

I wish they would realize that if they truly cared about Salinger’s legacy they would allow us at least to know he hadn’t devolved into utter incoherence in the Silent Years. Tell us whether there was readable material left behind, even if the author had instructed it not be published for 50 or 500 years. Ideally, offer us something. They may well be under instructions from beyond the grave and under instructions not to reveal the instructions. I don’t deny they are in an unenviable position. But I believe that their utter silence in the three and a half years since his death is now verging on a scandal that does a disservice to the writer.

An announcement that there would be more Salinger to come would at least cause critics to suspend judgment about whether the late stories are the lamentable lens through which to look at his work. Otherwise he is liable to be downgraded to a one-hit wonder, his Catcher a kind of Catch-22 phenomenon.

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With little hope of hearing anything from the estate, I decided to look further into the question of what the hell was going on—or what hell was going on—in Salinger’s mind during the Silent Years, one of the great literary enigmas in America letters.

 Which is what brought me here on this perfectly cloudless, insanely blue-skied day on a thrilling spring morning. A perfect day for bananafish, you might say if you were the suicidally minded saint Seymour in the Salinger story of that name (in Nine Stories, the collection with the Zen koan epigraph—“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”—that signaled Salinger’s mystical turn). I’m not suicidally minded but I’m troubled. Should I stay or should I go? Should I enter and attend the worship service of the Ramakrishna Center, the very center of Salinger’s spiritual life? Or would that cross some line, be a kind of metaphysical/theological espionage? This is the dilemma Salinger's half-century retreat has always posed, for readers, biographers, critics.

I was tempted to cross the line because the cache of Salinger letters written to this address in the Morgan answers a question left hanging by his most recent biographer. From Kenneth Slawenski’s impressively researched biography we learn that “after returning home from [wartime combat in] Europe he began to frequent the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center on East 94th Street, around the corner from his parents’ apartment on Park Avenue, which taught a form of Eastern philosophy centered on the Hindu Vedas, called Vedanta. There, Salinger was introduced to The Gospels of Sri Ramakrishna, a huge volume of complicated religious doctrine that explicitly advocated sexual restraint.”

Curiously, Slawenski chooses to connect the dots here to Salinger’s sex life at the time (of course, he ultimately married thrice and had two children) rather than to what “Europe” meant to him, the bloody inferno of post-Normandy combat that led to a kind of nervous breakdown in the aftermath of which he apparently sought solace from the swamis here. But until I read the Morgan letters it was not clear to me just how close and continuing his relationship was to the Ramakrishna swamis. Very close. A relationship that lasted throughout the Silent Years—the last letter at the Morgan is dated two years before his death.

And indeed the close connection to the swamis here revealed in the letters might have been responsible for the silence of those years. The Morgan letters make more clear than before what among the smorgasbord of Eastern mysticism was the main dish, what was the unifying thread? Now we are able to say it was the Ramakrishna brand of Vedanta that had engaged him most personally and most deeply. Now we are able to name the swami whose counsel he most relied upon. Someone who took too seriously the swami’s injunctions against worldly striving might just have decided, ultimately, to write only for the eyes of God.

In the earliest letter, Salinger tells Swami Nikhilananda how he's looking forward to reading the latter's book, Man in Search of Immortality, a subject he says is dear to his heart, and offers the swami homeopathic advice. (The estate allows paraphrasing the content of the letters but no quotation without express permission.) In another letter to another swami he raves about a book called Vital Steps Toward Meditation, warns against sensual pleasure and the ultimate distraction—the Mind, that beast in the jungle. He laments the lack of a middle way between extreme asceticism’s distrust of the body and physical yoga’s over-intense absorption in it. And reminisces about the good old days hearing Swami N. read from the Upanishads at the Ramakrishna Center’s Cottage at Thousand Island Park in the St. Lawrence River. He talks about the way that he makes it a practice after he opens his eyes in the morning, but before his feet hit the floor, of reading from the Bhagavad-Gita. And on the material side, the Morgan cache includes copies of checks he regularly sent to the Center at Christmastime until very late in his life.

The saddest revelation about all this comes in another cache of letters at the Morgan I had not been aware of. These were written to Michael Mitchell, the artist who created the original cover illustration for The Catcher in the Rye. They span the Silent Years and capture the lost clarity, the wry urbanity of Salinger’s prose voice at its best. I’m surprised more hasn’t been made of them.

In one, Salinger is telling his lifelong friend his reaction to an incident famous in Salinger lore: the moment in the ’80s when he was captured by surprise by a New York Post photographer outside the Cornish Post Office. The picture, which the Post ran on its front page, shows Salinger’s absolutely agonized, angry, bitter face. It’s painful to look at, and in the letter he says it made him feel homicidal in his heart and hate humanity. But in a remarkable display of self-effacement he admits to his friend that a local Cornish girl who knew him well from seeing him around town had the temerity and the honesty to tell him, after seeing the Post photo, that, in fact, that was the way he looked almost all the time.

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