Nine letters from J. D. Salinger, written between 1941 to 1943, reveal the elusive Catcher in the Rye author's book recommendations, writerly ambitions to "tear the country’s heart out," fears that he would "probably fail completely," and his clumsy attempts to flirt via correspondence. All in all, he's got an awkwardly charming resemblance to Holden Caulfield that you were hoping for.
The Morgan Library has acquired nine rare letters that Salinger wrote to a young female acquaintance starting when the writer was 22 and just forging his iconic Catcher in the Rye. The letters show a self-conscious, striving young man who signed his letters Jerry S.
He wrote a total of nine letters to Marjorie Sheard, a Toronto woman who was also in her early twenties. She also wanted to be an author and asked Salinger for advice. Here are his reading recommendations:
- His own stories
- Anna Karenina, though not as impressive as War and Peace, is "a far craftier job." Salinger writes of the author, Tolstoy, "I think he’ll go places."
- The Great Gatsby and "The Last Tycoon" both by F. Scott Fitzgerald—though Salinger's pen-pal said both Hemingway and Fitzgerald "annoy me in the same way—one feels oneself tricked into feeling sympathy for entirely undeserving and rather tiresome people."
And some examples of Jerry S. flirting quite rudely, unappealingly, but maybe effectively:
- “Seems to me you have the instincts to avoid the usual Vassar-girl tripe.” - Sept. 4, 1941
- “What do you look like?” followed by a request for a large photograph - Oct. 9, 1941
- “I wrote from a mood—and not a nice one.” - an apology a month later
- “Sneaky girl. You’re pretty.” - after receiving the photograph, Nov. 18 1941
And Salinger on Salinger:
- On expanding his short story that would become The Catcher in the Rye, after encouragement from his editor at The New Yorker: “I’ll try a couple more, anyway, and if I begin to miss my mark I’ll quit.”
- “God and Harold Ross alone know what that bunch of pixies on the staff are doing with my poor script."
- On a possibly lost or nonexistent story that he calls "Henry Jesus": “It will doubtless tear the country’s heart out, and return the thing a new and far richer organ.”
- After making the previously claim: “(I’ll probably fail completely with it.)”
Just preparing to create a believably unreliable narrator you identified in 9th grade, Salinger fibs a bit in his letters. He lies a bit about his wartime efforts, his writing accomplishments, and engagements to other girls (including Oona O'Neill, Eugene O'Neill's daughter, who was with Charlie Chaplin).
So Salinger! Just like all the struggling twenty-something novelists you know—full of book recommendations, a little weird about flirting, and equal parts pompous and vulnerable.