“My Salinger Year” by Joanna Rakoff

In my experience, there are three types of J.D. Salinger fans: Those who have read–and continue to read–all of his works; those who are angry with him because of his self-imposed exile; and those who are fascinated not only by that exile, but also by the man and his work.

I fall into the last camp. One of the first books I bought as a bookseller was Letters to J.D. Salinger by Chris Kubica and Will Hochman. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve forwarded “Night at the Movies” by John Seabrook, which appeared in the February 8, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, just shortly after Salinger’s death. And the passage to which I would continually turn to handsell Anne Roiphe’s Art and Madness described an event that took place in 1952. Her date for the evening had written to Salinger, asking him to write an introduction for the Andover yearbook, for which he was the editor. And in his hand he held Salinger’s reply:

Because I am not a student at your school I cannot write the introduction to your yearbook but I suggest that on the train home at Christmas vacation you walk through the cars until you find a small boy with his nose running, attempting to get his suitcase up on the rack. He will be sitting alone. Ask him to write your introduction. He will know what to say.

The letter was signed by Salinger himself. Salinger stopped accepting mail from his readers on March 3, 1963. We know this because of Joanna Rakoff. In her memoir, My Salinger Year, she recalls working as an assistant to the unnamed president of one of the oldest and antiquated unnamed literary agencies in New York. And one of the clients was J.D. Salinger.

Rakoff was told never to speak with “Jerry” (he would often visit with her about poetry), never to tell him how much his writing meant to her (she hadn’t read his work), never to give her opinion (Jerry would often ask for it), and that she would never meet him (until the day he dropped by). Instead she was asked to reply to his fan mail. With her trusty Selectric, several times a day she would copy this reply from a carbon dated March 3, 1963:

Dear Miss So-and-So:

Many thanks for your recent letter to J.D. Salinger. 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 you interest in Mr. Salinger’s books.

The Agency

Rakoff was often moved by the letters. Fans would emulate Holden Caulfield’s tone and language; or they would be war veterans who had reread The Catcher and the Rye only to realize how well Salinger captured an indescribable emotion. A few times she would vary from the script, signing her own name, and those fans would write back to her… sometimes angrily.

For the better part of her year at the agency, Rakoff was involved with the publication of another Salinger book. A small press in Virginia had contacted Salinger directly about publishing his story, “Hapworth,” as a book. Salinger was intrigued, because the letter had been typed.

Rakoff didn’t actually read Salinger’s work until Labor Day weekend of that year. And that’s when she finally realized why fans still wrote to him:

Because the experience of reading a Salinger story is less like reading a short story and more like having Salinger himself whisper his accounts into your ear.

Rakoff’s Salinger recollections are interspersed with other moments from that year. Friends, ex-friends, lovers, ex-lovers–they all help round out her story and complete the year. Readers will find My Salinger Year charming and accessible, no matter which Salinger camp they prefer.

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff (Knopf, 9780307958006, 06/03/14)

Beth Golay

Beth is a reader, writer, marketer and Books & Whatnot founder. Even though she knows better, she's a sucker for a good book cover and will positively swoon if a book is set in appropriate type. @BethGolay