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New letters show human side of J.D. Salinger

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, January 27, 2011 7:58 EDT
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J.D. Salinger, the famously reclusive author of “The Catcher in the Rye”, was not such a hermit after all, according to newly published letters on Thursday that show he travelled — and enjoyed Burger King.

Salinger died last year aged 91, leaving a reputation as an angry recluse who struggled to come to terms with the success of his 1951 novel, a tale of teenage rebellion which made him a cultural icon, and rich.

But a collection of 50 typed letters and four handwritten postcards sent over two decades to a British friend, Donald Hartog, show a different side — his family life, interests and support for British tennis player Tim Henman.

“Although the letters are about quite mundane subjects, they are very moving, especially the way Salinger refers to my father and their old friendship,” said Hartog’s daughter Frances, who has given the letters to the University of East Anglia (UEA) in eastern England.

“There is tremendous warmth and affection towards my father and this is so different to the man Salinger is often portrayed as.”

Far from spending his life holed up in his New Hampshire home, the letters reveal that Salinger went to Germany with his wife, joined a coach tour to Niagara Falls and visited the Grand Canyon.

In April 1989 Salinger made a trip to London for Hartog’s 70th birthday, during which he had dinner at the Savoy Hotel and visited Whipsnade Zoo, north of the capital.

A photo of the friends sitting on a bench during that trip is part of the UEA’s collection, along with four photos of Salinger’s desk and his Russian Blue cats taken in 1993.

Salinger and Hartog first met in 1937, when they were both 18, in the Austrian capital Vienna, where they had been sent by their families to learn German.

They stayed in touch and Hartog, a food importer, revived the correspondence in 1986. As well as the London meeting, Hartog visited Salinger in 1994.

Frances Hartog met Salinger when he was in Britain, and said he was nothing like his public persona.

“I didn’t really want to meet him because I liked his writing and was worried he might live up to his reputation and be rather unpleasant, but he wasn’t at all, he was utterly charming,” she said.

Salinger writes about the October 1992 fire that destroyed his home, but most of his letters are filled with domestic life — his vegetable garden, his family, his cats, what he is watching on TV, and the decoration of his house.

Writing to “Don” and signing the notes “Jerry”, he comments on US and world politics, occasionally including newspaper clippings, and the Wimbledon tennis championships, displaying a fondness for the then British number one Henman.

He also remarked that Burger King has the edge on other US fast-food chains because its burgers are flame-grilled, making them “better than just edible”, according to an extract published in The Times newspaper.

“Salinger had this reputation as a recluse, that he kept himself to himself. There is nothing startling in these letters, but that is what is so interesting about them,” said Chris Bigsby, professor of American studies at UEA.

The author stopped the correspondence in 2002 but his wife, Colleen, continued writing to Hartog until the Briton died five years later. Hartog’s children inherited the letters and have now donated them to the UEA’s archives.

Frances Hartog added: “This isn?t the fighting Salinger of the 1960s, though he talks quite aggressively about publishing and publicity.

“He wanted to be published, but what he appears not to have liked was that it wasn’t just about what you published, it was about you.”

Salinger died at his home in New Hampshire on January 27, 2010.

Agence France-Presse
Agence France-Presse
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