JD Salinger letters at UEA archive shed more light on reclusive Catcher in the Rye author

By Richard Moss | 27 January 2011
a photo of two men on a park bench
Salinger (right) with Donald Hartog, April 1989, when Salinger visited London© Salinger Collection, University of East Anglia
In his lifetime JD Salinger was reclusive and fiercely protective of his private life – to the point that a mysterious cloak of anonymity hung around the author of The Cather in the Rye.  

That cloak has lifted somewhat since his death in January 2010, but scholars and literary biographers are still working to piece together a later life that remains shrouded in secrecy.

Now another part of the jigsaw that is Salinger’s secret world is emerging thanks to a donation to the literary archive at the University of East Anglia.

The University has just taken delivery of a series of 50 typed letters and four handwritten postcards that show a different side to Salinger; one of warmth, humour and friendship.

Dating between October 22 1986 and January 30 2002, they were sent to Donald Hartog, from London, who met Salinger in 1937 when they were both 18 and sent by their fathers to learn German in Vienna, Austria.

The pair stayed in touch until the 1950s when contact was lost. Then in the 1980s an unauthorised biography of the author prompted Hartog to resume the correspondence. Salinger replied and the friendship was rekindled.

When Mr Hartog died in 2007 the letters passed to his children, who have now donated them to the UEA Archives. Hartog’s daughter Frances describes them as “quite mundane- but moving,” in the way they document two men growing older and, perhaps, mellower. 

“There is tremendous warmth and affection towards my father and this is so different to the man Salinger is often portrayed as,” she adds. “I think there was this extra bond between them because they met before the war. The letters are very touching, because it’s a man growing older, and they are written very much in the style of his books - casual but using exactly the right words.”

Addressing Mr Hartog as Don and signing the letters as Jerry, Salinger talks everything from politics and the weather to his family and being a grandfather. He also refers to his home in Cornish, New Hampshire and the vegetables he grows, as well as expressing views on tennis and who should win Wimbledon, his enjoyment of church suppers and his favourite fast-food chain hamburgers.

In April 1989 Salinger even travelled to London to visit Mr Hartog and attend his 70th birthday dinner. In a letter just before the trip, he talks about their plans, which include seeing a Chekhov or Alan Ayckbourn play, visiting Whipsnade Zoo and dinner at the Savoy Hotel.

For scholars the seemingly mundane correspondence of a literary legend offers new insights into the real man, who loved writing but hated the world of publishing and the publicity that came with it. 

“There is nothing startling in these letters, but that is what is so interesting about them,” says Chris Bigsby, Professor of American Studies at the University. “This is another Salinger, this is an ordinary Salinger, not the reclusive, angry person people thought he was.”

  • The JD Salinger – Hartog Letters are available for interested members of the public and researchers to consult, by appointment only. For further details visit www.uea.ac.uk/is/archives.
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