An Unboxed blog from, Rowen Bryer, third-year English Literature undergraduate at the University of East Anglia.
“These letters challenge received ideas of Salinger – his apparently misanthropic public exterior and his rebellious teenage protagonist – and instead provide an invaluable insight into the man behind the desk, a man who deals with the hardships, pitfalls, and inevitabilities of life with a chirpy attitude.”
J.D. Salinger met Donald Hartog in Vienna in 1937. Both were eighteen and had been sent by their fathers to learn German. The two young men sparked an immediate friendship. Following Salinger’s return to America in 1938, it became a written correspondence that continued for some years. Sadly, letters written prior to 1950 have been lost.
In 1986, however, Hartog wrote to Salinger and reignited their old correspondence. These letters were donated by Hartog’s family after his death in 2007 and are currently held in the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at the University of East Anglia, UK. The collection consists of fifty letters written by Salinger to Hartog, four postcards, a photograph of the two men, and a handful of newspaper clippings—from dieting tips to an article on heavy rainfall in England—that makes us privy to the man behind the reclusive persona, a man who writes to a dear friend about his vegetable garden, old age, family health, and the weather.
Salinger was, and still is, frequently penned as ‘hermit-like’ by journalists. On 1 April 1988, writing to Hartog about his house situated in a rural part of New England, Salinger gleefully notes that the nearest house to his is a quarter of a mile away, and he can only be reached by a long winding path. Whilst this was in line with the public perception of Salinger— that he was reclusive, introverted, and unsociable— his innocent letters to Hartog present another dimension to this figure. Rather than the unreachable recluse that Salinger was thought to be, the cheery ‘Jerry’ who signs off each of these letters instead reveals the normalcy of the famous writer.
For a writer so renowned for accurately depicting teenage angst through his protagonist Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, it is unsurprising that Salinger often writes to Hartog of age and youth.
Many of his letters to Hartog playfully pokes at their age and its rapid advance. In a letter dated December 8th, 1988, Salinger writes of the deceptive nature of time; he asks incredulously how it could be that two eighteen-year-olds like them were both approaching their seventies. Salinger remarks cheerfully that they had made it: they were officially elderly men.
Salinger never appears to dwell negatively on his advancing years, however, and instead writes jokingly that Hartog, aged eighteen, already acted as an old man when they met in Vienna. Salinger’s approach to aging is pleasantly light. These letters challenge received ideas of Salinger – his apparently misanthropic public exterior and his rebellious teenage protagonist – and instead provide an invaluable insight into the man behind the desk, a man who deals with the hardships, pitfalls, and inevitabilities of life with a chirpy attitude.
Despite their correspondence petering into apparent silence in 2002, Salinger and Hartog’s warm and kind friendship survives through these archived letters. They speak of two eighteen-year-old friends, now in their seventies, approaching old age, poking fun at it, living in it, and ultimately allowing themselves to revel in it.
Rowen Bryer is a third-year English Literature undergraduate at the University of East Anglia and a volunteer blogger for the British Archive of Contemporary Writing.
Rowen was reading the Salinger Hartog letters, held within the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at UEA.
More about this collection: https://portal.uea.ac.uk/library/archives/bacw/salinger