Searching for Salinger
Undergraduate research grant takes English major on East Coast jaunt for the voice behind her favorite character.
It occurred to me that I had never been closer, nor further, from J.D. Salinger in my entire life. I was walking down a dirt road from my makeshift parking spot in a forest clearing toward his home in Cornish, New Hampshire. What used to be his home, at least. Salinger lived there as a recluse from 1956 until his death in 2010.
I received a research grant from Ohio State’s Undergraduate Research Office to spend this past summer studying Salinger’s works. And in May, I took a two-week trip to the East Coast to better understand the voice behind my favorite Salinger character, the beloved Holden Caulfield.
The author’s brown, two-story home overlooked the White Mountains. There was a deck, a pile of chopped wood, a small vegetable garden and a hammock. All of it likely belonged to the new owners, but I preferred to think they knew how important it was to keep Salinger’s place intact.
Yet as close as I felt to Salinger, I realized I may have reached an end.
I had been to the archives at Princeton and read the five unpublished stories. I had seen unpublished letters to his creative writing teacher and first publisher, Whit Burnett, before their relationship turned sour. I had touched his handwriting. I had read every biography out there and even watched a sensational documentary on Netflix.
Standing outside his former home, I could hear fighting inside, and so I did not knock on the door. I merely circled the property, snapped a few photos, wondered which part of the house was his office and headed back to my car.
He gets me
I’ve loved J.D. Salinger since I stole The Catcher in the Rye from my brother’s backpack when he was in high school. I was in sixth grade, and I remember reading it over his shoulder and seeing a swear word. I needed that book!
It went over my head the first time, so I read it again in eighth grade and again my senior year. The images would guide me through most of my major life decisions. I would recount Salinger’s Phoebe on the carousel reaching for the rings as Holden watched from a distance. Here was someone who understood me and for whom an image could change everything.
I began to read Salinger’s other works and met the Glass Family in Franny and Zooey, Nine Stories and Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. This was a family of “artist-seers,” effortlessly in tune with beauty, who shy away from the rational and often are overwhelmed by their own consciousness. “Me!” I thought, as a college freshman with a creative writing minor. I would swear that Salinger and I had conversations, that he knew I would be reading his words one day.
Driving back down the dirt road to town, I saw a barn that offered another captivating view of the White Mountains and stopped the car. It looked as though there had just been a wedding under a small, white tent.
Two men were taking down tables. “I’m sorry for trespassing!” I said. They told me not to worry, that the wedding was yesterday and they were members of the bridal party who volunteered to clean up. They offered me a Coke and asked what I was doing in Cornish.
Embarrassed, I told them that I was on an odd manhunt for J.D. Salinger.
“Did you know you’re standing inside his barn?” one of them asked.
I learned that this was the barn that Salinger owned with his wife, Colleen O’Neil. They would walk down to the barn and sit where I sat. Salinger was nearly deaf when they met, and she would repeat words very loudly to him as they walked the grounds. Colleen still owns the barn and often rents it out to townsfolk for parties and the like.
The men I was talking with grew up as Salinger’s neighbors, though they rarely saw him. “Once,” said one, “my car was stuck in the snow at two in the morning. Jerry and Colleen stopped to help me, but only Colleen got out of the car.”
They said Colleen has stacks and stacks of his manuscripts in her house, gesturing toward the hills in her home’s general direction.
The enigma lives in words
Later, I drove across the Connecticut River to Windsor, Vermont. My five-minute drive hardly constituted a change of town, let alone a change of state. This is where those from hilly Cornish take care of their errands and go out to eat. It is here that a famous photo of the elderly Salinger was taken in 1979, after a photographer staked out in the town for two days.
I ate at the Windsor Diner, where Salinger sat many a time. It looked like a trailer with a dimly lit sign above the door. It was lunchtime on a Sunday, but the sole occupants were two waitresses. I ordered a grilled cheese and a side of mashed potatoes and gravy, unsure of what this ascetic man would have ordered.
The day ended with a trip to a pond in Windsor that seemed pretty enough for Salinger to visit. It was large and had a few signs with missing letters, but I could deduce it was municipal property. There was a man fishing as his three kids played in the dirty sand. I stared at the stagnant water for a while.
Did Salinger come here? I realized I had little to no basis for understanding Salinger’s Cornish. Those who really knew him were hiding in the hills with stacks of manuscripts. I left town somewhat happy, feeling he would never be uncovered. Our relationship could remain as it was — unending.
Salinger will always be known as the recluse. The author who raced out of New York City after the success of The Catcher in the Rye. Who stopped publishing in 1965, but according to his letters, continued to write for the next 50 years. Who is said to have cared for the Glass family more than his own. Who upon returning to New York City for trips in his later years said he was lost there, saying there weren’t any places he liked or loved there anymore, save for the Museum of Natural History.
My research would later take me to the archives at Morgan Library in New York City as well as to other Manhattan sites. I would read more of his letters, the most revealing being those he wrote to his best friend from youth, Mike Mitchell. These are some of the only pieces of writing we have from his later years in the 1980s and ’90s. I was ecstatic upon discovering the similarity of Salinger’s own voice and those of his characters. I read a line, “Just the sight of a palm tree makes me depressed.” This was Holden Caulfield and Seymour Glass in their old age.
I was reminded that despite the sensation, the media and the chase, my best chance of finding Salinger is still to look toward his writing.
Renee Shaffer is a senior English major who loves writing, local restaurants, sitting under trees and spending time with her friends and family.