Glimpses of Salinger Tucked Inside ‘Catcher in the Rye’

To the list of things that J.D. Salinger found hard to bear, we can now add these: pompous graduation ceremonies and shlepping overseas to see tulips.

“I’ve been going to graduations, and there isn’t much that I find more pretentious or irksome than the sight of ‘faculty’ and graduates in their academic get-ups,’’ he wrote a friend in June 1982, mentioning that it took self-control at one point “not to gag.”

He had an equally visceral and unprintable response to the barrage of tulips that greeted him on a three-week spin through Europe in 1994. Writing to the same friend, he expressed relief that Kafka was not alive to see what “a tourist trap” town fathers had made of his house in Prague. Salinger also complained about the time he spent in Europe prowling for restaurants that offered “a decent, huge green salad.”

Notoriously cranky about a host of things from autograph seekers to Park Avenue phonies, the New York-born Jerome David Salinger moved to New Hampshire and began his retreat from public life two years after his iconic novel, “The Catcher in the Rye,” was published in 1951. Intensely private, he acceded to only a handful of interviews before he died in 2010 at the age of 91.

His views on many topics and his sensitivities to modern urban life, which were reflected, in part, in Holden Caulfield, the hero of the novel, peeked through in occasional letters to his friends.

The latest batch of snippets, cited above, come from the correspondence he shared over several decades with E. Michael Mitchell. Now deceased, he was the illustrator whose runaway carousel horse graced the first cover of “Catcher.”

After Salinger declined to sign a copy of “Catcher” for Mr. Mitchell in 1993, the illustrator sold 11 letters he had received from the author as far back as 1951 to a book dealer. They eventually ended up at the Morgan Library and Museum in 1998, where they sat in a vault and went on display last year, after Salinger’s death.

Mr. Mitchell’s longtime girlfriend, Ruth E. Linke, has since unearthed three additional letters, which have found their way to the Morgan, too. She spotted one inside Mr. Mitchell’s passport, along with photographs Salinger had forwarded of his two young children, and some creased math homework that Salinger’s son, Matthew, completed in 1966, when he was 6 and needed two lines to sign his name. (The photos and the homework appear to be enclosures that got detached from two letters the museum already had in its collection.)

This spring, while cleaning out the last of Mr. Mitchell’s boxes, she found two more letters in Mr. Mitchell’s unsigned copy of “Catcher.”

“She e-mailed me out of the blue a month ago,” and offered them for sale, recalled a delighted Declan Kiely. As the Morgan’s top curator for literary and historical manuscripts, he was all too happy to add them to the museum’s collection.

One of the new acquisitions — the one where the author disparages tulips — is now on display in the McKim building, which housed J.P. Morgan’s personal library. It will be there until Sept. 25, nuzzling a composition Mozart wrote at 5 and poems Sylvia Plath wrote at 14.

Salinger’s other two letters will be shown next year.

All three of the new acquisitions are vintage Salinger, sprinkled with regular-guy interjections and segues like “Buddyroo” and “Moron that I am.”

There is also that familiar mix of high and low that peppers Salinger’s fiction. The same 1994 letter that dropped Kafka’s name also made passing reference to Betty Lou, the Sesame Street muppet. Salinger claimed her little-girl voice was easier for him to make out than his soft-spoken spouse’s.

Hard of hearing, he found himself constantly asking “What?” at home and needed close-captioning to watch television, he wrote, unless the movie they were watching was Hitchcock’s “Thirty-Nine Steps.” That, he wrote, “I probably know by heart.’’

“Would that captions went with people’s foreheads,’’ he added, rather fancifully.

Salinger fans may be cheered to know that the new letters contain further hints that they may yet behold additional Salinger manuscripts. Salinger made passing reference in the 1982 letter to “my manuscripts.” The 1994 letter was more open ended but contained a section that could mean time spent at the typewriter: “I work on,” he wrote. “Same old hours, pretty much.”

The most recent letter, written two days after Christmas 1995, is one of his funnier efforts, even though he insisted that he had not “a shred of interesting news” to report.

Half of the postcard can be described as an ode to cats, which began: “Sometimes I can’t remember what I saw in Dogs for so many years.”

With two kittens and a larger Russian Blue making themselves at home each night atop the family bed, Salinger wrote that once the kittens finished growing, he might have to ask his wife to leave to make room for the menagerie.

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Complaint Box | How E-Readers Destroyed My Love Life

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I noticed his wavy hair, his feline eyes and his lips, which moved slightly as he read. But the first thing I noticed was his book: Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” one of my favorites, was cradled in his palm. Between Delancey Street and Bryant Park on the uptown F train, I fell for him hard. It wasn’t the first time I’d flirted my way into a Saturday night date with a simple phrase: “I love that book.”

I had one good pickup line, and e-readers ruined it. I can no longer hit on a handsome man on a long commute by asking about his book — because I can’t see it. Gone are the days when, sitting on a train delayed in the station, I could imagine exactly where in the New York Public Library we would first kiss — in the stacks between Mailer and Malamud or Foer and Franzen? E-books may be saving literature, but my dating life has suffered.

We all know you can’t tell a book by its Nook, but for for me, this problem is particularly acute. As a 29-year-old geek chic, a man’s literary taste can score as many points as being good with my parents or an ace in the kitchen. I promise there is nothing flattering about me awkwardly straining my un-swanlike neck toward a cute guy’s Kindle to guess what he’s eyeing. Instead, I am limited to those who peruse The New Yorker in print. And I fear those days are numbered.

Ladies and gentlemen, take out your books! In New York they are more important than your Facebook photo. As our cyber personalities grow more detailed, we see less of one another in person. A literary flirtation is less risky than a bar pickup — at least you know you have one thing in common. And there’s more chance for chemistry riding the L train than scrolling through, where you’ll see what novels a guy claims to read but his profile pic may be of his hotter brother.

I‘ve had wonderful encounters over books — in cafes, in parks, on subway platforms. Not just with potential dates, but kindred spirits — a septuagenarian reading Nicholas Sparks, a tourist from Abu Dhabi who introduced me to Italo Calvino. A woman new to the city reading E. B. White’s “Here Is New York,” another favorite, is now my good friend.

During the Murakami craze a few summers ago, when everyone was carrying around his Vintage-issued paperbacks with their distinct covers, I found myself in a subway car full of passengers bonding over their “Wind-Up Birds” and “Hard-Boiled Wonderlands.” That is what I love about New York. I don’t need 10 best sellers on an iPad; it only takes one dog-eared title to recognize a soul mate.

Since I can’t scope out a guy for his good books, I’ll have to find my love stories elsewhere. Perhaps I’ll start reading romance novels — hello, Nora Roberts. At least if I get an e-reader, no one will know.

Lisa Lewis, a freelance writer and playwright, lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and can be found online at

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