Unsettled Life, Unsettled Reputation

Thomas Powers on J.D. Salinger, his retreat to New Hampshire, and the mystifying effect of his unusual life on his reputation.

You might think that the literary reputation of a writer born a century ago (New Year’s Day 1919), dead for nearly a decade (since 27 January 2010), all of whose published work had appeared by 1965, would be a pretty well settled matter by now, whatever the verdict. Judgment should be an easy matter. But the work can’t be separated from the life, and the life – the Salinger case, really – radically departs from the usual pattern. Beginning with The Catcher in the Rye in 1951, Salinger published four books which dramatically succeeded in the ways books conspicuously can: zillions of readers bought and loved them; critics admired, detested or were baffled by them, and they have never been out of print. One big success of that sort can make an author rich and famous for life but Salinger, blessed with four, instead chose to disappear. He turned his back on the excitements of New York City, where he and most of his fictional characters had been born and raised, for quiet and seclusion at the end of a dirt road in a tiny New Hampshire town. There he bolted his door to the world, answered no questions from the curious, and carried on writing books he did not intend to publish in his lifetime.

London Review of Books, October 24, 2019.

Mail of Interest

Elizabeth Hardwick writing to Robert Lowell in April 1979 about their political situation and ours. From the new book The Dolphin Letters, 1970 – 1979.

No mail of any interest. The political scene is very dark and mysterious here. It will just be luck if we come out of it without too much damage to the country. I do believe that, powerless as they are, they have profoundly shaped the course of the country by their hysterical “revolutionary” games… The poor astronauts in the lunar nodule with failing oxygen—aren’t they the symbol? How I wish I liked nature and simplicity and isolation better than I do. That would be an escape from the low-oxygen nodule, but I love the hard pavements, the killing noise. There’s so much I want to talk to you about.

April 14, 1970

Dorothy Day on the Weapons of the Spirit

Truly I did not want to know good and evil. I wanted to know, to believe only the good. I wanted to believe that man could right wrongs, could tilt the lance, could love and espouse the cause of his brother because “an injury to one was an injury to all.” I never liked the appeal to enlightened self-interest. I wanted to love my fellows; I loved the poor with compassion. I could not be happy unless I shared poverty, lived as they did, suffered as they did.

Well, now at fifty, I cannot say that I have been disillusioned. But I cannot say either that I yet share the poverty and the suffering of the poor. No matter how much I may live in a slum, I can never be poor as the mother of three, six, ten children is poor (or rich either). I can never give up enough. I have always to struggle against self. I am not disillusioned with myself either. I know my talents and abilities as well as failures. But I have done woefully little. I am fifty, and more than half of my adult life is past. Who knows how much time is left after fifty? Newman says the tragedy is never to have begun.

I have been disillusioned, however, this long, long time in the means used by any but the saints to live in this world God has made for us. The use of force, the use of diplomacy in foreign affairs, the use of anything but the weapons of the spirit seems to me madness.

From a Dorothy Day “On Pilgrimage” column.