Su Lum: Slumming
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
An event my mother and I looked forward to all year was the Boonton, N.J., annual book sale. We were the voracious readers in the family, and were always at the front of the line to get first crack at the books, which sold for a quarter or 50 cents for hardbacks and probably a nickel for paperbacks, which sold for 25 cents new in those days.
My allowance was only 50 cents a week back then, but I expect I was given a book budget of two or three dollars to encourage my habit and to justify my mother’s. Once, when someone asked her greatest failing, she replied, “I read an inordinate amount of junk.”
She especially loved mysteries, and had good taste in them (Josephine Tey, Dorothy Sayers and Ellis Peters were among her favorites). I, at 13, was barely out of the Albert Payson Terhune collie and Walter Farley horse book stage in 1951, when I discovered J.D. Salinger at the book sale.
Copies of “The Catcher in the Rye” were all over the place. It had been picked up by the Book-of-the-Month Club and apparently Boonton residents were not ready for J.D. Salinger and had donated/unloaded their copies to the book sale.
I was intrigued by the drawing of the angry red carousel horse on the front cover and even more by the intense full-page back cover photograph of the author. I put it in my pile despite the warning from my mother that if so many Book-of-the-Month Club members had dumped it, it probably wasn’t any good.
Needless to say, I wish I still had that book! Salinger decreed that the photograph be removed in subsequent printings, thinking that the author’s words should speak for themselves and readers shouldn’t be influenced in any way by what the author looked like. But those eyes were the reason I bought the book.
And I had never read anything LIKE that book! It spoke to my heart, spoke to my alienation at home and school, to my strong but unarticulated 13-year-old feelings that I had been born on the wrong planet. I’ve always had an underlying sense of possessiveness about “The Catcher in the Rye” because I found it all by myself. Salinger was unknown – no one had suggested or recommended it, fame had not preceded my discovery, I had PICKED it.
Two years later, “Nine Stories” pierced my heart. And if Salinger’s subsequent four writings (“Franny and Zooey;” “Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters;” “Seymour: an Introduction” and “Hapworth 16, 1924”) began to be overpowered by certain conceits, such as the excess of parenthetical asides and the (now becoming unbelievable) precociousness of his young characters, I was still a born-again fan. And the first thought I had when he died, after decades of almost Howard Hughes-like seclusion, was “what had he written during those silent years?”
In the (what may be a very long) interval preceding publication of the works he was said to have stashed in the vault of his remote refuge in New Hampshire, I’ve been reading a couple of books mentioned in his obituaries – “Dream Catcher” by his daughter Margaret and “At Home in the World,” by a prodigy writer, Joyce Maynard, who lived with Salinger for a year when she was 18 and he 53.
Neither account paints a pretty picture of life with J.D. Salinger, not that the women themselves were paragons of exceptional mental health. I was reminded of the abusive situation with my second husband, except for the obsession with extreme diets, homeopathy and obscure religions. The similarity was in the isolation and control.
When I was 15, I fancied myself as Esme, the girl in the story, “For Esme with Love and Squalor.” I would have walked away from my life to live with J.D. Salinger without a backward glance. In many ways I did walk away from my past life, but I no longer believe that Salinger would have been a preferable alternative, not that I had the option.
Still, I am eager for the vault to be opened and for all his unpublished works to be published.
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