Monday, November 4, 2019

J.D. Salinger, the exhibit

Walk through the glass doors of the New York Public Library exhibition titled J.D. Salinger — after checking the phone with which you assumed you could take photographs — and you’ll see a long glass case. Front and center, an elderly manual typewriter, a Royal, in remarkably good condition. To the left, a metal Study-Stand, much the worse for wear, for holding books or manuscript pages. To the right, a cup full of yellow crayons (proto-highlighters) and a pair of wire-frame bifocals. If you’re so disposed (I wasn’t), you can step to the side of the case, turn, crouch, and attempt to see the world through J.D. Salinger’s lenses.

Elaine and I visited this exhibition last week, as part of a day in Manhattan with our friends Jim and Luanne. The NYPL has done the Salinger reader a great service, presenting, among other things, family photographs, a copper bowl made at summer camp, war memorabilia, letters (to William Maxwell, William Shawn, WWII comrades, the occasional member of the public), a film projector and small selection of films (The 39 Steps on enormous reels), pipes, a tin of Balkan Sobranie tobacco, a revolving bookcase (detective fiction, folk medicine, Christian Science, Vedanta, Zen), manuscript pages, recipes, pocket notebooks with typed spiritual texts and Salinger’s handwritten commentary, and — here and there — evidence of a writer long at work after he stopped publishing. See, for instance, a key ring with small tabs (cut from a manila folder?) holding phrases and sentences for use in some work(s) of fiction.

Again and again, the materials of Salinger’s life belie the media image of a hermit or recluse. Did Salinger insist on privacy? Indeed. But here he is, writing with immense kindness to decline an invitation to speak to a graduating high-school class of six. Here he is, writing to a WWII comrade and promising “an enclosure” by overnight mail (the comrade had asked, not for the first time, for financial help). Here he is, sitting in a park in Cornish, New Hampshire. Here he is playing with a grandchild, with shelves of detective fiction and a Sesame Street farm in the background.

This exhibition, assembled by Salinger’s widow Colleen Salinger, and his son Matt Salinger, is a portrait of the artist with some elements absent. There’s nothing here of Salinger’s marriages, nothing of his relationship with Joyce Maynard, almost nothing of his daughter Margaret, whose memoir Dream Catcher offers a pained account of life as her father’s child. And there’s nothing to suggest what unseen writing is forthcoming from the Salinger estate. But the optimist in me (or is it the cynic?) thinks that this exhibition may be meant to stoke interest in some book soon to be announced. That’s me seeing things through my lenses.

Here are links to four reports with photographs or video, from NBC News, The New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, and Voice of America.

And here’s Elaine’s post about our visit.

Related reading
All OCA Salinger posts (Pinboard)

comments: 4

Anonymous said...

I had a chance to visit. The ring-bound "vade mecums" or pocket notebooks fascinated me in particular: some of the pages are typed! How did he do it on such small, narrow paper? Other pages are handwritten, in neat print vs the cursive I would have expected. Clarity and a meticulousness about his work imbue these notebooks as well as his other manuscripts. I wish that I had noted more titles from his revolving bookcase, but I recall several books by and about Mary Baker Eddy, as well as several Georges Simenon novels and a book on Kierkegaard. I also didn't realize that he had designed the covers of his works for paperback editions of the 1990's--which I never liked and blamed the publisher! Imagine the clout he had to determine the look of his books; I can't imagine an author having the same power today. And--what about that Minox spy camera? I guess that Salinger never quite stopped being an intelligence officer. No, I didn't expect the more sordid aspects of Salinger's life to be addressed, particularly Joyce Maynard's disturbing account.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for sharing your recollections of the exhibition, Anon. I think I spent more time on the bookcase than on anything else. I noticed several books about Kierkegaard. I’m not sure there was anything by him. In the photo of Salinger with a grandchild on his lap, there are two shelves of Simenon behind him.

By the way, I’ve never liked those covers either. And speaking of design, I noticed that some of his videocassettes have handwritten titles running down their sides, along the lines of what Salinger wanted on the spine of the proposed book version of “Hapworth 16, 1924.”

Slywy said...


Michael Leddy said...

His sketch for the cover design is at the top of the NYT article — white with diagonal stripes in the upper left corner.