How to Be at Home

| 4/19/2010 11:04:10 AM

Image“A man must have aunts and cousins, must buy carrots and turnips, must have barn and woodshed, must go to market and to the blacksmith’s shop, must saunter and sleep and be inferior and silly.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

J. D. Salinger died a few months ago at the age of 91, and his demise sent ripples of speculation through the publishing world. His famous novel Catcher in the Rye was a sensation when it was published in 1951. It achieved a gradual and building success that by the 1960s drove Salinger to retreat to a farm house in Cornish, New Hampshire, where he remained – raising his family and writing, but not publishing – for the duration of his life.

By the time I was born in 1969, J. D. Salinger was already a legend. I grew up knowing two things about him – that he wrote The Catcher in the Rye, and that he had essentially dropped off the face of the earth. He was that astonishing and unbelievable anomaly in the publishing world – the “sure thing” writer who refused to cash in his chips. I read all of his books about twenty years ago, and I remember liking them at the time, but they were not literary-life-altering for me. I’ve been an aspiring novelist all of my life and Salinger was never one of the writers who inspired me ... with one small exception. Writer’s magazines and web sites and agent’s blogs all tell us that in the present state of publishing it is now a writer’s responsibility to bring an audience “to the table” along with their manuscript, and it is within this context that I have always been fascinated by the idea of Salinger’s reserve; by his ability to not participate in the fray. What inspires me about J. D. Salinger is his apparent conviction that a writer’s only obligation is to write – a conviction in him that seems to have been attached to a real affinity for home.

* * * * *

Home must be something that Salinger understood very well. He refused to put art before life, I assume because he recognized and respected the complex relationship between them; because he knew that they were not – that they could not be – mutually exclusive. Eulogistic pieces in The New Yorker suggest that he was not technically a recluse, as we’ve been led to believe. He simply refused to be what he said most writers are nowadays, “book-selling louts and big mouths.”

Lillian Ross, Salinger’s friend for over fifty years, quotes him talking about taking his children to ride on the flying swings at the Cornish Fair, where he said he would “stand around and talk about schools with the other crummy parents, the summer parents.” She says he found “fun and relief” traveling down to New York to have dinner with her and another mutual friend. In the same issue John Seabrook, a friend of Matthew Salinger (J. D. Salinger’s son), describes an evening when Matthew invited him and his girlfriend to the Salinger home to watch movies. Salinger made them popcorn and sat behind them with “his face illuminated by the flickering projector.” Salinger and Seabrook later played golf together. On another day they spent “a wonderful afternoon ... going around San Francisco’s Chinatown, looking at exotic mushrooms, roots, and herbs.”

S.M.R. Saia
5/23/2010 6:44:30 AM

Thanks Susan, and thanks for the great quote, which rings very true. :0)

5/21/2010 6:44:31 PM

Shannon, great post! I'm just now catching up on reading a bunch of them. I once read this quote, which I like very much: All of our problems arise from our inability to stay quietly at home. Since I got married several years ago and moved from city to country, I've learned, literally, how to be at home. To not want to be anywhere else. To not always feel the need to go soomewhere, or to do something. More and more lately, I'm pulled in by simple writing, honest observations, and reading a story that's told from the heart. I'll always love a fresh metaphor or a strange plot twist, but I no longer scoff at a simpler tale. I think it's partly me accepting that whatever I write doesn't need to be grand or stunning. It's me giving myself permission to get out of the way and tell the story as I remember or know it, or as it comes to me. Thanks for another thoughtful post. Susan Close to the Earth in Alaska

S.M.R. Saia
4/30/2010 6:09:01 AM

Cindy, thanks for the info on the White book. I'll poke around for it. And I see your post is up now, so I'm going to go check it out. Nebraska Dave, thanks for the kind words. Sorry it's been a week or more since I've checked in. And don't worry about calling me Susan. I also answer to Sharon. :0)

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