J.D. Salinger stood at the butcher’s counter. He was tall, handsome and quarrelsome. He was explaining that he wanted his turkey shaved—not just sliced in slimy slabs, like last time. Last time they had screwed it up, he wanted the butcher to know; he was bothered by the memory. I stood next to him with a cartful of strawberries. I was stocking up for a teatime bridal shower.
The Co-op in Hanover, New Hampshire, where I grew up grocery shopping with my mother, is not Zabar’s. You don’t get crabby with the deli guy. Actually, you don’t think of him as a deli guy. He’s a butcher who sometime in the ’80s began cutting meat for sandwiches, like they do in New York City. The Co-op counter sold what I used to think of as “regular food,” good apples, bad oranges, lots of ham, and local milk. Only after I moved to New York and became Jewish and started fighting with deli guys myself did I realize how much a person can pontificate about food. It was 1993 when I stood next to Salinger. By this point, he had lived in New Hampshire longer than I ever did, enjoying the anonymity the state—Live Free or Die—affords both loggers with guns and distinguished authors. Salinger was a Co-op regular, but he never took to the have-a-nice-day Co-op way. He was exacting, unsettled, discerning, worldly. He was Jewish.
Or he kind of was. Salinger, who died Thursday in Cornish, New Hampshire, at 91, was born to a Polish-Jewish dad who sold meat and cheese that either was or wasn’t kosher, depending on your source; and a Scotch-Irish mother who changed her name from Maria to Miriam and passed as Jewish, though she never converted. (Salinger learned that interesting twist right around his bar mitzvah.) In the racially homogenous Connecticut River Valley—home to both the artist-resort town where Salinger lived and the college town where I grew up—there have always been some former city people, people Jews might recognize as Jewish, though most of us didn’t, partly because they became, above all, echt New Hampshirites, with chickens and four-by-fours and forges and snowshoes and all the trappings of rural, cold-climate life.
A special subset of American Jewry—I’ve heard them called mountain Jews, as distinct from book Jews and money Jews—like New Hampshire, a fierce place full of loners that is not freighted with the nanny-state reputation of Vermont or the country-club crap in Connecticut. Mountain Jews grow beards, and their own food; they’re often atheists or Buddhists, and sometimes doctors or teachers; they don’t like people enough to live in cities, and they don’t like Jews enough to live in Israel. A high school friend, the son of a psychiatrist who’d moved to town from New York, told me that his father and some other Jews had decided in the ’60s and ’70s that clustering together in cities is what had made Jews (often their parents) vulnerable in Europe. It was an error they were determined not to repeat. When I saw him, Salinger looked just like those men: rangy, serious, and in picturesque country clothes that looked more J. Press than Sears.
And though he hazed the Co-op employees, they revered him. When I asked the deli guy if the shaved-turkey fanatic was indeed Salinger, he said, proudly, “Jerry comes in here all the time. He likes the doughnut holes.” The people of Cornish, especially, took on the cause of Salinger’s privacy as if it were the state’s sacrosanct opposition to sales and income tax; they took pleasure in deceiving tourists and scholars who came looking for him. Not far away, in Cavendish, Vermont, where Alexander Solzhenitsyn lived, townsfolk kept a sign in the general store that said, “No Directions to the Solzhenitsyn Home.” But in Cornish no one even acknowledged that they’d heard of Salinger, much less had him as a neighbor. You got a withering look if you mentioned his name.
Early on, at his father’s insistence, Salinger apprenticed in the meat-importing business, which he studied in Vienna, Austria; he knew from shaved turkey. He got out of Austria in 1938. Good timing for a Jew—almost-Jew—son of a Jew. Good timing for anyone. In New York, Salinger tried and failed to publish stories in The New Yorker (one reject I nominate for posthumous publication was called “I Went to School with Adolf Hitler”) and shipped off to war with the Army in 1942. By the end of the decade, he had helped to liberate a concentration camp, retooled himself as a Buddhist, and created the Glass family, seven fictional eccentric Upper East Side children and their parents: Les and Bessie. Bessie Glass, that is, née Gallagher.
A woman refusing to convert, and thereby compromising Salinger’s identity, loomed large in Salinger’s imagination. Salinger was not a nice Jewish boy, and he wasn’t a good Irish Catholic boy either. He was a purist, even a kind of puritan. That’s another reason northern New England suited him. His scorching misanthropy was gorgeous in his books, because there’s no time you’re more willing to hate flesh-and-blood people than when you’re reading and lost in the abstraction of words on a page. In his life, though—and in the lives of fans who used to strike the Holden Caulfield pose—it led to little more than a state of perpetual annoyance. The army bothered Salinger; glossy magazines bothered him; editors bothered him; the movie business bothered him; finally, everything bothered him, and he stopped publishing and bunkered himself in Cornish, which has its share of problems (poverty, etc.) but—to give the town its due—very, very few phonies.
Nothing was ever shaved right for Salinger. I’m surprised he ate meat, actually; he had been through earlier diet regimes including macrobiotics, fasting, forced vomiting, and doses of urine and vitamin C. He distrusted medicine and embraced Christian Science for a time. He liked the idea of sweet, clean, oracular young girls (like his creations Pheobe and Esmé), but in life they were never pure or wise enough for him. Joyce Maynard’s book about her affair with him—she was 18, he was 53—pulls off the unlikely trick of telling a Salinger story from the point of view of the pure thing that the Salinger hero desires. Pure things, though, should not write books, have their own desires, or sell off love letters that make august figures like Salinger seem lecherous and cruel. When Maynard auctioned off Salinger’s letters to her, the software mogul Peter Norton bought them, saying he’d return them to Salinger. Men are very, very protective of Salinger.
It used to be you could never mention that you admired Maynard for fear of losing your attractiveness to indie guys who suddenly would see you as impure. Now I don’t think indie or any guys remember Maynard-Salinger, but it’s still a good parable for women: if you like a guy who likes pure things, you must actually somehow stay pure or he will absolutely hate you. Salinger trapped his wife Claire Douglas in their house, and kept feeding her new ideologies and practices, including all the puking and macrobiotic stuff, and Dianetics, the prototext of Scientology. It exhausted her, and even turned her suicidal and murderous. In the end, she spared her own life and didn’t kill her daughter, as she had planned to. They merely got divorced.
Like a lot of puritans, Salinger liked litigation. He was always suing and banning screenings and enjoining publications and insisting on copyrights. He was a contractionist. He wanted to keep value close. To the extent that women yap and preen, they were the enemy. He detested the women who failed to become, in his view, sufficiently trained in Buddhism or Kriya yoga or special ways of eating. He seems to have said some pretty awful, even sick things to and about his wives, his daughter, his girlfriends. I’m not sure how he treated his widow, Colleen O’Neill, a local nurse. My last glimpse of Salinger was in the parking lot, where he and O’Neill were companionably loading their car with groceries.
To me, at that deli counter, he said only one thing: “That’s a lot of strawberries!” There was an exclamation point. I heard it. And take it from me: when Salinger acknowledges you, be you man or woman, Jew or Gentile, your heart leaps. You remember exactly why you love Holden Caulfield, and the prose of J.D. Salinger, and the myth of him. Because at a vulnerable time, say when you were home unmarried at your parents’ place throwing a silly teatime bridal shower for a silly bride and wishing you were a silly bride yourself, you so ferociously want to be unphony enough that Holden—Jerry—Salinger—the Jew—will like you, will find in you a reason to be happy and not fear another Holocaust or the demons of fame or the horror of existence. And that longing, of the small town white girl, to be something pure for someone like Salinger; that longing is so profound that you can’t distinguish it from the work itself, and for a time—a very important time—Nine Stories or Catcher in the Rye is the greatest book you have ever read.
Virginia Heffernan writes The Medium, a weekly column about Internet culture, for The New York Times Magazine.