Simply being here, at the bottom of the driveway, just beyond the verge of the property line, feels like a trespass of some kind. This is not just private property. It is the property of the most private man in America, perhaps the last private person in America. The silence surrounding this place is not just any silence. It is the work of a lifetime. It is the work of renunciation and determination and expensive litigation. It is a silence of self-exile, cunning and contemplation. In its own powerful, invisible way, the silence is in itself an eloquent work of art. It is the Great Wall of Silence that J D Salinger has built around himself.
It is not a passive silence; it's a palpable, provocative silence. It's the kind of silence people make pilgrimages to witness, to challenge. It's a silence we both respect and resent, a lure and a reproof. Something draws us to it, makes us interrogate it, test it.
There's a line in Mao II, Don DeLillo's novel about a Salinger-like reclusive writer who wonders: Why are so many so obsessed with my invisibility, my hiddenness, my absence?
"When a writer doesn't show his face," he answers himself, "he becomes a local symptom of God's famous reluctance to appear."
The silence of a writer is not the same as the silence of God, but there's something analogous: an awe-inspiring creator, someone we believe has some answers of some kind, refusing to respond to us, hiding his face, withholding his creation. The problem, the rare phenomenon of the unavailable, invisible, indifferent writer (indifferent to our questions, indifferent to the publicity-industrial complex so many serve), is the literary equivalent of the problem of theodicy, the specialised sub-discipline of theology that addresses the problem of the apparent silent indifference of God to the hell of human suffering.
And when a writer won't break his silence, we think of ways to break into it. We think of knocking on his door or leaving messages in his mailbox.
S's two mailboxes beckoned to me as I stood at the bottom of his driveway.
The grey metal US Postal Service box was shut with a rusty hasp. But next to it stood a forest-green, open-ended mailbox with the logo of a local paper, West Lebanon's Valley News, on it. Empty, except that stuck in the back was a single piece of printed matter that looked as if it had been orphaned there for some time. Someone else's message for S? It turned out to be a junk-mail flyer, perhaps the single most misdirected piece of junk mail in America.
GET ON TARGET! the flyer shrieked in hyperventilating three-inch-high type. It was a junk-mail flyer advertising customised, promotional junk- mail flyers - meta junk mail, if you like. LET US HELP YOU ADVERTISE YOUR BUSINESS! it urged J D Salinger.
America's self-promotional culture reaching out to target the last private person left.
It made me think twice about leaving a letter there, a message for S. It made me think more than twice about what I might say, or whether I should just depart and leave his silence in silence. Wouldn't any message at all, however heartfelt, be a similar sort of sacrilege, just another piece of junk mail targeting S?
I knew I had to consider my next move carefully, because I could end up doing something I might regret for a long time.
THE YEAR WHEN THE SILENT SPEAK
THE NIGHT before I set out for New Hampshire, I heard a strange tale about J D Salinger's Wall: the Fake Wounds Story. It came up after I'd mentioned my fascination with S's Wall in a talk I'd given at Harvard University's Nieman Fellows house. Hoping I might smoke out some arcane lore about S (or at least his address) from the ace reporters in my audience, I told them about my concept for the expedition: I would be heading up to Cornish, the tiny, hilly hamlet 18 miles south of Hanover that has been S's place of silent retreat for the past 44 years. Not to disturb S, not to knock on his door or wait on his door- step. No, I told them, what I most wanted to do was gaze at S's wall. This was at least partially true. If S were to emerge from behind the wall and engage me in a discussion about "the sound of one hand clapping", I would not decline. But I did not expect this would happen. My idea was that S's Wall itself - not just the physical wall of wood or stone I'd heard he'd built around his house but the metaphysical Wall, the Wall of Silence he'd built around himself, around his work - was in a way his most powerful, most eloquent, perhaps his most lasting work of art. I explained my notion of the Party of Silence: how writers like Salinger and Thomas Pynchon and William Wharton and to some extent Don DeLillo (less silent than publicity shy) constituted a small but powerful minority caucus in American culture. They are less a party than a loose-knit group of kindred spirits whose varieties of con- scious silence range from writing but not publishing (S) to publishing but not appearing (Pynchon) to publishing under a pseudonym to avoid publicity (Wharton) to publishing but not actively publicising himself (DeLillo). Their varieties of reticence and concealment and self-effacement cumulatively constitute a provocative dissent from the culture of self-promotion that has swept contemporary publishing, a reproof to the roaring "white noise" (a DeLillo novel title) of the publicity-industrial complex that dominates contemporary celebrity culture.
And then suddenly this year, it seemed that the silent - in their own idiosyncratic, gestural ways - had begun to speak! In January, a report stunned the literary world to the effect that S had made a small but significant reversal, a slight opening, if not a breach, in the Wall. He had inexplicably, quixotically granted permission to a small-press publisher (Orchises Press in Alexandria, Virginia, which specialises in little-known contemporary poets) to issue a hardback edition of his last published story, "Hapworth 16, 1924", which had first appeared in the 19 June 1965 issue of the New Yorker and survived mainly in faded nth- generation photocopies.
This was a surprising and puzzling reversal because S had declined for three decades to permit the story to be issued in book form (as he had his other long New Yorker stories like "Franny" and "Zooey"). And he'd made it his practice to unleash from behind his wall attack-dog legal assaults on unauthorised publication of other uncanonical works (early uncollected short stories; personal letters a biographer found in university archives). He'd even succeeded in suppressing quotations from already published works: late last year, his agents forced a non-profit Website, run by a fan of The Catcher in the Rye, to cease offering inspirational quotations from the novel to other fans.
The "Hapworth" development wasn't earth-shattering on the face of it: S wasn't releasing the rumoured novel or novels he's been working on for the last three decades - the ones that, according to some reports, will continue to gather dust in a safe somewhere until (at least) after his death. He wasn't going to tour behind the "Hapworth" story or visit Oprah's Book Club. But against the background of the Wall, the monolithic, uncompromising Wall of Silence he'd erected around himself, the decision seemed to portend something more than the mere reprint of a magazine story.
S turned 78 this year; he'd been off for decades on what many supposed was some kind of spiritual quest, seeking something that demanded isolation and silence, a quest that had to be shielded by the Wall. Had he decided to compromise the strictness of his silence because of his awareness of mortality - the onrushing, unbreakable silence to come? Or had his quest at last produced some answer he wanted to begin to communicate? Was there something buried in the "Hapworth" story, some clue, some key to his silence, that he wanted to remind us of? Since it was S, now more mythic presence than real person, the speculations were tinged with a kind of millennial urgency - the promised return of a prophet.
What gave the Salinger announcement additional impact was that his fellow pillar of the Party of Silence, Thomas Pynchon, then published a new novel, Mason & Dixon, his first in seven years. And Pynchon will be followed, later this year, by a much-anticipated new DeLillo novel, Underworld.
Pynchon's silence had been a different sort of silence from S's, more moderate in one respect: unlike S, he'd never ceased to publish out of principle. But more extreme than S's in another respect: S had, in the post-war era, cut quite a public figure in the New York literary world - dining at the Stork Club with his British publishers, playing poker with writers and editors, lunching with urbane New Yorker wits like S J Perelman - before he suddenly exiled himself, silenced himself as a public persona, retreated behind his Wall, and stopped publishing, if not writing.
Pynchon, on the other hand, had almost from the very beginning refused to play the literary game: he'd always been an absence rather than a presence. He's been a stealth writer from the moment the publicity-industrial complex first tried to fix him on its radar screen. Legend has it that Pynchon was living in Mexico at the time his remarkable debut novel, V, was about to appear in 1963 and that when he discovered that Time magazine had sent someone down there to photograph the new sensation, "he just got on a bus and disappeared", as one of his associates told me. Ever since, for 30 years, he's been a wraith, a rumour with no known address. (At least with Salinger, we knew what state, what town, he lived in.)
Pynchon's legendary invisibility had been so complete for so long that back in 1976 one imaginative author (John Calvin Batchelor) even wrote an extremely clever mock-scholarly essay arguing the half-serious conjecture that Thomas Pynchon was J D Salinger - a Salinger who had been evading (or protecting) his Wall of Silence by publishing under cover of the Pynchon pseudonym. Others have suggested that the man behind the pseudonym William Wharton was actually Salinger incognito.
The accumulation of comic-exotic speculations about Salinger and Pynchon is testimony in a way to the compelling hold their forms of silence still have over us. In a publicity-mad, celebrity-crazed culture, they have become in effect the Madonna and Michael Jackson of Silence, celebrities for their reticence and their renunciation of celebrity, the resounding echo of their silent "I would prefer not to". You can gauge the continuing totemic power of Salinger's name in the Zeitgeist-sensitive film Jerry Maguire, in which Tom Cruise compares the unadorned reticence of the cover of his idealistic "Mission Statement" (the critique of go-go materialism that gets him fired from his sports-marketing agency) to the purity of the cover of The Catcher in the Rye.
Of course, within the Party of Silence, there is not one silence but many varieties and degrees of reticence. Literary history has given us burning si- lence, perhaps the most extreme and heartbreaking case being Nikolai Gogol's feeding of the second part of his comic masterpiece, Dead Souls, into the flames of a wood-burning stove while he was in the throes of a spiritual crisis or nervous breakdown. There is the silence of low self-esteem: Emily Dickinson's not believing her works were truly worthy of ever appearing. There is the enforced silence of censorship, the internal silence of crippling writer's block. But the silence one confronts in S's driveway is the silence whose power is most compelling: the deliberate silence that represents some kind of spiritual renunciation, what the Trappist writer Thomas Merton called elected silence. "The withheld work of art," someone says in a Don DeLillo novel, "is the only eloquence left."
TRYING THE PATIENCE OF A SAINT
TO RETURN to the Fake Wounds Story: just as I'd hoped, one of the Nieman Fellows approached me after my talk with a fascinating story about S. He had a friend, he said, who, as a youth, had made the Pilgrimage to Salinger's House, a journey that is the closest thing a secular literary culture has to a religious ritual, a rite of passage. It is a pilgrimage S - much to his regret, one must suppose - seemed to encourage with a famous passage in The Catcher in the Rye in which Holden Caulfield describes the powerful connection he feels with writers whose work he loves and how that kind of connection makes him want to call the writer up. He doesn't say look the writer up, but few pilgrims make that distinction because few have his phone number anyway. (I have a number for him. I just haven't used it.)
The Pilgrimage to S's House, to the shadow of his Wall, has itself become part of American literary myth, figuring most prominently in W P Kinsella's Shoeless Joe, in which an Iowa farmer sets off for New Hampshire with a plan to kidnap J D Salinger and take him to a baseball game because a Voice has given him the mission to "ease his pain". The Fake Wounds Story turned out to be a kind of inadvertently parodic inversion of the ease-his-pain injunction. That night in my hotel room in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was able to track down the guy that the Nieman Fellow had told me about, the one who'd made the Fake Wounds pilgrimage.
The way he told it, back in the Sixties, when they were teenagers, he and a couple of similarly Salinger-obsessed buddies had hatched what they thought was a fiendishly clever plan to lure Salinger out from behind his Wall. The plan was to drive to Cornish and locate the Salinger house, at which point he planned to tear up his clothes and cover his head and body with ketchup to simulate blood - to make it look as if he'd been badly beaten up. They'd screech up the driveway to the walls of S's house, toss the "victim" out of the car, roar off, and leave him there moaning. The idea was that S would then have to emerge - he couldn't resist the cry for help of a man who might be bleeding to death on his doorstep. That S would have to come out from behind his Wall, take the fellow in, and ease his pain.
In a slapdash way, it was a plan to try the patience of a saint, because embedded in it was an ethical/spiritual dilemma: the ketchup-smeared kid would not be just another feckless adolescent fan or a doorstepping journalist but a suffering human being in need of help. Could S refuse?
And so they did it - smeared the ketchup, dumped the body right in front of the wall. The kid began moaning in pain from his Fake Wounds and waiting to see whether S would appear to help heal them.
A brief digression might be in order here on S's Wall, the theories of its origins and true purpose, including its possible genesis in the Girl Reporter Betrayal Story. A digression I make in the spirit of Thisbe's plaintive apostrophe in the Rude Mechanicals' play in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the one that she addresses to the actor playing "Wall": "O Wall, full often hast thou heard my moans."
The most convincing account of the first appearance of S's Wall can be found in the only serious Salinger biography in existence, In Search of J D Salinger, by Ian Hamilton. It's a book whose tortured history is in a way monument to, and victim of, S's silence, one that bears real wounds, gaping holes in it from its encounter, its painful collision, with the Wall.
Hamilton, the respected British biographer of Robert Lowell and himself a poet, set out to write a life of S, knowing it was unlikely S would cooperate. But Hamilton could not have expected the veritable war S eventually waged against his book, a war to force Hamilton to rip out from his manuscript quotations and paraphrases from some private letters of S's he'd located.
Still, the wounded version of the Hamilton book that survived S's legal attack contains some surprising material, none more so than his account of the origin of the Wall.
According to Hamilton's chronology, S moved to Cornish in January 1953. Then 34, he was a success both critically and commercially from the 1951 publication of The Catcher in the Rye but not yet a cult figure. His hegira to the mountains of the north must have helped contribute to the cult - he was no longer a New York writer, however special; he was now the Man on the Mountaintop. In fact, the property occupies a hilltop, albeit one that is almost invariably referred to as a hilltop "with a view of five states" (perhaps because of the implicit spiritual resonance of states).
Most accounts agree that S's retreat had something to do with the spiritual transformation he was undergoing. An increasing preoccupation with Eastern spiritual disciplines - particularly Hindu Vedantic philosophy, with its emphasis on karma and reincarnation, and Zen Buddhism, with its stress on the abandonment of ego in order to experience personal detachment and the oneness of creation - began showing up in his short stories in the early Fifties. But Hamilton reveals that S's moving to Cornish didn't initially mean embracing a solitary spiritual life. At least at first, S led a very active social life, both with adult neighbours in Cornish and (more curiously) with a crowd of high-school youths in Windsor, the larger town across a covered bridge in Vermont. According to Hamilton, who tracked down some of S's high-school pals, "He used to be a ball of fun," as one of them put it. "He was forever entertaining the high-school kids - he bought us meals and drinks. He was very interested in the basketball and football games ... After the Spa [an after-school hangout], we used to pile into his jeep and go up to his house. It was always open house up there." "We all looked up to him," recalled another, "especially the renegades."
But then came the Betrayal, the original media sin. Apparently, one of the Windsor High School students asked S for an interview for the high- school page of a local paper. He gave her the interview but the paper, the Claremont Daily Eagle ran it like a scoop. According to a Life-magazine account of the episode quoted by Hamilton, "The next time a carload of them drove up to Salinger's home, he did not seem to be at home." When they tried again, they found the house "totally hidden behind a solid, impenetrable, man-tall, woven-wood fence." Interviews interfere with his mission, S told a photographer at the time. No more "until I've completed what I set out to do".
The Era of the Wall had begun. For S within his Wall, it was a period of increased preoccupation with spiritual questions, signalled in the famous epigraph about silence he added that year to the hardcover edition of his first short-story collection, Nine Stories:
We know the sound of two hands clapping.
But what is the sound of one hand clapping?
- A Zen koan
It all added to the mystique: what was going on behind the Wall, what kind of silent quest? The Wall excluded the world but lured it, too, inspiring quests of its own wild speculations. In one of his later stories, S's narrator/alter ego speaks of the rumours that he spent "six months of the year in a Buddhist monastery and the other six in a mental institution".
There were many indications of rural normality as well: there was marriage to a young Englishwoman, Claire Douglas; there were children, Matt and Peggy; there was a year-long live-in liaison with a young writer, Joyce Maynard; and then another marriage. The man wasn't a complete hermit or a monk. But there was a growing sense that the Wall that kept the world out had somehow succeeded in imprisoning S, walling him in. In DeLillo's novel about the Salinger-like novelist, there's an implicit parallel between a poet held hostage by terrorists in some basement in Beirut and the novelist held hostage in his little room, hostage to the terror of celebrity - or to the terrifying magnitude of his own vision of perfection.
IN WHICH S's HEALING PHILOSOPHY IS DISCLOSED
AT THE very least, it seemed increasingly to wall in his work. In the dozen years after he built the wall in 1953, he published just four short stories; then came "Hapworth" and 32 years of silence. There was a growing sense among readers and critics that he was walling himself in imaginatively as well, writing with increasing obsessiveness about the insular inwardness of the Glass family (the Corleones of the sensitive lit set), a big New York family whose seven children are haunted and tormented in various ways by the enigmatic spirituality and mysterious suicide of the first- born, Seymour.
Guru, poet, avatar, former child prodigy and quiz-kid celebrity, Seymour, we learn in the "Hapworth" story (which takes the bizarre form of a 20,000- word-long letter from an impossibly precocious seven-year-old Seymour writing home from summer camp), is himself haunted by visions of his past lives - his previous incarnational "appearances", as he calls them. And by a premonition of his own death, the gunshot suicide described cryptically in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" - a story, a suicide, that has launched a thousand PhD dissertations, all attempting to explain why Seymour silenced himself.
Was S committing slow artistic suicide within the Wall, silencing himself within the Glass house of his Glass-family chronicle? Or had he achieved some strange new level of spiritual or artistic transcendence - writing that no longer required the ego validation of publication or readers, at least within his lifetime? Or - horrible thought - was he writing now only for God's eye and planning to pull a Gogol: feed the work to the flames before he died?
Those of us who cared rushed to rustle up faded photocopies of the "Hapworth" story and search it for clues, once the announcement was made of S's decision to permit the story a life beyond the Wall again. At one point in "Hapworth" - S's most hermetic and self-referential work - little Seymour Glass seems to offer some signals about the silence of his creator.
In speaking of the karmic homework he needs to do, Seymour mentions the need to "move as silently as possible" and then cites an Eastern sage, Tsiang Samdup (in a way that presumes we are, of course, familiar with his authority), on Silence: "Silence! Go forth, but tell no man," the estimable Samdup enjoins us, according to little Seymour. Which hints at what S might be doing: continuing to go forth with his writing but telling no man - not publishing what he's written. Until perhaps he's well on his way to the next incarnation.
The "Hapworth" story also offers us a tantalising preview of the next never-seen Salinger story - the one he may have written but shown only to God, or perhaps the one he's been writing and revising, unable to finish. For all we know, it might be the story that silenced him. We know about this story, or we think we do, because seven-year-old Seymour in "Hapworth" foresees both the event that occasions it and the story that his brother Buddy, Salinger's alter ego, will write about the event. Is it just an accident that this story, the story that may have silenced S, is a story about a Temptation and a Fall into Celebrity? About the sudden celebrity that the Glass-family children fall into as Wunderkind stars of a radio quiz show called It's a Wise Child. An exposure to publicity that would leave them all scarred and wounded in various ways. The putative post- "Hapworth" story can be seen as an allegory of the wounds S himself experienced in his sudden transformation into a Wunderkind celebrity.
Wounds, yes: let us return again to the Fake Wounds Story, in which a possibly wounded S inside his wall is confronted by a fraudulently wounded seeker moaning outside the wall. What happened, the somewhat chagrined Fake Wounds victim told me, was that soon after he was dumped off, ketchup- smeared, moaning, the lights came on in the house behind the wall "as if someone was watching". And then, after a while, the lights went off. Then nothing. Silence. No one came out. Eventually, his friends returned, and they all slunk off. They didn't come away from it thinking S was cruel or heartless. Rather, they got the feeling that the Fake Wounds thing had been tried before: that it had become a regular routine for seekers to bear wounds, both real and false, to the wall. That S had somehow developed the ability to diagnose the difference between blood and ketchup, between real pain and its simulation. This jibes somewhat with the story Jonathan Schwartz, the writer and radio personality, told me about a woman he knew who'd made the pilgrimage with her five-year- old child. She'd gone as far as knocking on S's door, and when he wouldn't let her in, she told him she had a tired, ailing child in her car. At that point, S became enormously solicitous, invited them both in, and fed and played with the child for hours while they all watched the Marx Brothers' Monkey Business and an episode of I Love Lucy.
Saint Francis of Assisi or Michael Jackson? The saint and the strangely reclusive celebrity both draw the wounded. The Fake Wounds Story has stayed with me because it seems to explain the powerful attraction of the Wall, the compelling seductiveness of the silence a writer like S surrounds himself with. The power that lures us, either in person or metaphorically, to S's Wall is a feeling that the silence betokens some special knowledge, some wisdom, the penetration of some unutterable mystery beyond words, beyond speech, expressible only in silence. The Wall he's built is, metaphorically, a place where we can bring our real wounds to be examined, healed - the wounds, the holes in our soul, the empty places eaten away by a sense of inauthenticity, by the ravages of celebrity culture.
Which brings me to the rather extraordinary discovery I made about S as a healer in the course of pursuing various inquiries about the Man Behind the Wall - something I believe has never been reported before. It's a revelation I was led to very indirectly by a chain of random connections and one that contradicts the conventional wisdom of a S utterly in thrall to Eastern religious disciplines. While it's true that Eastern disciplines have their appeal for him, in fact the healing discipline that, for a time, at least, most appealed to him, one he also expounded upon to others, is a far more down to earth, Western system of healing: homeopathy. Yes, homeopathy, the heretical alternative system of diagnosis and healing invented by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann in the late 18th century, one long dismissed by mainstream medicine, one taken up again by New Age healers among others.
Why homeopathy? Part of the appeal might lie in the way the German Romanticism of Hahnemann's healing system offered a bridge between the physical and the metaphysical, transcended the dualism of mind and body that S's child avatars like Teddy in Nine Stories and Seymour in "Hapworth" railed against. Homeopathy is all about the interpenetrating resonance of the two realms. Setting aside the question of its scientific validity, one can find a metaphoric poetry in homeopathy's attempt to explain itself that I'd suggest would resonate with S's solitary absent presence.
Old Samuel Hahnemann believed in treating similars with similars: that an infinitesimal dose of what was making you ill could make you better. If, for instance, you were vomiting, homeopathy prescribed tiny doses of nausea-inducing herbs. More peculiarly and controversially, Hahnemann believed that the more he diluted his remedies in distilled water, the more powerful they became. This has led critics to claim that at their "highest potency," ie, their greatest dilution, his homeopathic remedies were diluted to the point of invisibility and that homeopathic doctors were essentially prescribing nothing but distilled water to their patients. To which homeopathic defenders poetically reply that it's not the presence of the curative herb in the water but the "potentising" imprint the once- present, now-absent dose has left on the molecular-level configuration of the fluid. A memory of an encounter, now somehow inscribed in water.
I'm not defending the science, just admiring the poetry of a healing system in which absence and memory have more power than presence - and suggesting that somewhere in this homeopathic rhetoric there is a metaphor for S's own absence and invisibility in our culture: that the withdrawal of his presence has left his memory, his influence, perhaps even his healing power more potent than an undiluted presence would be. That his silence is a kind of homeopathic remedy for the disease of noise we all suffer from.
I learned some other surprising things about S in the course of my inquiries. I learned that in addition to the Glass-family chronicle, he has also written a screenplay, a draft of some kind, in which his faithful Glass- family narrator and alter ego, Buddy, is forced to confront criticism of the increasingly murky and mystical turn S's later Seymour-obsessed Glass-family stories have taken. (I'd pay to see that.) I've also heard, though I'm less sure of this, that he may have written some film scripts under a pseudonym for European producers.
I learned that he's not a Howard Hughes-like recluse, that he has travelled here and abroad, that he's tuned in to the culture around him, hasn't walled himself off from it.
And finally, I learned what his favourite junk food is. I learned this from a friend who happened to find herself standing behind S at a deli counter where he's a regular. S was complaining about the way his soppressata, a rustic salami, was sliced (he likes it "thinly sliced and layered", like the prose in his early New Yorker stories), a concern that may be a tribute to his late father, Sol, a meat and cheese importer. I asked my friend to speak to the deli clerk and found out the astonishing fact that S's favourite junk food is (I swear) doughnut holes! The pastry equivalent of the sound of one hand clapping.
But of all these revelations, the one about homeopathy strikes me as the most powerful truth about who S is: if not a healer then an investigator of illness in the largest sense of the word, a literary diagnostician of the sickness, or slickness unto death, we suffer from as individuals and as a culture.
His remedy? I learned that S had a particular interest in a homeopathic remedy called lycopodium, a variety of club moss, diluted to near invisibility, of course. A quick check of the homeopathic literature produced the fascinating disclosure that there is among Hahnemann disciples something known as "the Iycopodium personality". Described by one British practitioner as "diffident, conscientious, meticulous but self-conscious [lycopodians] dislike public appearances [italics mine] and may take offence easily ... "
I had an uncanny feeling that in reading the homeopathic literature about the lycopodium personality, I was glimpsing at one remove the way S diagnoses his own persona. And perhaps a clue to his decision to release the "Hapworth" story. A medicine for melancholy from Dr S, a tiny but highly potentised dose of his presence injected afresh into the bloodstream of the culture, an infinitesimal opening in the Wall around himself, in the hope of evoking, in homeopathic fashion, a Presence, a memory of an Absence - lycopodium for the soul, ours and his.
THE CATCHER IN THE DRIVEWAY
AS I CROSSED the border from Massachusetts to New Hampshire, heading north-west on a wintry-bright, sudden-thaw late-February morning, I found myself haunted by several questions about my pilgrimage to S's Wall.
First, would I find the place at all? Not having the address, I was depending on the kindness of strangers to guide me there, although I'd heard that the flinty New Hampshire residents of Cornish were not known for their kind- ness to strangers seeking S. Of course, in a way I almost hoped I wouldn't be able to find the place: it would mean that S's neighbours had, in effect, built a wall around the Wall.
I took the exit off Route 89 at West Lebanon and headed south toward Cornish on a rural route that clung to the banks of the ice-bound Connecticut River, having no idea what to do once I reached Cornish.
After a recent New York magazine story disclosing Pynchon's location, or at least his neighbourhood, S may be the last private person left in America. I wanted to find the place, but I feared finding it - feared that (even if I would never publish the address or the directions there) I might pose a threat, however symbolic, to that last preserve of privacy, an endangered species of privacy now nearly extinct. I feared also the questions I'd have to face if I did find it, questions about myself, what I'd do facing S's Wall, whether I'd intrude. Interrogating S's silence, facing his Wall, would inevitably entail interrogating, facing, a side of myself I might not want to see.
But, as fate would have it, half an hour after arriving in Cornish, I found myself at the bottom of S's driveway, gazing up at the NO TRESPASSING signs, considering my next step and the ethical, literary, philosophical dilemmas it posed.
I found this place fast - not because it is easy to find but because I was lucky. That it was blind luck was something I confirmed in the two days I spent in Cornish afterwards, testing the people and the wall around the Wall; asking them to lead me to S's place and getting turned down. Some told me they didn't know the way; some told me they didn't know who S was; some told me they wouldn't tell me if they did know; some told me they did know but wouldn't tell me; some told me, "The gentleman likes his privacy" or variations of that sentiment. At one general store, a guy told me that college students from Dartmouth still came regularly looking for it, but "folks don't tell" and he wouldn't. At another general store, I was told, with a disapproving sneer, "We don't give out that information."
So there was a wall around the Wall in S's adopted hometown. But not an impregnable wall.
In the parking lot of one of the general stores, after being sent off with a discouraging, disparaging "folks don't tell", I chanced upon an elderly couple in an ageing pick-up truck. I told them, "My boss sent me up here to find J D Salinger's house, you know, just the house, not to bother him. Any chance you could help me?" The old fellow in the pickup-truck cab started giving me elaborate directions that ended vaguely: "Follow the road to the top of the hill; then it kind of gets complicated to describe. You'd better just ask some people when you get up there."
That didn't sound too promising to me, asking people around there. But I was able, with some difficulty, to persuade the guy to let me follow him in my car as he drove to the place. And so we set off. I'm going to cover my tracks at this point. Let's just say that after a long drive and a long stretch of road that a sudden thaw had turned into hubcap-deep mud, the truck stopped at a driveway featuring the only mailbox on the road that had no name on it.
I got out of my car and went up to the cab of the truck.
"Is this it?" I asked the ancient one.
"This is it," he said, gesturing up a driveway that slanted up a wooded slope to a house heavily screened by trees - a house on a hill that, even from below, one could see, could well offer the proverbial "view of five states".
"You're sure this is it?" I said.
He nodded and waited, watching, I think protectively, to see what I'd do. He seemed to satisfy himself that I had no plans for an actual intrusion and drove off.
Of course, it is marginally possible that he was part of S's roving disinformation squad, specifically detailed to mislead strangers in town seeking S, directing them to a designated false S address. But that sounded more Pynchonesque in its paranoia than Salingeresque.
I looked for other signs. The driveway slanting up the slope to the tree- screened house matched others' descriptions. The existence of a second, older building on the property matched accounts of S's building a new structure in the late Sixties after a divorce. I didn't see a physical wall, but I later learned that when S built the new structure on his property, the old wall was replaced by the now tall stand of trees that screened and guarded the place. I was pretty confident this was the place. The orphaned GET ON TARGET! junk-mail flyer in the Valley News mailbox seemed ironic, poetic confirmation.
Assuming this was S's abode, assuming I had the right target in sight, what were my options? I could:
(1) Violate the NO TRESPASSING sign, violate my own previously established ground rules, violate S's peace by going up the driveway and knocking on the door. But I just couldn't do that. I remembered the hunted, haunted, trespassed-and-violated look on S's face when a paparazzo caught him by surprise nearly 10 years ago. Don DeLillo told me it was the sight of this terrified photo that inspired him to write Mao II, his meditation on a reclusive writer and the terror of celebrity. I felt bad enough just being here, felt that my presence outside his driveway was already a kind of karmic violation I would have to pay for with several unpleasant future lives. I could not take that step. I would not knock on his door.
(2) Wait here long enough and hope to find S coming or going. Which would amount to staking him out, or "doorstepping" him. I couldn't do that.
(3) Just soak in the silence surrounding S's abode. Pay my silent respects to the Wall and go. When I'd confided to Jonathan Schwartz my misgivings about actually going up to S's place, he'd dismissed my hesitation. He had thought of it often, he said. He would not hesitate to do it, "just to breathe the same oxygen". So I breathed in the springlike oxygen and tuned in to the sounds of S's silence, tuned in to the sound of a rushing rivulet of thaw-melted snow burbling down the slope from S's house to the road. A distant bird cry. The deep, soulful soughing of the wind through S's trees.
A man passed by, walking a dog.
"This is the Salinger house, isn't it?" I said.
He smiled in a friendly way but said, "I can't answer that."
I listened to the silence. S's silent presence is like an unvoiced koan, a trick question that forces one to question oneself. I meditated upon S's silence, upon the absence of it in my life, upon all the other absences in my life. I began to feel very sad; I began to feel S's sadness, his sorrow and pity for a world filled with unenlightened souls like mine.
But then I thought about the famous Fat Lady passage in Franny and Zooey. You recall: the one in which Franny, the oversensitive, spiritually obsessed youngest sister of the departed guru Seymour, is suffering a nervous breakdown because she can't take the insensitive and hypocritical chitchat of the benighted souls that surround her in her stylish college. She wants to withdraw from the world, find a pure communion with Jesus through incessant prayer, prayer so incessant that after a while it becomes the pure, silent language of the heart.
Zooey, one of Franny's brothers, brings her out of the spiritual crisis by reminding her of the Fat Lady. When they were all quiz-kid celebrities and got tired of performing for the unseen multitude of geeks and country bumpkins their audience, the sainted Seymour would tell them to do it "for the Fat Lady". And each of them would think of some overweight woman out there in the radio audience, maybe swatting flies on her porch while listening to the show. Don't look down on such people; do the show out of love for the Fat Lady, as Seymour urged them. "But I'll tell you a terrible secret," Zooey tells Franny. "There isn't anyone out there who isn't Seymour's Fat Lady ... Don't you know who that Fat Lady really is? ... It's Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy."
A beautiful sentiment: love every soul on the planet, however alien, for being an embodiment of Godhood. But hasn't S rejected that sentiment in withdrawing from the world, in disdaining contact with the perhaps foolish fans who love his work, in fleeing from the inept, excessive ways in which the world expresses its love for a writer? Isn't S, like Franny, spurning the Fat Lady? Aren't I, in some way, the Fat Lady on his doorstep? Shouldn't S love me, welcome me, like the Fat Lady?
I listened to the Wall of Silence. And decided just listening wouldn't be enough. I decided on a fourth option. I would write S a letter and leave it in one of his mailboxes.
Easy to say, but after all this time, after all these years, what did I have to say to S? What one thing would you say, dear reader, given a chance to communicate with the strange, silent, spiritual artist behind that Wall, the last private person in America?
I decided I needed to think about it overnight. I checked into a nearby country inn (where the proprietor said S had held an anniversary party with his third wife a couple of years back).
Back at the inn, I checked my answering machine in New York to find an anguished message from Jonathan Schwartz about a just-published attack on S - well, on "Hapworth", but one that extended to S's entire Glass-family oeuvre - by a major critic. Jonathan was sure that S would see the attack; he thinks of S as very tuned in to the literary world despite the impression of spiritual detachment. (He reminded me that when his friend and her five-year-old watched Monkey Business with S, the woman noticed stacks of New Yorkers and New York Times in S's house. Jonathan believes that many are misled by S's unworldly spiritual preoccupations and miss out on the mordant comic observations of worldliness his best work displays.) He was afraid the attack would embitter S and convince him to alter his plans for letting "Hapworth" (and perhaps himself) out into the world again.
I suddenly had an image of S as Punxsutawney Phil, the well-known groundhog of Groundhog Day. Of S poking his ever-so-sensitive, twitching nose outside his burrow of silence, seeing his Shadow - sniffing the hostility - and deciding that it wasn't worth it. Returning to Silence forever.
I decided that maybe what I needed to do in the message I was drafting was - in my own ego-bound way - to try to "ease his pain". A kind of homeopathic remedy: a message from a single stranger to a man who feared the great mass of strangers. I say "ego-bound" because the method I chose could not be said to be free of self-serving vanity. I think that at the core of every pilgrimage to S is the belief of each pilgrim that in his heart he understands the object of the pilgrimage better than anyone else - and the concomitant hope that S will recognise that, validate that. In some way, he will acknowledge that you, you out of all of them, have penetrated to the heart of the Mystery: at last, I've found someone who knows me.
This plays into my own special vanity about my talent for literary exegesis. And so I started composing a letter on a yellow legal pad that began on an "ease his pain" note but shifted, I'll admit, rather rapidly, to a plea for Recognition.
Dear Mr Salinger, I began. I hope you won't mind if I pass along this appreciation of your "Hapworth" story. [I was planning to include in the envelope an explicatory essay on "Hapworth" I'd published recently in the New York Observer.] I thought you might get a chuckle out of my conjecture in there about the sound of one hand clapping ...
This is where my very un-Zen-like vanity announces itself. It was more than a "conjecture": I thought I'd nailed that supposedly unanswerable one-hand-clapping koan. See, I once had a conversation about it with a fellow who'd spent seven years in a Zen monastery. He told me what he claimed was the spiritually "correct" answer to the question - that is, the answer an enlightened person would spontaneously come to if he was truly enlightened.
When asked by a master, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" the enlightened initiate would just know not to reply in words but, in solemn silence, to raise just one hand from his side and wave it toward the centre of his chest as if it were meeting the other hand for a clap. The sound of one hand clapping is the sound of that silent wave, the sound of an absence, the absence of the noise ordinarily made by the collision of two hands. The sound of one hand clapping is the silence one tunes into in that absence, the resonant silence of the rest of creation, the vast oneness of Being one absorbs in the absence of that narrowing clap.
That koan about the sound of one hand clapping appears, of course, as the epigraph at the opening of S's first collection, Nine Stories. My exegetical triumph was the discovery that if you turn to the first page of the text and begin reading "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," the famous story of Seymour Glass's suicide, you will find a rather astonishing image; a secret, surprising image of the sound of one hand clapping embedded right there. It's there in the description of Seymour's wife, Muriel, drying the lacquer on her nails in their Florida beachfront hotel room. It's there in S's description of Muriel waving one hand, "her left - the wet - hand back and forth through the air," to dry her nails. Making the gesture of one hand clapping. I'm confident I'm the only one who has truly understood it. In my handwritten note to S, I said, "You'll note the way I expressed my admiration for your ability in that image `to insinuate the sound, the spiritual gesture, of silence into the cacophonous din of our cosmetic culture'."
I concluded by telling S I was writing a story praising the art, the example, of his silence and that if he had anything to communicate (eg. Yes, Ron, you alone have understood me), I would be honoured to hear from him.
Was my message a product of mixed motives, both selfless and selfish? Yes, it was. But I never claimed to be as spiritually advanced as S. And I have shown restraint; I haven't used the telephone number I have for him.
The next morning, early, I drove back to S's driveway. Found the Sunday paper nestled in a U-shaped fold in the Valley News mailbox. I put my note and my "Hapworth"/one-hand-clapping essay in an envelope and slipped it into the fold. Stayed a moment to appreciate the silence, then drove off to have breakfast in nearby West Lebanon.
I could have left town then. Perhaps I should have left town then. But instead, I decided to go back. The way I rationalised my return was that I was going back only to see if the letter had at least been taken in with the Sunday paper. And in fact, when I arrived back, the paper was gone, and so was the envelope with my letter. Mission accomplished.
Again, I should have gone then. But there was a magnetism to the place. To S's invisible Wall. To the echoing silence that seemed to emanate from S's abode. If it was S's place. As long as S remained invisible up there at the end of the driveway behind the NO TRESPASSING signs and the no- name mailbox, it didn't really matter if it was or it wasn't. I could be paying tribute to S's silent invisibility anywhere he was invisible.
But I thought I would make one final gesture before heading home, one final tribute to S's silent presence or absence. I thought, I would make the sound of one hand clapping. And so, facing up to the house, I made the silent one-handed wave. I tuned in to the resonant, silent sound of creation that enveloped me and S, in to all five states of being. I was the Catcher in the Driveway.
And then, to my horror, I heard another sound - the sound of a car engine starting up, the sound of a car heading down the driveway toward me!
Would S be at the wheel? My whole life passed before me in review. I had fantasised S reading my letter and my appreciation of Muriel's one-handed wave and silently saying to himself, "At last. Someone who truly understands me and my work."
But I hadn't imagined S finding me standing on his doorstep, looking like a doorstepper.
The car reached the bottom of the driveway. I was positioned next to my car, about 20 feet to the right. Because of the light, I couldn't see if there were two figures or one in the front seat or what they looked like.
The car paused at the bottom of the driveway. Seemed to take in my presence. And - if it could ever be said it was possible for a car to look furious - this car looked furious. Then roared off to the left, in the opposite direction from me, spraying mud.
In the silence left behind, I felt terrible. I felt a wave of remorse strike me. I had wanted to be known to S as a serious seeker, someone who understood him and his silence, someone who respected his silent privacy - but perhaps someone he might want to speak to (because of my exegetical insights, of course). But now I felt that, inevitably, it looked to S as if I were a doorstepper. I felt my intrusive driveway presence might inadvertently change S's mind about releasing "Hapworth", about releasing anything - that I might have thus ineradically altered the course of literary history. If S was Punxsutawney Phil, I was his Shadow. He'd retreat into his burrow; his wintry silence would never end.
I waved after the car. With one hand. Feeling devastated. For God's sake, reader, don't try to follow my path. My only consolation is to hope to hell I had the wrong house.
Copyright 1997 Ron Rosenbaum, originally printed in US "Esquire".Reuse content