JD Salinger: My love for Tim Henman (and other stories)

The author of 'The Catcher in the Rye' was famously eccentric. But newly released letters reveal an unexpected foible

JD Salinger was the archetypal literary hermit, protecting his privacy with guard dogs and high walls around his home. Yet an extraordinary new letter archive suggests he was a soft touch, spending his time gardening, admiring opera stars The Three Tenors and, most bizarrely of all, marvelling at the meteoric rise of British tennis player Tim Henman in the 1990s.

The estate of Donald Hartog, a long-time friend of The Catcher in the Rye author, has given 50 of Salinger's letters and four postcards to the University of East Anglia's (UEA's) literary archives. Continuing the introverted author's obsession with privacy, Salinger's estate has insisted the contents may not be reproduced verbatim, though the remarkable correspondence, from 1986 to 2002, may be paraphrased.

"It turns out this apparently misanthropic person, believed to be hiding away somewhere in New Hampshire, was actually leading a normal life," said UEA's Professor of American Studies, Chris Bigsby. "Salinger describes his day-to-day life, going on various coach trips around the States, chatting to people on these excursions, visiting restaurants, art galleries. The JD Salinger which emerges from these letters is very personable, a very different person to the slightly creepy figure the public may think of."

In the letters, the media-shy author discusses his keen passion for sports. Bigsby says: "He is personable, he is chit-chatty. During a series of letters in the late 1980s and early 1990s the two correspondents share an interest in Tim Henman. Salinger remarked that he liked the look of Henman's parents, who were appearing on TV a lot at the time, mentioning that they didn't look like your average pushy sports stars' parents."

For a writer who penned one of the most critically-adored works in history, Salinger's preoccupations are strikingly ordinary, if eccentric. His favourite of The Three Tenors was José Carreras. He enjoyed watching television, including Granada Television's Band of Gold and the 1990 Fifa World Cup. In 1996, he sent Hartog clippings about the OJ Simpson trial. He talks approvingly of Mikhail Gorbachev's election as president of the Soviet Union in 1990, while remarking during the 1988 US presidential elections that he "had no hope" for incoming leader George HW Bush.

Such small talk documents a remarkable tale of long-distance friendship spanning 50 years. Salinger and Hartog met in 1937 in Vienna when they were both 18, after being sent to Europe by their fathers to learn German.

The following year, Salinger returned to the US to continue his studies at Ursinus College, Pennsylvania, and latterly Columbia University in New York. During the Second World War, the pair continued to correspond. While letters from this period have been lost, in 1986 Hartog revived their friendship. This was prompted by media reports that an unauthorised biography about the writer, In Search of JD Salinger: A Writing Life (1935-65), by British author Ian Hamilton, was due to be printed.

In 1989, Hartog and Salinger were reunited in London to mark their joint 70th birthdays. In a letter shortly before the trip, the writer talks about the pair's plans, which include seeing a Chekhov or Alan Ayckbourn play, visiting Whipsnade Zoo and having dinner at The Savoy hotel. There was a further reunion in the US in 1994. When Hartog, who worked in the food trade, died in 2007, the letters passed to his children, who donated them to UEA after discovering them in a drawer.

"I think there was this extra bond between my father and Salinger because they met before the war," said Hartog's daughter Frances. "The letters are very touching, because it's a man growing older, and they are written very much in the style of his books – casual but using exactly the right words."

Salinger's 1951 novel, The Catcher in the Rye, emphasised the teen angst of its protagonist Holden Caulfield, winning the work popularity around the world. To date it has sold 120 million copies, and still regularly tops polls as one of the most popular novels.

Salinger rejected the celebrity which dogged him for most of his life. In the mid-1950s he moved to the remote rural town of Cornish, New Hampshire, where he lived in a house behind high walls and a screen of trees. It was reached by a rough road. Visitors described how there was no mailbox at the end of the steep drive leading to the house, which was surrounded by "No Trespassing" signs.

Salinger's bizarre behaviour was repeatedly referred to in the 1999 biography At Home in the World: A Memoir, written by his former girlfriend Joyce Maynard. The following year his daughter Margaret published Dream Catcher: A Memoir, in which she claimed that her father hated sickness and tried to cure his children with homeopathy and acupuncture, which he practiced with wooden dowels instead of needles.

Salinger's own descriptions of his life, however, seem much more ordinary. In the archive he refers to his increasing old age and various associated health issues, and remembers fondly the time he spent with Hartog in Vienna, before it was annexed by Nazi Germany. He appears to have fond memories of the city's Eislaufverein skating rink.

The writer takes a keen interest in Hartog's family, at one point offering to help his three children by suggesting books that might be of interest. These included I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years 1933-41, a chronicle of anti-Semitic Nazi persecution during the Second World War. He also discusses a 1996 attempt by small publisher, Orchises Press, to publish his novella Hapworth 16, 1924, which originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1965. When the media got wind of the move, the publication date was pushed back, before being cancelled.

"Salinger just saw the publicity thing coming his way again," says Mr Bigsby. "He wasn't really interested in that. We think of him as strange because he didn't play the game which writers today all play. To him, it was just the books that mattered. But publication brought him attention which he didn't want. He often enjoyed writing for his own pleasure and these letters reveal that."

The secrecy surrounding even these letters is typical of Salinger. He initially tried to stop the publication of Hamilton's biography, but the book eventually appeared in 1988 in paraphrased form. In June 2009, he consulted lawyers about the proposed publication in the US of an authorised sequel to The Catcher in the Rye by Swedish publisher Fredrik Colting. The case is still ongoing. Now, on agreement to the conditions, the correspondence can be seen on request.