This time of year, I always find myself remembering J.D. Salinger.
It was around this time of year – two years ago – that I fired up the engine in my Nissan Xterra and drove over 100 miles on slippery, ice-laden highways up to Cornish, New Hampshire, to hunt down the well-hidden home of J.D. Salinger.
Back then, I was a sophomore in college and a new writer for UNH’s student lifestyle magazine Main Street. J.D. Salinger – one of my all-time favorite authors and a renowned hermit who lived in Cornish, New Hampshire for decades – had recently died. I wanted to write a feature on the life and death of this iconic American writer, but perhaps even more importantly, talk to the neighbors who might have known him over the years.
In case you haven’t heard of the small town of Cornish, it’s the last checkpoint in New Hampshire before you cross the covered Cornish-Windsor Bridge into the Vermont border. It was there, winding aimlessly along riverside roads, treacherously close to the edge of hilltops and near the icy ravine that was the Connecticut River that I went looking for Salinger’s home.
Salinger really needs no introduction to bibliophiles, but even if you don’t recognize his name, you’ve likely heard of his work. It was his coming-of-age novel The Catcher in the Rye that jumpstarted his literary fame.
But in the mid-sixties, he suddenly stopped publishing. He packed his bags to flee Manhattan and move to a 90-acre estate hidden in the woods of New Hampshire, which is where he supposedly spent the latter half of his life writing away in secrecy. But that’s all speculation. As an iconic American writer, his life was chronicled intensely. People only took more of an interest in him when he withdrew from the world. As a hermit – who presumably, hoarded unpublished stories yet to be told – he was fascinating.
The so-called “Salinger-hunting” turned into a something of a journalistic sport for reporters and fans who hoped to catch a sighting of him. But he rarely left his house on the hillside and he died as he had lived: without a word.
If you ever went looking for Salinger’s house when he was alive, you wouldn’t have found it. The locals notoriously gave people wrong directions to protect their neighbor and to make sure you never found him.
What the neighbors did say was that J.D. Salinger was just Jerry to them. He attended monthly town meetings and the occasional fair, and frequented the Windsor Diner. He led a fairly simple life and I think he wanted it that way. It’s a lesson that I take to heart as a writer myself– to remember to live simply and not let our literary craft take over our lives as a whole. He certainly never lived the life of – how he would put it – “a phony.” He will always be one of my favorite writers who once lived in this state and for that lesson learned, I remember to thank him again every year.