J.D. Salinger is American literature’s Simon of the Desert—a man whose passion for anonymity makes him anguishingly sought after. He has published nothing in 15 years, and he granted his last interview about his work in 1953—to a 16-year-old for her high school newspaper. He fled New York and the world of the literati in 1952 for a walled farm in tiny Cornish, N.H. Underscoring his wish to be alone, he unleashed three watchdogs on the property and built a tunnel entrance to his house. But even a hermit leaves his lair occasionally, and one morning in 1978, when Salinger visited his local drugstore, the clerk handed him a strange note. “A man is in Cornish,” it began. “Amateur, perhaps, but sentimentally connected. The saddest—a tragic figure without a background. Needing a future as much as your past. Let me.”
Salinger had received and rebuffed probably thousands of such advances before, but the author of this one was an especially desperate and tenacious man. Michael Clarkson, a 31-year-old police reporter for the Niagara Falls (Ont.) Review, had been a member of Salinger’s cult since reading Catcher in the Rye at the age of 16, and he had particularly taken to heart one of Holden Caulfield’s few literary observations: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author was a terrific friend, and you could call him up whenever you felt like it.” Unhappily for the author, Clarkson took that as an invitation. He spent two months drafting his pained note, then kissed his wife and two young sons goodbye and embarked on the 12-hour drive from Ontario to the drugstore in Windsor, Vt. where Salinger had previously been sighted. After getting confirmation that his note had been received, the young reporter drove nine miles out of town to Salinger’s farm and waited in the driveway. Two and a half hours later a pair of European compact cars drove up, and a gray-haired man in a tweed jacket and a long-haired teenaged boy confronted the interloper.
“Are you under psychiatric care?” Salinger asked the visibly distraught stranger. “I’ve had those notes passed around before. They’re self-destructive; you must get out of that frame of mind.” Salinger broke off the conversation and drove away. In a few minutes he returned. “I’ve gone through this so many times,” he said sadly. “There’s no gracious way to tell you to leave. I’m becoming embittered. The words are a little different each time. People with problems, people needing to communicate, people wanting help for their careers. They’ve collared me in elevators, on the street, even here,” he continued. “I get stacks of mail and questions every day. But there are no generalizations. I’m not a teacher or a seer. I pose questions a little differently, perhaps. But I don’t pretend to know the answers. When I started in this business, I had no idea this was going to happen. In ways, I regret ever having been published.”
Then Clarkson tried to explain why he believed the author owed him a hearing. “He has gone into people’s homes and they’ve put down money for his books and joined his following,” Clarkson recapitulates now. “He can’t just leave them. These people want to hear something from their leader.” But Salinger, 61, had heard it all before. “I can’t be held responsible,” he snapped. “I write for myself.” As Clarkson pressed him for advice, Salinger grew angrier. “I’ve made my stand clear,” he declared. “I’m a private person. Why can’t my life be my own? I never asked for this and have done absolutely nothing to deserve it.”
Salinger did leave Clarkson with one piece of literary advice: “You’ll never be an author from the words I saw on that note at the store. Nobody over 30 can make head or tail of that cryptic language.” Yet he more gently also counseled the younger man to be more self-reliant: “Nothing one man can say can help another. You can’t teach somebody how to write. It’s the blind leading the blind.”
Even the most unyielding reporter would have left the man in peace at that, but last June Clarkson, a Canadian prep school dropout, made his stand again at Salinger’s house. This time the writer talked to him from his doorway. “You tried to bully me last time,” he said. “You tried to use me for the betterment of your career.” Later Salinger repeated the same message: “I can’t help you.” But, as it turns out, he was wrong. Late last year Clarkson broke his losing streak of 325 rejection slips and sold his first major free-lance piece—for $1,500—to the New York Times syndication service. Published in some cities earlier this month, it is a three-part chronicle of his encounter with J.D. Salinger.