James Salter, 1925–2015


In Memoriam

Photograph by Neil Rasmus.

Salter accepting the Hadada Prize in 2011. Photograph by Neil Rasmus.

We were sad to learn that James Salter died on Friday at ninety. “He once called himself a ‘frotteur,’ saying he liked to rub words between his fingers,” Louisa Thomas wrote today in Grantland. “He wrote for the ear, not the eye, in lines that are long and unspooling or short and taut as bowstrings … It is in their quiet accumulation, the way they weave together, that they become transparent, graceful, and devastating.”

Salter had a long affiliation with The Paris Review; the quarterly published many of his stories, beginning with “Sundays”, which appeared in our Summer 1966 issue. George Plimpton published Salter’s novel A Sport and a Pastime through Paris Review Editions, a short-lived imprint attached to Doubleday. “Although I have never managed to appear on the masthead, which has innumerable people on it,” Salter said in his 1993 Art of Fiction interview, “I feel I am a member of the family.”

In 2011, we awarded Salter our Hadada Prize, given annually to a “distinguished member of the literary community who has demonstrated a strong and unique commitment to literature.” This week, to celebrate and remember him, the Daily will rerun a series of pieces about him written in anticipation of that award. To begin, we’re reprinting his acceptance speech, given April 12, 2011.


Well of course I knew this was going to happen. Terry McDonell called me and he said, “We would like to give you the Hadada this year,” and I said, “Terry, it might be a better idea to give it to somebody a little younger.” He said, “No, no, no, no, you are missing the point entirely.” It turns out that in the African language from which the word comes, hadada means “Hail, great father.” Ha-da-da.

The Paris Review was always the pinnacle, it was the place to be published, you were thrilled if you were published in The Paris Review, and George Plimpton himself was practically mythical. He was a legendary figure.

I had written a novel. It was A Sport and a Pastime. And it had been turned down by publishers, four or five of them, and I thought I was probably wrong about it, it was not really any good. And then, through a friend, Bill Becker, it came to The Paris Review. One day the phone rang, and I said “Hello.” And a voice said, “Yes, hello, this is George Plimpton.” He said, “You know, I have your novel, and I really like it, I like it very much. We’d like to publish it.” At that time, The Paris Review had a small book publishing operation, they had published a handful of books. He said, “We’d like to publish it.” I said, “That’s wonderful.” He said, “Yes. But there is just one thing.” “Yes.” He said, “I don’t think that any really good novels are written in the first person.” Of course, my mind went blank. I couldn’t think of anything. I didn’t know what to say to him except, suddenly it occurred to me, a book really far removed from the book we were talking about, that was the only thing I could think of, I said, “Well, what about All Quiet on the Western Front,” and he said, “Yes, I suppose you’re right.” That was the end of the editing.

Not long ago, maybe a half a dozen years ago The Paris Review sponsored a reading at a Barnes and Noble in New York and I read there with Jim Shepard and George introduced the program. I had had a number of stories published in The Paris Review at that time and when it came to my turn to read I stood up at the podium, I don’t know what came over me, for some reason I said “Well, this is a new story, it has never been published, I don’t think it is the kind of story The Paris Review would be interested in,” and then I read it. It was a story called “Bangkok,” it happens to read very well. And I could see that people were interested, and I finished it, and I came towards the back again, and there was George, and he said, “What do you mean, this is something The Paris Review wouldn’t be interested in? Give me that thing!” And he grabbed it out of my hand, and that was the last of the editing he did for me. So you can see why I esteem and revere him. It would be hard to get too serious about an award, about a prize with this silly name, a hadada, but it means a great deal to me and I consider it in the light of the writers who have won it before me, who are an esteemed bunch. This, I don’t think I can lift it, is the Hadada. And I can only say that tonight thank you all, this is my Stockholm.