- Does this painting portray Jane Austen at thirteen?
- The Stephen King–universe flowchart.
- Gertrude Stein: fact and fiction.
- Regina Spektor likes J.D. Salinger.
- Holden Caulfield’s cheese sandwich and other literary dishes.
Most dust jackets list only literary accomplishments, but I’ve always been a fan of offbeat author bios. So I asked some of my favorite writers to describe their early jobs.
Nam Le: I ran through the usual money-makers of misspent youth: door-knocking in the outer ‘burbs, Christmas-carolling at the bottom of escalators, child-laboring in the family business, pyramid-selling to my parents, my friends, my parents’ friends, my friends’ parents. I did time in a call center, spent one year on my knees lacing up Doc Marten boots for feral teenagers, and another fending off feral twenty-somethings while editing the university student paper. Then I finished my law degree—and threw in my lot with the greatest ferals of all.
Colum McCann: I was a “wilderness educator” back in Texas in the mid-eighties, after taking an eighteen-month bicycle trip across America. This meant working with kids who were at risk, or juvenile delinquents. We lived out in the woods for three months at a stretch, built pine-pole shelters, treehouses, an outdoor latrine, a gravity-fed shower. It was a magnificent interruption in my life: out under the stars. At night I used to read these tough, streetwise kids to sleep—Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, and a fable called Fup by Jim Dodge. They loved Fup in particular, a fable about a duck, a sound-anagram for “Fucked Up.” I still hear from these kids—they’re all over the country now and generally they’re out of trouble, except for the fact that they might be reading Fup to their kids.
In the winter of 1952, I received a telephone call from my mother, Jane Canfield. There was to be an evening party at my parents’ house on Thirty-eighth Street, she told me. “A Harper’s party,” she added, Harper’s being the publishing house of which Cass, my step-father, was chairman. My mother said that I would be a welcome guest and that my younger sister, Jill, and her husband, Joe Fox, were expected.
I had graduated in June the previous year, delayed by two years in the Navy, at the end of World War II, and another year as a student in France. I wanted to be a writer. The Harvard Advocate had published a short story of mine. In Archibald MacLeish’s writing workshop I had started to write a hopeless novel, and had continued to its uninteresting conclusion months after graduating. Now I was a marketing trainee with the Texas company Texaco and would be posted to West Africa in the summer. These were my last months in New York.
My mother continued, “Someone that I know you admire has accepted—J. D. Salinger.”
I told her I would most certainly come.
The Catcher in the Rye had come out the year before. I had read it with enthusiasm but not with the extreme admiration I felt for his short stories in The New Yorker. They seemed to me matchless in their vividness, especially in conveying his characters’ subtle and complex emotions.
When I arrived that evening, Mary, the maid, was waiting at the door to take the guests’ overcoats, and I could see that the house was as finely turned out as it could be: flowers in the vases and the antique furniture shining. “The bar is on the porch,” Mary told me.
I got a drink and joined Jane and Cass in the living room with “Mac” MacGregor, Harper’s editor-in-chief. Soon Jill and Joe arrived, and for a short time it was a mostly family party. Then, nearly all at once, the thirtysome others crowded in, Salinger among them.
A headshot of him had appeared on the Catcher book jacket—dark hair slicked back above a longish, handsome face. This night he was well dressed in a suit with a faint glen plaid pattern, a white shirt whose collar was secured behind the knot of his necktie by a gold collar pin. His cufflinks caught the light. Why did his elegance surprise me?