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New exhibition of J.D. Salinger letters shows a young writer balancing cynicism and hope
J. D. Salinger (1919–2010), Collection of typed and autograph letters to Marjorie Sheard, 1941–1943. The Morgan Library & Museum, New York; MA 7960.1-10. Purchased for The Dannie and Hettie Heineman Collection as the gift of the Heineman Foundation, 2012. Photography: Graham Haber, 2013.

NEW YORK, NY.- Between 1941 and 1943 J. D. Salinger sent nine letters and postcards to Marjorie Sheard, an aspiring Canadian writer. This important collection of documents, acquired by the Morgan in April 2013, sheds light on Salinger’s writing, and the authors that influenced him in the early stages of his career. A highlight among the letters is one in which the young author writes to Ms. Sheard of “the first Holden story” about a “prep school kid on his Christmas vacation.” The Morgan will display the complete correspondence in a show entitled “Lose not heart,” the first public presentation of these revealing letters, on view from September 10, 2013 to January 12, 2014.

In the summer of 1941, when Salinger began writing letters to Sheard, he was twenty-two years old. A Toronto resident, Sheard had read Salinger’s early short stories in publications such as Esquire and Collier’s and initiated the correspondence by writing an admiring letter. Salinger was apparently eager to begin and maintain a correspondence with the insightful Sheard, and he began to share news of his own creative output. A letter dated November 18, 1941, references the creation of the first story featuring his now legendary character, Holden Caulfield, hero of Catcher in the Rye. The New Yorker had accepted the piece and, Salinger wrote, was now asking for an entire series about the character. He ended the letter by asking for Sheard’s reaction to the story.

Overall, the correspondence reveals a young writer simultaneously frisky, acerbic, and encouraging. In a letter dated September 4, 1941, Salinger wrote to Sheard that it “seems to me you have the instincts to avoid the usual Vassar-girl tripe.” He goes on to recommend that she submit her work to smaller literary magazines with a discerning readership. “You can’t go around buying Cadillacs on what the small mags pay, but that doesn’t really matter, does it?” In another letter, after The New Yorker declined to publish a story she had written, Salinger encouraged her to “lose not heart.”

The letters span the first two years of Salinger’s wartime military training, prior to being deployed to Britain in advance of the Allied invasion of Normandy and Operation Overlord, in which Salinger fought. Salinger’s letters portray his attitude toward basic training as a combination of bemusement and boredom.

Other letters reveal Salinger struggling with the “Holden” series. He also alludes to additional unpublished short stories which he feels might have literary value for a wider audience, but then cynically writes, “I’ll probably fail completely with it.”

Ms. Sheard, who died earlier this year at age 95, stored the cache of letters in a shoe box in a closet. Several years ago she moved to a nursing home, giving the Salinger letters to family members for safekeeping. As the cost of her nursing care increased, Sheard and her family made the decision to sell the letters to the Morgan, which has a growing collection of correspondence by Salinger.

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