Sunday, December 19, 2010

A letter to J.D. Salinger, to be read with the pages slightly bent, on the train from Rutgers to Penn Station

Mr. Salinger,

You created me.

I thought of Hemingway. I thought of Eliot, Faulkner, and, bless my heart, I thought of her, that patron saint of women going to college in Altoona, Pennsylvania, Sylvia Plath. I never read her; She just seemed like someone I should think of. According to my father (a reliable source, who, no longer interested in teaching literature, drives to Pittsburgh and drinks with Jewish politicians, returning most nights to his study to write, not type, but write, what I imagine is the tired, parenthetical commentary of someone stuck looking out a window), she committed suicide by sticking her head in an oven.

Curious, I turned the dial on

our gas stove to 400 F and jammed my scalp into the wrinkling air.

It wasn't even hot. Two disappointing minutes later, I retracted my scalp. Plath, it seemed, had the luxury to dedicate an entire evening to dying, a luxury I desired, but, on my student budget, couldn't afford.

My luxury was detachment. It was a privilege especially for, but not limited to, those on student budgets. Like a plastic bag in the wind, I brushed over the pavement in an anonymous train of fence posts and carousel horses. Shuffling along, observing much, experiencing little, I bumped into Holden Caulfield. Our connection was instant. You know what they say: when a body meets a body coming through the rye...

I was a 5 year old in an 18 year old body. I watched Nickelodeon cartoons. A lot of kids smoked when they were bored. I didn't smoke, though the habit came highly recommended, and I liked to watch my classmates roll cigarettes. In the honors program I encountered boys who quoted Nietzsche but who never slept outside, and girls who, despite their Goodwill-thrifting,kept their heads in the oven. They were phony, and I was phony for thinking they were phony. Not wanting to judge, unsure of who I was, I did what any girl with a father subscribing to the Times Literary Supplement would do: I stopped eating.

I was a lot like my father. The less I ate the more I looked out my window.

It was in this rib-caged state that I read Franny and Zooey.

"It's everybody, I mean. Everything everybody does is so--I don't know--not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid, necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless--and sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you're conforming just as much as everybody else, only in a different way."

She was right, Franny, God she was right. I kept reading.

"You raved and you bitched when you came home about the stupidity of audiences. The goddam 'unskilled laughter' coming from the fifth row. And that's right, that's right — God knows it's depressing. I'm not saying it isn't. But that's none of your business, really. That's none of your business, Franny. An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's.

I started eating potatoes.

"Seymour'd told me to shine my shoes just as I was going out the door with Waker. I was furious. The studio audience were all morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were morons, and I just damn well wasn't going to shine my shoes for them, I told Seymour. I said they couldn't see them anyway, where we sat. He said to shine them anyway. He said to shine them for the Fat Lady. I didn't know what the hell he was talking about, but he had a very Seymour look on his face, and so I did it. He never did tell me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time I ever went on the air again — all the years you and I were on the program together, if you remember. I don't think I missed more than just a couple of times. This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast from morning till night. I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer, and — I don't know. Anyway, it seemed goddam clear why Seymour wanted me to shine my shoes when I went on the air. It made sense."

Then, finally, I cried.

"I don't care where an actor acts. It can be in summer stock, it can be over a radio, it can be over television, it can be in a goddam Broadway theatre, complete with the most fashionable, most well-fed, most sunburned-looking audience you can imagine. But I'll tell you a terrible secret — Are you listening to me? There isn't anyone out there who isn't Seymour's Fat Lady. That includes your Professor Tupper, buddy. And all his goddam cousins by the dozens. There isn't anyone anywhere that isn't Seymour's Fat Lady. Don't you know that? Don't you know that goddam secret yet? And don't you know — listen to me, now — don't you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It's Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy."

J.D., your book changed my life. It fed me, shinned me shoes, and pushed me on stage. It saved me. I'm not a poet, only a freak user of words, but I keep writing, if only for you and for the fat lady--If only for Christ Himself.

I know you're still there, reading the December issue of The New Yorker, riding the train from Rutgers to Penn Station. I hope this letter finds you, because you always tell the truth, because you can look at beauty and not want any of it for yourself, because you saved me, because you're a slightly-balding man who deserves a letter from a slightly-starving girl.


C.C. Welsh


  1. I haven't read Salinger in ages, but I started reading Plath again. She hasn't inspired any oven-episodes yet, just long baths. Have you watched The Hours? We should do that sometime soon

  2. you have such a cool blog! i loved reading this post