J. D. Salinger’s Advice to Adelia Moore: Write as a Child

Adelia Moore, apparently an old fashioned English major, knew Jerry, had tea and lunch with him, even argued with him (over Vietnam), and received this stunning bit of advice from him, when she was but 20 years old: “If you haven’t published by age 21, you might as well forget it.” Adelia calls it “…his blunt advice about writing.” But is it advice about writing, or sarcasm about publishing? Was it meant to be taken literally, a literal cutoff – as if to say, “If you haven’t published by the time you’re old enough to drink, forget about it.” Or is it a practical kind of cynicism, as if to say, “You want to make it early, so like me you can kick back and not have to write anything more.” Salinger’s first short story was published in 1940, when he was 21. His last published work was in 1965, when he was 46. He died, a little over a month ago, at the age of 91. In “Tea with Jerry” (March 1, Christian Science Monitor), Moore shares her experience with the private writer in 1969, four years after his last published work. Did he know at the time – might he have added, “As for me, I’ll never publish another word”?

“There is a feeling in many quarters that altogether too much fuss is being made about J. D. Salinger,” Henry Grunwald wrote in his introduction to the 1962 collection of critical pieces titled Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait, a major effort to explain a “good minor writer,” whose popularity with the general interest reader rankles some of the critics. Salinger wrote at a time when the general interest reader still read stories, when the New Yorker still opened its pages, after The Talk of the Town section, with a couple of short stories, and general interest readers looked forward with general interest to a Saturday afternoon with The Saturday Review. No doubt the twittering in those days went on at Saturday night cocktail parties, face to face, where faces were faces and books were books, even if the faces were books to be read and not the other way around. And Monday one met with one’s shrink to purge the weekend’s bluish-bile.

I don’t know if Adelia Moore became a writer or not. Perhaps “Tea with Jerry” is her magnum opus, the satisfaction of a writer’s spring aspirations killed by a late frost growing back in fall. One of Grunwald’s chapters is called “The Cures for Banana Fever,” a reference to Salinger’s short story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” where we get Seymour Glass’s breaking: “The disease has two symptoms: a kind of incapacity to purge one’s emotions, and a chronic hypersensitivity or sense of loss” (p. 126). These symptoms describe a childhood disease.

Why would Salinger have told Adelia to “forget about it” if she had not published by age 21? Perhaps the answer is found in Leslie Fiedler’s piece in Salinger, “The Eye of Innocence”: “The notion that a mere falling short of adulthood is a guarantee of insight and even innocence is a sophisticated view, a latter-day Pastoralism, which finds a Golden Age not in history but at the beginning of each lifetime” (p. 242). Perhaps what Jerry was trying to tell Adelia was that she had to write as a child; it would be no good to write as an adult.