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February 25, 2007

A Memo from J.D. Salinger’s Seymour: An Image for Writing and Healing?

One of the first writing workshops I ever took—this at the University of Missouri in Columbia—was taught by Janet Desaulniers, a woman who I’ve written about here before. One evening she began class by reading to us an extended passage from a J.D. Salinger story. The workshop was a fiction-writing workshop. She’d been reading our stories for weeks. And she prefaced these pages by Salinger by telling us that she sometimes felt a lot of responsibility, knowing that, at least for some of us, she was our first reader. She took this seriously—being a reader. It was one of the things that made her a good teacher.

The passage she read was from, “Seymour, an Introduction,” this one in a series of stories that Salinger wrote about the Glass family. In this particular story, Buddy Glass, a writer, is telling about his older brother, Seymour, a young man whom he idolized and who is now dead. In the passage she read to us Buddy Glass is telling about a time when he was twenty-one years old and living with his brother, and had the habit of reading his stories aloud to him. And Seymour would then write responses to these stories, lengthy responses, sometimes writing them on shirt cardboards, or on whatever he could find at hand. Here is one particular memo, this written by Seymour on notepaper from the Bismarck Hotel in Chicago and placed on Buddy’s breakfast plate beneath a half a grapefruit.

It’s daylight out, and I’ve been sitting here since you went to bed. What bliss it is to be your first reader. It would be straight bliss if I didn’t think you valued my opinion more than your own. It really doesn’t seem right to me that you should rely so heavily on my opinion of your stories. That is, you. . . . You must know yourself that this story is full of big jumps. Leaps. When you first went to bed, I thought for a while that I ought to wake up everybody in the house and throw a party for our marvelous jumping brother. What am I, that I didn’t wake everybody up? . . . Excuse this. I’m writing very fast now. I think this new story is the one you’ve been waiting for. And me, too, in a way. You know it’s mostly pride that’s keeping me up. I think that’s my main worry. For your own sake, don’t make me proud of you. I think that’s exactly what I’m trying to say. If only you’d never keep me up again out of pride. Give me a story that makes me unreasonably vigilant. Keep me up till five only because all of your stars are out, and for no other reason. Excuse the underlining, but that’s the first thing I’ve ever said about one of your stories that makes my head go up and down. Please don’t let me say anything else. . . .

I could write more here. But I’m thinking perhaps that I shouldn’t write anything else. Except perhaps to say that I think this whole notion of a first reader—and how that first reader responds—or how one imagines that this first reader might respond—has something to do with writing and healing.

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