Dear J.D. Salinger

Toronto woman’s ‘shoebox letters’ bring elusive author to life

Antony Di Gesu/San Diego Historical Society/Hulton Archive Collection/Getty Images

Nine letters written in the early 1940s by author J.D. Salinger to Marjorie Sheard, a young woman living in Toronto, have been acquired by the Morgan Library & Museum in New York and shared with the New York Times.

The letters are “a wonderful opening onto [Salinger’s] earliest years as a writer,” the Morgan Library told the paper. “He’s just at the threshold of his career, but his voice is there.”

Sheard was an aspiring writer and began corresponding with Salinger after reading some of his early short stories in magazines such as Esquire and Collier’s. In a letter dated Nov. 18, 1941, Salinger told Sheard to look for a new short story about to be published in The New Yorker. It was about “a prep school kid on his Christmas vacation,” which had spurred his editor to ask for an entire series on the character. Still, the author had his doubts: “I’ll try a couple more, anyway,” he wrote, “and if I begin to miss my mark I’ll quit.”

The character, of course, was Holden Caulfield. And Salinger,  just 22-years-old, asked Sheard to share her thoughts on the story once she’d read it.

In turn, Sheard, who was roughly the same age as Salinger, wrote to him for writing advice: “Seems to me you have the instincts to avoid the usual Vassar-girl tripe,” he wrote in a letter dated Sept. 4, 1941. “You can’t go around buying Cadillacs on what the small mags pay,” he wrote, “but that doesn’t really matter, does it?”

Around the same time that Salinger was corresponding with Sheard–often in a humourous and flirty tone, notes the New York Times (he went so far as to ask for a large photograph of her, and later apologized for his brazenness)–he was also, on occasion,  approaching women for dates in New York, claiming to be a goalie for the Montreal Canadiens.

Sheard, now 95, “stored these letters in a shoe box in a closet,” reports the New York Times. “About six years ago, she moved to a nursing home and gave the letters to a relative, who kept them in a dresser drawer.”

Her family made the decision to sell them in order to cover the costs of increasing health care.


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