Joanna Rakoff’s lovely memoir, “My Salinger Year,” brings to mind an image from the Talmud in which an unopened letter stands in as an uninterpreted dream. Rakoff, a poet, novelist and founding editor of Tablet Magazine, has written a book that braids together a stint after college assisting JD Salinger’s literary agent with her coming of age story. It’s about the year that she was one of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of young women in New York City carrying tote bags bursting with manuscripts while balancing a cup of coffee from the Greek deli on her subway ride to work.
I was one of those girls too. I read manuscripts for Harper & Row, forerunner of Harper Collins, and then for GP Putnam & Sons. I was in publishing before the confusing mergers — when everyone used blue pencils to edit and typed press releases on Selectric typewriters.
At 42, Rakoff is a decade younger than I am, but when she stepped into “The Agency,” as she refers to her place of employment throughout “My Salinger Year,” she walked into a time warp. In 1996 she typed letters on a Selectric, wiped carbon paper ink off her fingers and typed letters recorded on a Dictaphone machine that she operated with a foot pedal. Manuscripts were tracked on index cards. One day when curiosity got the best of Rakoff, she pulled up “Catcher in the Rye’s” card and learned that the novel was initially rejected.
Although Rakoff never names The Agency or her boss in her book, they are easily found by Googling since she named names in a 2010 Slate Magazine article. Phyllis Westerberg of Harold Ober Associates still looks after Salinger’s interests. His estate is listed on its web site among the agency’s clients. The web site appears to be one of the agency’s few concessions to modernity. Beyond that, all inquiries “are only handled by postal mail.”
“My Salinger Year” is rooted in the New York of the young and literary. It’s a time when Joanna can almost tolerate living without heat during the winter as much as she can deal with a boyfriend who fancies himself a socialist as well as the next great American novelist.
But perhaps more notably, “My Salinger Year” counters Salinger’s image as a crusty hermit who shuns the outside world. In a recent interview with the Sisterhood, Rakoff noted that Salinger, or Jerry as he is known to friends and colleagues, was charming to everyone he met when he visited The Agency. Some of the funniest moments in the book are Rakoff’s phone conversations with the hard-of-hearing Salinger, who can’t remember her name but always asks about her poetry. “He’s been portrayed as being out of touch with the world, but he used the Internet, watched television and kept up with current events,” Rakoff said.
As we talk in a coffee shop in Cambridge where Rakoff lives with fiancé, she notes how excited she is that her children will begin Hebrew school in the fall. “I didn’t go to Hebrew school, but I did attend a Zionist socialist summer camp that doesn’t exist anymore. I was also president of my Young Judea chapter in high school.”
Rakoff grew up in the New York suburbs of Rockland County where her parents founded a Conservative synagogue in Nyack. She comes by her Jewish socialist background through her father’s family. “My dad was a red diaper baby and my grandmother was a union organizer who was asked to run for the Senate on the socialist ticket.”
Rakoff graduated from Oberlin College and published her first novel, “A Fortunate Age,” in 2009. The semi-autobiographical novel was her initial coming of age story about a group of Oberlin graduates finding their way in Brooklyn in the late 1990s and early 2000s. While writing her novel, Rakoff published a first piece in the now defunct Book Magazine in 2002 about her experience answering JD Salinger’s fan mail. The piece garnered a lot of attention. “I was overwhelmed by the response to the article,” she says. “And I was surprised by the attachment to Salinger. I was approached by a lot of agents and editors to expand the piece into the book, but I was working on ‘A Fortunate Age.’”
Rakoff was also uneasy about the perception of her capitalizing on her association with Salinger. “It was the wrong thing for me to do as a first book on many levels. At the time I didn’t see the story as large enough to turn into a book.” Six months after “A Fortunate Age” came out, Salinger died at the age of 90. “His death,” says Rakoff, “affected me profoundly.”
And she remembered the letters. “The fans just poured their hearts out to Salinger. Teenagers wrote in the voice of Holden Caulfield as in, ‘Dear Jerry, you old bastard.’ WWII vets wrote about their friends dying in their arms.”
Rakoff kept some of those letters. “I kept the ones in which the writer had invested so much of him or herself, those which just seemed too precious to throw away.” But only one letter, from a boy in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, written in the style of Holden Caufield, survived various moves and time itself. “I’ve read your book ‘Catcher in the Rye’ three times,” begins the letter. “And I hope that you’re proud of it. You certainly should be. Most of the crap that is written today is so uncompelling it makes me sick. Not too many people have anything to write that even approaches sincerity.”
Some letters are meant to be interpreted and contemplated like a memorable dream. The letter from the boy in Winston-Salem has hung above Rakoff’s desk almost two decades.