Carla Carlisle on homesickness

My son asks if I ever get homesick. I tell him that homesickness, like lovesickness, thrives best in the fertile earth of youth. I say that I have twinges, but no longer the full-blown disease. Still, I had a serious bout last week, listening to an item on Today about a concert at the White House.

Part of a series on American music, the evening was devoted to the songs of the Civil Rights movement. That was my time, an era of fear and hope for a white girl born in the Mississippi Delta. My years in that movement made me who I am, and, even now, the songs are the only ones besides hymns that I know by heart.

I planted my vineyard on a south-facing slope in Suffolk singing I Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Freedom. The lullabies I sang to my baby were This Little Light of Mine and Blowing in the Wind. Later, on the school run, I taught him the words to I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, a sentiment that even a yellow-headed lap child being ferried to mono-cultural pre-prep could identify with.

Sometimes, a death makes me homesick. When David Halberstam died, I reread The Best and The Brightest. When Walter Cronkite died, I moped for days. Last month, when J. D. Salinger died, I didn’t feel sad, merely wistful.

My Salinger memories can’t compete with Taki’s in the (other) Spectator, who revealed that he’d had a long correspondence with the hermitic author-who’da thunk? but my memory also involves letters from Salinger. Fourteen letters, in fact, written by Salinger to an 18-year-old freshman at Yale, called Joyce Maynard.

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She had written an article in The New York Times Magazine called ‘An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life’, and her photograph, doe-eyed and tomboyish, appeared on the cover. Salinger, then 53, wrote her a fan letter ‘in strictest privacy, if you can bear it’, a letter that led Maynard to leaving Yale and moving in with the writer in his grim little ranch house in Cornish, New Hampshire.

This strange romance lasted nine months, although how is a mystery, what with Salinger’s insistence on frozen peas for breakfast, under-cooked lamb burgers for dinner and obsession with homeopathic medicine. But it was the writer who ended it, and Miss Maynard waited 25 years before she revealed all in her memoir At Home in the World.

My friends were horrified at her betrayal of the famous literary recluse, but there was more to come. On a visit to New York in July 1999, my friend Marie Brenner arranged a top-secret private view of Salinger’s letters to Miss Maynard before they were auctioned by Sotheby’s. To her amazement, I declined.

The truth was I thought Salinger had got away with faintly paedophilic behaviour. The literary world denounced Miss Maynard for selling the letters (to pay for the college tuition of her three children), but I was pleased when the letters fetched $156,500. Years later, when he was reading The Catcher in the Rye, I told my son the story of the letters. ‘Weren’t you even curious?’ he asked.

I’m embarrassed at my lack of curiosity, especially because when I was 17, Salinger influenced my life. It was on page 6 of Franny and Zooey. Franny takes the train to Yale to meet Lane and describes the other girls in the carriage. They looked ‘very Smith’, she says, ‘except for twoabsolutely Vassar types and one absolutely Bennington or Sarah Lawrence type.

The Bennington-Sarah Lawrence type looked like she’d spent the whole train ride in the john, sculpting or painting or something, or as though she had a leotard on under her dress’. I swooned at the Bohemian description, and went straight to the library to learn more. Four years later, I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, although, I confess, I’ve never sculpted a thing.

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