Gay Talese came to New York in 1956, when he was 24 years old. He spent the next nine years as a reporter at The New York Times, having worked his way up from copy boy. All the while, as he made a home for himself among the literary circles of mid-century Manhattan, Talese and his friends were transfixed by the work of a fellow young writer named J.D. Salinger.
Talese would go on to pioneer New Journalism, publishing such works as Thy Neighbor’s Wife and Honor Thy Father, as well as “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” in Esquire. “For individuals who were as shy and curious as myself, journalism was an ideal preoccupation, a vehicle that transcended the limitations of reticence,” he wrote in his 1996 memoir. And given Mr. Talese’s talent for exploring the boundaries of public and private life, Salinger’s self-imposed isolation would seem like fertile ground.
But looking back on Salinger’s heyday, Talese says, none of that matters. The important thing about Salinger was the printed word on the page, nothing more. Late last week, Talese spoke to The Observer’s Molly Fischer about being young in New York and excited about writing.
What was so special about the writing and maybe the mystique of Salinger was that his work for a magazine represented a kind of epoch of the printed word. What I mean is, when we think of print today, we don’t think of much, because it doesn’t have the impact. But in those days, a printed word in a magazine was preceded by word of mouth.
All of us who were young in those days, in the 1950s and ’60s—I came to New York in 1956 to stay—we all sort of thought we knew somebody who was a clerk at The New Yorker, and who would say, “Hey …”
Word got around that there was a story in the works that was going to be published soon, and we waited for it. I was in my mid-20s at the time; I’m 77 now so I’m looking back on this from a half a century’s perspective. It was still the era of Eisenhower. And yet it was a kind of beginning of a kind of identity with youth—it wasn’t a youth movement, as would happen later with the Beatles and Bobby Dylan and the war protests of the ’60s and drugs and rock ’n’ roll and all that stuff—but there was really something that gave identity to young people in the work of Salinger. A sort of an epochal time for the printed word.
I don’t remember anything before it, because I was too young to know anything before it—when Hemingway was around. It was the Sundance of the short story in those days. People really wanted to be writers. We didn’t give a shit about Oscars, it seemed to me. It was the literary word, and the printed word—it was the quintessential time for the printed word.
Salinger didn’t appeal to everyone. It was our generation. It was before civil rights, and it was before any identity with drugs. It was almost when Lenny Bruce was being prosecuted for what he was talking about from the stage—it was really the ’50s. Salinger was a person of the ’50s. He is a product of the pre-Kennedy time. I mean, that was the period of being old. It’s the last of “I like Ike” and playing golf, and here’s this new voice, and it’s a young voice.
Here comes this voice not of protest but of a most uncommon character. This young character—of the Glass family. And it really seemed to be the first legitimate young American voice on the printed page that had all the power and song of what would later be in the words of Bobby Dylan, or the Beatles, or the music of Motown. That was later stuff. This one character—that was Salinger. And the word of mouth: I’d be in the city room, and someone would tell me in the cafeteria—we had a coffee break—“Hey, I heard Salinger …”
Before Tina Brown thought of buzz, there was this buzz. I’d never heard any word of mouth on an about-to-be-published short story in some magazine—I know The New Yorker wasn’t just “some magazine,” but I don’t care. It never happened with Roth or Updike or Don DeLillo or anybody. Some Mailer stuff—“The Steps of the Pentagon”—and the New Journalism era, but that was nonfiction.
Then there was a conversation! There was a debate. Half an evening’s meal was spent discussing this. This was very much what was going on. From Chumley’s down in the Village—maybe, if you had the money, even Toots Shor’s, the old sports bar—you heard about Salinger.
Nothing was quite like it. I don’t think we had another person. And Salinger was not self-promoting—the opposite. That’s what so special. It was all about his work.
You can always drop Salinger’s name to people twice as young as my daughter, and everybody seems to know who he is. On the basis of being in print—not being in the movies. Many of the books that we think are famous are famous because of a movie. Godfather might not be famous were it not for the film.
The stories—“A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” “Love and Squalor”—I mean, I read all these stories six times when they came out. I’d read them again and again and again. They’re just beautiful.
You couldn’t dare think that voice would be something of your own voice. It was a special voice, not to be imitated—or that you could even think that you understood fully what was in that brain of his. But you loved the fact that he was saying something that you could identify with. It wasn’t that his language was so evocative—he just had control of his story and his era. He just was a new man on the planet. And he carried us away.