Taking a Stand

When Salinger Spoke Out: A Rare 1959 Public Letter Against Life in Prison

Lost in all the controversy around J.D. Salinger this year was the few times he chose to take a public stance as in this 1959 letter against life imprisonment without parole.

2013 has been a year that the late J. D. Salinger would have hated. With the highly publicized release of Shane Salerno’s documentary film, Salinger, a companion book by Salerno and David Shields, and three unpublished stories leaking, Salinger’s life has been subjected to the kind of scrutiny he did his best to avoid once he became a well-known author.

But overlooked in the rush to get the inside scoop on Salinger has been a side of him that is important to acknowledge—the public side. Salinger did not always think it essential to keep his personal views to himself.

This December 9 marks the anniversary of one such occasion. On December 9, 1959, Salinger—contrary to his image as a recluse content to hide out in New Hampshire—went public with his views on the legal system by writing a letter to the editor of the New York Post on the inhumanity of life imprisonment. The letter is one that has gotten minimal attention over the years.

Salinger’s letter to the editor was a response to an earlier Post article, “Who Speaks for the Damned?” about a New York State law denying parole to anyone sentenced to life imprisonment. The Post of the late 1950s was a liberal tabloid that featured columns by Eleanor Roosevelt and Murray Kempton, and Salinger’s choice of it as a place to publish was obvious.

Salinger’s letter, nonetheless, appeared without fanfare. There was no mention on the Post’s front page that commentary by J. D. Salinger awaited its readers on December 9, and on the paper’s editorial page, where Salinger’s letter appeared next to two other letters to the editor, he was not even identified as the author of The Catcher in the Rye.

If Salinger was expecting better treatment from the Post for speaking out on life imprisonment, nothing in his letter suggests it. He makes no attempt to trade on his status as a novelist.

What worries him is the idea of taking hope away from someone who has repented of a terrible deed he did decades earlier. “Justice-without-mercy must easily be the bleakest, coldest, combination of words in the language,” Salinger writes.

No man, Salinger goes on to argue, should face such a bleak future, and New York State, if unwilling to change, should be forced to acknowledge the cruelty of its life-imprisonment law. “If no mercy may be legally shown to the New York State lifer, then at least some further legislation should be provided so that when a man in New York is sentenced to life imprisonment the real terms of his sentence are pronounced in full, for all the world to hear.”

The rest of Salinger’s letter continues in this tone. “This is all a matter for action, though, not irony,” he insists. Salinger doesn’t appear to think that he is going to win over his opponents. “Can it be brought to the attention of the Governor? Can he be approached? Can he be located?” Salinger asks before saying resignedly of New York’s governor (at the time Nelson Rockefeller), “Surely it must concern him that the New York State lifer is one of the most crossed-off, man-forsaken men on earth.”

Today, the significance of the 1959 Post letter is that it lets us see that, when Salinger chose to write and act as a public figure, his sensibility was very much like that of the characters in his fiction, who continually worry about the vulnerable.

The Salinger who appears in the Post is hard to distinguish from, among other Salinger figures, the sergeant in his World War II short story, “For Esme—with Love and Squalor.” That sergeant doesn’t just think about surviving combat. He can’t get his mind off an English teenager who has lost her parents in the war or forget a young German woman who wrote in the flyleaf of a book the sergeant found in her house, “Dear God, life is hell.”

Such personal consistency between Salinger the author and Salinger the man was no surprise to Salinger’s World War II Army buddies. They remained his friends long after the war ended. They were at ease in his company and took pleasure in visiting with him.

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“He’s a kind, sensitive man, a good person to be with, with a good sense of humor. Everything I know about him is good,” John Keenan, an Army pal who became a New York City chief of detectives, observed of Salinger years after the war, not realizing that, with the passage of time, those who had a score to settle with Salinger would be the ones to whom his biographers paid the most attention.