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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Just Who Is J. D. Salinger?

Guest Blogger: H. Allen Smith. I've got this great Thomas Pynchon story to tell but, dammit, it has some identifying details the revelation of which would be disrespectful. After all, this is the man who hired Irwin Corey to accept the National Book Award on his behalf. Instead, I offer this rare piece by the unjustly neglected humorist H. Allen Smith. I already chronicled my search for his house in Alpine, Texas. Here's a piece he wrote in 1966 that seems to have been otherwise un-republished.


H. Allen Smith (or whomever)
A MAN NAMED VISCO, resident of Montclair, New Jersey, has written a letter to me advising me that recently he went into a New York City bookstore and bought a volume titled How to Write without Knowing Nothing. The book bore my name as author.

When Mr. Visco got home to Montclair and took the wrapping off his package and opened the book, he found that its contents did not correspond with the description on the jacket and on the hard binding. In fact, the inside part of the book had nothing whatever to do with writing, but was something titled Franny and Zooey and the author was identified on the title page as "J. D. Salinger." Mr. Visco said he was confused.

It came as no great surprise to me. Other copies of that book got into the stores—books described as H. Allen Smith's work on the outside and containing on the inside work by this J. D. Salinger. It happened once before to me, when my publisher sent me a copy of another book of mine, The Pig in the Barber Shop, and on opening it I found that it contained a novel called The Good Shepherd by C. S. Forester. I am in an idiot sort of business.

I could explain the more recent mixup to Mr. Visco and to anyone else who happened to get a copy of Smith-Salinger by first stating that both How to Write without Knowing Nothing and Franny and Zooey were issued by the same Boston publisher. So were The Pig in the Barber Shop and The Good Shepherd.

The way it could happen is fairly simple. In the publisher's bindery, let us say, were large stacks of unbound, stitched sheets of my book and, alongside, much larger stacks of the book by Salinger. Along comes a workman and his elbow brushes against the Salinger stack and a few dozen batches of unbound sheets topple to the floor. The workman hastily picks the things up and puts them onto the stack nearest him, which is the Smith stack. Those stitched sheets wind up, a few days later, neatly encased in hard bindings bearing the title How to Write without Knowing Nothing.

I could explain it that way, but I don't think I will. Sounds too much like the collapse of automation. Anyway, the time has come when I can no longer dissemble, when I can no longer keep a straight face in the presence of all this Salinger talk. I've got to tell the truth. Steel yourself. I am J. D. Salinger.

I am also Thomas Pynchon, author of the sensational first novel V. That's what I said, V. That's the title of it. Almost nobody has ever seen Thomas Pynchon, so it has been fairly easy for me to carry on this deception. His editor at the Lippincott company has never laid eyes on him; the press agent for Lippincott has never seen him; various other people who have had long-distance dealings with him wouldn't know him if they met him on the street. His own mother has seen him, but not lately, and when questioned about him, all she is willing to say is that Thomas Pynchon is six feet, four. A sort of a warning, I suppose. It is all a lovely hoax and she is not really his mother, because she is not my mother; I am not nearly six feet, four, but when I'm required to do it I can draw myself up. And if any among you smart-aleck littérateurs doubts my word in this Pynchon matter, please he advised that he, Pynchon, is said to do his principal hiding-out in Mexico. Check my movements, please—I mean the movements of H. Allen Smith. I duck out for Mexico whenever I get time chance. Why? I have to pay Pynchon bills and clean up Pynchon correspondence that piles up week by week in Guadalajara. The correspondence, incidentally, consists mainly of letters asking, “Hey, Pynchon, just who are you?” or, in variation, “Listen, Pynchon, who the hell do you think you are?” As for my novel V, I wrote it with my left hand and can't remember what it's about, except that it's got a lot of alligators in it.

I may as well go the whole hog. I am also Xavier Rynne. I am he who has written those marvelous “inside” accounts of Vatican Council II. In the book world there has been great and feverish speculation about the true identity of Xavier Rynne because of his books Letters from Vatican City and The Second Session. Here is the story behind the story. I was down in Mexico, engaged in things to deepen the mystery of Thomas Pynchon, and I got homesick, and in the middle of the night checked out of my hotel and climbed sleepily into a jet. Wrong plane. I ended up in Rome, and this Vatican Council II was in session and I stumbled into it while searching for the Spanish steps. I figured I might as well do something toward expenses, and so I rapped out those two books about what I'd seen and heard. Imagine my surprise at the stir they created. Actually, this business of being Xavier Rynne is not very important to me, and I think I'll give it up. I've got other fish to fry. J. D. Salinger fish. The Salinger caper has brought in a lot of splendid money and it has been a most interesting game, cloak-and-daggerish in many of its aspects.

I started writing as J. D. Salinger back around 1940. I was just practicing. I had known a movie producer in Hollywood named George Glass, and so I started knocking out these trivialities about a family named Glass. All I was doing was searching for a method, which I freely confess I never found. Those raggedy scripts got mailed out by mistake, and before I knew what was going on, the stories began appearing in one of the arriere-garde magazines. I didn't show my face. I even hid the truth from my children.

So I lay low and turned out three or four perceptive and erudite books under the name of H. Allen Smith, and then, just for recreation, during two hot weeks in the summer of 1950, 1 did a little novel called Catcher in the Rye. It has some dirty words in it, so I put the Salinger name on it. A publisher went out of his mind and issued it, and the nut kids in the colleges went ape for it when they should have been swallowing goldfish and swiping panties and riding to the moon in automatic clothes dryers. That damn book sold like crazy and I, in the hidden role of Salinger, became a sort of public idol, a great literary hero to a generation of goofy kids. I want it clearly understood, however, that I had nothing to do with all that horrible hair.

The money was nice, so I just kept my mouth shut.

After a while the snoops from the news magazines began to close in on me. Rumors were kicking around. I had my reputation to consider, so I got nervous. My standing in the community was such that I simply couldn't afford to have it get out that I was “that Salinger.” So it came about that I hired a young man named Jackson Daedalus Snug to impersonate me in the character of J. D. Salinger. I went up to New Hampshire and shopped around and finally bought a plain little old house with its own pump and cistern and an attic full of spinning wheels and a strong fence around the whole thing. Jackson Daedalus Snug moved in and put his initials on the mailbox and lived quietly there for a while.

Then, under my instructions, he began issuing forth, charging around the countryside in a jeep I got for him, holding his nose in the air and sometimes glowering at the rubes. When he had to go to town for groceries and erasers, I taught him to turn and run whenever any stranger came toward him. Soon enough the word began to get around that there was some kind of a filbert loose in the community, and Snug wrote me that he was afraid the townspeople might seize him and apply a coating of tar and feathers. So I sent him a homemade slingshot and told him to turn a withering fire upon any of the country jakes who tried to molest him. He still uses that slingshot, but mainly to sting the college kids who come to the fence and, between bottles of beer, howl at the house: “Come outa there, J. D. We know who you are and we know you're in there. Come on out. This here's ole Holden talkin’.”

It has been a lot of fun, but I think the time has come to quit all this horseplay and devote myself to the philosophical pursuits which seem to be my lot in life. There will be some critics, of course. who will call me a liar and say that I, Smith, never had it in me to write as good as old J. D. They will say that the Jackson Daedalus Snug up there in New Hampshire is truthfully Jerome David Salinger and that I ought to be ashamed of myself for claiming to be he. I say nuts to such people, and they can go soak their heads.

To those who might entertain such doubts, I can call attention to certain clues in the writings of Salinger that appear in the writings of H. Allen Smith. For example, consider the style used in Bessie Glass' inventory of all the items contained in a medicine cabinet, and in H. Allen Smith's inventory of all the items contained in the little black bag carried by doctors. These two passages had to be written by the same hand.

To me the most amusing outgrowth of my playful bit of deception has been the steady procession of scholarly disquisitions in which the work of Salinger is dissected and analyzed and praised beyond all reason. The professors and the critics have me dealing in symbolism and abstract notions that are as alien to me as Waldensian trigonometry. It has been most revealing. for example. to find so many pundits saying that my Franny, when she was having all those fantods and collywobbles, was actually in the grip of a mysticism snit. Like hell she was. She was pregnant.

It is time, then, that I say goodbye to my strange career as Salinger, as well as my brief adventures as Thomas Pynchon and Xavier Rynne. All of my serious, classical writing is done, of course, under the name of H. Allen Smith. I shall not suffer financially because of the foregoing revelations; in fact, they will focus attention on my true and basic self. Or maybe not. I'm actually not H. Allen Smith at all. I'm the natural son of B. Traven, the “mystery man of American letters,” author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Pop never liked people. He has been hiding out in the back room of a roadside taco joint near Acapulco for years. The last time I was down that way, playing the role of Thomas Pynchon, I tried to see him. He snarled at me through the bead curtains and said he was not B. Traven, he was Ambrose Bierce.

You know something? 1 believe him.

Playboy, January 1966

1 comment:

Carl said...

I am delighted to find a fellow fan of Mr. Smith, and thoroughly appreciated the opportunity you made available of enjoying a hitherto-unread-by-me piece of his. In the early 70's, when I was in my early teens, I discovered his work at a Boston area library, and read nearly every book he published that was held in the collections of the libraries I had access to. Except those Rhubarb things. I never had the inclinations to indulge his fictional fantasies I guess.

Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I hope you post some more by and/or about him.