News Release — February 28, 2000
The Ransom Center Acquires James Salter Archive
The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center announced today that it has acquired the archive of James Salter. Author of The Hunters (1956) and A Sport and a Pastime (1967), Salter is one of our most critically acclaimed living writers. In addition to extensive correspondence, the archive is comprised of manuscripts and heavily revised typescript drafts for all of Salter's published works including short stories and screenplays.
"We are extremely pleased to be home to James Salter's archive," said Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley, "He is certainly one of our most important writers of the last fifty-years; a master of his craft. Salter's work will be judged by generations to come as one of the significant contributions to American letters of the last half of the century."
Heralded as a "writer's writer," Salter's exquisite, descriptive, and economical prose has been lavishly praised by a number of his peers—John Irving, Michael Ondaatje, Michael Herr, Peter Matthiessen, Susan Sontag, Richard Ford, and Brendan Gill. According to Matthiessen, "There is scarcely a writer alive who could not learn from his passion and precision of language."
Following a distinguished career in the U.S. Army Air Force, Salter debuted as a professional writer in 1956 with publication of The Hunters, a taut novel of aerial combat in Korea and a pilot's struggle against self-doubt as he endeavors to become a fighter ace. Salter drew on his own experience in perilous dogfights above the Yalu River to create one of the most compelling and realistic works ever written about flying. His gorgeous prose on flight recalls Saint-Exupéry, a writer he greatly admires.
The Air Force again provided the setting for Salter's second novel The Arm of Flesh (1961). Salter, though, did not intend, nor have any interest in, becoming a writer associated only with the military genre. With A Sport and a Pastime (1967), he stunningly disabused any notion that he was simply a military figure who'd quixotically exchanged sword for pen. The book is a masterpiece of erotic realism telling the story of young French girl and her affair with a wayward college drop-out from America. A commercial failure when it was published, A Sport and a Pastime is now widely accepted as a neglected classic. Reynolds Price has called it "as nearly perfect as any American fiction I know," while John Irving pays it homage in his latest novel using a number of lengthy passages to form an unusual tribute.
Light Years, recounting the dissolution of a marriage, appeared in 1975. This was followed by Solo Faces (1979), a novel on the ardor of mountain climbing, and Dusk and Other Stories (1988), a collection of shorts that won the PEN/Faulkner award in 1989. According to Ned Rorem of the Washington Post, Salter's stories rank with the work of Flannery O'Conner, Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams, and John Cheever. Burning the Days, Salter's highly praised memoir, was published in 1997. Writing in the Nation, Gerald Howard called it "literature-steeped lushness that evokes variously Fitzgerald, Babel, and even the ancients."
The archive acquired by the Center is comprehensive and unique, covering the full scope of SalterÕs literary career. Highlights include:
- Manuscript notes and typescripts with revisions for The Hunters, The Arm of Flesh, A Sport and a Pastime, Light Years, Solo Faces, Dusk and Other Stories, and Burning the Days;
- Extensive correspondence during the writing and publication of Light Years between Salter and his editor Joe Fox (also present are letters of interest on Light Years from Graham Greene, Saul Bellow, and Edna O'Brien among others);
- Revised galley proofs for The Arm of Flesh and Solo Faces;
- Salter's detailed research notes for Solo Faces;
- Manuscripts and typescripts with revisions for Salter's screenplays including Downhill Racer (starring Robert Redford), The Appointment, and Three which Salter also directed;
- Notebooks for Cassada, a revision of The Arm of Flesh to be published in 2000;
- Correspondence spanning Salter's career including letters from Saul Bellow, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, John Irving, William Kennedy, Peter Matthiessen, Joyce Carol Oates, George Plimpton, Reynolds Price, and Irwin Shaw among others.
Biographical Information on James Salter
James Salter was born in New York City in 1926. His father, who graduated first in his class at West Point, was an engineer whose successful forays into real estate earned him enough to provide a comfortable life for his family on the Upper East Side. Salter attended the finest private schools and planned to study at Stanford. As a favor to his father, though, he applied to West Point, was accepted, and enrolled.
In Burning the Days, Salter writes brilliantly of his time at West Point, describing his life as a first year "plebe" who went from despising the institution's regimentation and brash badgering to embracing its code of duty, honor, and country. Upon graduation, he joined the U.S. Army Air Force (U.S.A.F.) and immediately took to flying, savoring its exhilaration, sense of freedom, and accompanying glamour. This passion radiates through Salter's prose on flying, regarded by many to be without parallel. Describing his early flight experiences with the U.S.A.F. Salter writes:
Early flights, the instructor in the rear cockpit, the bumpy taxiing on the grass, turning into the wind, tail swinging around, dust blowing, and then the abrupt, wild sound of the engine. The ground was speeding by, the wheels skipping, and suddenly we were rising in the din to see the blue tree line beyond the field boundary and, below, the curved roofs of the hangars falling away. Now fields appeared, swimming out in all directions. The earth became limitless, the horizon, unseen before, rose to fill the world and we were aloft in unstructured air.
With the outbreak of the Korean War, Salter, now a fighter pilot, found himself cruising above the beleaguered Asian peninsula in search of enemy MiGs. He flew over 100 combat missions in the war battling many of the same anxieties that confront protagonist Cleve Connell in The Hunters. All the while he was flying, Salter would return from missions and write late into the evening, nurturing what was becoming an increasing passion. When The Hunters was published in 1956 it wasn't long before Salter, then 32 years old, resigned his commission to pursue a full-fledged writing career.
Leaving the prestige and comfort his Air Force position assured him for the uncertainty of professional writing took considerable courage. Salter, his first wife, and their four children lived in a borrowed apartment and had little in the way of savings.
The Hunters, despite critical acclaim, managed only modest sales. Then, Salter received word that Hollywood was interested in buying the book's film rights. Initially, he demurred, but his agents—whom he now lustily thanks for their advice—convinced him to strike a deal.
The film was made (Robert Mitchum starred) with Salter receiving $15,000 annually for four years. Oddly, considering his initial reticence to sell The Hunters, this marked the start of a mini-film career. Salter—who in Burning the Days quotes Robert Bolt's advice that screenwriters should never lose sight of one thing above all others: "The money, my boy, the money"—wrote screenplays for Downhill Racer, starring Robert Redford, and The Appointment. Later, he went on to write and direct Three starring Sam Waterston and Charlotte Rampling.
Films, though, weren't for Salter, who has written that "movies are essentially meant to be distractions. Its a very rare movie that has a power to console." By the early 1970's he was out of the business altogether.
With his careful mulling of each word to create exquisite and precise prose, and his zeal for living an active life—numerous affairs and adventures are recounted in Burning the Days—Salter has never been a prolific writer. But perhaps no author in the last fifty-years has a better record of producing as consistently acclaimed a body of writings. The Hunters has been called "The finest work ever to appear in print—ever—about men who fly and fight" (Robert F. Dorr); A Sport and A Pastime "A neglected classic" (Washington Post); Brendan Gill "could think of no one who has written a novel more beautiful than Light Years"; John Irving proclaimed Solo Faces "A terrific novel—compelling, sad, wise, and kind-hearted"; while Dusk and Other Stories won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner award.
"With the recent reissue of The Hunters and the pending reissue of The Arm of Flesh, James Salter is starting to get some well-deserved public recognition, said Dr. Staley, "But whether he sells a million books or one, Salter is without doubt one of the finest writers to appear in the past half-century. The Ransom Center is honored to receive his archive."