Kevin Spacey plays Whit Burnett in the new film about J. D. Salinger, Rebel in the Rye. When I knew
Whit Burnett (one of only a handful of names that I can honestly drop) late in his life, he didn’t resemble Kevin Spacey. He just looked like a kindly elderly gentleman. I was around 30, and he was around the age I am now.
He was some kind of consultant to the publishing company I worked for, which had bought the reprint rights to the contents of his fabled magazine, Story, in which Burnett had published early works of writers he discovered or encouraged. These included Salinger, Saroyan, Capote, Mailer, Bukowski, Joseph Heller, and Carson McCullers.
He didn’t seem to have much to do at the company, so we became friendly. I was the only one who went out of my way to chat with him.
At one point he expressed interest in my writing, which at that time consisted mainly of poems. I’d come in second in an important national contest – twice – but that amounted to nothing in recognition or publication. He said he liked my work and since he was on the board of the Poetry Society of America, he would recommend me for membership at their next board meeting, a few weeks later.
He died before that meeting. So, even though I was the last in the distinguished list of writers that he discovered, it amounted to nothing – like being second in that poetry contest. And I missed him as a friend.
At that company, we churned out a lot of stuff, often on a weekly basis, most of it instantly forgotten. He’d been our only connection to a literary past when publishing new work could mean the introduction of a major literary voice.