My friend Swamp Rabbit, an autodidact who tries to hide his deep knowledge of American literature, was surprised and appalled by a recent piece in The New York Times by the writer Joyce Maynard. It began:
In the 50 years since J.D. Salinger removed himself from the public eye and stopped publishing, he has been viewed — more accurately, worshiped — as the human embodiment of purity, a welcome antidote to phoniness. To many, he was a kind of god.
Now comes the word — though not really news, to some — that over the years when he was cherishing his privacy, Salinger was also carrying on relationships with young women 15, and in my case, 35 years younger than he.
“This ain’t about Salinger, it’s about Joyce Maynard,” the rabbit said after reading the rest of the piece. “Why does she want the whole world to know she was a Salinger groupie?”
My carrot-gnawing friend hasn’t seen much of the world beyond the swamp we both live in and therefore couldn’t believe it when I told him that many Americans would rather read something about Salinger than by him. And they’d rather a tell-all with sex details than, say, a re-evaluation of why Salinger’s first-person narrator in The Catcher In the Rye was so popular with critics and the public.
The rodent looked befuddled. I tried again to explain why people who are bored by Salinger the recluse can’t help but be aroused by the idea that he “was a kind of god” who turned out to be Charlie Manson in disguise, an evil manipulator of innocent girls. They know, sometimes without having read them, that none of the Nine Stories could possibly be as juicy as the story of how poor little rich girl Joyce was victimized during an eight-month “relationship” with the famous author, who died in 2010.
“That’s crazy talk,” Swamp Rabbit said. “We all get used and abused, conned and compromised, bamboozled and betrayed at some time by someone we looked up to or fell in love with. Why carry a grudge like that for forty years?”
My scrawny friend is so naive. I told him that Maynard’s Times piece was written to be in sync with the release of Shane Salerno’s documentary film about Salinger, and with a Salinger biography by Salerno and David Shields. More importantly, she had already dished the dirt on Salinger in her 1999 memoir At Home In the World and is reissuing that book now that the gossipy new movie and biography are out. Which means her Times piece is as much a self-promotional device as it is a cautionary tale for starry-eyed young girls or another stab at revenge. It certainly isn’t news.
Footnote: From Zoe Heller’s 2001 review of At Home In the World:
It is one of the cast-iron rules of biographical writing: the more damaging and transgressive the revelations on offer, the more fervently priggish the author’s explanation of his or her motive.
One more: The Salernos and Maynards of the world will never forgive Salinger for that most un-American of sins — refusing to be a celebrity.