Witt's Twaddle

Quest for privacy didn’t outshine great works

Posted in Everyday by Witt on January 29, 2010

Born in Manhattan and published almost exclusively in The New Yorker, J.D. Salinger lived the life of the quintessential New Englander.

After moving to Cornish, N.H., in 1953, Salinger became America’s most famous literary recluse, embracing the ethic of “good fences make good neighbors.’’ The man who coined that line, the poet Robert Frost, was New Hampshire’s other great 20th-century literary celebrity, who lived southeast of Cornish, in Derry.

Courtesy of AP

Frost, who often struggled financially, embraced fame and its perquisites. Salinger rejected them, with a passion. “Don’t Tread on Me’’ would be another maxim adopted by Salinger, who would have added: Don’t Send Me Letters, Don’t Visit Me, Don’t Phone Me, and Don’t Hang Around the Bottom of My Driveway. He lived in a modest hilltop house, hidden by birch and maple trees. His driveway, like so many in the Granite State, was festooned with “No Trespassing’’ signs.

His Cornish neighbors supported and abetted his fetishistic quest for privacy. A local building contractor once interposed himself between Salinger and an inquiring reporter, saying, “You’ve got to understand, this is a man who is really serious about his privacy.’’ When writer Joyce Maynard published a tell-all memoir in 1998 about her brief affair with Salinger, Cornish resident Peter Burling told the Associated Press that “What she’s doing is despicable. We certainly aren’t going to open any doors to folks that are attracted here because of that book. If anything, we’ll probably be a little tighter-lipped.’’

“Work hard and mind your own business,’’ chimed in librarian Terrie Scott. “That’s the Yankee ethic.’’

Salinger became famous as the Writer Who Never Wrote. As fallow decade succeeded fallow decade in Salinger’s professional life, it became fashionable to say that his seclusion, and his noli me tangere persona, were his greatest creations. In a 1997 Esquire cover story, Ron Rosenbaum called Salinger’s wall of silence “his most powerful, his most eloquent, perhaps his most lasting work of art.’’

For many years, Salinger’s contretemps outshone his writing. Maynard garnered considerable publicity – and criticism – with her book, “At Home in the World.’’ Her subsequent sale of Salinger’s letters, which doubtless would have caused him immense chagrin, backfired when a sympathetic businessman bought them and returned them to the author. Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, published an unauthorized (by him) and unflattering memoir of her father in 2000, for no apparent reason other than profit. (She told The New York Times she wrote it as therapy, and for the sake of her son.) The “revelations’’ were baroque and unsavory: Salinger was a Zen Buddhist. Salinger was a Christian Scientist. Salinger was sexually repressed.

Salinger gave his critics plenty of ammunition. He struggled so mightily against a planned biography by writer Ian Hamilton that he made enduring case law. As most nonfiction writers know, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Salinger v. Random House drastically restricts their ability to quote from letters and personal documents belonging to people they might want to write about. For the last 13 years of his life, Salinger promised and reneged – twice – to publish a novella that has not seen the light of day.

But his critics who treat his edifice of privacy as a postmodern work of art are wrong. They are criticizing his life, which obviously brought him sadness and torment. The work is the literature: the sprawling peregrinations of Holden Caulfield, his antennae jittering at each sighting of a “phony’’; the terrible, psychiatric tautness of the Glass family, featured in his stories and in the brief novel cum short story, “Franny and Zooey.’’

The man is gone, the work remains. High school teachers all over America still assign “The Catcher in the Rye’’ to their adolescent charges. It has been 60 years since Salinger’s teenage antihero blundered around the streets of Manhattan, and faculty still think he has a story to tell. What a remarkable achievement. If only it had brought greater happiness to its author.

The literary freak show is over. The appreciation can begin.

Courtesy of Alex Beam of The Boston Globe.

Reblogged at 8:01pm, 29 January 2010.

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