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The Sentimental Misanthrope

Why J.D. Salinger Can't Write

11:00 PM, Feb 21, 1999 • By DAVID SKINNER
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J.D. Salinger's cultural significance seems beyond dispute. The Catcher in the Rye is a book read even by those who don't read much. When Mark David Chapman assassinated John Lennon in 1980, he said the reason could be found in the novel's pages. When John "Goumba" Sialiano spoke in 1999 of his role in the "Scores" nightclub case against John Gotti Jr., he explained, "I'm the Holden Caulfield of Scores. I'm Goumba in the Rye." In such books as Don DeLillo's Mao II, such movies as Field of Dreams and Jerry Maguire, Salinger has become a stand-in -- our living metaphor, holed up in the New Hampshire woods -- for the innocence that needs protection from the outside world. A bestselling author from Catcher in the Rye in 1951 to Franny and Zooey in 1961, Salinger hasn't published since 1965, but he remains as famous as ever -- more famous than ever as each year of silence goes by.

Joyce Maynard's At Home in the World, published last year, is only the most recent episode in the search for America's best-known hermit. It describes in detail a nine-month affair she had in 1972 with the sometimes sentimental and sometimes misanthropic writer. Salinger was then fifty-three, while Maynard was eighteen; he was a famous author, while she was a precocious and ambitious girl with a New York Times Magazine cover story to her credit. Their affair started with a fan letter from Salinger, peaked with Maynard's quitting school to move in with him, and ended in the middle of a trip to Florida -- when Salinger told her to pack up and go home.

A few of Maynard's reviewers celebrated her revelations about the reclusive author: She "surpasses [Salinger] in depth of feeling," according to the San Francisco Chronicle; a "literary pioneer," agreed the Washington Post. But most reviewers recognized that disliking Salinger's behavior didn't necessitate liking the now-forty-five-year-old Maynard, while others seemed to want to believe in the essential goodness of the man whose Catcher in the Rye is every adolescent's favorite novel. "To read At Home in the World doesn't require a suspension of disbelief," Katherine Wolff snarled in Salon, "but it does require the suspension of literary standards." In the New Yorker -- the first publisher of much of Salinger's fiction -- Daphne Merkin added, "There is something of the stalker in Maynard, the oxygen-eater."

Whatever its faults, Maynard's book contained the first glimpse into Salinger's life in ten years. Since the troubled publication of Ian Hamilton's In Search of J.D. Salinger in 1988, no one has added to the few facts available. Hamilton had found in library collections some letters the novelist had written over the years, but Salinger promptly sued to stop their quotation. (The lawsuit did force Hamilton to rewrite his biography, but, ironically, it also put the letters into the court record -- where they could be quoted in hundreds of newspaper accounts of the trial.) During depositions, it became clear that Salinger couldn't remember what was in the letters, didn't know which ones were being quoted, and hadn't checked Hamilton's last-minute paraphrasings. He just objected -- to all of it: the biography, the letters, the interest Hamilton was generating, the whole idea of exposure.

Salinger's obsession has continued. In 1997, his agent threatened to sue a young fan whose website provided quotations from Catcher in the Rye whenever a visitor clicked a red-hunting-cap icon. In November 1998, Salinger stopped Lincoln Center from showing Pari, and Iranian film loosely based on Franny and Zooey. In a world where recycling Salinger's work is outlawed, only outlaws do it. An "anarchist publishing collective," for instance, has recently printed Twenty-Two Stories, a collection of early fiction. Copies are few and distributed only "on a personal level."

Joyce Maynard explains, in her introduction to At Home in the World, why she decided to violate Salinger's desire for privacy -- and the passage is a fair measure of her silliness, her conventionality, and her prose: "I pray what my children take away from this story is freedom from the kind of shame I experienced as a young person, and the lesson that every child, woman, and man should possess license to speak or sing in his or her true voice." Over the years, Maynard has made herself into a sort of low-rent anti-Salinger. She is public in every way and publishes as often as she can. In newspaper articles, her Web site, and her newsletter, she writes about her children, divorce, baking tips, alcoholic father, troubled relations with her sister. Hers is a life without curtains, and everybody is supposed to want to peek in.