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The Cult of Joyce Maynard
From The New York Times Magazine
Joyce Maynard wrote her first memoir, "Looking Back," when she was 19; now, at 44, she has written her second, "At Home in the World." In the 25 intervening years, Maynard bought a house, nearly had a nervous breakdown, lost her virginity to the soundtrack of "Pippin," met Mary Tyler Moore and Muhammad Ali, was raped, got married, appeared on TV, had three children, emptied her breast milk into the Atlantic, planted a garden, went broke, had an abortion, clawed through a heap of garbage looking for a lost retainer, wrote three novels, watched her parents get divorced and die, got divorced herself, bought another house, got breast implants and took them out again, took tennis lessons, sold most of her possessions and moved from New Hampshire to California. Over the years, Maynard has related many of these events in her syndicated newspaper column (now defunct) and in articles for women's magazines. Oddly, she has been chastized severely, and often for imagining that any of them could possibly be interesting.
The one thing Maynard has done that everyone agrees is interesting is have a nine-month affair with J.D. Salinger. The story, as Maynard tells it in her new book, goes like this. Twenty-six years ago, when she was a freshman at Yale, Maynard published an essay in these pages, "An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life," that made her famous. Among the hundreds of letters she received in response to the article, and to the winsome photograph of her that appeared on the cover, was one from Salinger, then 53. Maynard corresponded with him for several weeks, met him, fell in love with him and quit school to move into his house in New Hampshire. He told her that she was very talented, and that he loved her. They talked about having children. They lived together through the winter of 1972 and into the following spring. But she began to irritate him: she was sloppy, she read TV Guide and little else, she wrote what she thought people would like to read because she wanted fame and glamour. She was too clenched up to have intercourse -- she got terrible headaches when they tried. Finally, disappointed, Salinger sent her away.
For years, Maynard refused to discuss this affair. In doing so now, she is violating the privacy of a figure who is revered in a very personal way by a great many people, both for his writing and for his decision to retreat into the silence that Maynard is breaking. She will be -- indeed she already has been -- called shameless and mercenary. Maynard knows this, of course.
In the months preceding the book's publication, Maynard was to be found at home in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, editing her manuscript and driving her 14-year-old, Willy, to his tennis tournaments. She has spent much of her life engaged in mother activity of this sort -- perhaps she'd be a better writer if she hadn't. We met at a match one afternoon and lay on the grass in the shade with Maynard's unsightly dog and her exquisite son. Maynard laughed frequently -- a loud laugh with a hysterical edge to it, involving knee-slapping.
Writing this book had been, for her, the exorcism of a past that has been festering for years. "When I first embarked on it, it felt like such a forbidden thing, like my grandfather eating pork," she said. "But now I've come to feel there's nothing so terrible about the truth, and it's such a relief."
Maynard could now joke about her notoriety. She told me about a guy she met at a party in San Francisco. "He came over to me and said: 'Joyce Maynard! You're the one who lived with. . . ."' Maynard snapped her fingers, imitating the man trying to remember the name. "'Thomas Pynchon?' I said, and he says: 'Yeah! That's the one!"'
The day she went to meet Salinger for the first time, Maynard wore an extraordinary dress. She and her mother designed it together for the occasion. It was, she says, almost an exact replica of the dress she wore to her first day of first grade -- very short and made out of stiff white material covered with alphabet letters in primary colors. Maynard's mother, Fredelle, used to refer to clothes as "costumes," and this dress was to be Maynard's costume for her meeting with Salinger, for playing the part of helpless little girl to his much older man.
There is still something unsettlingly childlike about Maynard. She is tiny and cute; her dark brown eyes are so big they are just short of buggy. She wears red hooded sweatshirts and little sheepskin booties. But there is also something almost tangibly maternal about her, as though her skin retained impressions from her children's bodies.
The thing people say about Maynard is that she takes up a lot of space. She is not one for keeping quiet about things. She is dramatic and demands attention. She experiences wild ups and precipitous downs. She is always getting into car accidents. Once, in a pizza restaurant with her family, she dumped a glass of beer over her head by way of communicating her frustration with the evening. "It's easy to wonder whether it's love she's looking for, or fame, or attention," says the novelist Joseph McElroy, an old friend. "God knows, Joyce wants attention and intends to get it."
The pairing of Maynard and Salinger -- the writer whose metier is autobiography and the writer who's so private he won't even publish -- was an unlikely one, and the story of their affair makes for uncomfortable reading. The Salinger that emerges from Maynard's side of the story is a rather attenuated figure. We don't see him writing or talking about writing -- he didn't let her into that part of his life. We see him only in his relationship with Maynard: the waxing and waning of his love for her and the eccentric domestic rituals with which the waning was entwined (his peculiar diet, his meditation, his practice of homeopathy). At the time she was living with Salinger, Maynard was at the height of her fame: she had become the unofficial spokesperson for the Youth of America, and people were continually calling her up, asking her to appear on the radio, to write articles, to have her photograph taken. Under Salinger's influence, she turned many offers down. Still, Salinger could tell she was tempted, and was disgusted by her worldliness.
Of course, Salinger's own obsessive privacy was also a form of caring about the world's opinion, a poisonous sensitivity. In one of Maynard's few references in her memoir to Salinger's writing, she observes that his voice in person is Holden Caulfield's voice, only not so kind. In her account, the contempt for everything and everyone "phony" that in the teen-age Holden betokened a kind of hopeful idealism seems in the older Salinger rigid to the point of cruelty.
Maynard bought her house in Marin County two years ago. It sits on the steep side of a woody hill; from her deck you can see Mount Tamalpais. One wall of Maynard's living room -- the wall she faces when she is sitting at her computer, working -- is hung with 24 brightly colored masks. Maynard has always felt these masks to be a benevolent presence while she writes, and she recently realized that they represent her readers to her.
Maynard's relationship with her readers is extremely close. One flew her family around in his private plane. Another recently asked her to officiate at her marriage. Several have lent her their homes to write in. When she left New Hampshire for California two years ago, Maynard invited her readers to a tag sale, and some traveled from distant parts of the country to attend. Many keep in almost daily contact with her through her Web site (www.joycemaynard.com), on which Maynard posts bulletins about her life and exchanges messages with readers. Occasionally, she posts a note to explain why she cannot have coffee with absolutely everyone who wants to meet her: "A man wrote me from prison, to say my stories about my kids and my family were the one lifeline he had to the outside world. I wrote back with a picture of my children. He wrote back to say he'd come to visit us -- maybe fix the wiring in my house and paint it, maybe marry me -- as soon as he got out on parole. For the brutal murder of his parents, I learned." Still, those who check in regularly can learn, at a virtual remove, what Joyce's children are doing, what she's been cooking lately and where she's going on vacation.
One longtime Joyce watcher, a television producer in New York, explained to me by E-mail: "She's the literary equivalent of 'The Truman Show' or Princess Diana -- we've watched Joyce grow up with us. It's my favorite soap opera: 'Joyce's Life."'
Writers who write (or seem to be writing) about themselves tend to provoke very personal responses from their readers. To some, such responses are irritating, intrusive mistakes. After the publication of "Leaves of Grass," Walt Whitman received a letter from a woman who, heeding his expressions of lavish desire for his readers, offered herself up to the poet as the fleshy, sexual partner he appeared to be seeking. Whitman wrote back to her in chagrin and some disgust, explaining that he had not meant his poem to be taken literally. Maynard might have responded differently. It's not that she wants sex from her readers, exactly -- but she does look to them, and has come to depend upon them, for love and reassurance. This is, of course, precisely the relationship to her public that Salinger warned Maynard to avoid, because praise can tempt a reader to repeat himself. But for Maynard, writing per se has never been the point.
Maynard doesn't see herself as a "literary" author. She calls herself a "journeyman writer," and an "entrepreneur." She has produced three novels, the most successful of which -- "To Die For" -- was made into a movie, but most of her time has been spent turning out articles for money. She wrote about getting breast implants for Self and then, four years later, about having them taken out again. When she had an abortion, she paid for it by writing about it for Redbook. She is not embarrassed by this. "I've assessed sports bras," she shrugs. "I've written about what the best ride is at Disney World. Last year, Willy wanted to go to tennis camp, so I got a job -- this was really a new level -- as the spokesperson for Diaper Genie. There was a time when my husband, Steve, and I were $10,000 in debt from uninsured medical expenses -- my daughter had broken her arm, we had two babies in diapers and I just didn't know what I was going to do -- and that was the moment I thought, I have a trade, a trade that I can ply as much as if I were a carpenter.
"It troubles me that people speak about writing for money as ugly and distasteful. During that first flurry of criticism of this book, all kinds of people said, 'Oh, she's doing it for the money.' And I thought, Well of course I get paid! Imagine someone suggesting that a doctor shouldn't get paid!" (Maynard received a low-six-figure advance for the book from Picador U.S.A.)
"But I have to say," she continues, "there was no amount of money that could have persuaded me to write this story at any other stage of my life. I've had some very desperate money times over the years, but it was just never an option. And it wouldn't be something I'd get into now if I didn't feel that it was the right thing to do."
In 1986, Maynard published a collection of her syndicated newspaper columns in a book, cutely titled "Domestic Affairs: Enduring the Pleasures of Motherhood and Family Life." On the cover is a photograph of Maynard and her three children standing in front of their old home in New Hampshire. Maynard's eyes are red, and her mouth is drawn together in a tight half-smile. She looks awful. The cartoonish sweetness of her face is somehow exaggerated and made grotesque by her miserable, hopeless expression. She has just been crying, because her husband refused to be in the picture. The children look restless, glancing off in different directions. The camera is down near Maynard's knees as though it is another child at whom Maynard is gazing in mute apology.
This cover was appropriate. In her column, Maynard tended to portray her life as a homey sitcom, each installment representing a lovable mistake made and a lesson humbly learned. But all the while, her marriage to Steve Bethel, an artist, was disintegrating. "A good home must be made, not bought," she wrote in one typically precious column. "In the end, it's not track lighting or a sun room that brings light into a kitchen."
It's easy to make fun of essays like this. And yet there is something movingly quixotic about Maynard's failed attempt to make her painful, messy, unflattering life, through her columns, into happy television. She wasn't wrong, either, about what was required of her: after her separation announcement, 20-odd newspapers discontinued her column on the grounds that, as far as family matters were concerned, she was no longer fit to comment.
Maynard was taught to write by her mother, a frustrated intellectual who in her middle years took to writing on family topics for women's magazines. In her articles, Fredelle, too, tended to render her life "the way it should have happened," as she used to put it. "To get the rhythm of a sentence, she would sacrifice authenticity every time," Maynard recalls fondly. Her husband, Max, a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, was an alcoholic, but his drinking was never discussed. It is to the emotional consequences of concealing this shame that Maynard attributes her subsequent need for self-exposure.
Maynard's current book is a departure from her habitual college-application-essay style. She set out to write it very plainly, and she certainly did. There's barely an adjective in the entire thing. There's none of the murky texture of memory; her story is presented as immediate, undigested experience in the present tense. "I didn't want to tell a reader what to think of any of this," Maynard explains. "I wanted people to live through it." This is, of course, just another variety of self-deception. But, oddly enough, it works. She has, as she intended, let herself rip, and while Maynard diluted can be cloying, Maynard at full strength -- in her very shamelessness; in the unrelenting thoroughness of her self-exposure; in her determination not only to tell the truth but to tear it open and eviscerate it and squeeze it until it is bled dry -- is surprisingly powerful.
It is unlikely, however, that this change of style will be appreciated. Maynard is no longer as famous as she once was, but ask anyone of roughly her age who grew up in this country, and he will not only know who she is -- but chances are he will react to her name with startling venom. Perhaps to them it still seems like only yesterday that, as teen-agers, they picked up that issue of The New York Times Magazine with Maynard on the cover and wondered, Why isn't that me?
The degree of derision Maynard inspires is astonishing. Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post complains that, reading Maynard's work, "you may . . . find yourself struggling to comprehend self-infatuation so vast and reckless that the victim cannot imagine a detail of her life so minute or trivial as to be of no interest to everyone else on this planet." Writes a former Yale classmate of hers, Alex Beam, in Slate, "She has hacked her way through three decades wrapped in a delusion torn from the Oliver Sacks casebook: The Woman Who Mistook Herself for Someone Interesting." An odd confusion runs through much of this criticism: in their hurry to condemn Maynard for imagining that the trivial details of her life are interesting, her critics tend to veer into claiming that trivial details of life in general are not interesting. In the world of Maynard criticism, it can seem as though the novel never existed.
Maynard has been attacked like this her entire career, but she still gets infuriated. "If people choose to live their life in a way that does not confront the more troubling aspects of their experience," she says, "that's fine, if it works for them. But it will probably make them uncomfortable if they come up against somebody like me. So they just shouldn't! They shouldn't read my work!"
A few years ago in New York, the writer Francine du Plessix Gray gave a talk about her forthcoming biography of Louise Colet -- a poet and a lover of Flaubert's. Flaubert did not come off well in Gray's account, and among the caddish acts of which she held him guilty was his hurtful caricaturing of Colet in the character of Emma Bovary. Upon hearing this theory, the Daily News columnist Stanley Crouch stood up in the back of the room. Writers write about people they know, he protested, and they do so in ways that are humiliating, nasty, inaccurate and unfair. That's what writers do.
Is the case of Maynard and Salinger any different? Yes -- but not because of Salinger's love of privacy. Many people value their privacy, and there's no reason to privilege Salinger's simply because, since he is famous, he is obliged to resort to baroque means to protect it. Nor is this case different because Maynard is writing autobiography rather than fiction: a fictional portrait can be every bit as transparent and damaging as a nonfictional one. No, the reason this case seems different from Flaubert's is simply that here, Salinger is the better writer.
Imagine the positions reversed. Maynard is the recluse, Salinger the memoirist. Offered a memoir by one of America's great writers, who would shed a tear for the violated privacy of Joyce Maynard, purveyor of minor novels and contributor to women's magazines?
Puzzling loss of parent unravels, clouds family
Reviewed by Reyhan Harmanci, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, June 26, 2005
The Cloud Chamber
By Joyce Maynard
SIMON & SCHUSTER; $16.95, 274 PAGES; FOR AGES 11-14
In "The Cloud Chamber," author Joyce Maynard shows her skill at inhabiting one of the most confusing mental spaces on the planet -- the mind of a recently traumatized adolescent boy.
As in her previous, award-winning young adult novel, "The Usual Rules," in which the young protagonist lost her mother in one of the Sept. 11 attacks, Maynard shows how the loss of a parent can unravel a family and force children to grow up fast. Coincidence that the rush into adulthood is also the dominant theme of Maynard's own life, as chronicled in "At Home in the World"? Probably not.
Maynard's career has been defined by her strange trajectory, as she became famous at 18 for her autobiographical essay published in the New York Times Magazine and even more famous at 19 for her relationship with legendary weirdo J.D. Salinger. Maynard also showed a scary grasp of the teenage boy vernacular in "To Die For," her fictionalized account of the relationship between a troubled boy and an ambitious small-town reporter.
"The Cloud Chamber" is far less tawdry than most of her previous works. Our hero, Nate Chance, is a normal 14-year-old living in rural Montana, who comes home from school one day to find two police cars and an ambulance parked in the front yard. He sees his father, bloody, taken away in an ambulance. He overhears people whispering about gunshots. He is instructed to take his younger sister, Junie, into the house and refrain from asking any questions. Understandably, his confusion turns to frustration as no one will talk about what happened.
The cloud around Nate's head doesn't lift. Maynard drags out revealing the facts of Nate's father's shooting to both the audience and Nate while she builds the story of his family.
Carl Chance was a dreamer, a dedicated father who lost his spark when a rogue hailstorm wiped out his last chance to make a good crop of hay and avoid defaulting on the loan for his small farm. His carelessness frustrated his wife and occasionally put his kids in danger (letting Junie ride the pulley from the roof of the barn to the house was not a great idea, for instance, as she smacked the side of the building like a bird hitting a window). In his greatest act of familial betrayal, he shot himself in the head. As his wife's father remarked, though, even then he didn't do a thorough job. He wound up in a mental hospital.
Nate learns most of the story through sly comments around the schoolyard. He and his sister get ostracized by the other kids; nothing is crueler than the immediate social imperatives of adolescent school life. He finds one thing to pin his hopes on: building a cloud chamber for the school science fair. Only after winning the fair, he bargains with himself, can he find a way to visit his father.
The cloud chamber itself, unfortunately, takes up a large chunk of the book. Maynard clearly reaches for a symbolic relationship between Nate, his father, his life and the chamber ( a device invented to detect cosmic rays by creating a vapor trail of charged ions). It's a complicated connection, though, and many younger readers might skim over the science.
Maynard is a very good writer, and it's worth suffering through often tedious descriptions of the construction of the cloud chamber for her moving portrait of a family on the edge of ruin. Her skill is revealed in the details, which ring true. Take, for instance, a scene in which Nate is trying to persuade his increasingly withdrawn mother to come out to dinner:
" 'Maybe some other time,' Mom said, placing a couple of pieces of silverware in the cutlery drawer, as if in slow motion.
" 'Yeah, right,' Nate said. The bitter, disgusted tone of his voice took even him by surprise.
"It was as if he'd punched her. 'It's hard for me ...,' she began, so softly he could barely hear her.
"Something came over him then, like he was in his old Soap Box Derby car, heading down Spengler's Hill with no brakes. He couldn't stop himself.
" 'You think it isn't hard for the rest of us?' he said. 'You think you're the only one with a problem?'
" 'You never do anything," he spat out. 'You just mope around all day, leaving it to the rest of us to take care of everything.' "
By showing how Nate loses control and lashes out at his mother, Maynard accurately portrays the kind of stress the family is under.
The story is set in the '60s; no way would any such story taking place now neglect to mention the option of therapy to deal with trauma. No one here talks about their feelings. No one considers putting the mother on antidepressants. No, the Chances find their situation too overwhelming to process. Breakthroughs come in fits and starts, as Junie and Nate struggle to keep themselves afloat.
As the narrative moves toward a meeting between Nate and his father, the feeling turns toward hope. Nate grows throughout the book in a variety of ways; he ignores his schoolmate's taunts, he makes peace with his mother, he takes care of his sister and he even finds a way to see his father (who, it turns out, isn't exactly able to see him.) The ending isn't Hollywood schmaltz -- there are no guarantees the Chances' luck will turn, just the determination to move forward.
Joyce Maynard would like people to forget about her affair, please
Her latest book is a true-crime story that taps into an obsession of hers -- the bitter family secrets that may lie beneath a seemingly happy exterior
Justin Berton, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, October 28, 2006
Joyce Maynard began a reading for her new book, "Internal Combustion," Sunday afternoon with a quick story about her affair with J.D. Salinger. Maynard likes to talk about her 10-month relationship with the famous author, and when she began to wind down ("He handed me a $50 bill and told me to go away"), it was clear the past was threatening to upstage Maynard's current work.
"You may notice I'm not talking about 'Internal Combustion' yet," she said to laughs from the 20 people in the audience, mostly women. "But I will. That's the book I want you to buy today."
At 52, and after more than three decades of writing, Joyce Maynard still draws crowds -- on gorgeous, Sunday afternoons in the fall, no less -- to witness, mostly, the event that is Joyce Maynard. Judging by those waiting in line for a signature afterward, it's inconsequential that Maynard has a new book out, a true account of a Detroit woman who hatchets her husband to death. There's the 15-year-old girl who'd read "The Usual Rules" and "The Cloud Chamber," Maynard's young adult novels, and wanted to tell the author she was her favorite writer; the 50-year-old woman who recalled Maynard's stage debut 30 years ago as a Yale student, and asked her to "keep on writing"; the man who complimented her novel "To Die For," which was turned into the movie starring Nicole Kidman; the middle-aged woman who had Maynard sign "At Home in the World," the memoir that recounts her time in 1972-73 with Salinger, but also mentioned her own divorce and how Joyce's life had mirrored hers in many ways.
Ever since she wrote "An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life" for the New York Times Magazine in 1972 (and earned a fan letter from Salinger), Baby Boomers have followed Maynard's trips through (to name a few) dating, marriage, motherhood, abortion, rape, divorce, pie making, the death of both parents -- and always in unflinching, unapologetic prose that usually leaves Maynard's critics reaching for the word "shameless" to describe her.
Just last week, Maynard, who has three grown children, wrote for salon.com about her miscarriage, which occurred as she neared age 40. "I went to the bathroom, felt a cramp more severe than any of the others, and looked in the toilet to see a little clot of blood," Maynard wrote. "I dipped my hand into the water and lifted out a clump of something. I figured I knew what it must be, and didn't want to flush. I carried it to my garden and, though the ground was frozen, dug a little hole, patted the earth over it, and -- finally -- allowed the tears to come. No need to keep my appointment for the abortion."
After the reading in Corte Madera, Maynard drove 15 minutes to her Mill Valley hills home, where she's lived for a decade. She'd spent the past two years flying between Detroit and San Francisco, doing reporting for "Internal Combustion," and also kept busy with stage appearances for Moth Story Tour of New York, where she told stories about her faulty breast implants (paid for with inheritance money after her mother died) and her literary correspondence with prisoners. After this book tour ends, she said, she'd be happy to put "Internal Combustion" to rest.
"Every night for two years I've been going to bed with the Nancy Seamen character in my head," Maynard said. "It's not a pleasant way to go to sleep."
Seaman was the fourth-grade teacher who killed her husband, Bob, in 2004, placed his body parts in the back of the family Ford Explorer and calmly returned to work. Maynard said she was inspired by Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" and had been seeking to write a true-crime piece that matched one of her obsessions: examining the dark family secrets that exist beneath a happy exterior.
Yet unlike Capote's immersion into the killers' lives, Maynard missed the trial (save for the closing argument) and Nancy Seaman refused to talk to her. Reviewers have noted the lack of access, even suggesting that Maynard used the crime as a way to delve into her forte: herself. In the second half of the book, Maynard moves away from the crime scene and gets into the anger she felt toward her own husband.
As Maynard writes, "To look at us -- Nancy Seamen and me -- you would not have identified any particular source of common ground or kinship, but there was this: her marriage, like mine, had broken down irretrievably, leaving two sons (also a daughter, in my case) to witness the sad spectacle."
Yet, during the Q-and-A at her reading, an audience member complimented Maynard for weaving her life into Seaman's story. "The way you get this into your own life -- that's really what makes the book so good."
This kind of stark contrast between Maynard's fans and her critics wasn't so clear in the publishing wake of "At Home in the World," she recalled. Time magazine quipped that the best thing about the explosive book was that "we'll never hear from Joyce Maynard again."
In a particularly vitriolic rebuke, Slate columnist Alex Beam referred to Maynard as "The Woman Who Mistook Herself for Something Interesting" and lambasted her for "selling herself piece by piece." Maynard later auctioned the letters she received from Salinger. Software mogul Peter Norton purchased the correspondence for $156,000 and then returned them to the author.
Maynard, again to the dismay of Salinger's fans and those wishing she'd felt some shame, said flatly: "I wouldn't have done it if I didn't need the money."
"Why is being shameless -- without shame -- a bad thing?" Maynard asked at her home. "Then I like being shameless. I don't kick dogs, I don't hit children. But I do screw up -- welcome to the human race -- and then I write about it. I lived with shame; I won't now."
(In an e-mail, Beam wrote, "I can't think of anything I would say about her that I didn't write there. ... She's a good writer and a hard worker. It's not easy being out there on your own.")
Mary Roach, who got to know Maynard while they both had offices at the San Francisco Writers' Grotto, said she recalled a panel at 826 Valencia when Maynard asked how many people had heard she'd had an affair with Salinger, and all the hands went up. When she followed with how many had read the book, and knew her story, only one hand went up.
"It must be incredibly frustrating," Roach said. "It's bad enough when you're known for one book, or one thing, and she's got the added whammy of the Salinger affair -- everyone knows her for that. When the reality is, she's done so much more work and is a great writer."
"I could wish it didn't follow me everywhere," Maynard said. "It's certainly not the best, or most important thing I've done in my life, but it will follow me, yes, and when I die, it'll say, 'When she was 18 she slept with Salinger. When she was 45, she wrote about it.' It gets reduced to that, but I'm not going to be reduced to it."
At the end of her Sunday, Maynard was headed to another reading in Berkeley. She said that for all the heat she caught for writing about her relationship with Salinger, she's never met one of those critics in person. They don't come to her readings; they do their work in the comfort of such places as Internet chat rooms, from a safe distance.
As the years go by, the people who come to her readings are people who've connected with one of her self-examining pieces over the years, perhaps from one of the columns she wrote about parenthood, or perhaps a piece about her father's alcoholism. The body of work grows.
"It's a little strange for me," Maynard said, that "I'm considered an elder stateswoman now, because I've been 'The Kid' my whole career. ... There's a kind of satisfaction, now, that comes from endurance as a writer."
December 31, 2008
By CHARLES McGRATH
On Thursday, J. D. Salinger turns 90. There probably won’t be a party, or if there is we’ll never know. For more than 50 years Mr. Salinger has lived in seclusion in the small town of Cornish, N.H. For a while it used to be a journalistic sport for newspapers and magazines to send reporters up to Cornish in hopes of a sighting, or at least a quotation from a garrulous local, but Mr. Salinger hasn’t been photographed in decades now and the neighbors have all clammed up. He’s been so secretive he makes Thomas Pynchon seem like a gadabout.
Mr. Salinger’s disappearing act has succeeded so well, in fact, that it may be hard for readers who aren’t middle-aged to appreciate what a sensation he once caused. With its very first sentence, his novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” which came out in 1951, introduced a brand-new voice in American writing, and it quickly became a cult book, a rite of passage for the brainy and disaffected. “Nine Stories,” published two years later, made Mr. Salinger a darling of the critics as well, for the way it dismantled the traditional architecture of the short story and replaced it with one in which a story could turn on a tiny shift of mood or tone.
In the 1960s, though, when he was at the peak of his fame, Mr. Salinger went silent. “Franny and Zooey,” a collection of two long stories about the fictional Glass family, came out in 1961; two more long stories about the Glasses, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour: An Introduction,” appeared together in book form in 1963. The last work of Mr. Salinger’s to appear in print was “Hapworth 16, 1924,” a short story that took up most of the June 19, 1965, issue of The New Yorker. In the ’70s he stopped giving interviews, and in the late ’80s he went all the way to the Supreme Court to block the British critic Ian Hamilton from quoting his letters in a biography.
So what has Mr. Salinger been doing for the last 40 years? The question obsesses Salingerologists, of whom there are still a great many, and there are all kinds of theories. He hasn’t written a word. Or he writes all the time and, like Gogol at the end of his life, burns the manuscripts. Or he has volumes and volumes just waiting to be published posthumously.
Joyce Maynard, who lived with Mr. Salinger in the early ’70s, wrote in a 1998 memoir that she had seen shelves of notebooks devoted to the Glass family and believed there were at least two new novels locked away in a safe.
“Hapworth,” which has never been published in book form, may be our only clue to what Mr. Salinger is thinking, and it’s unlike anything else he has written. The story used to be available only in samizdat — photocopies of photocopies passed along from hand to hand and becoming blurrier with each recopying — though it has become somewhat more accessible since the 2005 DVD edition of “The Complete New Yorker.” In 1997 Mr. Salinger agreed to let Orchises Press, a small publisher in Alexandria, Va., bring out a hardcover edition, but five years later he backed out of the deal.
Ever since, Salinger fans have been poring over the text, looking for hidden meaning. Did the author’s temporary willingness to reissue “Hapworth” indicate a throat-clearing, a warming up of the famously silent machinery? Or was it instead an act of closure, a final binding-up of the Glass family saga — one that, coming last but also at the chronological beginning, brings the whole enterprise full circle?
“Hapworth,” to summarize the unsummarizable, is a letter — or rather a transcription of a letter — 25,000 words, written in haste, by the 7-year old Seymour Glass, away at summer camp, to his parents, the long-suffering ex-vaudevillians Les and Bessie, and his siblings Walt, Waker and Boo Boo, back in New York.
Seymour, we learn, is already reading several languages and lusting after Mrs. Happy, the young wife of the camp owner. He condescends to his campmates and dispenses advice to the various members of the family: Les should be careful about his accent when singing, Boo Boo needs to practice her handwriting, Walt his manners, and so on.
The letter concludes with an extraordinary annotated list of books Seymour would like sent to him — a lifetime of reading for most people, but in his case merely the books he needs to get through the next six weeks: “Any unbigoted or bigoted books on God or merely religion, as written by persons whose last names begin with any letter after H; to stay on the safe side, please include H itself, though I think I have mostly exhausted it. ... The complete works again of Count Leo Tolstoy. ... Charles Dickens, either in blessed entirety or in any touching shape or form. My God, I salute you, Charles Dickens!” And so on, all the way through Proust — in French, naturally — Goethe, and Porter Smith’s “Chinese Materia Medica.”
“Hapworth,” in short, must be the longest, most pretentious (and least plausible) letter from camp ever written. But though it’s the work of a prodigy, it’s also, like all camp letters, a homesick cry for attention.
Its author is the same Seymour who, while on his honeymoon in Florida years later (but — it gets confusing — 17 years earlier in real time, in the 1948 short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”), will take an automatic pistol from the bottom of his suitcase and shoot himself through the temple as his bride lies napping in the twin bed next to him. And the same Seymour — the family saint, poet and mystic — whom we’ve heard about at such length in the later Glass stories.
Or is he the same? The Seymour of “Bananafish,” and “Raise High the Roof Beam,” is more a sweetly charming neurotic than the ethereal, otherworldly figure described in “Seymour: An Introduction,” who in turn seems not in the least like the superior, boastful little genius of “Hapworth.” The discrepancies among the various versions of Seymour is such that some critics have questioned the motives and reliability of Buddy, Seymour’s younger brother and the family scribe, who is our source for much of what we know (and also the transcriber of the “Hapworth” letter).
But that kind of tricky, Nabokovian reading feels forced in this case. Mr. Salinger seems less interested in keeping the details straight than in getting them right and offering some explanation, or justification perhaps, for that moment, still startling even after many rereadings, when Seymour blows his brains out. It’s as if Mr. Salinger realized, belatedly, that he had prematurely killed his best character and wanted to make it up to him.
And at some point, it seems fair to say, he fell in love with this project — not just with Seymour but with the whole clan. Who can blame him? The Glasses are one of the liveliest, funniest, most fully realized families in all of fiction. The trouble is that like a lot of families, they occasionally take themselves too seriously and presume to lecture the rest of the world. In the early ’60s, as a certain amount of sentimental and half-baked mysticism began to be spouted by some of the younger Glasses, the critics quickly turned on Mr. Salinger, and “Hapworth” was grumpily dismissed.
What makes “Hapworth” so fascinating, though, is that it’s the only work of Mr. Salinger’s in which the voice is not secure, as the young Seymour fidgets first with one tone and then with another — by turns earnest, anxious, playful and sarcastic. In effect he’s always revising himself. He worries about his spirituality and then skewers his fellow campers. He wants to be like Jesus, and he wants to sleep with Mrs. Happy. He yearns to be left alone, and is desperate to be noticed. He wants to be a saint, and even if he can’t quite admit it yet, he wants to be a great author. Intentionally or not, he seems like a projection of his creator.
In general what has dated most in Mr. Salinger’s writing is not the prose — much of the dialogue, in the stories especially and in the second half of “Franny and Zooey,” still seems brilliant and fresh — but the ideas. Mr. Salinger’s fixation on the difference between “phoniness,” as Holden Caulfield would put it, and authenticity now has a twilight, ’50s feeling about it. It’s no longer news, and probably never was.
This is the theme, though, that comes increasingly to dominate the Glass chronicles: the unsolvable problem of ego and self-consciousness, of how to lead a spiritual life in a vulgar, material society. The very thing that makes the Glasses, and Seymour especially, so appealing to Mr. Salinger — that they’re too sensitive and exceptional for this world — is also what came to make them irritating to so many readers.
Another way to pose the Glass problem is: How do you make art for an audience, or a critical establishment, too crass to understand it? This is the issue that caused Seymour to give up, presumably, and one is tempted to say it’s what soured Mr. Salinger on wanting to see anything else in print.
Sadly, though, Mr. Salinger’s spiritual side is his least convincing. His gift is less for profundity than for observation, for listening and for comedy. Except perhaps for Mark Twain, no other American writer has registered with such precision the humor — and the pathos — of false sophistication and the vital banality of big-city pretension.
For all his reclusiveness, moreover, Mr. Salinger has none of the sage’s self-effacement; his manner is a big and showy one, given to tours-de-force and to large emotional gestures. In spite of his best efforts to silence himself or become a seer, he remains an original and influential stylist — the kind of writer the mature Seymour (but not necessarily the precocious 7-year-old) would probably deplore.
A Tale of Two Sisters: Joyce and Rona Maynard
By Joyce and Rona Maynard
After 30 years at odds, Joyce and Rona Maynard confront each other in writing — and make amends
(For Rona's side of the story, pick up a copy of the September issue of MORE, on newsstands now.)
Here's a situation that comes up surprisingly often in my life: I make a friend. We come to know each other pretty well. Months pass -- longer, even -- before the following piece of information comes out: I have a sister, four years older than I -- the one remaining relative from my family of origin, the only one who will ever understand what it meant to have our mother and father as parents, the one person on this planet who remembers the day of my birth. And still, my sister and I speak so seldom, I don't know her telephone number by heart.
"You never mentioned her before," my no-longer-very-new-friend will say.
I haven't asked my sister if this is true for her, but I doubt she speaks of me any more often than I do of her, though the space she occupies for me -- or maybe it's the space left by her absence in my life -- has been vast. "You two had a falling out?" my friend may ask. No, I say. Not that. Or rather, that part is over.
"I love my sister," I always explain. "But we're different. She lives far away." I'm not just speaking of miles here. Even when we lived in the same house, a gulf separated Rona and me. And in an odd way, the same things that link us -- our blood and our history -- are what divide us now. We know too much. We are each, for the other, a reminder of where we came from and the family that shaped our lives.
Memory plays a huge part in our story. It's not so much that we have different memories of our childhood as that my sister remembers things I do not. Even when we were quite young, Rona had an amazing ability to hold on to the smallest details of events and stories: whole conversations, paintings on walls, but most of all, feelings -- particularly the painful ones. I have a good memory too, but strangely mine began to sharpen only in adult life. For me, the years of our growing up are a hazy blur, where for her, certain moments of childhood are illuminated with the shattering intensity of a lightning bolt.
So we are two women four years apart in age, in possession of radically different pictures of what took place in our family. Maybe it's simple chance -- the accident of our different natures -- that accounts for this. Maybe it's the fact that she came first and that her role as the frequently contrary worrier left me with the obligation to be who she was not: the sunbeam to compensate for her darkness.
I was famously affectionate -- leaping on the lap of whichever parent appeared to need a little love -- while Rona was known for her distaste for human touch. "Hot face," she had said once when she was small, when one of our parents bent to hold her.
I was a joker and a flirt; my sister was serious and shy. I could be sneaky and egotistical; she was honest and pure. Accurate or not, the list that characterized us as opposites went on and on. She would make trouble with our troubled father; I would make him happy, or try to.
I can never enter the story of our family without first laying one card on the table, a card that determined how the rest of the deck would play out. Our father was an alcoholic. And there's this fact, as difficult to deal with as the first, more so in many ways: For all the years the four of us lived together in a house where our father got drunk almost every night, we never mentioned it.
When you have grown up in a home where trouble lurked, there is little motivation to revisit the old days. For me, painful memories are less of a problem, because I possess so few, but for Rona, the territory of childhood is a haunted house. I am all that remains of a life she has worked hard to leave behind. I am the scent that hung in the air while soldiers ransacked the village, the sole surviving witness.
For decades, I pursued my sister and grieved over what we didn't have with each other. I wanted her to invite me to visit, know my children, ask about my life, tell me about hers. I looked enviously at friends who took trips with their sisters and spent hours on the phone together, and felt the chill wind of my sister's reluctance to seek me out. The sister I wanted was not the sister she wanted to be.
Although insufficiency of love from our parents was never the issue, the home where we grew up was filled with uneasiness and fear. My father's depression, my mother's frustration over her stalled career, their doomed marriage, all lay like a thick fog over our household. Our parents' lives had disappointed them. They looked to us -- "the girls" -- to make everything right.
My sister rebelled. I acquiesced. When I think of my childhood, the image that first comes to mind is of a smiling face. I drew them a lot. The smile was so much a part of my identity in our family that on the rare occasions when my lips didn't turn upward, our mother would put one finger into each corner of my mouth and move them into position for me -- while, off in some corner, Rona looked on. From the scant record of our childhoods provided by family photographs, I cannot summon a single image of my sister smiling.
I had friends and school activities, but my main energy in childhood went into making our parents happy. I put on shows in our living room: acting, dancing, singing. Every day, I drew cards for our parents, reminding them of what they meant to me -- which was everything. I started every morning by jumping into our mother's bed (she slept alone) to cuddle with her -- a practice that continued for way too many years, according to my sister's memory. As for Rona, I guess she hung back, cringing.
I used to look at my sister sometimes -- see her arguing with our father or retreating wordlessly to her room to play her guitar or read -- and I'd wonder why she'd want to make life difficult when it was so easy to make things nice. What did it cost a person to climb up on her mother's lap and stroke her hair, or reach for her father's hand and suggest they take a bike ride together? (Forty years later, I might provide an answer to my own question and say, It could cost plenty. But back then, Rona's refusal to play the game only baffled me.)
I used to ask myself, why isn't she nicer to me? Now I look back, imagining the scene as she must have viewed it, and see readily all the things that must have driven her crazy. There is probably nobody less lovable to an older sibling than a younger one who is so busy being cute.
Here's the story I always tell of how the relationship between my sister and me began. Rona was four years old when I was born. Our mother -- herself the younger of two sisters, four years apart, who never enjoyed a good relationship with each other -- came up with the idea of defusing potential trauma to her elder daughter by allowing her to pick the new baby's name.
A highly precocious child and lover of Greek mythology, Rona chose her favorite name, Daphne, for her baby sister. And so that was the name given to me; it is the name on my birth certificate.
Two days after our parents brought me home from the hospital, my sister changed her mind without explanation. Forever after, I went by my middle name, Joyce, though it was three decades later that she explained to me the reason for her change of heart.
One of the many things I admire about my sister is her scrupulous, sometimes painful, honesty. "I realized once I saw you," she finally told me, "that the last name I'd want you to have would be my favorite."
I have no memory of resenting my sister when we were young, but I guess she resented me. I do know there was always the sense of competition, the need to be what only one of us could: the star. Children of two brilliant but unhappy people, we became the repositories of our parents' dreams. The pressure was on: Which of us would deliver the prize -- paint the best pictures, get into the best college, create the most dazzling life for herself?
We were always writing, and maybe that's where the competition began in earnest. When she was 14 or so, my sister -- prodded by our mother -- entered a national writing competition and won the first of what would ultimately be a series of top awards. As soon as I was old enough to enter, I did the same. And although in theory the kids with whom I would compete were the ones in my age group, my real competition, I knew, lived at my address.
There is seldom room for two champions in one family. Venus and Serena Williams hit the prizes back and forth across the net for a while; Dear Abby and Ann Landers each had her own newspaper syndication deal. More often, the story of sisters and their accomplishments features one who gets the greater glory and the other, who lives back in the shadows, such as Carly Simon and her two singing sisters, Lucy and Joanna (names known only to someone like me, who follows sister stories with obsessive attention).
In our case, I was the one who appeared to take the prize early. Rona was always the more serious student (she read constantly; I watched television), but she failed to deliver to our mother the great dream of admission to Radcliffe. I can picture well enough why. Her essay would have been brilliant, her grades high. But there must have come a moment when some interviewer asked the question, "How do you feel about attending our college?" and my ruthlessly honest sister would have furrowed her brow, expressing what she always felt: extreme ambivalence.
I, on the other hand -- as versed as the most skillful politician in how to say exactly what was wanted, whether or not it was true -- sailed off to Yale on a big scholarship. Mysteriously, for a person who had seemed so aloof and so completely uninterested in children, my sister married young (on her twenty-first birthday) and almost immediately got pregnant. The same year that she delivered her son, I trumped her -- unintentionally, but no doubt the effect was devastating: An article I'd written for a magazine was picked up by a publisher who gave me a contract to write a book. Rona was broke, unemployed, carrying the extra baby weight and home with a son she wasn't sure she knew what to do with. I was making lots of money, off in New York and, in my sister's view anyway, the toast of the town.
Perhaps the cruelest irony lay in another part of my story: What should arrive in my mailbox but a letter of admiration from the one writer whose voice had seemed to be speaking to Rona throughout her adolescence: J. D. Salinger. For her, Catcher in the Rye was the Bible. I'd been too busy dancing around our living room to ever read the book.
Then, suddenly, I was corresponding with Salinger. Then I was paying him a visit. Then I was dropping out of Yale to live with him.
At the time, Rona said little about any of this and never voiced her pain at the attention coming my way. Never said much about the other part either: that she recognized trouble and was worried about me, as our mother, who voiced only approval, should have been. Our father was simply too far gone to liquor to weigh in at all.
So often, the story of my sister and me has been one of signals missed, of feelings registered but never expressed. Only a year before I dropped out of Yale, I'd begged our parents to let me come with them to Rona's hastily planned wedding. Our mother had told me it was more important not to miss school. At the time, Rona knew only that her sole sibling didn't show up.
Now, as I dropped out of college at 18, my sister alone registered the thing I'd wanted from her all my life -- tender concern -- but though she wrote stern words on the subject to our mother, to me she said nothing. Only Rona anticipated the disaster that happened when my relationship with Salinger came crashing down less than a year later.
When that day came, though -- and grief overtook me in a way that took years to recover from -- I didn't turn to my sister.
Eventually I married and had children of my own. Still later, I divorced and moved to the West Coast. Wrote books Rona never mentioned reading. Bought a house she never saw.
Once, a reunion of our mother's extended family was held not far from my home. My sister stopped by my house for the briefest of visits before moving on to spend the weekend with relatives we'd barely met.
I had love affairs. Her marriage endured. She made a highly successful career as the editor of a leading women's magazine in Canada. Our father died; we saw each other briefly at the funeral. More and more, as Rona and I built our separate lives -- in separate countries, even -- we found our sense of ourselves at least in part by forging our independence from each other.
When you are no longer known as "the girls," comparisons can fall away at last. To my friends who knew me only in the years since leaving home, I was no longer "the flighty, impulsive sister"; she was no longer the melancholy and fearful one. We were simply Rona and Joyce, and as much as I missed a sister in my life -- and not only a sister, but my sister -- there was a relief in that.
Of all the hopes I held for my own children's lives, none was greater than this: that they would be, for each other, the kind of siblings my sister and I had never been. I gave birth to my second child when my daughter was four years old but never for a moment considered giving her the option of naming him. The morning after his birth, when our daughter came downstairs to find her newborn brother in our bed, she bent tenderly over his head and said, simply, "My dream came true."
Rona and I made our own families -- flawed in all kinds of ways, but neither of us re-created the pattern of our parents that had set us on such a difficult course with each other. (My sister avoided the problem altogether by having one child.) I didn't become, for Rona's son, the kind of aunt I would have liked to be. She didn't become that for my children either.
Then, 18 years ago, we were thrown together again, in the saddest way. Our strong, seemingly irrepressible mother (divorced from our father by then and happily remarried, having left New Hampshire for Toronto) was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and given weeks to live. The moment I heard the diagnosis, I left the United States and moved to our mother's house.
As always, Rona and I approached the same situation in radically different ways. I wanted to cook for our mother, race around fixing things, make her happy. My sister, plunged in grief, manifested it in her way, not mine, stopping by at the end of her workday for quiet talks.
Looking back at that time now, over the four months that were our mother's last on Earth, I can recognize the signs of trouble.
Years before, on one of our rare visits, when I ended up feeling, as I always did, rejected by my sister, I had asked Rona if maybe she didn't even love me.
"No, it's not that," she'd said, slowly, as if actually considering this possibility before rejecting it. "It's just that you . . . take up . . . so . . . much . . . space."
Now, as if someone had put on a rerun of a show you hated the first time around, I was at it again: invading my sister's territory; crashing into her world, the place she had finally found to carve out her life, free from her infuriating little sister. We were 35 and 39 that summer, but we might as well have been five and nine.
From the moment I arrived in Toronto, I was impossibly domestic -- cutting flowers, baking pies, messing up the kitchen. I was impetuous, imprudent -- taking our mother on walks to the park, one of which resulted in her falling on the stairs. ("But she needs to see the flowers," I protested. "But you weren't being safe," my sister responded. Not yelling, never yelling.)
Partway through that long summer of loss, I returned home briefly to see my husband and children. While I was there, a telegram arrived from Sydney, our mother's husband. The telegram informed me that I would no longer be allowed to stay at my mother's house and take care of her, assuming that I wanted to return to Toronto, which I did. A professional nurse and a cook had been hired to replace me. Neighbors across the street were willing to put me up in their spare room. I could come see my mother twice a day -- hours specified -- for no more than 60 minutes per visit. And one more thing: no more baking.
When I was able at last to breathe normally, I picked up the phone. For perhaps the first time in my life, I was turning to my sister for reassurance and support. I was sure she would tell our stepfather how crazy and cruel his ideas were.
But when I told her what had happened, her words left me with a despair as terrible as any I had known over those long months of watching our mother die.
"Actually, Joyce," she said, "I agree with Sydney's position. This was my idea too."
There it is. The hardest story. Eighteen years later, I can finally tell it without tears, though I will always deeply regret that I was not present at our mother's bedside when she died.
For years after, I could barely speak to Rona, I was so hurt by what had happened. But eventually, it was my knowledge that I had only one sister, and that the two of us were all that remained, that forced me to come out of my room, finally, and knock on her door. I suspect it was much the same for her when she opened it.
With other people I have loved in my life, when a situation comes up in which great pain has occurred, I have chosen to talk about it, to sit down with them and lay everything on the table. Cry perhaps. Maybe we'd raise our voices. Dive into the wave, I would say, to get past the breaking point.
With Rona, I knew, we would move differently past the scars. We both knew what happened. What more was there to do?
There was one thing to do, actually, but it was a solitary act. I tried, as never before, to imagine I was my sister: a person who experiences life so differently from me, and always has. I imagined that I was Rona, watching me come into our mother's house that summer, seeing me move toward the bedroom, bending to stroke our mother's hair, to bathe her naked body. I saw the little girl she once was -- a "cool customer," our mother had sometimes called her -- out in the hall, alone, while I climbed under the sheets to embrace our love-starved mother.
And then I saw myself as the little girl I once was too, feeling a desperate need to fix things the only way I knew how, with my own body. There were no criminals in this story: not 50 years ago, or 18 years ago, or now. There were only two girls who wanted to find their place in the only family they'd known.
MY SISTER IS, as I have often said, the only one left who remembers the moment of my birth. It is a fact that came up not so long ago, actually. My daughter (a young woman whose brothers keep her number programmed in their phones, a fact I love) had decided she wanted to draw up my astrological chart.
"What time of day were you born?" Audrey asked me. I shook my head. No idea. And so, with both my parents dead, it looked as though our efforts to plot my place in the stars would be thwarted forever.
This happened the week before my birthday, a few years ago -- one of the many days when my sister does not call me. But that particular year, a card arrived, precisely on November 5. Rona had written only one sentence inside: "I will be thinking of you at 6:32 PM." No one I've ever met has a memory to equal hers.
Updated Monday, Jan. 31, 2011, at 6:47 AM ET
By Blake Bailey
Where were you when J.D. Salinger died on Jan. 27, 2010? I can never forget: I was on the campus of William & Mary, trying to get a little work done before teaching my class, but people kept calling and e-mailing to ask whether I'd write Salinger's biography now that he was finally dead. The possibility had occurred to me (having published a biography of John Cheever, another New Yorker chronicler of postwar middle-class malaise), but only if I could get the family's approval in the form of a legally binding agreement.
Snooping into Salinger's life, after all, has always been a dicey business, as biographer Ian Hamilton learned to his enduring sorrow. Salinger v. Random House—the lawsuit brought to keep Hamilton from quoting Salinger's letters—resulted in a drastic overhaul of so-called "fair use" law, rendering the whole genre of unauthorized biography a lot less fun for everyone. (Reading a subsequent attempt by Paul Alexander, Salinger: A Biography, from 2000, is like skimming every stale, Googled rumor in chronological order.) But now that Salinger was dead, I e-mailed his son, Matthew, and asked whether he might be willing to cooperate on what I hoped would be a definitive account. "I don't think his lack of interest in such things depended on whether he was living or dead," Matthew replied, affably enough, and wished me luck on whatever else I was working on.
Just one year later, though, we have a new biography by Kenneth Slawenski, J.D. Salinger: A Life, and I dare say the cranky and elusive author of Catcher in the Rye might have been pleasantly surprised: Slawenski appears not to have pestered the family at all—or too many other people, for that matter, since he doesn't mention interviews, nor does he dwell overmuch on the less-than-flattering material that's already been unearthed about his subject. Creator of the Web site, DeadCaulfields.com, Slawenski is an unabashed fan, who has spent eight years sifting the few known facts of Salinger's life for the good bits, the gold—that is, the extenuating stuff. Too bad he missed the cache of some 50 letters from J.D. Salinger to a prewar friend, Donald Hartog, just made public by the University of East Anglia; they show him as a regular guy who traveled freely, ate at Burger King, and was generally quite likable with old, undemanding friends and strangers he met on the bus—people, in short, who weren't apt to treat him like J.D. Salinger.
But let's face it: For the most part, Salinger was a peculiar man who tended to make life very difficult for the few people who got close to him, and any serious biographer should be prepared to grapple with even the most gruesome facts. But that's precisely what Slawenski endeavors to avoid. For instance, you won't catch him emphasizing the connection between a) Salinger's preoccupation with sensitive, alienated young people in his fiction and b) his tendency to cultivate those same youngsters in real life. Slawenski deplores that kind of gossip, and has been commended in the press (so far) for his good manners. Joyce Maynard? Her story—told at harrowing length in her memoir, At Home in the World—gets a two-paragraph bum's rush on Page 397. In Slawenski's nutshell, Salinger made a few "poor decisions" in these later years, one of which was coaxing the 18-year-old Maynard—in 1972, when Salinger was 53—to live with him at his Cornish, N.H., retreat, until he got fed up and told her to go home. Nothing here about their ghastly sex life, no urine-drinking and so forth.
Indeed, toward the end of this tactful bowdlerization of Salinger's life, the poker-faced biographer professes to be appalled by the "bizarre tales and misinformation … that [Salinger] had been habitually infatuated with teenage girls." Define habitually. Over the years Maynard kept hearing from women who as teenagers were also wooed by the author's lapidary prose, and then there are further revelations in his daughter Peggy's memoir, Dream Catcher, from which Slawenski draws freely, if very selectively. I was taken aback to read that a 1968 trip to Scotland that Salinger took with his children was, according to Slawenski, little more than a light-hearted quest for locations featured in The 39 Steps, Salinger's (and Phoebe Caulfield's) favorite movie. "The only not so fun part of the trip," Peggy writes in her memoir, "was the main reason he had come over in the first place. He had been corresponding with a teenage girl, and things had blossomed into a pen pal romance. He was to meet her for the first time in person." However, as Salinger candidly explained to his 12-year-old daughter at the time, he'd found the Scottish girl "homely" and promptly lost interest.
The "homely" verdict seems at odds with perhaps the most important theme of Salinger's fiction (never mind the one about being redeemed by the love of an innocent girl): namely, the Vedantic idea that everything is God, and therefore surface appearances are illusory. In Salinger's novella, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, Seymour Glass tells a parable about a vegetable hawker who chooses horses so well—judging their inner, spiritual essence—that he doesn't even notice what they look like. So what about the Scottish girl's essence?
Slawenski is happy enough to conflate fiction with real life as long as it doesn't result in some troubling paradox. Salinger's role in World War II, for example, is presented at great length, and no wonder, given that he took part in the Normandy invasion and many horrific battles after, an experience that informed some of his greatest work: the portraits of traumatized veterans Seymour Glass and Sergeant X in (respectively) "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and "For Esmé—With Love and Squalor," as well as (arguably) the entire Glass family saga that followed. To give us a better sense, then, of what Salinger might have suffered, Slawenski retails great gobs of history about the writer's regiment—since, of course, very little is known of Salinger's actual exploits outside the fiction and a few existing (but circumspect) letters. And when Slawenski does pause to remind us of Salinger's place in the picture, the conjectural tone is more than a little grating. "Like all soldiers of his regiment," he generalizes, "[Salinger] fought with the purest sense of devotion, not for the army but for the boy next to him." Where's a little conflation when you need it? One may recall that D.B. Caulfield (Holden's older brother, a writer, in Catcher in the Rye) observes of his war experience that "if he'd had to shoot anybody, he wouldn't've known which direction to shoot in … the Army was practically as full of bastards as the Nazis were."
Here and there, Slawenski departs from hagiography and adverts to his subject's shortcomings, about which he tends to be as apologetic as he is insightful. "That Salinger's ego was immense is indisputable," he admits, explaining that Salinger had been spoiled by his adoring mother, and thereafter had little patience for those "who might doubt him or not share his point-of-view." Since Salinger had a rather exacting way of expressing his point of view, others learned to keep their mouths shut or be cast into the outer darkness. The details of Salinger's marriage to his second wife, Claire Douglas, are so disheartening that one suspects Slawenski would omit them if he could—but Claire was the mother of Salinger's two children, and some account has to be given. Slawenski cites the usual mitigating factors on Salinger's behalf (devotion to art, spirituality) while describing the man's pathological self-absorption but also lets the court record speak for itself: Claire testified that her husband's indifference had caused "nervous tensions, sleeplessness, and loss of weight" to the point of "injur[ing] her health and endanger[ing] her reason." The better to work in solitude, that is, Salinger had built himself a bunker where he spent almost every waking minute and, finally, a separate cottage altogether where he could live apart from his family more or less full-time.
As for what finally alienated the affections of his daughter—well, that's precisely the sort of unsavoriness that Slawenski is loath to pursue. To hear him tell it, Salinger was a doting (if distracted) daddy when Peggy was a child and no mention is made of their later estrangement or (outside the endnotes, where it's frequently cited as a source) of her disparaging memoir. Needless to say, Slawenski omits the following: As an adult Peggy was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, whereupon her insurance company disputed the diagnosis and stopped her disability payments. At the time, she was losing control of her bowels and bladder and feared she'd end up destitute and unable to care for herself. She phoned her father to tell him so. "A week or two later," she writes, "something arrived in the mail. He had taken out a three-year subscription, in my name, to a monthly booklet of testimonials to miraculous healing put out by the Christian Science Church. … I would get well when I stopped believing in the 'illusion' of my sickness."
I imagine the truth of Salinger's difficult nature is somewhere between his daughter's and Slawenski's perspectives—witness those letters to his old buddy, Donald Hartog—and certainly the millions of readers who have been charmed and touched by Salinger's fiction owe him a measure of forbearance. But Slawenski seems almost to love the man and his work equally, and thus—to paraphrase John Updike's rueful critique of the Glass family stories—he loves Salinger to the detriment of biographical moderation. And then, beyond a point, his unwillingness to grapple with the messier aspects of his subject's life begins to seem like laziness. Fiction writers are messy people, and Salinger is a virtual paradigm of such messiness both for better and worse. Braving so much solitude—no less awful for being self-imposed—he goaded himself into perfecting an exquisitely difficult craft, the better to sublimate his darker contradictions into art. Good biographers ought to welcome such contradictions and, perhaps, manage to reconcile them. It's the very nature of their task.
But Slawenski can't even be bothered to avoid howlers that are eminently avoidable in the Internet age. For example, while discussing the rumor that Thomas Pynchon (also reclusive) and Salinger are one and the same, Slawenski points out that "Pynchon's first publication had appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 1965, the same year Salinger had retired." Pynchon's first novel, V., was published in 1963—two years before that Times Magazine credit—and nominated for a National Book Award; anyway, he'd been publishing stories since the '50s.
On Salinger's relations with The New Yorker—an important part of his story—Slawenski tends to neglect the most basic sleuthing. He writes, "It has been reported [by whom? no citation is given] that The New Yorker paid Salinger $30,000 a year for the right to review his work first." Unlikely: Editor Harold Ross was a legendary cheapskate, and his successor William Shawn was respectful of the payment system he inherited. Updike got a $3,500 "first look" bonus in 1964; poor Cheever got a measly $2,600. In any event, the records are available at the New York Public Library, and Slawenski had eight years to check them. Also, while Ben Yagoda did write an excellent book about The New Yorker, he was not an "editor" there, as Slawenski seems to think. (Note to Slawenski: It took me all of two minutes to Google Yagoda and query him on this point; he responded within the hour.)
In light of what the author leaves out or gets wrong, what's left over? There's a lot of plot-summary of Salinger's fiction—much less fun than reading the fiction itself—and, after Salinger quit publishing in 1965, not much of anything. The last 45 years of Salinger's life are lumped toward the back of the book. Among other things, we learn that Salinger married, in 1992, "a professional nurse and amateur quilter" named Colleen O'Neill—40 years his junior—but that's about all we learn of the couple. The final pages are mostly concerned with Salinger's litigiousness toward a proposed Catcher "sequel" in 2009 titled 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye—a book that probably would have been forgotten before the sun set on its publication date if Salinger hadn't so assiduously called attention to it. As I turned the very last page, I remembered that Slawenski had mentioned earlier a typical response to enlightenment on the part of Salinger's characters: "a satisfied, peaceful sleep." If sleep is what you need, then I've got the book for you; enlightenment is another matter.
Blake Bailey is the author of Cheever: A Life.
Another page on this author in this site here