Saturday, September 10, 2011

"J.D. Salinger: A Life" respects the writer's literary disappearing act

J.D. Salinger has made his final lope into the New Hampshire woods near Cornish, and with his death the reclusive author leaves behind a literary industry of the ever-hopeful. Those who waited for decades will have to wait even longer for the Salinger estate to decide when, or if, any of the rumored fifteen unpublished novels will see print.

That decision will likely be a crapshoot. The most appropriate gesture from the author who shunned any contact with "a reading public" for over fifty years would have been an early morning, January 1, 2010 birthday auto-da-fé in his leafy woods, flames licking the ink right off the burning pages.

No one else of his stature has made such a celebrated career of non-publishing, although most authors achieve that goal without even trying, and with much less celebrity. Over the years Salinger's active disinterest in publishing was by turns puzzling, exasperating, and -- at end -- inexplicable. He maintained his privacy even as it took on the cast of an angry author hiding in the woods away from the rest of the world, and he became quite incensed at its decades-long attempts to lure him and his manuscripts into the daylight.

The closest we're allowed to approach Salinger is, apparently, still in biography and memoir, even though those have been discouraged and actively litigated against. The most recent biography, Kenneth Slawenski's J.D.Salinger: A Life, presents the most rounded portrait of the reclusive writer to date, although it doesn't get closer to his manuscripts than the familiar published titles.

Salinger's claim was that he was writing only for himself, and fair enough. Slawenski argues that Salinger came to regard writing as a meditative form of Vedatic belief, but his literary disappearing act now reaches a logical climax. Many writers' unpublished manuscripts become even more of a fetish-object after an author's death and it's unrealistic to think interest in what Salinger left unpublished will diminish -- at last, though, he will rest peacefully where no one can come knocking.

In death Salinger (and his estate) still has control over those unseen pages, but the ensuing years of rumors and leaks, con and craft, or sheer contentiousness among surviving parties, could be more damaging than any unwanted attention the author experienced while he was alive.

Salinger fought to exhaustion efforts to publish a biography by Ian Hamilton in the 1980s, and the case traveled as far as the Supreme Court before Salinger won a decision. In his original letter of refusal to Hamilton, the author claimed to have “borne all the exploitation and loss of privacy I can possibly bear in a single lifetime.” Ironically, death may turn out to be a most unexpected court of appeal.

Although the passage of time itself may puncture Salinger's carefully-crafted privacy, personal memoirs can be just as damaging. Salinger's New York Times obituary contains an extended reference to two unflattering portraits (one from his daughter, Margaret) which writer Bruce Weber summarizes as adding "creepy" elements to the Salinger history:

"Mr. Salinger was controlling and sexually manipulative, Ms. Maynard wrote, and a health nut obsessed with homeopathic medicine and with his diet (frozen peas for breakfast, undercooked lamb burger for dinner). Ms. Salinger said that her father was pathologically self-centered and abusive toward her mother, and to the homeopathy and food fads she added a long list of other enthusiasms: Zen Buddhism, Vedanta Hinduism, Christian Science, Scientology and acupuncture. Mr. Salinger drank his own urine, she wrote, and sat for hours in an orgone box."

It's simple to say that most writers write to be read; Salinger's reputation rests on astounding success with, in total, four published works and a lengthy novella in The New Yorker. That's certainly plenty enough to say that Salinger achieved as much as he wished, reached what is charmingly called "an audience" and then -- suddenly -- publicly withdrew. In his New York Times obituary the author is quoted from 1974: “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

Point taken. The rest is cantankerous silence, apparently. Readers and the publishing world can tease themselves that they may eventually find a key to the bottom drawer of Salinger's desk; maybe the key is resting forever with Salinger, there in his suitcoat pocket. If he has any last, lone word about it, the author won't be breaking silence any time soon.

American letters makes heroes of its voluble writers. Many despite the ravages of drink, drugs or age created a lifetime's worth of published work: Twain, Faulkner, Wolfe, Fitzgerald; Hemingway's novels have a bar-room talker's bark. Salinger is frequently mentioned in their company, but in death his purposeful career of disengagement may make his unpublished work -- if it does ever surface -- an interesting aside to his privacy, not a part of his genius.

(drawing of J.D. Salinger from Time magazine, 1961; photo of the author at a car window, 1990s, courtesy of Philadelphia CityPaper.)

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