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Salinger’s Silence

Inevitably, J.D. Salinger’s death prompts a question of the brow-furrowing, philosophical variety: If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, has it been writing feverishly about the Glass family for the last forty-five years?

Salinger’s death last Wednesday brings to a sour and mysterious end one of the great unsolved cases in the history of arts journalism. Salinger’s books, though few, spoke to nearly everyone, transcending the usual categories of literary appreciation. Teenagers liked him, as did adults – as did professors and the flunkies they flunked. Invariably set in New York, Salinger’s fiction took on that city’s character: both funny and fierce, plainspoken, but prone to sudden lifts of mysticism. Catcher in the Rye has sold more than sixty-five million copies. This means that, in the eternal popularity-contest, Catcher does a little better than the dictionary and a little worse than the Da Vinci Code.

And yet the man himself, the engine behind this industry, long ago made clear that, adorers be damned, he himself would be having none of it.

In 1953, Salinger, at the apex of his celebrity, left New York for Cornish, New Hampshire, in search of a quietude and anonymity that the metropolis of his upbringing no longer permitted. Twelve years later, in 1965, The New Yorker published what would be the last story of Salinger’s lifetime, “Hapworth 16, 1924.”

For the next forty-five years – until his death on Wednesday – Salinger maintained himself in a cantankerous hermitage, verbally and legally contesting perceived incursions on his privacy. His lips, for all we knew, had tightened into the image of a permanent scowl. He spoke to no one.

Or rather, as Salinger might have put it, damn near no one. If you were a desperate fan, probably based at Dartmouth College; if you were an intrepid journalist, undaunted by the prospect of spending a month skulking around the Cornish post office; if, signally, you were willing to don the sheepskin bodysuit, or whatever, needed to endure the trek to Salinger’s New Hampshire home – if you were some or all of these things, then maybe he would have shouted at you to get the hell off his lawn.

Indeed, Salinger’s death brings to an end, among other things, a long struggle on the part of the press to confirm he was still alive. He has been the subject of numerous unauthorized memoirs and biographies (Ian Hamilton’s In Search of J.D. Salinger and Joyce Maynard’s At Home in the World: A Memoir come to mind). And his hounding by journalists has been endless. Yet none of this produced much in the way of reportable news, let alone revelations as to why this unexampled “humorist with a heart” gave up on the world around him.

In 1953, still a nouveau New Hampshirer, Salinger agreed to an interview by a high school student for the local Claremont Daily Eagle on the assurance it would be printed as a discreet sidebar in the back pages. The ensuing experience of seeing himself on the front page, under a howling headline, was sufficient to empty whatever reserves of sympathy Salinger still maintained for young journalists. He gave a final interview, to the NYT, in 1974.

For all the other attempts to penetrate his seclusion, the last one will do as an example. Having flown in from London on behalf of the Guardian, driven to Cornish, and located the Salinger residence, his paper later reported,

[t]he journalist, Tom Leonard, said he heard the author shout “something that sounds like ‘Oh, no!'” when told by his wife who was ringing his doorbell, and then saw “a tall but stooped figure in a blue tanktop” sidle “crab-like” out of his kitchen without meeting his eyes.

And that was that. Salinger had developed an aversion to fame that had the perverse effect of magnifying it, his secrecy the goad to our curiosity.

Still, it’s hard to agree with Slate’s Stephen Metcalf when he says, exasperatedly, “So the man didn’t like publicity; so the fuck what?  We might withdraw some of the energy spent keeping that nimbus afloat, and concentrate instead on the man’s actual legacy.”

Metcalf is not wrong, of course.  Public silence is a novelist’s right, even if Salinger asserted it rather sternly. Public silence doesn’t need forgiveness.

What not only needs forgiveness but baffles it, however, is Salinger’s decision to cut off his readers: to stop writing for publication.

Sometimes intrusive journalism is just that: intrusive. It wantonly disregards a subject’s privacy in pursuit of the petty dividend of a byline. Yet with Salinger, the intrusions seem more than anything acts of generosity, if occasionally ham-handed.

On behalf of a bereaved readership, journalists were trying to let Salinger explain why, with an abruptness bordering on the vicious, he ended the affair. Why he stopped loving them. They were testing whether an end to the forgivable silence of his celebrity might be enough to justify or extenuate the unforgivable cessation of his literary output. What tragedy attends on Salinger’s death is, ultimately, in the realm of PR: Salinger has missed the chance to explain himself.

Over the past few days, a battery of tributes, like bouquets at a grave, has shown up on The New Yorker‘s website to adorn the magazine’s notice of his death. Contributed by those who knew Salinger personally, like Lillian Ross, they together suggest a generous, cordial man. To the end, Salinger remained a cinephile, a friend to children, a chaser of life’s stray hits of bliss. “([Salinger] told me,” Ross writes, “that one day he went out and bought an iron, and had his housekeeper iron his shirts. “How it cheered me up,” he said.)

Yet we who, unlike Ross, knew only his prose do not have these memories, this luxury. We are left to contemplate the image of a man whose heart, vast as it may have been, dried out before it stopped beating.

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