Friday, March 5, 2010

JD Salinger 1919-2010*

I never really understood what was so great about JD Salinger's fiction. When I was a teen in the early 80's all the conventional wisdom pointed right at Catcher in the Rye. Groundbreaking! Shocking! Revolutionary! I picked it up at the library and read it quickly and prepared to be blown away. I was pretty disapointed.
"What's the big deal?" I thought. It probably was pretty revolutionary in 1951 when it was published, but I had already read the complete cannon of Judy Blume in which she writes quite frankly about all kinds of maturation issues and sexually explicit coming of age situations. I gobbled up Go Ask Alice an anonymous diary of a drug addicted teen. Holden Caulfield could hardly hold a candle to any of the heroines in my teen library.

In looking back, I realize that Holden Caulfield is a decidedly male protagonist with a male point of view written by a very male author. Most women comment that they did not particularly care for Catcher in the Rye either. I could not relate especially when I was 15.

What fascinated me about this book is the story of the author, JD Salinger. He hated publicity and after making it big with Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey (which I couldn't get into either.) he disappeared and became something of a recluse. After a story in the New Yorker in 1965, he never published again. Who was this enigmatic man and why did he choose a life of seclusion?

His recent death and NY times obituary made mention of two memoirs published by two different women in his life. Joyce Maynard, writer and novelist, quit college at Yale and moved in with him at age 18 (while he was 53!). The affair lasted a mere 10 months and took Ms. Maynard 20 years from which to recover. She apparently saw the light and published At Home in the World which is her memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional family which led her to form a relationship with this unusual and controlling man.

Maragaret "Peggy" Salinger, his daughter, published her own memoir shortly after Ms. Maynard's hit the bookshelves. Peggy's coming of age saga Dreamcatcher was less focused on JD Salinger, but he haunted the background of her story throughout. Obviously Peggy has a much different perspective on her father and their relationship than Joyce, but the two women's stories are not incompatible and together make for a fascinating study of an eccentric man and a gifted writer.

At Home in the World is the more interesting of the two memoirs. Ms. Maynard is clearly a professional writer and knows how to tell a story and tells it well. I was fairly mesmerized by her and her life through the whole thing. Her JD was controlling and manipulative, but she was also quite stunted and ready to be controlled. It took her many years to recover. I think the most striking aspect of this story was Ms Maynard's own rise to fame as a reporter, writer and novelist. She lives the life I would love to live. She clearly has a gift, but no where in the book does she discuss a love of words and writing. For her it is always something of a burden or a chore. She can write, she is prompted and encouraged to write at a very young age (think stage parents for budding writers) and thus her career rises around her with some fanfare, but with no joy. I never felt like this path to the writing life was one I would ever take. Writing became simply her career and a means to an end. I doubt if the muse ever visited her. I learned a lot about writing and life simply from watching her live this forced march to writing fame.

Ms Salinger is clearly not the writer. She is compelled to tell her story in the same way Ms Maynard was but her story is awkward and changes styles frequently throughout. It fluctuated between an academic essay of her father's writing and how it parallels his life, and her own diary entries and letters. The first 100 pages or so were an explication of her father before she knew him: how the war and virulent anti-semitism must have shaped him. This part of the book will be especially appealing to you if you are familiar with his stories and novels, especially his early ones.

The next 200 or so pages are a blow by blow of all the steps and mis steps she took as a small child growing up in a recluse's home and the effects it had on her. The last 100 pages are how she got to where she is now. While her version has some merit, it is the most interesting when it intersects with Joyce's story. Somehow the two of them together can weave the tale of the enigmatic and troubled man.
For some reason critics have really bashed Joyce Maynard's memoir, accusing her of trying to cash in. In my opinion, so what? She has a tale to tell and she knows how to tell it. If that bothered JD Salinger maybe he needed to try a bit harder at being a recluse. Both these women have created timely narratives that should shed some light on Mr. Salinger and his life and work and also might teach a thing or two about writing memories.

*The editor is well aware that it is Women's History month and writing about JD Salinger is not exactly in keeping with the theme of the month. However, I do not particularly believe in marginalizing the history of women. It should be taught every month...just as African American History should be taught every month. So, given that JD Salinger is on my mind--he gets the first blog post of the month.

1 comment:

Steph said...

I'm with ya on Catcher in the Rye. I re-read it last summer and still wasn't a big fan.