It’s always better to read a talked-about book before you read the talk itself. In 1972, Joyce Maynard from New Hampshire, then a freshman at Yale (as part of the university’s third co-ed class), wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine called “An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life,” in which she attempted to sum up the existential dilemmas of her generation. The article caught the attention of the reclusive J.D. Salinger, who’d been holed up in a house in Cornish, NH since 1953 (after The Catcher in the Rye but before Franny and Zooey). The two embarked upon an intense correspondence, which led to a meeting, which led to a ten-month-long affair, during which Maynard dropped out of Yale and moved in with Salinger. He pretty unceremoniously kicked her out on a trip the couple took to Florida in 1973, and Maynard resolved to never write/talk about their relationship out of “respect for his privacy.” But in 1998, she wrote At Home in the World, a memoir that is focused—though not exclusively—on the affair and the ensuing heartbreak (apparently only on her end). Commentators called the memoir disrespectful, self-serving, tacky, blah blah blah, but the book was reviewed quite well by those that actually bothered to read the entire thing and not just the Salinger-centric bits. I found it to be enjoyable and compelling and, frankly, I’m glad I’m not as enthralled by Salinger as my parents’ generation was to look past the man’s personal repulsiveness, including but not limited to his borderline pedophilia.
Salinger’s “thing” for girls in their late teens was bad enough (Joyce Maynard, of course, was 18 when they met; his previous wife, Claire Douglas, was 19; and most of his later correspondence-based relationships were with college-aged girls). Salinger pushed Maynard to abandon her future and drop out of college, seemed to do nothing but criticize her “worldly ambitions” in the ten months she lived with him, and eventually attempted to drive a wedge between Maynard and, well, anybody who wasn’t J.D. Salinger. (He’d bad-mouth her mother, for instance—a betrayal I personally believe should be punishable by death :-).) And then, of course, on a trip to Florida with his two children, he informed her that, despite previous discussions indicating the contrary, he was in fact too old to have children, and that Maynard should kindly book a flight back home, collect her things from his house and leave. He basically refused to see her after that point, though he did initially respond to her repeated phone calls and letters begging him to take her back. One might assume that the kindest response to the bitter end of such a dysfunctional courtship would be to cut ties completely and stop leading the poor girl on, but that was J.D. Salinger, selfish until the very end.
Sure, the affair was consensual, and Maynard did nothing against her will. But letting Salinger off the hook underscores the pervasiveness of the blame-the-victim antidote to traditional feminism that I find quite disturbing. In her New York Times review, Katha Pollitt draws the following parallel: “Just try suggesting to a hip young post-feminist that Monica Lewinsky was a mixed-up kid who deserves a little sympathy.” The fact that most young women I know refuse to call themselves “feminists” is a troubling trend that I don’t really want to get into here, but the point is, all the “controversy” over this book was focused on Salinger: his privacy, his talent, his almost mythic status as a literary genius. I am the furthest thing from a moral-majority conservative, but “character issues” do come into play here. If we are to believe even half of what Maynard says in her book, the guy was, simply put, a colossal asshole and creep who treated women like shit, and a full portrait of the artist must include these characterizations, “unreliable narrator” or no. They don’t negate his genius, and I loved The Catcher in the Rye (though not Franny and Zooey nor, really, Nine Stories) as much as the next guy, but nobody’s denigrating his art here. Rather, Maynard’s book exposes a less-than-flattering facet of a renowned figure, and anybody who shies away from that, or refuses to consider it in assessments of the man, is deluding himself.
Of course, this is not to say the “unreliable narrator” thing may be completely glossed over. As I moved through Maynard’s memoir into her post-Salinger life, it became increasingly clear that she herself was a bit off the hinges, and her narrative began to unravel. It’s one thing to understand what effect love and heartbreak had on an impressionable young girl; it’s another to have to keep mentally upping the ante to wrap your mind around some of the more bizarre episodes in her later years and relationships (for example, Maynard has a temporary falling-out with her mother that is absolutely inexplicable and unrelatable). But Maynard’s a good writer, clearly, and it’s worth reading the entire book (as opposed to simply the salacious excerpts that were likely published in national magazines at the time), if only to augment one’s understanding of the oft-neglected “female experience”—and of the particular generation of women Maynard describes in the New York Times Magazine article that started it all.