“My belief is that ‘recluse’ is a code word generated by journalists … meaning, ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters.’”
-Thomas Pynchon to CNN, 1997
“I hope to hell that when I do die somebody has the sense to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetary. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.”
-Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye
The string of recent “celebrity” deaths isn’t, as twitter would suggest, the Grim Reaper’s unexpected comeback. The numbers don’t reflect, really, an unprecedented wave of viral rapid-fire high-profile deaths. It’s just that technology (and twitter specifically) disseminates information about these deaths so quickly, and so monolithically, that it just feels like a lot of people are dying. A lot of people have always died. Also — we just know (and know of) more people now. Without the internet, no-one outside of New York City heiress society or the Vanity Fair subscriber base would’ve likely recognized Casey Johnson‘s name. On that same note, without the technological advances that enabled the round-the-clock monitoring of “famous” persons, many aspects of Casey’s life may’ve been different including, of course, her death.
The celebrity death machine’s media frenzy, and the specifically public/private life issues surrounding the deaths of some recent high profile passings, is quite meta. We The Media are invited to discuss the toxicity of fame while simultaneously contributing to the very “problem” we describe.
2009 mourned the earned superstar, the musical genius, killed by fame: Michael Jackson, the world’s most famous man and fame’s most violent victim, who died impossibly thin and over-medicated in his newly downsized residence only hours after gamely performing at a rehearsal for the reunion tour he hoped would revitalize his career. Death began dissecting much of the mystery that surrounded him — and oh there was plenty of mystery! — child molestation charges, the strange TV interviews, the drug addiction, the difficult relationship with his family.
We opened 2010 with the heiress born into fame, but wanting more, and wanting it differently, and killed by her tenacious access to only the most destructive aspects of her power: Casey Johnson; who died regretful that she’d turned down that part on The Simple Life with Paris Hilton.
In late 2008 we had the artist, plagued, as many artists are from the get-go, by manic depression and the caustic vulnerability engendered in those who are too smart to ignore the paradoxically nefarious/ambrosial nature of the world: David Foster Wallace, one of the 20th century’s greatest writers & keenest cultural critics (with a finger firmly on the pulse of the intersections of fame, pop culture, art, Serious Literature, human (dis)connection and technology), hanged himself in a dark room at the age of 46.
These untimely deaths prompted questions about how a person’s relationship to the public and reaction to existence itself — from the great thinkers to the tabloid stars — preempted their unnaturally early passing.
And now we have J.D Salinger. Nothing untimely about it. He was 91, he died of natural causes, and he had not published anything since 1965. He gave his last interview in 1980. His only recent murmurings were reactions to shit other people said and published about him, and legal actions to suppress his imitators and biographers. This retreat from public life was intentional. He did not want us to see him alive, and now we’re asked to gather up our truest hearts to decide how to see him in death; now that it’s possible, once and for all, that his hidden work might once again meet our unsuitable eyes.
“What I was really hanging around for, I was trying to feel some kind of a good-by. I mean I’ve left schools and places I didn’t even know I was leaving them. I hate that. I don’t care if it’s a sad good-by, or a bad good-by, but when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it. If you don’t, you feel even worse.”
–The Catcher in the Rye
J.D. Salinger wrote the only book anyone enjoyed reading in 9th grade English — and although the school system’s ability to destroy literature by teaching it like math has a lot to do with Catcher in the Rye‘s singular appreciation, it’s also really f*cking good book with endless unique staying power. Not for nothing; Salinger contributed to the novel’s imperishability by preserving it — turning down movie rights, only briefly publishing aftewards — Catcher in the Rye would never become fat Elvis.
The novel’s plot details seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield’s experiences in New York City following his expulsion, and departure, from an elite prep school. The disillusioned teenage protagonist is arguably more famous than his creator. It’s an almost certain descriptor for coming-of age novel blurbs — “Holden Caulfield meets Harry Potter,” “a female Holden Caulfield,” “Holden Caulfield for the postmodern era,” “Holden Caulfield at Princeton,” and so on. The outsider protagonist is easily identifiable to queers like us and other misfits; rendered numb by life’s hypocrisies, feeling outside of everything, unable to reckon the slings & arrows of ordinary life and suffering, as Caulfield seems to have, from some humming strands of clinical depression.
Selling over 65 million copies, once upon a time “Catcher Cults” were formed around the book that would put Twilight conventions to intellectual shame. In 1979 one book-length study of censorship noted that The Catcher in the Rye “had the dubious distinction of being at once the most frequently censored book across the nation and the second-most frequently taught novel in public high schools (after John Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men). [check out: walking holden’s footsteps in new york]
In the early 1940s Salinger, seeking financial security, sold film rights to his short story Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut. The film version was terrible and departed dramatically from Salinger’s work. Henceforth he refused to sell film rights to any of his books; eventually turning down Billy Wilder, Samuel Goldwyn, Harvey Weinstein, Jerry Lewis and Steven Spielberg’s interest in securing the rights to Catcher in the Rye.
It was Catcher‘s success and the subsequent scrutiny of Salinger, who was born in 1919 and grew up in Manhattan, New York, that led to his escape into permanent hermitage in Cornish, New Hampshire.
More dedicated Salinger fans will know his more narrowly appreciated works: Nine Stories (1953), a collection of a novella and a short story, Franny and Zooey (1961), and a collection of two novellas, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963).
They’re extraordinary, though no one thought so at the time:
When “Franny” and “Zooey” appeared in book form in 1961, a flood of pent-up resentment was released. The critical reception—by, among others, Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion, and John Updike—was more like a public birching than an ordinary occasion of failure to please.
From his last recorded interview:
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 live to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure. … I don’t necessarily intend to publish posthumously, but I do like to write for myself. … I pay for this kind of attitude. I’m known as a strange, aloof kind of man. But all I’m doing is trying to protect myself and my work.
– J.D. Salinger, 1980
From the obituary of J.D Salinger. :
In their statement, Mr. Salinger’s representatives said that “in keeping with his lifelong, uncompromising desire to protect and defend his privacy, there will be no service, and the family asks that people’s respect for him, his work and his privacy be extended to them, individually and collectively, during this time.”
The statement added: “Salinger had remarked that he was in this world but not of it. His body is gone but the family hopes that he is still with those he loves, whether they are religious or historical figures, personal friends or fictional characters.”
In 1999, his ex Joyce Maynard published At Home in the World: A Memoir, which detailed her life and her brief relationship with Salinger, which included a claim that Maynard’s mother had told her to appeal to Salinger by dressing like a child. Maynard also auctioned off a bunch of love letters he’d written to her, which were purchased by a fan who didn’t want them to see the public eye.
In 1999, London’s Sunday Times reported that Salinger “has written at least 15 books since his last work was published more than 30 years ago, according to friends. He is keeping them in a huge vault at his home.” Furthermore:
To those who have seen him, Salinger comes across as a person who has for most of his adult life been emotionally stuck in his late teens. Nearly all his published writings are about young people.
In 2001, his daughter Margaret published Dream Catcher: A Memoir, which described the harrowing control he had over her mother and made allegations denied by her brother, who recalled none of the same experiences.
From Anneli Rufus’s study of hermitage and loner behavior, Party of One: A Loner’s Manifesto:
It perplexed Salinger, as it perplexed similarly lionized Jack Kerouac, why fans felt they had the right to want more of a writer. He stopped publishing new works in 1965.
In his New Hampshire home, Salinger practiced yoga and Zen meditation, solitary pursuits that primed him for the days he spent in a cement-block bunker on the property, writing. His wife and children were forbidden to interrupt him… a neighbor who came around canvsasing for a charity later recalled how the author “met us at the driveway with a gun in his hands saying, Just go away.'”
Some doubted Salinger’s intentions, accusing him of not being an actual recluse. In a 1999 article for Slate.com, writer Alex Beam quipped, “If Salinger really wants to be left alone, he is going about it in a very strange way. He doesn’t live in a gated community. He summons perfect strangers into his hideaway. He sues people, and then phones the media to spread the story.”
Ultimately Salinger succeeded, with only a few hiccups, in keeping himself away from public scrutiny and out of public life. Will his death prompt detective work, lawsuits, sentimental nostalgia, scramblings to republish his last works?
Writers, ultimately, are not rock stars or actors. They do not necessarily desire to be seen or even spoken to. One of the most difficult aspects for many writers today is dealing with the expectation that novelists will also function as personal publicists. Many writers don’t want to be around any other people at all.
In The Endangered Literary Recluse, Brian Joseph Davis wrote:
Young authors these days can’t afford to miss a single damn phone call, much less a camera crew. With the idea of the media wanting to profile literary writers becoming itself an anachronism, will we ever again have authors whose stature – and contracts – allow for decades long hiatus? Since one can now lose a good portion of Facebook friends by just taking a week off from oversharing, probably not … It was nice not knowing you, literary recluses.
Is it our right to know? Did Salinger’s privacy allow him to die with dignity, as he has done, and unlike other recent deaths?
Is he the last of a waning generation of artists who refuse to be seen? Will there ever be another who can write so well, and then stop publishing altogether without being tracked down and revealed? Haruki Murakami, the bestselling and critically acclaimed Japanese novelist, is one of the only contemporary literary “recluses,” though he has since emerged from several years of self-imposed exile in Europe and America. Thomas Pynchon is, of course, a legendary recluse, but he has been so for several decades now.
Some are very eager to tear into what Salinger left behind From The Houston Chronicle, “What’s in J.D. Salinger’s Safe?”:
And if there are publishable works, will the author’s estate release them?
The Salinger camp isn’t talking.
No comment, says his literary representative, Phyllis Westberg, of Harold Ober Associates Inc.
No plans for any new Salinger books, reports his publisher, Little, Brown & Co.
Marcia B. Paul, an attorney for Salinger when the author sued last year to stop publication of a “Catcher” sequel, would not get on the phone Thursday.
His son, Matt Salinger, referred questions about the safe to Westberg.
As technology continues to evolve and media pervades, every human being, both in life and death, is increasingly defined not only by their actual personalities but also by their specific relationship to and feelings about the public, as well as how they choose to present themselves to us all. From kids with Myspace profiles to Michael Fucking Jackson to J.D. Salinger — and for those who refuse to present, “recluse” becomes such a defining feature, such a frustrating situation for fans demanding new levels of access. “The silence of a writer is not quite the same as the silence of God,” wrote Ron Rosenbaum in 1997, “but there’s something analoguous: an awe-inspiring creator, someone who we believe has some answers of some kind, refusing to respond to us, hiding his face, withholding his creation.”
With autopsies, eulogies, posthumous publications, bizarrely revelatory tweeters and articles like this one, it may turn out that flowers on the grave are really the least of any legend’s concern.
But unlike David Foster Wallace who was still teaching upstate as well as publishing stories, essays, and books at the time of his suicide, or Michael Jackson who was preparing for a tour, we’re not about to get cut off from more of our master’s masterworks. We were cut off in 1965 by Salinger himself. So if more of Salinger’s work emerges now that he’s safe from our eyes, that might not be such a bad thing. He had something to say after all, and took the time to write it down.
“Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behaviour. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as some day, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.”