Salinger and the Perils of Privacy

Arthur Koestler is supposed to have said, "Wanting to meet an author because you like the book is like wanting to meet a goose because you like foie gras." This never stopped fans and biographers from their quest for the personal experiences underlying J. D. Salinger's fiction.  Salinger was not the first best-selling author to inspire a generation; in Europe at least, comparisons are often made between Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther and Catcher in the Rye. Salinger also shares membership with Goethe (and Nietzsche) in the club of writers whose work inadvertently helped inspire tragedy: suicides imitating Werther and Mark Chapman invoking Catcher as his inspiration for the assassination of John Lennon. And Charles Manson notoriously claimed that the Beatles' Helter Skelter was a coded signal for apocalyptic race war, to be launched by what became known as the Tate-LaBianca murders. Of course, every writer knows there are good unintended consequences of one's work, too.

What made Salinger different was the curse of authenticity. Goethe could become a respected official while continuing to grow as international icon of letters. Pablo Picasso and Bob Dylan could evolve as artists, constantly experimenting. There was even a kind of romantic logic in the poet Arthur Rimbaud's retirement from poetry at the age of 20 to become a coffee trader and later arms runner. And the Russian-French Hegelian Alexandre Kojève could even follow another kind of logic in abandoning philosophy for administration, according to Francis Fukuyama:

[I]n the universal homogenous state, all prior contradictions are resolved and all human needs are satisfied. There is no struggle or conflict over "large" issues, and consequently no need for generals or statesmen; what remains is primarily economic activity. And indeed, Kojève's life was consistent with his teaching. Believing that there was no more work for philosophers as well, since Hegel (correctly understood) had already achieved absolute knowledge, Kojève left teaching after the war and spent the remainder of his life working as a bureaucrat in the European Economic Community, until his death in 1968.

But where a salaried position seemed the fulfillment of Kojève's philosophy, it's not clear what teaching writing to young people would mean for the creator of Holden Caulfield. And how a novelist of mid-century city life continue to write while cut off from his real milieu, with all its convulsions of the sixties, seventies, and beyond, in a retreat best known for its painters and sculptors?

Of course Salinger himself would have been the first to condemn the very notion of a life strategy, of shaping a public persona. His passion for privacy was so deep it allowed at least one photographer to portray him in a an unflattering image of fear and anger, but he might have preferred it to the smile and wave of a mellow old sage that would have been the more prudent path when cornered.

In the privacy and authenticity sweepstakes even Salinger had to yield pride of place to the Persian-English composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, who banned most public performances of his work for 40 years. Yet with the release of new and old works after his death, his reputation has continued to grow. So it's wise to reserve comment on Salinger's legacy, except that he paid a high price to create it.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons 

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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