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J.D. Salinger – Fighting for Privacy Even After Death


We all know that J.D. Salinger was famously, notoriously, insistently private in his life. He eschewed public events, declined interviews, and seemingly avoided contact with the outside world wherever possible. Since his death two years ago, in January 2010, members of the literary world – legions of readers, ardent fans, nosy busybodies, agents and publishers alike – have all waited with baited breath for news of any glimpse of writing that had gone on behind Salinger’s closed doors. Had he written? Had he burned it all? Were there floor-to-ceiling masterpieces awaiting us?

I admit to being curious, excited even, at the prospect of more words from Salinger. While I didn’t care for The Catcher in the Rye as much as the rest of the world (and found Holden Caulfield somewhat intolerable, to be frank), I absolutely loved Nine Stories, and anything to do with the Glass family. But it’s strange to see an author’s – a human being’s – legacy rifled through, dissected and pawed at after death, in the hopes of sniffing out treasure.

This post asks What have we learned about those years since Salinger’s death? and then answers:

We now know that the author had an ironically un-Zen like penchant for Burger King (a curious revelation considering we somehow imagined him consisting on a diet of bean sprouts) and he was not above taking a bus tour of Niagara Falls.

He was enthusiastic about the ballet, reveling in a 1951 London performance of Swan Lake and a 1982 Balanchine presentation at the all-too-phony Paris Opera House. That same year, Salinger lamented that only two “people” had ever truly known him: his son, Matthew, and his dog, Benny, the serene schnauzer that Salinger had brought home from Germany in 1946 and who had died nearly thirty years before.

For a time, Salinger seriously considered abandoning writing altogether, and devoting his life to Eastern religion, a choice that would likely have involved joining a monastic order. Salinger reconsidered. He found “the chase” of pinning down a good story more enticing than a lifetime of meditation.

We’ve also learned of Salinger’s passion for sweaters, his fondness for tennis and baseball, his late-life interest in Christian Science, and his enduring devotion to the Vedantic branch of Hinduism. The author sent holiday greetings to the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York every year from 1952 until his death in 2010, usually accompanied by a generous donation.

No manuscripts – masterpieces, useless drivel or anything in between – have thus far come to light, and it seems to frustrate people to no end. I understand the yearning, as a reader, and even share in it. But the post goes on to say:

The author, who was famous for demanding control over every detail of his work while living, is still in control. In a sense, J.D. Salinger has been able to cheat death because – in the continued absence of his unpublished manuscripts – he has managed to deny us the ability to measure the second half of his life and to determine his full impact upon literature. Two years on, we are no closer to cementing Salinger’s legacy than we were on the day that he died.

And I can’t help but feel… well, good. I know it doesn’t matter to a dead person, but to what extent to we own our own lives, have rights to our own privacy? If we are deemed an artist, does that mean we owe the world our art, to share it, expose it to scrutiny? It says “he has managed to deny us the ability to measure the second half of his life and to determine his full impact upon literature.”

And part of me is glad, Because really, who are we, any of us, to measure and determine anything by anyone who clearly wishes not to be measured or determined? How is “cementing Salinger’s legacy” any of our business?

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Beth Carswell

About Beth Carswell

I've been reading, selling, researching, loving and writing about books with AbeBooks since 2000.

One Response to “J.D. Salinger – Fighting for Privacy Even After Death”

  1. Time sure does fly. It’s hard to believe that it’s already been 2 years since he passed. Great post, although I’m a bit perplexed that you didn’t enjoy The Catcher in the Rye! (great book)

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