About a month ago, I read the huge and hugely discussed biography of J.D. Salinger. I’ve read all his books, but I never fell under any sort of spell, never thought he was some mythical god (and yes, that is a deliberate lowercase.) It made me pull two other books I already owned, and read them again. (Oddly enough, it didn’t make me pull Salinger’s own works to read again!)
I bought the first book, *AT HOME IN THE WORLD, by Joyce Maynard, simply because it was her newest book. I had liked her writing since first reading it and I owned her previous five books (she has since written more) so really, buying this one was purely a matter of routine. I had no idea what it would contain, beyond the fact that it was her autobiography, and I like any biography of an author whose work I enjoy.
When I began reading it, I was surprised to find how she put such a good public face on what had so often been a not-so-good private life, beginning with her childhood. She writes her nonfiction in such a way that I always feel we are simply sitting over coffee, sharing the way women friends often do.
And then, there it was….what I’d never known about her. Though I’d suspected that the character of Ann in her first novel, BABY LOVE, was about Joyce herself, I’d never thought that the many years older Rupert was anyone famous. Reading the autobio though, there was no question who Ann and Rupert were: Joyce, and J.D. Salinger.
She’s never been forgiven for writing the book, but to her eternal credit she has long since forgiven herself for something no one should ever have to forgive herself for: falling deeply in love and believing she was equally loved.
The second book, **DREAM CATCHER, by Margaret Salinger, is told through the eyes of a daughter, not a former lover. And yet there is no doubt that this man deeply wounded both young women; Peggy, as she was called then, was just a few years younger than Joyce at the time that Joyce was living with Salinger. Both women speak of that in their own books. I got the feeling they would have liked each other very much, as friends, if they had met under any other circumstances and with no one person in common.
Like Joyce, Peggy has never been forgiven for telling her truth, either. It was a very different sort of truth than what Joyce had said, but she too needed to speak it. The saddest thing is that the true soul of each book was lost to many who never so much as opened either of them. Neither book was written as a way to take down an ‘innocent’ man; the part of each book that dealt with Salinger was but one small part of two very complex, complicated lives, as each young woman learned to see herself through her own eyes, and no one else’s. That’s not easily done, says she who knows, when someone who means so much to you tells you that you are absolutely nothing.
And it all got me thinking….how easy it was for those who had elevated Salinger to a sort of mythical godlike status to automatically discount what the women said. How they must have been mistaken, or pathological, with some sort of agenda to torture and torment a genius who had no recourse but to retreat from the world….when the truth was that he had been retreating from the world for many years before either Joyce or Peggy were even born.
It reminded me of the very same sort of outcry just the week before when Woody Allen was praised at an awards ceremony, and all the old scandal of did he or didn’t he molest a 7 year old girl came right back and muddied the waters. So too was all the legal troubles with Roman Polanski and a young girl, remember? Did either director’s ‘genius’ negate what damage they might have done to a child? And that made me remember even earlier, when Elia Kazan was honored at the Academy Awards, with some standing in tribute and others refusing to, stony-faced. He had named names, you recall; though every name was already known, though he was not the only one who did so.
Every one we ever idolize or idealize has a public persona, and a private one. Do we cover up the private truths at all cost to save tarnishing what we want them to be? If the truths revealed are not what we would like, must we automatically assume that the person revealing them had an agenda? that they could not be telling the truth at all?
And so I read these books again, as I had not for several years. Having read much more about Salinger, now, than I had at first reading of either memoir, I still see them the same way. These two young women lived through things that should have broken, maybe even destroyed them–perhaps most of all, the complete and utter dismissal and disownment by a man they both loved so completely. But he was unable to destroy them. They are both bright, intelligent, articulate women. Beautiful women, strong and happy.
J.D. Salinger was a master craftsman when it came to the way he wrote….however, I find his work far more seductive in the letters he wrote to countless young women, to the words he spoke in his determination to first create and then preserve each in the state of perfection he demanded–the kind that could not be maintained for a lifetime.
In the end….I believe he was the loser, and they were richer not just for having known him, but for having survived him.
* 8) AT HOME IN THE WORLD
**9) DREAM CATCHER