Maynard on Salinger: Youth was not innocence A great figure of American literature is exposed to tawdry narcissism.

September 20, 1998|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the sun

Between 1951 and 1963, J. D. Salinger transformed American literature. In one short novel, "The Catcher in the Rye," in "Nine Stories," in the novellas "Franny" and "Zooey, and in "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" and "Seymour: An Introduction," he startled readers with his authenticity, honesty and simplicity. Beat without being decadent, post-modern before the academics coined the word, and without their arch self-consciousness, Salinger revolutionized the short story form.

Salinger's quest in his fiction for purity made Holden Caulfield a lodestar of the "phony," hypocrisy, self-promotion and self-interest. He discovered the profound alienation at the heart of American prosperity. If Salinger was overly fond of Holden and the Glasses, the family at the center of his best stories, he offered simultaneously a definition of sentimentality: "We are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it."

He perfected the literary strategy of the list, anatomizing the Glass medicine cabinet, decades before William Gass waxed on about this "new" technique. He created positive images of Jews before Bellow, and an intimacy with his reader no one achieved before him.

Fascinated by Zen Buddhism, Salinger propelled his readers out of the materialistic Fifties. He wrote anti-war stories (See "For Esme - with Love and Squalor") a decade before the Vietnam War. He revealed how profound stories could fascinatingly be made of the small: Buddy Glass trapped on a hot day when his brother Seymour doesn't show up for his own wedding.

His dialogue was profoundly invigorating: his characters talk themselves onto the page. "I am a dash man not a miler," Salinger admitted. The short story was his form and he quickly became the New Yorker's first great post-war voice.

Then, when he was in his mid-40s, in search of the "satori" Franny Glass discovers with the help of her brother Zooey, Salinger fled the "New York types." Bessie Glass points out that "you can't live in the world with such strong likes and dislikes." Her words evoke her son Seymour, no less than author Salinger. Seymour calls "cleverness ... my permanent affliction." At the close of "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," he fires a bullet through his right temple.

Salinger himself escaped with his life, leaving forever behind wiseacre critics like Norman Mailer, who dismissed him as "no more than the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school," and Mary McCarthy, who asserted, preposterously, that "Salinger's world contains nothing but Salinger."

He settled in rural New Hampshire, his own personal Shangrila of frugality, never to publish again. Zooey himself had charted the map: "detachment, desirelessness. Cessation from all hankerings." Modestly, Salinger issued no messages from the front.

It was predictable that Salinger's determination to choose exile would excite curiosity seekers. His commitment to solitude and privacy were tested most predictably by English biographer Ian Hamilton, who hunted him to the ground, assuming arrogantly that Salinger would yield to the blandishments of Oxford.

He was wrong. Salinger surfaced to protect the copyrights of his unpublished letters, challenging the very notion of "fair use" for biographers to come, and forcing Hamilton to publish a pale, self-serving book about his trying to write a book about Salinger ("In Search Of J. D. Salinger," 1988).

A persistent Salinger theme had been the Wordsworthian delusion that in youth lies wisdom. Unschooled in grasping opportunism, the legacy of adults, the children in Salinger are the people he loves best. The little girl Sybil in "Bananafish," the arch of whose foot Seymour kisses, generously noble Phoebe, wise sister of Holden in "The Catcher in the Rye," and the adorable Esme are all free of the taint of adult corruption.

In 1972, the then 53-year-old Salinger spotted the cover photograph in the New York Times magazine of an 18-year-old Yale freshman named Joyce Maynard, who had written a piece called "An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life." She wore the same oversized watch Salinger placed on Esme's wrist, and he wrote her a fan letter.

Maynard presumed to speak for her generation. She also looked like a child, an effect embellished by an ambitious mother who for Maynard's first visit to Salinger, tarted her up in a child's frock complete with the letters of the alphabet and purple Mary Janes, as if she were Lolita fitted out to tempt a pedophile.

Too long absent from the landscape of literary opportunism, Salinger failed to perceive that Maynard has been a skilled and ruthless self-promoter from the age of 15 converting her life into prose she marketed with demonic energy. Mistaking youth for innocence and purity, Salinger told Maynard she "could be a real writer."

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