Prizing Privacy Over Fame? Imagine That

February 04, 2010|By Kathleen Parker

My favorite thing about J.D. Salinger wasn't his seminal work - or his most famous character, Holden Caulfield - but how little I knew of him, thanks to his relentless pursuit of privacy.

It's the same thing I also love about two other favorite writers, Harper Lee and Florence King.

The former, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," has declined most interview requests since the 1960 publication of the novel.

Her recorded public ventures have included judging an annual high school essay-writing contest. She also visited Washington in 2007 to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Otherwise, to fans' kind invitations to be interviewed, Ms. Lee has written personal notes, declining.

Similarly, Ms. King, whose witty, erudite and often laugh-out-loud essays and books have amused readers for decades, shuns the glare of appreciation. She is known to communicate by snail mail with a few, and even to e-mail occasionally, but is not one to open the door should someone summon the audacity to knock.

Some of Ms. King's funniest pieces pertain to her avoidance of fans, but her best musings concern what we charitably refer to as "American culture."

To wit: "Time has lost all meaning in that nightmare alley of the Western world known as the American mind."

In the days since Mr. Salinger's death at age 91, much has been written about all we didn't know about him. So mysterious was he that at times during his 30-year silence, it was easy to wonder whether he was still alive. Given the breathless pace of breaking news, we scarcely have time to note a death, much less to mourn the loss. There's something awry in the rat race when one wonders two days after a fact whether it's too late to write about it.

Now we wonder: Did Mr. Salinger leave behind a trove? Are there new Holden Caulfields to discover? Notebooks of cultural criticism? Can we finally possess his thoughts after so many years of being denied entrance to his private sanctum?

I am not immune to the hope that other works will surface. At this point, cocktail napkin doodles will do. We shall read, and we shall be moved to gladness or sadness, but by Mr. Salinger, we will be moved.

But by Andrew Young? Not so much.

Mr. Young, by now unavoidable, is the former (and formerly devoted) aide to John Edwards who has added a new tome to that best-selling genre, the tell-all. Publication of "The Politician" coincided with Mr. Salinger's death, prompting the inevitable detour into the dot-connecting abyss of Ms. King's aforementioned nightmare alley.

Of course, few writers - whether they pen fiction or nonfiction - can afford to be as mysterious as Mr. Salinger, Ms. King or Ms. Lee. The saturated book market demands that even the most private of authors subject themselves to a book tour, if they're lucky enough to land one, and to schmoozing with potential book buyers.

Still, how far we have come from the days of admiring a reclusive writer who sought shelter from the corrosive effects of fame to celebrating a typist - as Truman Capote described "On the Road" author Jack Kerouac - whose motives are only fame, lucre and, increasingly, political status.

Mr. Young tells all, he claims, for the integrity of the public record, even though Mr. Edwards is a contender for nothing and is already a ruined man. But partly, Mr. Young admits, he wrote the book for the money. Do tell. We are supposed to embrace as virtue Mr. Young's assertion that he has declined "gigantic" sums of money offered for a sex tape he claims to possess of Mr. Edwards and his mistress.

Obviously, absolute privacy for politicians isn't tenable, or even desirable, to the same degree that a writer of books might deserve or demand. In a broader sense, however, the extent to which we feel entitled to another's private life, disregarding collateral damage to others, is a pox on all our houses.

As we mourn the death of an author who prized personal space above fame and fortune, we might also mourn the dearth of enigma. Ultimately, respecting another's privacy is an act of self-respect, of which we have too little. Alas, for good reason.

Kathleen Parker's column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her e-mail is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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