One thing that J.D. Salinger was famous for was his privacy. No writer has gained more publicity for not doing a single thing in the way of publicity. Pynchon is well known for his obscurity, and Harper Lee (who is still alive, many are stunned to learn) keeps to herself, but Salinger became the prototype and paragon of a reclusive writer. Perhaps one reason so many people are fascinated by him is because they have not tired of him. He didn’t overstay his welcome on talk shows, issue a couple of bland novels or anthologies of previously uncollected scribblings, do cameos in films, or do much vaunted readings or get paid a gazillion dollars to do a commencement speech at an Ivy League university. Those are the usual rewards of attaining a certain level of celebrity and respect as an author, and he didn’t pluck them up. The only photo most people have of him is one that is sixty years old, where the author is young and earnest and rather dashing. We have no image to replace it.
It’s particularly hard to pull that off now, when everyone insists that authors spend about five minutes writing to every hour in relentless self promotion. It’s rarer yet given our American way of celebrating success more than accomplishment — we are obsessed with the Ben Franklin-styled narrative of the rag-adorned boy entering the city with a few pennies and making his fortune. For authors, this means life-sized cut-outs of the authors gesturing towards the books in his or her cardboard belly, and smiling with benevolent confidence that they have made it. We like stories of hardships bested, adversities overcome, and success hard-won, and we like to read books that become a part of such a story. Writers constantly talk about (and exaggerate) the numbers of rejections anyone on the bestseller list faced, the beatings they received as a bookish child, and the list of dead-end jobs they held while hammering out the first hit on a used Underwood with no letter c in the garrett above a butcher shop, beset nightly by flies attracted to the carcasses below.
Salinger either deprived us of his backstory or selected a brilliant one, but his life could not have been easy, and I think there was a certain integrity to it. Harper Lee says that there’s no point to interviews, everything anyone wants to know is in her book. Salinger might have said the same thing if he even offered us that much.