A new documentary on JD Salinger illuminates the mysterious author in a light we are not accustomed and in a manner I am relieved to understand.
Famously considered a hermit or recluse, the film features interviews with people who knew him, which demonstrates this was not the case. It’s true that his last publication was in 1965 and his last interview was in 1980, but unlike his commonly understood public persona, he did speak with people and he did leave his cabin in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. He even traveled quite a bit. For better or for worse, he just did everything on his own terms.
Mostly, he hated the limelight that publication had brought. According to the documentary, he thought the only thing readers should know about the author is his or her writing. The work acts as ambassador to the world. Often times, I agree with this assessment, which calls into question this very blog post you’re reading.
I live in a different time than Salinger; so maybe a semi-public persona is inevitable. I do share some personal details on this website; yet my life is not an open book. However, this division between public and private does not mean I cross into dishonesty—or “phoniness” as Holden Caufield would put it. I simply don’t need or want to share everything with everybody. So every time I get annoyed with social media and proclaim that I understand why Salinger was a recluse, I can now take comfort in the knowledge that I don’t have to move to that extreme. I can choose to redefine my engagement with the world that benefits myself and my craft.
Like most writers, Salinger played an important role in my own career. The famously blank white cover of The Catcher in the Rye is one of the reasons I gave my novel The Last Night a blank black cover. I almost wanted to leave the back cover unadorned like Salinger’s book as well, but I wasn’t nearly that brave. (Plus his title has earned a reputation that mine hasn’t; so I needed some cover copy.)
After the author’s death in 2010, it has been confirmed that he has been writing all this time, and several publications will roll out in the coming years. This final plan supports the documentary’s argument that, for Salinger, everything should be about the writing, not the writer. By publishing posthumously, the only possible voices belong to his characters, which reinforces the sole reason we should write at all: for the love of the process.