Last year the literary world experienced an earthquake when Joyce Maynard published a memoir about her romance with J.D. Salinger. Recently there were a few sanctimonious aftershocks. Sotheby’s will be auctioning the letters Salinger began sending Maynard after he read “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Her Life,” the autobiographical cover story she wrote for the New York Times Magazine in 1972. At that time Maynard was an emotionally and sexually inexperienced freshman at Yale, and Salinger, at 53, was already a confirmed recluse who had not written anything for publication in seven years. In the course of their relationship, Maynard left school and moved into Salinger’s cottage in Cornish, N.H., where she lived with him until he abruptly dumped her in 1973.
Maynard — who used to write a syndicated column about her home life and who maintains a Web site that includes regular missives to her fans — has long been accused of self-absorption, but her memoir “At Home in the World” drew particularly high-minded fire. “If you admire and respect Salinger,” Craig Wilson wrote in USA Today, “you most likely will find this a rude and mercenary intrusion into the life of a man who demands privacy.” E.L. Doctorow told the New York Times Wednesday that he found the sale of the letters “sad,” an example of a personal relationship “being commodified, as seems to happen with frequency in this country.” Cynthia Ozick described Maynard as someone “who has never been a real artist and has no real substance and has attached herself to the real artist in order to suck out his celebrity.”
You don’t have to be a fan of Maynard’s work to find these fulminations a bit one-sided. Salinger is indeed the more talented party, but that doesn’t automatically make Maynard’s publishing the memoir and selling the letters into ethical violations. Maynard is being accused of exploiting a relationship that was exploitative from the very start. Salinger, after all, initiated it and set its terms. If Maynard is taking advantage of his fame now, it was Salinger who took advantage of it in 1972 when he wanted to get into Maynard’s pants; it’s unlikely that the 18-year-old Maynard would have succumbed to the epistolary blandishments of a stranger nearly three times her age, let alone abandoned her schooling to move into his remote hideaway, if he had not been a noted writer. Neither party in this duet of self-interest comes across as very admirable, but it’s no greater sin to exploit someone else’s fame for money than it is to exploit your own fame to feed your lech for adoring young virgins.
Perhaps what most rankles those who object to Maynard’s actions is the grim picture that her memoir — and Salinger’s own letters — present of the much-revered novelist. Yet that’s precisely what makes them enlightening. In “At Home in the World,” Maynard describes a conversation in which Salinger berated her for using her pixieish good looks to further her literary career, whereupon she pointedly asked him if he’d have written to her to begin with if he hadn’t seen her photograph. As unimpressive as Maynard’s memoir may be in literary terms, it does offer a cautionary example of what the idealistic teenager Holden Caulfield might be like if he simply got older instead of growing up: cold, rigid, self-righteous and hypocritical.