Selling Salinger's letters

Is Joyce Maynard a celebrity bloodsucker or a victim getting hers back?

Topics: J.D. Salinger, Books,

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.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site,

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.


    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."


    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>