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Selling and telling on Salinger

By Margaret Renkl

JULY 12, 1999:  A couple of weeks ago, an odd kind of love story unfolded at a Sotheby's auction. On the block were 14 letters from J.D. Salinger to Joyce Maynard, an aspiring writer who was, at the time the letters were written nearly 30 years ago, Salinger's child lover. But that's not the story I mean: The real love story happened when California philanthropist Peter Norton paid $156,500 for those letters and then gave them back to Salinger.

Because of copyright law, which protects the content of a writer's correspondence, there was no risk that the letters might be purchased by some wicked publisher hoping to humiliate the reclusive author. Still, what Peter Norton did was a singular act, a gesture of unadulterated generosity that it's hard to imagine Joyce Maynard could ever understand. Norton does not know J.D. Salinger and has never even spoken to him. He simply respects a wonderful writer's desire to live outside the garish circus world of contemporary celebrity. A world that Joyce Maynard, with her memoirs and her Playboy interviews and her personal Web site, occupies all too comfortably.

Until she put J.D. Salinger's love letters up for sale, I wasn't nearly as down on Joyce Maynard as a lot of people who hated her memoir, At Home in the World, published last summer. Whether or not it makes the very private skin of people like J.D. Salinger crawl with dread, we're living in an age of the true, tell-all tale. If someone like Elizabeth Wurtzel can write an autobiography called Bitch--and even pose nude for the jacket-cover photo--without raising more than a couple of eyebrows, why shouldn't Joyce Maynard feel free to tell her own, actually interesting story?

There are many ways in which Maynard has had a life worth chronicling and considering: She was a precocious writer who while still a teenager published essays in national magazines--including the sprawling The New York Times Magazine memoir that first drew Salinger's attention. Later she became a wife and mother who wrote a newspaper column much like this one (except hers was nationally syndicated). Later still, she found herself struggling to understand and cope with the loss of her marriage, all while raising kids alone and managing to write a couple of novels. Such a story has the potential to add something valuable to the conversation a lot of us are having now about the struggle to reconcile feminism and family, creativity and duty, work and love.

But the linchpin of Maynard's own memoir isn't any of the relatively universal themes that her life suggests she's capable of responding thoughtfully to. Unfortunately, the book's focal issue is her love affair with J.D. Salinger. So a lot of reviewers found the memoir nothing short of dastardly, disgusting, a massive invasion of privacy, a sullying of the grand man's grand themes.

While so many pundits wondered about Bill Clinton--who was caught in a similar sort of scandal at the very moment Maynard's memoir was released last year--few reviewers asked of Salinger just what sort of 53-year-old man initiates a suggestive correspondence with an 18-year-old girl, invites her to visit him in his fiercely guarded privacy, does his best to remove from her the burden of virginity, and urges her to drop out of Yale and move in with him in his weirdo seclusion--not so that he might encourage her artistic talent, but merely so that she might provide him nine months of unreciprocated oral sex.

I felt pretty sorry for Joyce Maynard last year when her memoir came out, just as I felt sorry for Monica Lewinsky, trapped into betraying her own one-way love affair with a powerful man. It's not that I believed either woman to be an innocent victim of perverted lust; it's that I felt acutely for them the public anxiety and opprobrium attached to truth-telling when the teller of truth is an insignificant woman inappropriately attached to an influential man.

Memoirs such as Maynard's force us to ask ourselves a lot of different things, chief among them the question of why we continue to find other people's tawdry sex lives fascinating--especially when those people are doing nothing different than what most of us have been doing since high school, just not with famous people. But surely for anyone interested in art itself, a much more important question emerges from such memoirs: Who owns the right to a love story? Or, indeed, to any story of a relationship?

Is it an act of betrayal for George Stephanopoulos to write a memoir of his time as a trusted advisor in the Clinton White House? For Joan Crawford's adopted daughter to tell all the world of her privileged but warped childhood at the hands of Mommy Dearest? For John Bayley's beautiful Elegy for Iris to chronicle, no matter how lovingly, the descent into madness of his wife Iris Murdoch, once the most intellectually rigorous novelist writing in English? I think it probably is, and yet you'll read few reviews blasting such books as immoral invasions of privacy.

That sort of censure is reserved for the kiss-and-tell, sexual-love-gone-bad story that glitters the eyes of talk-show hosts and that readers consume voraciously. People in love exist in a heightened state of emotion and vulnerability, and most of us realize how unfair it is to subject to cold analytical scrutiny the behavior of a person temporarily crazed by feeling. We condemn the writer, the great betrayer, but we keep on reading nonetheless.

Love gone wrong is the great universal theme of human life, after all, and if we insist that turning failed romance into art is an act of betrayal, we would rule out of existence much of Western literature. Or if we say--as the scathing reviews of Maynard's book imply--that only the more famous or the more talented of the doomed lovers has the right to their mutual story, that Andrew Wyeth can paint all the revealing pictures he likes but Helga better not write a revealing memoir about posing for them, then we're guilty of a worse kind of unfairness and elitism.

I confess that it would be a lot easier to defend Joyce Maynard if she'd subsumed the story of her love affair with Salinger into the nicely muted shadows of a novel instead of laying them out in the cold light of a bare-bulb memoir. But I still say she has a right to tell her own story. And I say, too, that if a horny old man really wants to maintain his precious privacy, he should show half a grain of sense and seduce a grown woman instead of a child. At the very least not a child who had already published a 10,000-word memoir in The New York Times.

What I can't defend, from any point of view, is Joyce Maynard's decision to sell those letters. A tell-all memoir represents only one side of any story, and readers understand there's probably another side. But taking old love letters out of their moldering box and exposing to total strangers the incontrovertible evidence of lost, stammering love and inarticulate desire--to me, the writer of many profoundly heartfelt and potentially humiliating love letters, that's an unforgivable betrayal.

So in the end, the only hero in this saga is Peter Norton. Not an artist, not a writer tormented by his past--just a kind man who made a bunch of money and used it to preserve the dignity of a beloved writer by giving him back some letters he unwisely wrote 27 years ago. If he's half the man I hope he is, Peter Norton won't even read them.

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