J.D. Salinger and the cult of the recluse
For whom J.D. Salinger’s bell tollsDAN ROTTENBERG
In 1953, having generated more creativity with one book than most of us produce in a lifetime, and having lost his muse while gaining financial independence, J.D. Salinger rejected the New York literary life to devote himself instead to the service of humanity. Throughout America at that time, thousands of teenagers just about Holden Caulfield’s age were putting their black and white bodies on the line for civil rights, and Salinger felt the least he could do was follow their example.
Over the next half-century, wherever tragedy or oppression reared its ugly head, from Bosnia to Darfur, there was Jerry Salinger— marching with Solidarity in Gdansk, flying precious drugs to AIDS victims in Africa, setting up emergency housing for victims of the great Sichuan earthquake. Only last month, when he was 91, Salinger flew to Haiti to distribute food parcels and help pull bodies from the rubble.
“No man is an island,” he explained. “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls— it tolls for thee.”
St. Luke’s minor flaw
Seriously, why are we so indulgent toward our society’s gifted hermits? If Salinger or Glenn Gould or Greta Garbo suddenly decides to stop doing what he or she is doing, why do we let them off the hook? Why don’t we remind them that, as St. Luke put it, “To whom much is given, much is expected”?
I know— Luke was ungrammatical. But that’s a minor flaw compared to secluding oneself from the world (at least the world beyond Cornish, N.H.) for 56 years.
“There is a marvelous peace in not publishing,” Salinger explained to the New York Times in a rare interview (by telephone) in 1974. “Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy…. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”
Of course the same thing could be said about the relative merits of sexual intercourse and masturbation. There is a marvelous peace in masturbation. Sexual intercourse, on the other hand, is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I love sex, but I do it just for myself and my own pleasure.
If I told you that, would you continue to cut me any slack?
About the time Salinger was decamping for New Hampshire, I witnessed an argument between Jim Halsey, the head counselor at Camp MacJannet in the French Alps, and my 13-year-old bunkmate Murray Dawson. Murray objected to the camp’s requirement that advanced swimmers take the Red Cross life-saving course. He already knew how to swim, Murray said; what more did the camp want from him?
Jim explained that it wasn’t enough to know how to swim; we must also know how to assist others who can’t.
“But dammit, this is supposed to be a vacation!” Murray complained.
“There’s no vacation from life,” Jim replied.
Hughes and Clemente
Salinger was a piker compared to another famous recluse, Howard Hughes, who moved all the way to Nicaragua to escape those madding crowds. When an earthquake struck Nicaragua in December 1972, Hughes’s only concern was to find a new hiding place. At the same time, another famous American— the Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente, who lived nowhere near Nicaragua— hired a plane to deliver aid to Nicaraguan earthquake victims, and died when the plane crashed.
Clemente was a great man— not because he won four National League batting titles but because he understood, with Jim Halsey, that there’s no vacation from life. J.D. Salinger was a great writer, at least for a while. But I can’t help wondering how he would have regarded an earthquake in New Hampshire. As an invasion of his privacy?
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One issue I didn’t mention in my recent review of Terrence McNally’s Golden Age, which is set backstage at the opening of Bellini’s I Puritani in 1835:
At one point Bellini sits down at his backstage piano and plays a few bars of ”Casta Diva” from his own Norma, then a few bars of “People Will Say We’re in Love,” from Oklahoma, written more than a century later by Richard Rodgers. Was this some kind of in-joke that eluded me? Or is McNally trying to tell us that Rodgers stole the music from Bellini?♦