J. D. Salinger

With the recent death of J. D. Salinger, a spate of articles on the famous “recluse” is appearing in the media, most of it adding little to the understanding of solitude, reclusion, privacy, or psychology.

Salinger’s reclusion consisted in neo-Confucian reclusion from the empire, from society — in which the supposed important things always happen — to go to the countryside, the village, the outlands, where nothing important happens, where people live simply and not very self-consciously.

Salinger’s daily life in Cornish, New Hampshire, is neatly described in a New York Times article: “A Recluse? Well, Not to His Neighbors” that shows Salinger a recluse to the world of fame but not to his town neighbors. He made regular rounds to the post office, the restaurant, the church supper. His neighbors conspired to protect his desired privacy, not unlike the privacy they valued for themselves. New England is like that and Salinger’s decision to recluse there was a conscious and deliberate one.

A Washington Post letter to the editor by a then-feature writer recalls how one day in 1978 he managed to find Salinger’s house and pull into his driveway. When Salinger asked what he wanted, the feature writer started to explain. “Get out of here,” Salinger told him in curmudgeon-like fashion. Was the feature writer invading Salinger’s privacy or was he not also invading the ethos of the entire community?

Reclused in a village, Chuang-tzu was sitting by a river bank, swishing his feet in the cool stream waters when a contingent of imperial bureaucrats, having tracked him down, began urging him to accept appointment to the palace. “You know that ancient turtle in the palace brought out for public viewing once a year? Compare that turtle to the one there, on the river bank, enjoying the cool mountain stream. Do you think that turtle here wants to be like the one in the palace?” The bureaucrats understood and left. Chuang-tzu, not so curmudgeon-like, had told them, “Get out of here.”

In so many articles on Salinger, no one seems to offer an explanation for Salinger’s decision to recluse. They perceive fame and glory as a norm, a goal. They cannot conceive of turning away from the lights, the glitter, the falseness — for something so primitive as a small town and solid simplicity. Not that Salinger was a hermit or solitary, as the New York Times article rightly shows. Not that he could not afford to recluse, given royalties from his ever-popular The Catcher in the Rye. Rather, Salinger reverted to the status of every other resident in a typical small town. He intended to blend into an anonymity toward outsiders, but perfectly himself to his neighbors, who value autonomy and privacy.

Perhaps Salinger did not publish much because he did not want to risk failure after the pristine success of The Catcher in the Rye. He did publish Franny and Zooey, with its memorable evocation of the starets, the iconic hermit elder of Russian Orthodoxy. Nor did Salinger every really quit writing — he reportedly left many notebooks of scribblings and manuscripts that he would probably wish, like Kafka, be destroyed after his death. Or perhaps not, since he seemed to have one eye on worldly dealings, jealously protecting his Holden Caulfield creation with copyright lawsuit.

Sam Anderson, author of a New York Magazine article titled “Social Salinger: Literature’s Oddly Companionable Hermit,” captures the meaning of Salinger better than most. Just as the disaffected adolescent protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye appears as a disembodied voice who rejects his origins, so too did Salinger effectively reject his “origins” in big city social complexity to get on with the real story of his life, which didn’t matter in the end after all. Says Anderson with great insight:

Salinger always struck me as an odd candidate for hermitude. Despite his misanthropic characters and flights of antisocial mysticism, the energy of his prose was relentlessly sociable, charming, and connective — he was practically sitting right there with you as you read, reaching over and turning the pages. He captured, in his sentences, the urgency of humans talking to actual humans. It seemed ridiculous — a parody of his work, almost — that in real life he was nowhere to be found. That became, in the end, one of the odd pleasures of reading him: You had to imagine Salinger, the actual man, the same way you imagined his characters, to summon a reality out of a disembodied voice. … It’s hard to know how to mourn a recluse — all we have is the absence of an absence.