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Selfish, destructive, morally questionable. While J.D. Salinger gave us The Catcher in the Rye, he also left us with a question. How fine is the line between our love of their work and dislike of the artist?
The vexed issue of art versus artist – there are many examples where the artist is an arsehole, yet the art sublime.
Composer Richard Wagner made a revolutionary impact on music; in real life, he was fiercely anti-Semitic, as was writer Patricia Highsmith, poet Ezra Pound and others. Crooner/actor Bing Crosby was a severe disciplinarian father who drove two of his four sons to suicide. Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson and Italian painter Caravaggio both committed murder. I could go on.
Critics usually keep the art separate from the artist – which is fortunate for those artists who aren’t very nice people. One of those not-very-nice people was JD Salinger (1919-2010), author of much-loved American novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951).
That book struck a nerve in 1950s America. The protagonist Holden Caulfield embodied the disaffection of youth, that sense of adolescent alienation, the dislike and distrust of adults and he spoke in a casual cocky way, language such as the phrase “fuck you” startling readers and propelling the book to a wide readership.
The famous opening lines of his only novel were a huge departure from what had gone before:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
The Catcher in the Rye tackled the phoniness of the world seen through the eyes of the 16-year-old narrator who could give master classes in cynicism. The book has been censured, banned, praised – and everything in between. It regularly pops up on lists of Best 100 Books of All Time, so it’s well worth the read. It catapulted the 32-year-old writer to fame, but recognition didn’t sit well with him and in 1953, he left New York, opting for a secluded life in a small New Hampshire town.
Perhaps Salinger just didn’t like sex. He was great with words and all the women in his life were seduced to some extent by his writing – his letters are charming and warm – so maybe words were for him far more important than physical relationships.
Collections of stories including Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters, were published in the early 1960s, but that was pretty much it. He really didn’t publish much else: “publishing was a terrible invasion of my privacy”. He soon became as famous for his privacy as for The Catcher in the Rye.
So what was it about Jerome David Salinger that he’s included in our list of unlikeable artists?
His relationship with women was unusual, to say the least. When he was 30, he had a five-year liaison with 14-year-old Jean Miller, who later wrote that they had sex only once and thereafter he ended their affair. At the end of World War II, he married a member of the Nazi party, which given his Jewish heritage, was rather curious. It lasted all of eight months.
His second wife Claire Douglas bore him two children, but told her daughter that they rarely made love because Salinger disliked it, detesting the “evil” exchange of bodily fluids. And the 10-month relationship with Joyce Maynard when she was 18 and he 53, remained unconsummated. Maynard wrote that the muscles of her vagina “clamped shut and would not release”. Although he paid for treatment for Maynard, he ended the relationship then and there. There were other girls after Maynard.
It seems Salinger was drawn to attractive young women but once sex entered the equation he dumped them.
To be fair, perhaps Salinger just didn’t like sex. He was great with words and all the women in his life were seduced to some extent by his writing – his letters are charming and warm – so maybe words were for him far more important than physical relationships, and a dislike of physical intimacy doesn’t make him a bad person. But read on.
From 1953 on, he largely cut off social interactions, stopping his wife from seeing her friends and family. She spent five months of her first pregnancy in forced isolation. A year after their daughter Margaret (Peggy) was born, she left Salinger, although she later returned and they went on to have a son, Matthew, in 1960. They finally divorced in 1966. Claire, already suffering depression, said if she’d stayed longer she’d have gone mad.
In Dream Catcher (2000), Peggy (born 1955) writes that her father was aloof, leaving his kids to themselves while he pursued young girls, researched alternative therapies such as sitting in an orgone box, a contraption intended to attract natural energy from the atmosphere into the body, and drinking his own urine for some perceived health benefit. Peggy later suffered mental illness and at one stage attempted suicide.
She added that Salinger didn’t believe in illness, referring to it as a fantasy. Once, when severely ill, she asked her father for financial assistance. Instead, he sent her a subscription to a Christian Science publication that instructed readers to stop believing in the “illusion of sickness”. That act cemented their estrangement.
Salinger didn’t believe in illness, referring to it as a fantasy. Once, when severely ill, his daughter asked her father for financial assistance. Instead, he sent her a subscription to a Christian Science publication that instructed readers to stop believing in the “illusion of sickness”.
In At Home in the World (1998), Joyce Maynard detailed Salinger’s obsession with food. He’d serve bread and apples for dinner, a bowl of peas for breakfast; he ate peas straight from the freezer. He taught Maynard how to force herself to vomit, actively encouraging her eating disorder. She said he “policed” her body, making her feel ashamed and unlovable. Maynard recognised Salinger’s somewhat protean personality – at one moment solicitous and caring, at another sneering, judgmental and controlling.
It’s easy to dismiss Peggy and Maynard by accusing them of cashing in on the Salinger name, but that wouldn’t be fair. Children have a right to expect love and support from their parents, and the 35-year age gap between them meant that Salinger should have protected Maynard rather than cheering on her risky eating behaviour. His actions affected them deeply, both physically and psychologically.
It should be said that the people in his town generally liked him, but for those close to him he was selfish and destructive – a difficult husband, father and lover. He married a third time in 1988. Colleen O’Neill was 40 years his junior and they were together until his death in 2010. So far, she’s kept quiet.
Sometimes we need to work at maintaining the distinction between a work of art and its creator, but it’s worth it. We can derive joy, contentment, nourishment from a creative work and put the unlikeable person behind it into a separate compartment of our consciousness. While it’s enlightening to discover disagreeable things about artists, we should still feel able to listen to Wagner or enjoy Caravaggio’s paintings.
And because none of us had a peculiar sexual, parental or dietary relationship with Salinger, we should feel free to take pleasure in The Catcher in the Rye. It is, after all, a great book.