J.D. Salinger Girlfriend Breaks the Glass Ceiling

J.D. Salinger is one of our visionaries, so the news that his former lover Joyce Maynard is planning to write a memoir that will describe their 25-years-ago relationship has sparked some anger, notably Jonathan Yardley’s assertion in The Washington Post that Joyce Maynard isn’t a good enough writer to take out J.D. Salinger’s linen. My first reaction to the news was along those lines-another shlepper tearing out the poet’s liver for self-promotion and profit.

Then I got to thinking about great men and the women who love them, and my initial reaction began to seem simplistic, stupid, sexist. The correct line, I think, is, Go, girl.

The most obvious thing to be said on Ms. Maynard’s behalf is that it’s her life, her story, her material.

The relationship began in 1972 after she published her best-known work, a piece in The New York Times Magazine , “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life,” with a fetching studio shot of the epicene, black-banged writer. Mr. Salinger wrote Ms. Maynard a letter, and she left Yale to be with him in his hilly fastness for nine months, she says now. And, of course, she kept quiet about the love affair when she published a book in 1973. A memoir, Looking Back: A Chronicle of Growing Up Old in the 60’s , ends by saying that she left Yale, for reasons she doesn’t state, and is now writing by a “window in New Hampshire,” a piece of vagueness that typifies the lack of real feeling in the book, which is so absorbed in generational politics it’s unreadable now.

But then, Joyce Maynard was only 20 years old. And that wintry New Year’s Day, J.D. Salinger turned 54, a towering gray Easter Island-headed isolato with a dark aura and love for old movies.

That’s the real reason I look forward to Ms. Maynard’s story. She could explore big artistic and social questions.

J.D. Salinger worshiped youth, and, God knows, he helped every sensitive youth who read his work. He held out for authenticity and kindness over thuggery in several brilliant narratives that will be read 100 years from now. But the sad fact, for the rest of us, anyway, is that his strong, delicate, Mars-walking machinery stopped moving when it bumped up against adulthood. In the life of Mr. Salinger’s stories, the correct response to mature demands was either a high-flown spiritualism that sometimes felt too glibly Eastern for me-think of the soupy stuff in Zooey or Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters -or Seymour Glass’ answer in Room 507, self-annihilation.

Mr. Salinger himself seems to have chosen a mixture of those two answers, and his choice should be honored. I feel that his withdrawal to flinty New Hampshire is in the great tradition of all sadhus (and tax-phobes), that he was within an artist’s rights to keep Ian Hamilton from printing portions of his letters in his 1987 book, In Search of J.D. Salinger , that journalists shouldn’t go up there and bug him, and that he had good reasons for quitting publishing. Maybe that he’d run out of youthful material. Maybe that he was creating the sort of ineffable work that is best published posthumously (his fellow New England recluse, Emily Dickinson, chose to publish only two poems in her lifetime).

Yet, I also feel the anger many of us feel toward a great teacher who left us hanging at the back door of adolescence without a good answer to the question, How do you grow up? I wonder how successfully J. D. Salinger himself negotiated adulthood. More pointedly, I wonder whether the bright yellow thread of child love that runs through his work was in his life, too.

The Catcher in the Rye is full of child love, and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” of course includes a love song to a girl child, muted, with foot-kissing and that strange, gluttonous, lusty fantasy about the fish thrown in, for good phallic-vagina dentata measure.

This was always the shadow in Mr. Salinger’s work, maybe the shadow that helped make it great, but with all the hints and the fuck-the-Freudian leitmotif, I wish he’d been more plain about his desire. In Lolita , Vladimir Nabokov boldly and maturely planted his flag in pedophilia. Yes, a murderer and sociopath is telling you this story but, look, you sympathize with him, you know these feelings, they’re in you, too. J.D. Salinger was both more sincere and obscure.

Sometimes his metaphysics strike me as a defensive response to the desire to kiss the feet of young girls.

Aah, James Joyce, vot do you hef to say about zees?

Of course, Ms. Maynard was 19 when she got her to the hummery, while Sybil in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” seems to be about 5 or 6, and Lolita is 12. All right; Joyce was an adult when J.D. Salinger chose her. But that touches on the larger question Ms. Maynard surely has something to tell us about.

For all J.D. Salinger’s godly talk about obliterating the ego and self-Ian Hamilton tells the story of Mr. Salinger trying to get his photograph off his book jackets, and I’ve heard that he didn’t want mirrors in his house-one can safely assume that his first letter to Ms. Maynard was not signed John Q. Nutcase, that the author understood the reverberations his name would have on Ms. Maynard’s seismoclitometer (leading her to leave “dormitory bunk beds for the mountains”). I wonder how flattered she felt by J.D. Salinger’s overture (Did the letter channel Buddy, Zooey, Seymour or Boo Boo?), and how that flattery changed her life.

For God’s sakes, she wasn’t going to blow off Yale for just any one.

The theme of great men and the women they choose (as inspiration-ornament-toy-muse) is a great postmodern issue, and, significantly, it is the theme of a book by another of Mr. Salinger’s women, his former wife.

Claire Douglas had two children with J.D. Salinger and then hied unto sunny California, where she is now a Jungian analyst. Four years ago, she published Translate This Darkness , a biography of Christiana Morgan (1897-1967), a beautiful and artistic woman who led a highly unconventional life but failed to express her talents except as she served as muse to Carl Jung and the Harvard psychologist Henry Murray. Christiana Morgan’s association with Murray was deeply erotic. The rich former crew jock and his mistress built a tower in Cambridge, Mass., and he visited her there, scripting their doings in a devilish triangle with Herman Melville, mining Melville’s descriptions of the unconscious in Pierre and Moby-Dick .

Christiana Morgan was a brave and defiant woman who disdained bourgeois norms. But Claire Douglas believes that the relationships she formed with brilliant men cost her. Jung advised Murray that he should have one woman at home to make children and another, a concubine, for inspiration. Great for Murray, and I’ve got to say it sounds pretty good to me, too (and brings to mind the lament by a friend’s uncle, a true Casanova, “I wish I had two shafts and one ball!”). But as Ms. Douglas says, mistressing Murray meant social isolation for Morgan, a “doomed romantic fantasy” of a relationship.

Yes, the great men got to express their broken inner feminine through her, Claire Douglas says, but Morgan betrayed herself, and never fully explored her own vision.

“I wish that with Harry I didn’t have this feeling of a snake in the grass somewhere,” Morgan wrote once in her notebooks. “This snake is the desire for power, always present.”

Romantic love stories end tragically, Ms. Douglas says. Despite her bravery and creativity, Christiana Morgan drank too heavily and, leaving her lover’s bed, died in the Virginia Woolf-Ophelia mode, walking into water.

I have no idea what shadow Claire Douglas’ own marriage to a genius throws over this story. But Translate This Darkness is stirring because, in part by studying letters that principals and heirs made available, Ms. Douglas describes a struggle by mature creative people to find alternatives to the social structures that would manage desire and identity in acceptable ways. These themes are hinted at in J.D. Salinger’s stories. They hover under the spiritual clouds at the edge of the work.

Then he split and left us here with his juvenilia.

And now and then pulled power trips of his own by writing letters to dewy freshmen and afterward urging them to shut up about it.

“Women have been in darkness for centuries. They don’t know themselves. Or only poorly. And when women write, they translate this darkness.” That’s the inspiring line from Marguerite Duras that gives Mr. Salinger’s former wife her book’s title. Maybe his former lover will take what is unspoken in her early book and finally translate it. If she does, she might help us come to terms with one of the great men of our lives, who cut out when we were little. We’re old enough to read it now.