One of the enduring legacies of the #MeToo movement will be the dilemma of separating the art from the artist. This predicament applies even when the creator of a much-loved work is no longer around to speak in his defence. In the last few weeks, this has been brought into sharp focus by author Joyce Maynard, who, 46 years after she dropped out of Yale University because the reclusive author J.D. Salinger coerced her into it, is now going back to complete her studies.
In 1971, Ms. Maynard, 18, was in the first batch of women who would complete the full four years at Yale. On a whim, she pitched an article, “An 18-year-old looks back on life”, to the New York Times Magazine. The article was published and was accompanied by photos of her as the all-American teenager: raw, make-up free and surly.
A new life
Ms. Maynard received thousands of letters in response to her essay. Among them was a letter from J.D. Salinger, who at 53 was living his reclusive life in New Hampshire after the mega success of his book, The Catcher in the Rye . Salinger wrote to her about how well he understood her teenage dissonance with the world. Ms. Maynard immediately wrote back and over the next few months, they kept a frenzied correspondence. Salinger expressed his desire to meet her. When they did, it was to spend a weekend at his home, after which Salinger’s desire for her presence in his life got more urgent. He fuelled her teenage sense of isolation and insisted that her life was with him. At the beginning of her second year in college, Ms. Maynard quit and moved in with Salinger.
Once in his house, Salinger systematically alienated her from her old life. He was obsessed with homeopathy and eating raw, natural food — most meals comprised frozen peas and nuts. Salinger constantly berated her for her interest in the world, belittled her, and wore her down. The excruciating details of this paint a disturbing portrait of a much-loved literary figure. There are several questionable aspects of their relationship — not least the sexual and romantic tangles of a 53-year-old man with an 18-year-old girl, who lived in his home that he shared with his children not much younger than his girlfriend. Once he managed to disconnect her from the outside world, Salinger lost interest in Ms. Maynard. He ended their relationship, while on a holiday, bought her a ticket and sent her on her way to wherever she chose, although by then there was nowhere for her to go.
This is not the most appalling bit of the story. Twenty-five years after she was asked to leave, Ms. Maynard wrote At Home in the World , an account of her life with Salinger. She was ripped apart in the media. In the New York Times , Maureen Dowd called her “a leech”, and lumped her with Monica Lewisnky, yet another young woman who was beguiled by a powerful, older man. In interviews and book reviews, Ms. Maynard was projected as someone who was “exploiting” poor Salinger: all he ever wanted was to run away from the world and here he was being dragged into a sordid tale. That no one raised any questions about Salinger’s conduct is reflective of how much society was dulled into accepting cruelty as genius.
Looking at the story differently
Now, Ms. Maynard is not only going back to college to pick up the discarded thread of her life, but her story of Salinger is also finally being viewed through a different lens. Ms. Maynard wasn’t the only one; Salinger made a habit of writing to teenage girls and inviting them to stay with him. It raises many questions about how the publishing industry and readers enabled and encouraged exploitative behaviour. Much of the aura around Salinger draws from the carefully constructed image of a “nice man”. It is now impossible to go back to his books without the taint of his real persona. The wholesomeness of his characters, which is the endearing core of his books, is lost because so much of it is tied in with the legend of the author. Ms. Maynard has spent more than half a lifetime recovering from a year’s folly. But in the long arc of history, Salinger’s legacy will be re-evaluated by a new world order.
With many of the accused in the #MeToo allegations hailing from the arts, the difficulty of divorcing the creator from the creation is a prominent part of the discourse. The list is long: Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., to name a handful. The last few decades have been marked by the globalisation of celebrity, where the marketing mantra has been to irrevocably blur the line between a famous name and his popular work. This makes the current need to disconnect the two even more difficult. It is inevitable that a new generation will be introduced to a classic with a heavy foreword on the fallibilities of the creator. The emotional toil of loving a work while scorning its creator will be theirs to bear.