It was inevitable, given the mood of the day, that someone would find a way to transform the predatory Joyce Maynard into a victim. There were hints of this last year in the response to her tell-it-all-for-profit disclosures about her quondam relationship with J.D. Salinger, but it is only now--with the report that Maynard will auction off Salinger's ancient letters to her, also for profit--that the apotheosis has been achieved.
This was done last week in the online magazine Salon by one of its editors, Laura Miller. In an otherwise perceptive comment on the latest "sanctimonious aftershocks" of the Maynard-Salinger contretemps, Miller simply could not resist the temptation to metamorphose Maynard, the Queen of Confession, into Little Girl Blue:
"Maynard is being accused of exploiting a relationship that was exploitative from the very start. Salinger, after all, initiated it and set its terms. If Maynard is taking advantage of his fame now, it was Salinger who took advantage of it in 1972 when he wanted to get into Maynard's pants; it's unlikely that the 18-year-old Maynard would have succumbed to the epistolary blandishments of a stranger nearly three times her age, let alone abandoned her schooling to move into his remote hideaway, if he had not been a noted writer. Neither party in this duet of self-interest comes across as very admirable, but it's no greater sin to exploit someone else's fame for money than it is to exploit your own fame to feed your letch for adoring young virgins."
Some fascinating leaps of logic take place there. The passage begins with the not-unreasonable premise that Salinger's motives may not have been entirely pure when he opened a correspondence with Maynard following the publication in 1972 by the New York Times magazine of her notorious article, "An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Her Life," though there's much evidence that Salinger is the most naive and credulous of creatures and that he may have been less interested in getting into her pants than in staring into her doe eyes and having deep conversations about Dartmouth football games, Alfred Hitchcock movies and other subjects broached in his letters to her.
Not merely are we asked to assume the most base motives on Salinger's part, we are also asked to assume the most innocent ones on Maynard's. In fact, the long and unseemly history of relations between older men and much younger women suggests that there is rarely purity of impulse on either side. It is extremely difficult to believe that Maynard went into her "friendship" (as Salinger initially called it) with the famous writer with her eyes closed, far easier to believe (especially considering her subsequent record of shameless self-promotion) that she saw it as her main chance. No young person of either sex who receives overtures from a famous and/or influential older person is likely to react passively; far more predictable responses are strong curiosity at the least, determined opportunism at the most.
The guess here is that neither party to this "duet of self-interest" had clean hands from the outset, and that what took place between them--we have only Maynard's version, which not surprisingly serves her interests far better than it does Salinger's--had little to do with love or, for that matter, sex, though there is perhaps some truth in Peter Applebome's observation in the New York Times last week that Salinger may have thought he had found, in Maynard, "one pure soul in a dirty world," that being Holden Caulfield's quest in "The Catcher in the Rye."
Whatever the truth may be, it remains that, Laura Miller and others of like mind notwithstanding, one bad deed does not excuse another. It's an odd morality that holds Maynard's exploitation of her relationship with Salinger to be just deserts for what--whatever it was--he did to her. It says acts are devoid of ethical weight if they are acts of compensatory vengeance. It fails to understand that though two acts may be equally bad--a question, in this instance, on which I decline to pass judgment--the first does not justify the second.
The Maynard-Salinger story holds our interest, so I think, not just because it involves sex and notoriety and the usual stuff of checkout-counter sensation but also because it raises serious issues. It may be an odd morality tale, but it is one all the same; it is also about the ways in which people use each other for, as Miller understands, reasons that never rise above self-interest. Salinger may have been looking for nothing except a faun, a female Holden Caulfield, and Maynard may have been looking for nothing more than fame by association, but each plainly had only self-interest in mind, and in all the words that have been written about their relationship there's scarcely one to suggest that either ever gave the other a compassionate, generous thought.
That's ample reason to conclude that rarely have two people more richly deserved each other, but a poor reason to say that Salinger deserves what Maynard's doing to him. As to Laura Miller's assertion that "perhaps what most rankles those who most object to Maynard's actions is the grim picture that her memoir--and Salinger's own letters--present of the much-revered novelist," there may well be some truth to it; but speaking for myself, who thinks that "The Catcher in the Rye" is the most overrated novel of the century, my problem isn't with what all this says about Salinger, it's with what it says about Maynard.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.