Book Review: Joyce Maynard’s Brush With J.D. Salinger
Memoir writing is about getting tightly wound up with oneself, burning through that self—a self-conflagration—searing off the epidermis of personae, only to allow new skin grafts.
At Home in the World came out in 1998. It’s one of my favorite memoirs. I recall the press fuss when Joyce Maynard’s book first appeared. The brouhaha implied the book was a tell-all by one of J.D. Salinger’s mistresses. Stop right here.
Nothing could be more misleading. The nine months of Maynard’s living in Cornish, New Hampshire, with the celebrated author of Catcher in the Rye is central to the book. However, that chapter fits in the context of a much larger story, Joyce Maynard’s life as daughter of intellectual parents, her precocious ability to write and publish very early in life, and her major turning point at age 18, when she was a freshman at Yale. That year, April 23, 1972, to be exact, Maynard’s image graced the New York Times Magazine and catapulted her to spokesperson for her (and as it happens, my) generation, children of the ’60s and ’70s. Seeing that era through Maynard’s eyes, an era which was pivotal for me, but in very different ways, was fascinating.
What sticks with me are several things. The first is the drama and trauma that unfolded when Salinger — Jerry, as we come to know him — began writing letters to Maynard. He’s 53, she’s 18. The correspondence leads to their meeting, her dropping out of college, nearly sabotaging her writing career, and engaging in a relationship worthy of the French Theater of the Absurd. This is in no way to diminish the years of anguish that haunted Maynard when Jerry abruptly (though with many portentous signs) told her to leave and would never fully communicate with her, as friend, former lover, or even fellow literati. In fact, he was a bit destructive. I think today we might call him OCD. He certainly was stuck in a form of infantile narcissism — readers can see for themselves if they agree with that.
Maynard is talented and sought after by book agents, magazine editors, and even Hollywood. How I envy her ability to crack the New York publishing scene so young. (However, the suffering that came of this is part of her story.) The second important thing I got out of Maynard’s book was her admission of how much truth she left out of her articles back then, not always consciously, but often due to knowing what the media wanted. That makes me feel gratified for not loving women’s magazines, then or now, not trusting even those who thought they were progressive (Ms. excepted — although I have not looked at that magazine in years). Maynard wrote for the Hers column in the New York Times. I can recall bristling at Anna Quindlen’s too neatly packaged prose, who also wrote for Hers, although I know many women loved Quindlen. When Maynard’s popular syndicated column, Domestic Affairs, carried the story of her marriage breakup, some newspapers dropped her. Divorce—How un-Amercian-Dream. No, that is too real.
Maynard is excruciatingly real in this memoir. I used to feel bewildered when readers of my memoir told me how brave I was to write so honestly about personal aspects of my life. I didn’t have any sense of courage egging me on. But now I can say the same of Maynard. She writes of her own failings and vulnerability with such stark realism, I wince at times for her. Perhaps my readers did the same for me.
“To write a memoir,” I wrote in my journal recently, “is to get tightly wound up with oneself (and I know that bothers some readers), then to burn through that self.” Memoir, in my experience, is a sort of conflagration of self, burning off the epidermis of our personae, only to allow new skin grafts — one hopes without the same fatal flaws.
At Home in the World starts in Maynard’s early years, growing up half-Jewish (but non-religious) in New Hampshire — some 60 miles from where Salinger lived as a recluse. It takes the reader through important markers in her life. The last quarter of the book moves like a fact-paced thriller as the author unravels something about Jerry that she never would have suspected. You’ll have to read her book to find out. Great memoir writing. Well crafted. Recommend it highly.