When I was in high school every school–particularly private fancy ones–had an English teacher who made the parents nervous. His hair was just a little long, his outfits were slouchy, and the kids were just too crazy about him. And, yes, you smoked pot with him, talked about whether you would ever truly know who you loved, and the lucky ones got to sleep with him. I didn’t get to sleep with my Mr. Chips, but he was at Germantown Academy, which is, just as a footnote, the oldest private school in America.
Anyway, this guy was our first guide to the adult world in the exact same way that Salinger was our first writer. Who else were we reading in 10th grade? Mailer, Bellow, Hemingway. I couldn’t understand what they were talking about–still don’t get The Sun Also Rises. Salinger wrote about spotting phonies and New York types, trying for something impossible, shooting marbles and mysticism. It was all about authenticity. On writing, he said that he didn’t just want “a rattling good story from you. I want your loot.”
He was the first writer I came across who used real words like “stuff,” “kiddo,” “gypped.” When I read Maynard’s manuscript, I came across some great locutions. But when I looked at the actual book I noticed that the juicy Salingerisms were gone. Someone has bowdlerized the book. Maybe Picador lawyers intimidated her, but Ms. Maynard has pulled some loot out of this book.
It brings up the whole authenticity question and this is where you and I part company (but as you know, all happy families are boring). I think that Maynard tried to be honest, but I don’t think that she has the psychological chops to do it. She spent her life, from puberty on, being perfect so that she could be chosen by her mother to be the perfect daughter, then by Salinger to become his Esme, or a replacement for his early girlfriend Oona Chaplin (did he take lessons about young girls from Charlie?) and then by the media. It’s sort of unbelievable to think that she was hired freshman year at Yale to be a New York Times Op-Ed writer–this 18-year-old virgin who’d never been to second base or a rock concert opining on Angela Davis and the trial of the Chicago Seven (!) But she was the perfect seventies revolutionary for the New York Times–big brown eyes, docile, and, as she says in the book, mouthing her suburban mom’s pieties.
So many women of my generation wanted to be chosen–to be accepted/mentored/ validated/connected/get the sidewash of hanging with Mr. Big. Tina Brown, Sally Quinn, Jane Fonda. Monica. A well-known do-me feminist writer still brags about her alleged affair with fat, old Harold Bloom. But doing this calcifies your psychological development because you have to stay exactly the person that they want you to be. Maynard never developed awareness. She doesn’t understand why everyone–her mother, sister, husband–distanced themselves from her.
I actually thought that going back to see Salinger when she was 42 was great–trying to finally get the answer to this thing that had haunted her for twenty years. Why did you think it was gross? Do you think she understands what he meant when he said, at the end, “I don’t even know you”? For me, it makes the whole tale chillingly cautionary.
Who was your generation’s literary God?