A year ago yesterday, J. D. Salinger died. He died in New Hampshire, alone, in a house I imagine to be cold and filled with unpublished work. (Professional journalists confirm the second assumption.) “He was not in pain before or at his time of death,” said his literary representative in the New York Times obituary. This strikes me as something no one could possibly know, at least if you have a generous definition of pain.
In April of 1972, a freshman girl at Yale named Joyce Maynard wrote a precocious essay — a common occurrence — under the worldly title, “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life.” The New York Times Magazine published it — a less common occurrence — and put her photo on its cover. After reading the article, Salinger wrote to Maynard, and the two began an affair that lasted 10 months. Enamored of the older writer, Maynard dropped out of school and lived with him for the duration of the liaison, then wrote her first memoir at 19.
At 20 years old, I have had exactly no affairs with great American novelists and not one memoir to my name. I have not (yet) been recognized as emblematic of my era. Maynard made quick work of it. Freshman women, you have until April to draft your manifestos.
More than two decades after the college girl’s autobiographical article appeared, the New York Times Magazine revisited Maynard as an aged, former poster child for her generation. In “The Cult of Joyce Maynard,” Larissa MacFarquhar listed a wry selection of the young woman’s later life choices: emptying her breast milk into the Atlantic, clawing her way through a garbage heap looking for a retainer, being raped, getting married, having breast implants and three children. In a grand finale, the author sums up Maynard as a “purveyor of minor novels and contributor to women’s magazines.” It seemed 1972 hadn’t marked the emergence of new a literary star after all.
Despite the anticlimactic life that would follow, the article that launched Maynard’s minor fame and brief relationship with the already-famous Salinger remains darkly compelling — at least to this sophomore writer, admittedly the daughter of a woman of the same generation.
After coming upon “An 18-Year-Old-Looks Back,” when rifling through Internet riffs on Salinger’s life this time last year, I wrote my mother an e-mail asking if she remembered Maynard’s exhibitionist chronicle of their shared zeitgeist. She replied:
Yes, we all know the Joyce Maynard story. I don’t quite identify with her. She was a few years older, and also I know what happened at the end of the story, so I don’t admire her. But it was a great article at the time. Not my sentiments really, though. She felt (although probably wasn’t) more jaded than I think I was. Or perhaps that was her pose. Talk over the weekend. Mom
“She felt (although probably wasn’t) more jaded than I think I was.” The cynicism, self-awareness and doubt contained in that line could easily come from the pursed lips of a Salinger character grown old. “I know the end of the story, so I don’t admire her,” is a judgment and eulogy for a writer still working (check out joycemaynard.com), but no longer relevant.
One former classmate of Maynard’s, Alex Beam, wrote an acerbic piece for Slate on the trajectory of his contemporary’s career called, “I Was a Teen-Ager for the New York Times.” Beam saw Maynard as a one-trick writer, from adolescence on, “selling off tiny portions of her life, and successfully enough to make many of us envious.”
The rampant jealousy surrounding Maynard’s early celebrity (see paragraph three of this article) and her enigmatic link with the originator of American angst are not the only reasons for her now-tarnished glamour. Her mystique would never have come to be without her spot-on, nostalgia-infused account of 18 years of life, free of saccharine cliché or philosophical overreaching.
She called her generation “the first to take technology for granted,” citing the “space shot” as “an hour cut from Social Studies” and television as a fact of life. The Kennedy assassination was the myth of Maynard’s childhood, their excuse for disenchantment.
As children of the millennium, we grew up to the tune of Internet dial-up (a sound our iPhone-toting kids will never know), the personal computer’s start-up chime and a basso-profundo voice reciting, “You’ve got mail.” The typewriter and record are vintage wonders. Why listen to full albums or write in full sentences when you have MP3s and AIM.
Sept. 11 is our trauma (“Where were you when you heard?” the question remains the same, only the event it references different), and Osama bin Laden the bearded face we feared, where Maynard recalls Castro. They had the Bomb. We have Obama. There isn’t space here for the modern comparison Maynard’s piece deserves, for the nuance and detail of her recollection.
Look it up — or take ENGL 455, “Writing About Oneself,” where Maynard has earned a spot on the syllabus at the school she left without a backward glance. The self-indulgence and audacity of looking back at 18 perfectly aligns with the course’s goal, with Salinger’s style and subject matter, and — in keeping with the spirit of things — this article.