The real reason Salinger sought escape

The seclusion of J D Salinger and Glenn Gould was a result of psychological damage.


Like 99.999 per cent of the population - considerably more, actually - I never met J D Salinger. Author of the iconic and quintessentially American Catcher in the Rye, Salinger died on 27 January, aged 91, on the 90-acre New England estate where he had lived in "seclusion" since 1953. I did know another remarkable artist who also went into "seclusion" soon after a similarly monumental initial success: the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (pictured above), who died from a stroke in 1982, a few days after his 50th birthday, having given his last concert when he was just 31.

Neither man really did live in "seclusion". That invariably is merely the dismissive epithet used by the media to describe any famous person - think Greta Garbo, Thomas Pynchon or even, more recently, Tiger Woods - who will not do what the media expect of them: give constant interviews, smile away on talk shows, issue press releases, and so on. Both Salinger and Gould were psychologically damaged men, but each tried to live as normal a life as he could, his privacy zealously protected by a small circle of loyal friends in New Hampshire and Toronto, respectively.

Salinger even married twice, was an inveterate womaniser, brought up two children and did such ordinary things as going to see Engelbert Humperdinck at the London Palladium. But unless he was writing books for posthumous publication, as some people speculate, he never wrote a single word for publication after his last short story was published in the New Yorker in 1965.

Verve and energy

Gould was no less stubborn in keeping his vow never to go near a piano again in public, but he did continue to make recordings, and even broadcast regularly on Canadian radio and television, although he controlled his appearances with manic zeal. The late Yehudi Menuhin, scheduled to have a televised discussion with him on the merits of recordings versus concerts, was astonished to be handed a script beforehand with the thoughts and words Gould envisaged he would express (which, in the end, an exasperated Menuhin went along with).

So why the "seclusion"? I could never get beyond the first few pages of Catcher, being uninterested in the ruminations of a 17-year-old boy. But, belatedly, I can now see why the novel has sold 60 million copies and remains as compulsively fresh and engrossing to today's teenagers as it was when first published six decades ago - precisely because of that ordinariness, the authentic, rarely heard voice of frustrated, aimless youth struggling to be heard with which the young (and sometimes not so young) can readily identify.

I had no such doubts, however, when I first checked out Gould's 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations from Luton public library a decade or more after it had come out (does any public library in the UK offer such material from its shelves these days, I wonder?) and was astonished, almost overjoyed, by the pulsating verve and energy Gould brought to a work of Bach that I had only heard before in leaden harpsichord interpretations.

Each man produced his work of a lifetime young - Gould at 22, Salinger at 31. Gould had endured a cosseted childhood, his precocious brilliance driven by a domineering mother who dressed him in frilly clothes and thrust him in front of adoring audiences in parochial Toronto. Emotionally distanced from his contemporaries, the 22-year-old who arrived at the Columbia recording studios in New York to record the Goldberg Variations was already manifesting unresolved neuroses: a terror of germs, an insistence on wearing far too many layers of clothing even on hot summer days, compulsive rituals such as soaking his hands in hot water for long periods before playing, and so on.

Salinger, for his part, had suffered a nervous breakdown after landing at Normandy on D-Day in the Second World War, taking part in the liberation of Dachau and using his linguistic skills to work in wartime counter-intelligence. What you read in Catcher, I suspect, is not so much the moody self-indulgence of 17-year-old Holden Caulfield, but shrieks of desperation from a 31-year-old man, damaged and robbed of his late adolescence and early manhood by the traumas of war.

Pursuit of peace

It is no wonder that both men - having been propelled by affliction to premature pinnacles in their careers - soon sought escape. Each was terrified, perhaps justifiably, that he could not repeat his early triumph. Each had already made enough money to last a lifetime. But, most tellingly, I will never forget Gould describing to me how he was still haunted by words he heard every Sunday when he played the organ as an 11-year-old at Evensong: "Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give."

For Gould, that elusive pursuit of peace spiralled into an all-pervasive hypochondria and increasing dependence on barbiturates and countless other pills he persuaded numerous doctors to prescribe for him - and an early death. Salinger, by all accounts not nearly so gentle and likeable a man, also sought solace in pills and potions that were bizarre and faddish rather than deadly.

To the rest of us, The Catcher in the Rye and Gould's 1955 interpretation of the Goldberg Variations were great artistic achievements of the 20th century. To Salinger and Gould, however, each was born of adversity and led to yet more adversity, from which both felt forced to flee. That was the price paid by both men for such astonishing artistry: lifelong banishments into what the media so jeeringly dismiss as "seclusion".

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Cameron Street