To Watch or Not to Watch: Working Through the Ethics of SALINGER’S Desired Privacy

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We all have our own relationships to The Catcher in the Rye— our reasons for being moved, or [for a few] not moved by Holden Caulfield’s cheeky narrative. For some, Catcher was the first book they’d completed since picture books. For me, it was the first book  I was assigned that I could actually relate to.

This seems odd, I’m sure; the first time I engage in a literary relationship, with the classroom as my setting, and it’s with a New York, prep school, white male, who’s working through his adolescence in 1950s America- but hey, pickins’ were slim in my Eurocentric education, and for me, Caulfield was all that. And like so many other readers, the keep-it-real approach of Caulfield was a refreshing discovery for my 14 year old self. Though there were times when I doubted the “truth” in his storytelling, Caulfield’s inability to easily fit into his world was relatable to a Black/mixed girl attending a predominately Euro-American and Asian/Asian-American high school. Our backgrounds and experiences were vastly different, yet there were many relatable emotions linking our humanity.

The  experience I had with my high school reading of Catcher has always been one of those break-out literary moments that stand out in my memory. When I read it again in the summer of ’09, I became more intrigued with the writer who made this possible. I was surprised to discover that Salinger was still alive at the time (he died a year later at the age of 91), and became more and more intrigued with the absence of information on him. As Salinger fans know, he became extremely private after writing of The Catcher in the Rye, and there wasn’t much information I could find on his life, except that he wanted to remain private.

Now, three years after his death, a biographical book simply called Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno has been made available, and a documentary of the same name will be released in the Bay Area this Friday. Anyone who knows me knows that a documentary about any artist brings me much gratification. I’m extremely curious about  the varying lives that are lived, and the solitary, but creative life of an artist is always both intriguing and inspiring. I am a voyeur, without a doubt.

Now, I have the potential to find out more about the mystery man who was the cause of my first literary affair. And yet, my giddiness is caught up in guilt. Again, I, along with most people, know very little about Salinger, but what I do know is that he desired and demanded privacy. There were numerous legal battles he fought up until the summer before his death, because people were trying to tell their version of Salinger, and/or Salinger’s characters, and for the most part, he won these battles. He was able to protect his right to privacy, in spite of people like myself, salivating to know more about him.

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But now he is dead. Salinger is no longer here to defend his privacy. And with his passing, we get a new biography and documentary, to match, to please our curiosity. So, what do we do? Do we read, or watch, someone else’s version of Salinger, knowing that he, himself, would be furious? Do we convince ourselves that his spirit-self no longer cares for privacy, and understands the “importance” of us knowing more pieces of his identity? Or do we go against the nature of our times of having [undeserved] information at our fingertips, and turn a blind eye to such titillating gossip?

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