J.D. Salinger Revisited: "Young Girl, Get Out of My Mind"

As we pass the two-year anniversary of J.D. Salinger's death, why is it that no one remarks on the obvious? In his life and in his fiction, Salinger had a predilection for young girls and women that, at least from a 21st century lens, does not seem all that healthy.

The first story in Salinger's collection, Nine Stories, includes a scene at a beach with a "young man" (in his twenties) and a little girl. She is described as wearing a two-piece bathing suit that she would "not be needing" for nine or ten years. That's slightly creepy coming from a grown guy. But he knows her by name, and our inner parent lets out a sigh of relief -- until he compliments her again on her bathing suit. Soon he is holding her hand as they walk further down the beach where they go swimming together, and, in an intensely described scene, he helps her float by holding her ankles.

A story or two later in the collection we find a soldier in World War II, who, after reading some letters from his wife, goes out for tea. He encounters a governess and her ten-year-old charge. The little girl is quite friendly, and wears anklets and has "lovely" feet. When it's certain they'll talk, the soldier becomes concerned about the gap in his teeth, and the color of his mustache. Weirdness Alert: why, when about to talk to a young girl, would a grown man be concerned about his looks?

And if you look closely at Catcher In The Rye, there are odd moments of Holden watching the skater, or sitting in his young sister's bedroom -- Holden with his gray hair, remember. But an Existentialist reading, in full critical flower when Salinger was publishing and still fragrant in his work today, forgives almost everything. It's all about "alienation," his fans maintain. Okay. But these facts remain: about 75 percent of Salinger's fiction centers on characters under the age of 21, and of that, about half on girls under the age of twelve.

Salinger's predilections manifest themselves as well in his life -- his marriages and well-publicized affairs. When he was 53, he initiated a relationship with an 18-year-old whose writing he had "noticed" and complimented in a personal letter. When he was 62 he married his last wife, who was 22. Somewhere in between, the famous recluse was "tricked" into an interview by a New Hampshire high school girl, who innocently published the interview in the school newspaper -- a betrayal in Salinger's mind -- and one that perhaps sealed his seclusion.

But who am I to argue with of the most famous writers in the world? I do know one thing: writing as Salinger did about "youth" in the 1950's, a male writer today would likely be on thin ice with sharp-eyed women readers, if not anti-pedophile zealots. But, perhaps in a nod to the times in which he wrote -- one could say the end of male literary privilege -- his obituaries were evasive and oblique on the topic. The United Kingdom's Mail Online (January 29, 2010) was boldest: "... Along with [Salinger's] quest for total seclusion went a predilection for teenage girls -- not so much a Lolita syndrome as an urge to discover innocence and then mould it to the shape he wished." The New York Times (January 28, 2010) remarked on this matter only that "Mr. Salinger frequently dealt with the subject of precocious youth."