Lisa Schwarzbaum explains why the ''Catcher in the Rye'' author was done wrong by his former teen lover

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated June 25, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Joyce Maynard sells J.D. Salinger’s letters for $156,000

When the bidding was over, 14 letters the famous, and famously secretive, J.D. Salinger wrote to Joyce Maynard when he was 53 and she was 18 and newly establishing herself as a self-absorbed blab-it-all, were auctioned off at Sotheby’s this week for $156,000. The sale netted Ms. Maynard, now well established as a self-absorbed blab-it-all, about $140,000 after commission and before taxes, which, she has said, is sorely needed for the single mother to put her three kids through college. The purchaser, software mogul Peter Norton, has announced he would return the letters to Salinger — or, if the legendary hermit would prefer, destroy them.

It would appear, then, that everyone is happy. Although perhaps Maynard is most so — not because her children will have their tuition, but because, once again, she was able to insert her blab-it-all self into public discourse. (Revenge? Well, yes, she scratched that itch too.) The woman who first aimed the spotlight on her own head as a teenager, the incessant autobiographer whose 1998 memoir ”At Home in the World” detailed an affair with Salinger that took place 27 years ago, once again got to say LOOK AT ME!, oblivious to whether our stares signified approval or horror. And we stared.

Memoirs are tossed off like Mad-Libs these days. A few are great, many more are mildly interesting, a few stink. I have no problem with those who publish the stories of their lives, first of all because I’m fascinated by how the psychological need for self-revelation shapes each memoirist’s story, and second because I have no problem ditching a memoir that bores me.

I do, however, have a problem with Maynard’s sale of Salinger’s letters, because the seller is profiting from words that aren’t hers. They belong to another writer, a living writer (a far better, more famous living writer, I may add). And whatever we may think of an eccentric, middle-aged man’s creepy, brief relationship with an impressionable much younger woman, he is entitled to the sanctity of his own stationery. Snail-mail letters — the kind sealed and stamped — represent one of the last outposts of privacy in a culture where e-mail can be endlessly forwarded and even deleted messages linger in the machinery like phantoms, retrievable by everyone from Ken Starr to your boss.

Such distinctions, of course, may be wasted on a writer who shares everything on her own website short of installing a round-the-clock camera. But for the rest of us, the tact involved in sometimes keeping quiet is far more valuable than any temporary financial and publicity gains made by making noise. Of course, Salinger’s daughter has just announced that SHE has written a memoir about growing up with weird old Dad, too. Now, THAT I want to read!