Arts/Literature

WordsDay: writers who hide, hid, have hidden, or are hiding…

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Too much success can ruin you as surely as too much failure. – Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando has long been considered the greatest American actor, perhaps the greatest actor from anywhere, of the 20th century.

He was most famous for not wanting to act.

Much of his career after his initial flurry of genius in 6 films (done from 1950-54 beginning with The Men and ending with On the Waterfront) was devoted to finding ways to occupy himself that did not involve practicing his art. He became a tropical island recluse, social activist, and inventor by turns – all to avoid doing the thing that made him famous, wealthy, and acclaimed. His returns to acting were sporadic and fluctuated wildly, sometimes brilliant (The Godfather), sometimes bathetic (The Freshman).

It makes one ask a simple but profound question: What the hell was he thinking?

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I begin with Marlon Brando because he’s a contemporary of the American writer who has proven to be perhaps the most enigmatic of the 20th century – Jerome David Salinger.

You know him as J.D.

Salinger, like Brando, produced a flurry of genius in the 1950’s – from 1951-59 he published 4 slender volumes that make up his oeuvre and on which his reputation rests. The most famous of these is, of course, the seminal bildungsroman for those who have passed through adolescence since its publication, The Catcher in the Rye. That one novel, followed by three books of short fiction: Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, are brilliant depictions of the neuroses of a generation.

But after these 4 books Salinger retreated into seclusion – a seclusion that has now lasted nearly 50 years. And, unlike Brando, while there have been a few Salinger sightings, there has been no more writing – at least, none that we know of….

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There are other cases of disappearing writers, especially in American literature. Ambrose Bierce simply disappeared at the end of his life while chasing adventure during the Mexican Revolution, and B. Travern, a mystery his entire life and career, simply faded into the mists leaving us with, among other fascinating works, his brilliant reworking of Chaucer, The Treasure of Sierra Madre – and this interesting insight into the mind and heart of the artist:

The biography of a creative man is completely unimportant. – B. Travern

And we have (I guess) the cryptic Thomas Pynchon among us today, working at his art, hiding his identity, or at least his image, from media’s incessant pursuit of intrusion. Like Salinger before him, Pynchon seems to have chosen a sort of anti-celebrity. To the masses living in an American Idol fueled culture, such a choice may seem not just foolish but somehow wrong.

Yet these artists who seek to seclude themselves from media’s glare should inspire us. Perhaps from them we should seek to invert Gertrude’s complaint to Polonius so that it says:

More art with less matter….

Categories: Arts/Literature

8 replies »

  1. Inspire us? I don’t know, Jim. It’s impossible to know why these people turned away from their art, but it could be any number of nasty things. Their art could be extremely painful to them, for instance. It could be that reaching that “zone” of concentration where everthing is working triggers emotions and memories that are too painful to bear.

    Or, it could be that they are perfectionists, never able to enjoy anything they accomplish because they are not perfect, and afraid to do anything else because it will be imperfect, and a cause of pain, too.

    Or it could be something else.

  2. Salinger doesn’t owe me anything, of course, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling cheated. I personally can’t imagine hiding from the world this way, but at an abstract level I guess I can also imagine how fed up a genius of that caliber might get.

    I suppose I’m hoping that while he stopped publishing, he kept writing, and that upon his eventual death we’ll get to see what he’s been up to for 50 years. Selfish, maybe, but what am I going to say….

  3. Readers are selfish. For example, I want John McPhee to write more books at a faster pace. (I’m sure he can easily maintain the quality, eh?) When Rex Stout died after 80 or so Nero
    Wolfe novels, I was pissed. I want more.

    Readers feel cheated when talented writers vanish, cut back, etc., all as Jim has described. “How dare you not produce for us!” readers say.

    If those writers weren’t so talented, their mysterious absences would not be noteworthy.

    Thanks, Jim.

  4. Yeah, I hear you guys. I’m hoping that Tom Clancy will write some more love sonnets.

    I miss those.

  5. I pray every day for the continued existence and new writings of P. D. James. Actually, I don’t really care if she’s alive or dead, as long as she’s getting manuscripts to her publisher…

    You know something else that chaps my patootie? When one of my favorites sends out something I enjoy less than his or her previous works. Because it’s all about me, damn it.

  6. On the other hand, Breece D J Pancake will always be a young man with amazing potential, and I think he would have liked it that way.

  7. Sometimes people just move on to something else. Not to compare myself with such august company as the artists Jim cited, but I wrote from age 20 to 30 (sporadically) and then stopped, for the most part, until I was 46.

    Re B Traven: When I was young I greatly enjoyed his book “Ghost Ship.”