In Defense of Privacy: The 20th Century’s Most Reclusive Authors


A few years back, when Denis Johnson refused to do press for his novel Tree of Smoke, which went on to win the National Book Award, it was considered newsworthy. (Note: He has since vowed “to learn how to interact with people.”) But in an age where widespread self-promotion (and in many cases, oversharing) is just 140 characters away, the idea of a reclusive author seems both counter-intuitive and strangely romantic. Inspired by Harper Lee’s recent chocolate-fueled assault by a British tabloid reporter, we decided to examine why a few authors of a certain age chose to shut themselves away from the media, and in some cases, from publication and society, as well.

Marcel Proust The French novelist/social climber was a fixture of Paris salon society up until the turn of the century, but a series of personal events — his brother’s marriage and the deaths of both his parents — along with his deteriorating health and crippling asthma, turned Marcel Proust into a something of a recluse for the final 17 years of his life.

And we’re not just talking a reformed party boy. Proust, who soundproofed his studio with cork walls and installed layers of heavy curtains to keep the light out, would stay up for days on end working on his 3,200-page masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. When greeting guests, he was often unsure of whether it was day or night. As his writer friend Leon-Paul Fargue described him at the time: “He looked like a man who no longer lives outdoors or by day, a hermit who hasn’t emerged from his oak tree for a long time.”

Before he died of pneumonia and a pulmonary abscess in 1922, there was a three year period where Proust rarely (if ever) left his apartment. Dramatic, for sure, but he’s got nothing on Ms. Emily Dickinson, who didn’t leave her family compound for 20 years.

J.D. Salinger When Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, it was an instant commercial success, and its slang-spouting central character, Holden Caufield, was catapulted into pop culture’s collective subconscious. This didn’t sit well with Salinger, who tired of fame almost instantly, requesting that his photo be removed from the dust jacket of future editions and his agent burn any fan mail. By 1953, he’d relocated from midtown New York City to New Hampshire — “a 90-acre compound on a wooded hillside in Cornish,” which he rarely left outside of the occasional vacation to Florida or back to NYC to meet with his editor friend William Shawn at the old Biltmore Hotel.

His output slowed, and then stopped. After Nine Stories came out in 1953, Salinger didn’t publish another book until 1961 — Franny and Zooey, a collection of work previously published in The New Yorker. (This is the same year that he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.) Another collection of New Yorker material, Raise High the Roof Beam, came out in 1963. His final new work to appear in print (at least of his own volition) was “Hapworth 16, 1924,” a 25,000-word story that ran in the June 19, 1965, issue of The New Yorker.

While many journalists sought him out over the years, Salinger only broke his silence over the issue of the unauthorized publication of his uncollected stories in 1974. In a conversation with a New York Times reporter, he explained: “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure… I pay for this kind of attitude. I’m known as a strange, aloof kind of man.”

In 1984, Salinger reportedly turned down a request from British literary critic Ian Hamilton to pen his biography, saying he had “borne all the exploitation and loss of privacy I can possibly bear in a single lifetime.” Hamilton went ahead with the project, and the two ended up in court over the use of material from unpublished letters. Salinger won.

Salinger stuck to his code of privacy and seclusion even in death. When he passed away in January of this year, his literary agents said in a statement that “in keeping with his lifelong, uncompromising desire to protect and defend his privacy, there will be no service, and the family asks that people’s respect for him, his work and his privacy be extended to them, individually and collectively, during this time.” As he’d told them before, he believed that “he was in this world but not of it.”

Thomas Pynchon

While you could argue that Pynchon is just as much of a recluse as Salinger was, there’s definitely more of a sense of humor and some showmanship behind his man of mystery act. To wit, he has made three animated appearances on The Simpsons, once with a bag over his head to blurb a novel written by Marge (“Thomas Pynchon loved this book, almost as much as he loves cameras!”).

Here’s what we know: Pynchon was born in 1937 on Long Island, New York. After a brief stint studying engineering physics at Cornell, he joined the Navy. When he returned to Cornell two years later he became an English major. Vladimir Nabokov was one of his professors. Pynchon graduated in 1959 and began work as a technical writer at Boeing, before eventually switching to fiction writing and moving to Mexico. His first novel, V, was published to critical acclaim in 1963, and he won the Faulkner Award. When Time sent a photographer to Mexico City to snap his picture, a mustachioed Pynchon reportedly hopped on a bus and rode off into the mountains.

That’s when biographical details get a little sketchy. Pynchon spent some time in both New York and Mexico before moving to California for most of the ’60s and early ’70s, where he lived in Berkeley, Manhattan Beach, and Aptos. When he won the National Book Award for Gravity’s Rainbow in 1974, Pynchon sent comedian Irwin Corey to accept the prize on his behalf, and many people present mistakenly thought it was the author.

Rumors started to swirl about why Pynchon — at this point a literary superstar — wanted to remain anonymous. Some said he was J.D. Salinger. (Pynchon’s response? “Not bad. Keep trying.”) Some thought he was linked to Wanda Tinasky, a woman writing angry letters about other famous writers to a paper in Northern California. (Pynchon broke his media silence to tell CNN, “I did not write those letters. This has been a hoax that I’ve had nothing to do with. I’m sorry it’s gone on as long as it has.”)

Until New York Magazine tracked him down in 1996 (using an online service that cross-referenced credit card and telephone numbers), no reporter had interviewed Pynchon in four decades. By this time, he had been back in New York for six years or so, and embracing a very low-key lifestyle. According to the piece, “He shops at neighborhood stores. He lunches with other writers. He spends weekends in the countryside with his family.”

The following year, a CNN camera crew tracked him down near his Manhattan home, but then honored his request not to run the footage: “Let me be unambiguous. I prefer not to be photographed… My belief is that recluse is a code word generated by journalists … meaning, ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters.'” On a similar note, the following year over 120 letters that Pynchon had written to his longtime agent from 1963 to 1982 were donated to the Morgan Library. At his request, they agreed to seal these letters until after his death.

The past decade has seen Pynchon opening up… a bit. There were those aforementioned appearances on The Simpsons. In 2006, he publicly came to the defense of his writer friend Ian McEwan, who had been accused of plagiarism. And just last year, he provided the voiceover in a trailer for his newest release, Inherent Vice. Or at least we think that it was him…

Cormac McCarthy

Can you really be considered a reclusive author if you agree to go on Oprah? We’re going to go with yes, but only if the last interview you did was with the New York Times over 15 years prior, and you’ve never done a TV appearance before.

In many ways, Cormac McCarthy’s career arc (and subsequent reclusive lifestyle) is the opposite of what we saw with Salinger; while his first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was published in 1965, it wasn’t until the publication of National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award-winner All The Pretty Horses in 1992 that he received widespread recognition. In fact, that NYT profile — which McCarthy did only because his agent promised it would be the only interview he’d have to do for years — sums him up rather nicely.

“It would be hard to think of a major American writer who has participated less in literary life. He has never taught or written journalism, given readings, blurbed a book, granted an interview. None of his novels have sold more than 5,000 copies in hardcover. For most of his career, he did not even have an agent. “

But it was really a pair of works that followed — No Country For Old Men (2005) and The Road (2006) — that made McCarthy a household name. The former was adapted by the Coen Brothers into an Academy Award-winning film; the latter also became a film, but more importantly, took home the Pulitzer Prize for literature and was the April 2007 selection for Oprah’s Book Club. In his appearance on her show, McCarthy — who lives in Sante Fe with his wife and their young son — explained to Oprah that he prefers the company of scientists to other writers.

Harper Lee

It’s kind of funny that a writer who grew up as the best friend of Truman Capote would shy away from the limelight, but that’s just what Harper Lee did. Following the 1960 publication of To Kill A Mockingbird, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the following year, Lee avoided interviews, public appearances, and to a certain degree writing for public consumption, outside of a few short essays and an incomplete second novel called The Long Goodbye. (There was also talk in the mid-80s of a non-fiction book about an Alabama serial murderer, but that was reportedly put aside as well.)

As she explained in a 1964 interview with author Roy Newquist:

“I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.”

Lee broke her more than four decade long silence in 2006. For years she’d ventured out to the University of Alabama for the presentation of annual awards to high school students for a To Kill a Mockingbird essay contest; this time around she agreed to do an interview with the New York Times, but would only talk about the ceremony itself. The following year, Lee was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bush.

Most recently, Lee — who at 84, is still said to handwrite polite refusals for interview requests – was accosted in Monroeville by a journalist from The Daily Mail bearing a box of chocolates. Her totally amazing response to the invasion of privacy: “We’re just going to feed the ducks, but call me the next time you are here. We have a lot of history here. You will enjoy it.”

Best polite fuck you ever.