Searching for Salinger: Mysterious Authors Who Avoided The Limelight

Searching for Salinger: Mysterious Authors Who Avoided The Limelight

For some authors, literary fame isn’t too different than being an actor or a pop star - the books make headlines in major newspapers, they promote your work on late night TV and in magazine interviews - they might even have your own TikTok account. It’s all part of being a bestselling author. But some authors have refused to give up their anonymity and peace for book sales, successfully avoiding interviews and talk shows, even refusing to make public appearances altogether. Some of these writers, like J.D. Salinger, have been labeled reclusive, creating an image of an author who has locked themselves away from the world to write, and maybe just leaving the house every so often to check the mailbox. Of course, stories of mysterious authors can become their own kind of fame. Everyone loves a good mystery, as well as the idea of a literary genius feverishly typing away at their keyboard, refusing to answer the calls of clamouring journalists and fans.

We’ve rounded up a list of the most famous authors who have eschewed the limelight in favour of a different kind of life. Who is your favourite on this list? Comment below!




 Thomas Pynchon (b.1937)

 Wrote: Gravity’s Rainbow, Crying of Lot 49, V.


 Pynchon’s work has been part of the cultural zeitgeist since in the 1960s. His sprawling novels, whether they are 100 or 600 pages long, are trippy, labyrinthine journeys that continue to inspired and influence authors and filmmakers today. His 2009 novel, Inherent Vice, was made into film by Paul Thomas Anderson in 2014. His last novel, Bleeding Edge, came out in 2013.  His work is complex, sometimes grosteque and bewildering, but always spellbinding. 

Born in Long Island, New York, Pynchon served for two years in the U.S. Navy before returning to Cornell University to complete an English degree. After he graduated, he began working for Boeing airplanes, writing and compiling safety articles for surface-to-air missiles in the U.S. Airforce. His work would strongly influence both V. (1963) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). Both books received stellar reviews, paving the way for the rest of his career.

 Certainly, his decision to remain out of the public eye is an unusual one, but has probably helped to create an interesting notoriety of its own. In the fifty years of his writing career, he has studiously avoided all newspaper reporters, begging and pleading for interviews, and has sent other people to collect awards. The only photos of him are from his high school and Navy days. Some theories even abound that Pynchon’s books are actually the work of some other prominent author, such as J.D. Salinger. This particular theory has, of course, been debunked. But it is still not known what the author’s personal motivations are for avoiding public life. Unfortunately, some reporters and news organisations won’t take “no photographs” for answer, even going so far as to track him down and take pictures of him and his family outside their Manhattan residence. 

Despite the invasions of his privacy, Pynchon seems to enjoy interacting with the media on his own terms, writing into TV shows that mention him to give them some stage direction, and even voicing his own characters on the Simpsons. 



Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Wrote: Poems, such "They Shut Me Up in Prose" and "I'm Nobody"


While Pynchon may be just a best-selling author who avoids fame, Dickinson gradually become, over the course of her adult life, a true recluse - writing prodigiously, maintaining her friendship and correspondence by letter, but mostly confining herself to her room in the family home where she lived.


Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts to a prominent family. She lived all her life on the family estate, and later next to her brother and sister-in-law, who built a house next door. Susan Gilbert, her sister in law, was her closest companion and friend.  She was a voracious reader and enjoyed close friendships with both men and women. She did not begin writing until 1858, following the death of her mother.  Dickinson had already experienced the passings of several friends, and this latest loss sparked in her some desire to write. In the next eight years she would write over eight hundred poems. Little did she know at this time, that she would change the course of literature forever.

Dickinson, despite her formal education, did not feel beholden to the rules of writing poetry, thereby creating something entirely new, using dashes, irregular capitalisation and unusual vocabulary, which capture a sense of immediacy and feeling, like a sudden exclamation of surprise. Scholars and writers continue to be fascinated with her unique style

No one would know or read the majority of her work in her lifetime. Indeed, in her community she was well known for tending to the Homestead’s beautiful gardens and her interest in botany, not for her secret life as a poet. It is only after her premature death that her sister discovered the many volumes of poetry which would comprise her legacy.

When she began writing, Dickinson has already been suffering from a number of health ailments for years.  She was diagnosed by a doctor as having “nervous prostration”, with modern theories positing agoraphobia or even epilepsy. In the 1860s, she experienced a number of household changes which impacted her ability to write. And soon after, she would withdraw completely from public life. She began wearing only white dresses. She would only leave the home when strictly necessary, and at home would communicate with visitors from the other side of her bedroom door. Even when her beloved father died, they performed the memorial service at the Homestead, and Emily listened to with her door cracked open.

Despite her seclusion, she kept up a lively correspondence with her friends and acquaintances, most of whom did not see her in person in the last fifteen years of her life. As her family was well known in the town, her odd behaviour could not escape scrutiny. Her family fiercely guarded her privacy so that she could preserve her peace. And indeed, it was her close and nurturing family who afforded her the ability to withdraw from the world and focus on her poetry. 



J.D. Salinger (1919-2010)

Wrote: The Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey 

No list of mysterious authors would be complete without one of the 20th century's most acclaimed writers, who somehow ascended to literary stardom with one novel and very little public appearances. Like Pynchon, Salinger is less a “recluse”, and more an eccentric who refused to play the media game and did his own thing instead. Unlike Pynchon, his death left more questions than answers. He didn’t publish anything after 1965,  and fans clamoured after his 2010 death to find out whether his heirs would release a cache of unpublished masterpieces. So far, there has been nothing. 

Jerome David Salinger was born in Manhattan, New York. Unsure of what he wanted to do, Salinger enrolled and dropped out of college several times. In 1939, the stars aligned for him when he joined the writing class of Whit Burnett at Columbia University. Something clicked, and he began to write short stories. After several rejections, the New Yorker magazine accepted one of his stories, and thus would start the beginning of a fruitful partnership. 

In 1942, he enrolled the U.S. Army and saw active combat, including the D-Day landings and Battle of the Bulge. He later worked in counter intelligence, interrogating prisoners of war and was party to the liberation of Dachau concentration camp. These traumatic experiences had a marked effect on him for which he was briefly hospitalised for stress The horrors and futility of war would underweight the themes of alienation and disenchantment that would characterise his later writing.  Back in civilian life, Salinger continued publishing stories in the New Yorker, his “breakout” story being "A Perfect Day for Bananafish” in 1948. However, it was his first novel, The Catcher in the Rye, in 1951 that catapulted him to fame. 

The semi-autobiographical story follows the disillusioned Holden, 16 years old and recently expelled from prep school. The book follows his wander around New York, looking for meaning in all the wrong places. The book was an instant success and stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for 30 weeks. It is now a staple of every high school reading list and the favourite novel of every moody teenager with an axe to grind.

Despite the financial success, Salinger balked at literary fame. He moved from New York City to Cornish, a small town in New Hampshire. He would live there for the rest of his life. Despite making plain his wishes to be left alone, he could not escape his devotees. Students from the nearby Dartmouth College would come to Cornish in droves to sneak a look at him. He sued the biographer Ian Hamilton, who had plans to publish a biography of Salinger that included private correspondence. Rumours swirled and those who engaged in “hero worship” may have been shocked or disappointed when the few memoirs published, such as by his daughter Margaret in 2000, detailed his less than perfect personal life.

 His last story was published in the New Yorker in 1965. He ostensibly continued writing right up until his death. In 1996, he was approached by a press to have “Hapworth 16, 1924” published in book form. It was leaked to the press and Salinger got spooked, withdrawing the book permanently. It is not known why. Last year his Son Matt, the executor of his estate, said that he would be finished transcribing his father’s notes shortly. Although it is now impossible to know what to make of that.




Elena Ferrante 

Wrote: The Neapolitan Quartet

A rare few authors are not so much “reclusive” as just entirely mysterious. Ferrante, a pseudonym, is an author has written a best-selling series of book and other novels under complete anonymity. Back when she published her first novel in 1991, Ferrante clearly stipulated that she would not be engaging in any publicity tours that would involve her personally, refusing to accept awards or appear in television or magazine interviews. Such a stance seems completely apposite to achieving literary success, and yet Ferrante has done just that. Does she have the best publicist in the world? It is true as well that her writing speaks for itself. And indeed, her books have benefited from the mystery of her identity. Journalists clamour to interview her, and theories abound as to who she is.

Her most famous novels, The Neapolitan Quartet, follow the lives of two friends growing up in Naples in the 1960s. They endure poverty, get married, leave school, get jobs, have children, growing apart and coming together again as the years go by. They are undoubtably some of the best novels of the 21st century.

 The little information proffered by Ferrante is that she too was born in Naples and her mother was a seamstress. Her knowledge of literature would suggest that she had a classical education, and it is therefore possible to imagine that her life trajectory has mirrored that of her protagonist, the studious Lenu, who as an adult becomes a successful author. 

Several journalists and scholars have undertaken in depth investigations to try and weedle out her identity, even going so far as to propose a male writer and a female translator as possible identities. Their attempts have been denounced as an invasion of the privacy upon which Ferrante herself has insisted, reducing her literary success to a salacious scandal.  

While the story of Ferrante’s true identity is fascinating, one hopes that she will never be revealed - it is much more interesting that way. 




Corman McCarthy (1933-2023)

Wrote: All the Pretty Horses, The Road, No Country for Old Men


McCarthy is another author whose decision not to engage in interviews or publicity did not preclude him from being a bestselling author.  

Mccarthy was born in Rhode Island raised in Tennessee. At the University of Tennessee he fell in love with literature for the first time. After a stint in the Air Force, he continued his English major and published stories in the college paper before dropping out and moving to Chicago. He wrote his first novel, The Orchard Keepers, whilst working in an auto parts warehouse. It was published in 1965, and thus began his literary career. 

In the early days it wasn’t lucrative, but McCarthy had already arrived at his ideals. After his first book was published, he made the decision to engage in no other work to get by and focus solely on his writing pursuits. His second wife, Ann DeLisle, described living with McCarthy in an old dairy barn in Tennessee with no money. McCarthy would refuse $2,000 offers to give speaking engagements, stating that “everything he has to say was there on the page”. 

Over the next decades, McCarthy would write the novels that would be considered masterpieces, such as Blood Meridian. In 1981 he would win the prestigious MacArthur Grant, and reviewers were comparing his books to William Faulkner and the Iliad.  Despite these accolades, he remained fairly “unknown”, with modest book sales and living out of the public eye.  When he was put on the Times 100 Best Novels Since 1923, the reporter who sought him out found him living in a simple stone cottage behind a El Paso shopping mall. When he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Road, he sent Knopf editor Sonny Mehta in his place to accept it. He was always determined to not give in to the conventions of being a celebrated author 

His most perhaps most prominent and out of character interview was in 2007 on Oprah’s show.  He and Oprah had met previously at the SanteFe Institute, a multi-disciplinary research centre. He was the only non-scientist working there, and published his first non-fiction writing, an essay called “The Kekulé Problem” in 2017. He spoke often of preferring the company of scientists, saying he didn’t know any authors. He never owned a computer, writing over 5 million words on a second-hand Olivetti Lettera 32 that he had bought for $50.

There is perhaps no writer more American, and less so in some ways, than McCarthy. How he ever ascended to such literary heights is the miracle of his superlative work. 

Each of these wildly different authors has one thing in common - a totally uncompromising choice to live by their own ideals, even if it means risking career or fame in the process. For these few, their anti-social ways did not hinder their literary fortunes, and in some cases might have increased it. They shine a light on the increasingly demanding ways we expect authors to appear. It is worth considering whether the Vanity Fair pieces and talk show appearances should be part of the job at all. Whether they or their publicity team do the heavy lifting, we are grateful to have their works there for us to read and enjoy. 

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