J.D. Salinger and 5 Authors as Reclusive as They Were Famous

Was The Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger interesting because he was so reclusive, or was he reclusive because we took such an interest in him? The author published his one novel in 1951, and several anthologies of shorter work shortly thereafter. When he passed away in 2010, he hadn’t been interviewed since 1980. Until recently, most of what we knew about Salinger derived from court documents and his daughter’s memoir. To call the author mysterious would be a bit of an understatement.

America's hunger for details about Salinger's life may be sated by David Sheids and Shane Salerno's biography about the author, Salinger, which hit bookshelves on Tuesday. The accompanying documentary of the same name, which previewed at Telluride Film Festival on Monday, will have a limited release tomorrow. The book and movie serve up some juicy facts, from promising that new Salinger works will be published in installments from 2015 to 2020, to suggesting that Salinger was deeply ashamed that he was born with one testicle and had a penchant for younger women. Of course, the already fascinating details of Salinger’s life are made even more interesting by his hermit-like nature.

Salinger wasn’t the only author to stay out of the spotlight, or to prefer preferring privacy to celebrity. Here are five other talented authors who had something to hide.

1. Thomas Pynchon

When it comes to reclusiveness, Thomas Pynchon may have J.D. Salinger beat. The author has denied nearly all publicity requests (with one notable exception: he voiced a cartoon version of himself on The Simpsons, which drew him with a paper bag over his head). Few known photos of Pynchon exist, and when Gravity’s Rainbow won a National Book Award in 1973, someone accepted it on his behalf. Pynchon's life has been so shrouded in mystery that people have developed a number of wild theories about his identity over the years, even suggesting that "Thomas Pynchon" is actually Salinger's pen name.

2. Harper Lee

She may have been best friends with attention hound Truman Capote, but the author of To Kill A Mockingbird shied away from the limelight. Lee is notorious for politely declining interview requests. In 2007, she was asked to address the Alabama Academy of Honor, and responded, “Well, it’s better to be silent than be a fool.” Her American classic remains her only published book to date, yet she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007. Talk about getting it right the first time.

3. Bill Watterson

Watterson may not be an author in the traditional sense, but his Calvin and Hobbes is one of the most beloved comic strips of all time. But there is a reason you won’t find an array of Calvin and Hobbes merchandise at your neighborhood Hallmark store, as you would for, say, Snoopy and the Peanuts gang.

Watterson never allowed Calvin and Hobbes merchandise to be produced because he believed such items would, "violate the spirit of the strip, contradict its message, and take me away from the work I loved." Watterson has also been notoriously difficult to track down; a 2010 story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer captures one of few interview requests he has granted since his comic strip ended in 1995.

4. Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson was eccentric, to say the least. Fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime, and it only gets weirder from there. Dickinson didn’t leave her family property for the last two decades of her life, frequently communicated with visitors through her door, and listened to her father’s funeral from the comfort of her own bedroom. 

5. J.K. Rowling

On paper, J.K. Rowling is the antithesis of a mysterious author. Her rags-to-riches tale isn’t just legendary in the literary community, but part of her global celebrity. The Harry Potter books belong to the best-selling series of all time, and Rowling may be the most famous living author.

Yet, even though she lives under a glaring spotlight, Rowling was able to do the unthinkable earlier this year: she published a book under a pen name, and got away with it. Although Rowling was eventually outed as the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling (she had written it under the name Robert Galbraith), it’s amazing that she was able to maintain her anonymity for any time at all.