Here are some things we know about J.D. Salinger, author of the classic "Catcher in the Rye".
In World War II he fought across France with American forces. Although proud of his service, it also had a lasting traumatic effect. Today we'd say he had PTSD.
He wrote compelling stories where his young characters were portrayed with uncommon insight and affection.
In real life as an adult he was attracted to a series of barely legal girls and had relationships with several of them. One famous one was Joyce Maynard at a very young-looking age 19, who describes it as part of her memoir, "At Home in the World". He tended to drop these girls from his life as they matured. His girlfriends are discussed too in <this article>. There are further hints about his attractions in his daughter's memoir, "Dream Catcher".
Some people have called him a pedophile for having relationships with 16-year-old girls. Society frowns heavily on such relationships, especially these days. But physically the girls/women were sexually mature. Calling them pedophile relationships is incorrect.
There is no evidence that he forced or blackmailed or intimidated any girls or women into sex. He was if anything more interested in love than sex.
He did not treat his lovers very well, being controlling and emotionally abusive. And yet this had little to do with age, and sadly a great many people do not treat their adult lovers very well. Perhaps there is something worse about having lovers of barely legal age if you are going to mistreat them, but it has nothing to do with pedophilia.
So, if we stop here, what do we make of Salinger? A maker of great art, but also eccentric, self-involved and unkind to lovers. The youth of his lovers attracted criticism in his day and would attract much more now, but they were legal and willing.
Now, stage two.
I feel there is pretty good evidence Salinger was actually a celibate pedophile, most attracted to girls of age 10 or so -- Phoebe's age in Catcher in the Rye. A big part of my conclusion comes from reading his stories. His description of men and girls fits how a lot of us pedophiles think. Holden Caulfield was a pedophile too.
How can I claim he was a pedophile if he never had sex with small girls and only dated women of legal age? Like most pedophiles he had a range of attractions. His barely extended to fully grown women at all, and he naturally chose from among the few who were both attractive and legal. What we see in his life is the right tail of a bell curve.
How a person evaluates my claim depends on assumptions.
If you think pedophiles are monsters, then you see my claim as a vile accusation and character assassination. As such, it should require very strong evidence and be assumed false until proven true. (With this in mind, it is no surprise that his Wikipedia entry doesn't match any search terms related to pedophilia.) I would be sympathetic if my claim was that he was a child sex abuser, but I don't believe he was -- he was child-celibate.
But if you think of pedophilia as just a condition that is not chosen and cannot be changed, then it is just an observation, not an accusation.
If you put emotion aside and entertain the idea that Salinger was a pedophile, how should we think about him differently? Our previous evaluation of him as a complicated person stands -- nothing disappears. What is added?
We can feel grateful that he did not abuse any 10-year-old girls. I think this is worth more a nod than a rousing cheer -- we expect everyone to not take advantage of partners who cannot consent.
We can sympathize more with his pursuit of barely legal teens. It was not some perversion of an attraction to adults -- no desire to dominate, no avoidance of emotional maturity in his partners that might threaten him. It was a noble compromise made against his gut-level desire for even younger girls who were far less appropriate.
I don't know to what extent he was aware of his attraction or whether he named it to himself. But to the extent he was, it could be a partial explanation for why he was so reclusive and private. Society certainly did not want to hear about such an attraction.
That's all I can think of right off that changes.
Instead of adding "pedophile" as a headline, we can add it as one more aspect to a complicated man. Like most people, the strengths and weaknesses of his life were primarily about things other than his sexual attractions and actions.
If we were to enter a debate on whether Salinger was a pedophile, we might talk as much about what it means to be a pedophile as we might about Salinger himself.