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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.

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