Time for the Salinger Estate to Come Clean

Scrutinizing culture.
June 27 2013 7:32 AM

Salinger, the Swamis, and the Secrets

New letters shed light on J.D. Salinger’s spiritual life—and reinforce the need for his estate to come clean about what, if any, works remain locked in the vault.

Author J.D. Salinger poses for a portrait as he reads from his classic American novel "The Catcher in the Rye".
Author J.D. Salinger poses for a portrait as he reads from his classic American novel The Catcher in the Rye on Nov. 20, 1952, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

Photo by Antony Di Gesu/San Diego Historical Society/Hulton Archive Collection/Getty Images

I’m standing outside an imposing four-story graystone townhouse. Located on a leafy, blossoming block of East 94th Street in Manhattan, it’s the headquarters and worship center of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Society, the spiritual home to J.D. Salinger during his mystifying Silent Years. The home to his late guru, Swami Nikhilananda, a name I’m sure you know but one I only just learned from reading some Salinger letters recently donated to the Morgan Library by the swamis from the Center here.

Not those letters—the ones that got the most media attention recently—a cache of charmingly flirtatious missives Salinger wrote to a young woman in Toronto in the early ’40s, when he was just getting his stories published, before he shipped out for infantry combat in Europe. They got most of the attention for their gossipy content (inside stuff about The New Yorker!).

No, I’m speaking of the other cache of newly acquired letters at the Morgan, which the Times didn't even mention: the deeply serious, spiritually oriented letters Salinger wrote to the swamis here, donated to the library just a month before the flirty ones. They didn’t make as much of a splash, but to my mind they go to the heart of the matter, the heart of Salinger’s mind. They testify to the state of Salinger’s soul in his Silent Years: the half-century or so following the explosive mid-’50s success of The Catcher in the Rye, when he retreated from the world, secreted himself on a hidden hilltop cottage above a tiny New Hampshire town, stopped responding to an ever more demanding and feverish fanhood and press. Retreated aesthetically into an ever more hermetic fictional universe that diminished to the dimensions of an Upper West Side apartment inhabited by a super-precocious family named Glass whose increasingly narrowed focus was on the oldest of seven children, the mystical windbag and spiritual suicide, Seymour. Increasingly incoherent fictions clogged with a smorgasbord of half-digested chunks of Eastern mysticism. Culminating in his Finnegans Wake, the last story he published while alive, “Hapworth 6, 1924,” a story that appeared in The New Yorker in 1965 and was followed by 45 years of not publishing. Though apparently still writing but denying to the world whatever it was he’d written.

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Could he have realized he had painted himself into a corner with his incessant, increasingly verbose, even frantic attempts to badger us into believing in the seer-like wisdom of Seymour Glass? The struggle to anoint Seymour as Holy Man incarnate seemed to reach a peak of ludicrous fervor in that final “Hapworth” story, which consisted, in the main, of a 25,000-word “letter from camp” purportedly written by 7-year-old Seymour, parading an impossible erudition and supposedly giving us the full flavor of his prodigious wisdom and spiritual prodigality.

That was what was so tantalizing about all the rumors about the never-seen ghost manuscripts Salinger supposedly produced in the Silent Years, when he was said to be working steadily. In an email, his most recent biographer, Kenneth Slawenski, told me he believes Salinger completed, or nearly completed, at least two novels. Letters and memoirs have depicted Salinger adhering to a dawn-’til-dusk writing schedule all those years with the typewritten pages said to be piled up in a vault somewhere.

Tantalizing because they raise the question: Was Salinger struggling for 45 years to paint himself out of that corner, to extricate himself from Seymour worship? Or was he painting himself further and further in, trying to make Seymour live up to his impossible billing?

Were the ghost manuscripts straight out of The Shining: “All work and no play makes Seymour a dull boy”? (Could Seymour possibly be more dull than he already is?) I’d been tracking the question of the ghost manuscripts—do they exist, will they ever see the light of day—for some time. And recent developments put me back on the case, this time with a new approach. A direct appeal, like the one I used with the Nabokov estate.

My renewed interest began with an email request from the writer Thomas Beller who, in the course of completing his biography of Salinger had come upon my most recent Slate story on Salinger and asked me for the URL of a now-defunct Hungarian website that had once hosted some of Salinger’s early uncollected stories, which I got to read before the site was taken down. Salinger had long sought to disappear what he considered his imperfect early work. (I still had the Hungarian URL, now 404-ed.) Beller and I discussed the question of whether one of those stories “Go See Eddie”—no longer available—might have portended a road not taken in Salinger’s fiction.

A more sexy direction, perhaps, as suggested by Renata Adler in a memoir in which she recounted Salinger telling her that he stopped writing for The New Yorker because he wanted to write more about sex and he believed William Shawn was too puritanical to countenance it in his pages. (I believe Adler's story; anyway, I like the idea of Salinger writing about sex—as long as it's not Seymour sex).

And then there were the reports of a forthcoming Salinger documentary (and associated book), which promised new “revelations.” And finally, I learned about—and read—the overlooked Morgan Library Swami letters, which led me here, to the sidewalk outside the Ramakrishna Center. And left me with a dilemma: Would I be, in effect, spying on Salinger’s departed soul by entering into his swami’s domain for the worship service about to begin?

I had learned to be careful with the wishes of departed literary eminences. My initial purpose in going to the Morgan, where I encountered the swami letters, was to seek to do for the Salinger estate what I had done for the Vladimir Nabokov estate. Slate readers might recall the series of stories I wrote to persuade the late writer’s son Dmitri to cease his three decades of dithering and finally make a decision as to whether he would burn his father’s last incomplete draft of a novel (The Original of Laura) as his father had instructed him—or publish it. (By the time Dmitri went ahead and published it and thanked me in the acknowledgements for the campaign I’d waged, I had decided it was a mistake; he should have burned it.)

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