Save J.D. Salinger's archives!

Scrutinizing culture.
June 5 2009 6:01 PM

Save the Salinger Archives!

Even if we have to save them from Salinger himself.

Photograph of J.D. Salinger.
J.D. Salinger

Do you know about this new J.D. Salinger lawsuit? True: The number of people who lose sleep over Salinger's strange saga may no longer be enormous, but he still has a cult following, and there are also those of us who—without being cultists—think he's an important figure in American literature whose work (and whose subsequent 45-year-long nonpublishing silence) are both worth paying attention to.

And the new suit focuses on the three great Salinger mysteries: 1) Has he been writing? 2) What will become of what he's written after his death? (He doesn't seem inclined to publish anything before then.) And, finally: 3) If it exists, how good is it?

(How do we know he hasn't just been writing "ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY" all this time in his snowbound New Hampshire digs?)

In the suit, the 90-year-old author seeks the "recall and destruction" (subtly oxymoronic?) of a novel that had been set to be published in the United Kingdom this summer and in the U.S. this fall. The book is 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye by a pseudonymous writer who calls himself John David California.

In the novel, as was first reported by the U.K. Telegraph and then the New York Post and other U.S. outlets, a 76-year-old man called "Mr. C" (who is said to be a stand-in for Salinger's Holden Caulfield character, the troubled and rebellious teenage protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye), escapes from a nursing home, encountering, as part of his travels, "a Salinger-like figure" as he seeks to retrace Holden's youthful steps.

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According to the Post, Salinger—seeing this book as an "unauthorized sequel" to Catcher and a misappropriation of his Holden Caulfield character—not only wants all copies of it "recalled and destroyed"; he also wants cash: "unspecified damages" from the alleged "copy-cat" author, because his copyright "is worth an enormous amount of money."

Here's where the similarities to the recent contretemps over Vladimir Nabokov's last unfinished manuscript, The Original of Laura, occurred to me. (Refresher course: Laura was a draft of a novel that existed only as 138 handwritten index cards—Nabokov's method of initial composition. Before his death, he asked that they be burned. His wife failed to do so, and the decision has come down to his son Dmitri, who, after much agonizing, decided that his father would now want him to contravene his wishes and cash in by permitting publication. The draft is scheduled to be published, with much fanfare, this fall.)

The similarities between the Salinger and Nabokov cases have to do with the disposition of the final works of two of the most distinctive writers of our time. Conflicting accounts have emerged of what Salinger's been doing in the years since the 1965 publication of his last story in The New Yorker, "Hapworth 16, 1924." Since then, he's beenholed up in a hilltop house in New Hampshire, and I've heard unofficial reports that he's produced several novels whose manuscripts—like Laura'shave been stashed in a bank's safe-deposit vault. Or that there are manuscript pages stacked to the ceiling in his house but no certainty about their state of completion.

Other reports make him seem so strange that it's possible he could be typing out the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit over and over again. (Eastern religions played an increasingly important role in his post-Catcher work, starting with the famous epigraph to Nine Stories,the Zen koan: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?") Perhaps he's writing not for publication but for God, which would mean there'd be no need to preserve any material traces of his work. For all we know, he's planning on destroying it—or has already.

But what if there were real stuff up there? Real Salinger-esque stuff. (Wouldn't it be a brilliant jest on us all, for example, if Salinger himself had actually written the Holden Caulfield sequel 60 years later, hired this (apparently) Swedish guy to impersonate the pseudonymous author, then sued himself to insure no one would guess the real author? It reminds me of radio talker John Calvin Batchelor's brilliant stunt: a mock-scholarly speculative essay published in the mid-'70s considering whether Salinger was Thomas Pynchon, who would then have been not a recluse but a pseudonym.)

If there is real manuscript stuff there—and I'm inclined to believe that there is, that he made a decision that he didn't need to publish what he wrote while he was alive—I want to know what will happen to it after his death. As far as we know, no decision has been made.

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