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.

What if, like Nabokov, he decides that it's not finished? What if Salinger—perhaps prompted by Dmitri's decision to contravene his father's wishes posthumously—decides to take action before he dies? And by "action" I mean consigning years of work to the flames so no opportunistic estate can decide to enrich itself at his expense by publishing it. It comes down to the question of how much control a writer should have over the fate of his work, particularly his unfinished work, after he dies.

While I've come to disagree with Dmitri Nabokov's decision about Laura—I think a writer's greatness should not, paradoxically, deprive him of a right we accord to ordinary humans, the right to have their deathbed wishes observed—Salinger is still alive and, who knows, might be open to persuasion, which is what I'd like to try.

Before getting into my proposal about the Salingermanuscript mystery, a few more words about Holden and the so-called "copy-cat" book Salinger opposes. I can see arguments on both sides. Some might say Holden Caulfield has escaped the novel to become an independent cultural entity like Huck Finn, available for other novelists to use as they see fit. But I'm sympathetic to Mark Helprin's recent argument in Digital Barbarism that our default position should be in favor of writers, which means being in favor of copyright enforcement.

Writing is hard; memorable writing like Salinger's, even harder. His writing made him sweat blood. You can feel it in the later work, not always to its advantage, admittedly, but it's there, the blood, sweat, and tears.

It's pretty remarkable—amazing, isn't it, when you think about it—that he stopped publishing when he was only 46, half a lifetime ago. He stopped publishing but may not have stopped writing. For all we know, he may be withholding what will turn out to be the eighth wonder of American letters. Or not.

And why would someone as publicity-intolerant as Salinger go to the trouble (ultimately, if the case goes far enough, he might even have to testify in public) of suingthe author of the Holden sequel? Perhaps because he still cares about the character and the way it's been read and he doesn't want any more naive misreadings—by pro- or anti-Salingerites—to distort the nature of his work.

Indeed, these misreadings may be the problem that caused Salinger to retreat from the world in the first place. The cult that reads The Catcher in the Rye as an endorsement of Holden Caulfield's callow, purist point of view and obsessively badgered Salinger as a kind of guru could have driven him into hiding. In fact, I once wrote a piece in which I essentially blamed the assassination of John Lennon on the misreading of Catcher by assassin Mark David Chapman, who carried around a copy of the book and proclaimed that he had killed Lennon because he'd become a "phony," just like the ones Holden hated. Of course, anyone who brings to Catcher a somewhat more sophisticated sensibility than Mark David Chapman, an awareness that novelists often use unreliable narrators and, you know, ironic distancing, can see that it's a novel about the conflict between Holden's naive and narcissistic juvenile romanticism (the world is full of "phonies"—duh!) and the kind of accommodations he needs to make to its corruption to survive.

Is Salinger a recluse because of his misguided cult? Or because of his own oversensitivity? That was a question I addressed back when it was first announced, about a dozen years ago, that he was going to allow "Hapworth" to be published in hardcover. (Copies of the New Yorker version circulated like sacred relics; I called it "the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Salinger cult.") It would have been a small step, since it had already been published in a magazine and wasn't a new work, but I hoped maybe he was testing the waters for new material.

But then a heavyweight critic published a pre-emptive attack on "Hapworth." An attack that seemed to be as much an attack on the Salinger mystique as it was an attack on the work. (Late Salinger is like late James: Sure, it's mannered, but it is what it is. Should he have started writing like Cormac McCarthy?) And after that, plans for publication of "Hapworth"—or anything else—evaporated. The sad episode ended with nothing old or new forthcoming in the succeeding dozen years and nothing likely to come out while he's alive.   

Shortly after the Hapworth incident, I wrote a story about Salinger's silence, about driving up to New Hampshire to seek out Salinger's house, a kind of iconic American literary pilgrimage. It was a story about finding the house on the hill, and then just standing outside the verge of his driveway unable to cross and transgress his privacy. And, finally, being unable to resist writing a letter to Salinger in a nearby Denny's, calling attention to my explication of "the sound of one hand clapping" as adumbrated in the opening paragraph of his short story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." (You might recall the story opens with the soon-to-be-suicide Seymour Glass' wife waving her hand back and forth to dry her nails. One hand clapping! That's allegedly the answer to the Zen koan: Make that one-hand-waving gesture and you get … silence.)

I know: This is the kind of obsessiveness that probably scares him. But I did offer one amusing factoid about Salinger in the story that I still think holds up in a way. A woman I know stood in line behind him at a grocery store and discovered he was buying … doughnut holes! Those round balls of sugary fried dough. Doughnut holes: the junk-food equivalent of the sound of one hand clapping.

Anyway, I wrote the story as a tribute to the power of Salinger's emblematic resistance to the publicity-industrial complex (my coinage!). I called his silence, this repudiation of celebrity culture, "his most powerful, his most eloquent, perhaps his most lasting work of art." But a few dolts misread it in a simple-minded Mark David Chapman way because it did not fit their preconceived image of a celebrity profile. It was an anti-celebrity profile! The misreading made me understand Salinger's anger: Why put up with idiots when he could write as he pleased and let the misguided hacks hack away at him when he was dead? He had a vision and he had a right to pursue it his way.

But every time I wrote about Salinger I used to get into nervous discussions with my old friend Jonathan Schwartz, a writer and radio man, who was convinced Salinger was writing but worried that he might decide to destroy it all out of pique. We both fantasized about someone breaking in and saving the manuscripts. And in fact I just learned that a Kindle book has just been published called J.D.: The Plot To Steal J.D. Salinger's Manuscripts. I want to make clear I don't approve, but clearly the cult is getting antsy.

How is Salinger's silence different from Nabokov's burn notice? For one thing Nabokov is dead but his wish was unequivocal. Salinger is alive and equivocal. Or if not equivocal, certainly withholding, uncommunicative. But at least we have a chance to communicate with him.

There is also a critical difference between the two finicky writers: Nabokov was a finisher. Look how many dozens of books he wrote in two languages in his life. True, he tried to burn Lolita. (It was saved only by his wife.) True, he was a perfectionist, but, I'd argue, one who came to recognize that there was a time finally to publish. That a work was, at a certain point, as perfect—as perfectly Nabokovian—as it would ever get. Salinger seems—in his parentheses-choked later works, at least—to believe he could never get as Salingerian as he wanted. And that his work had to be not as good as he could make it but as good as God could make it. Which suggests nothing can ever be truly finished. Maybe that's his problem.

You might ask why it will be important to read whatever Salinger leaves behind. I think it will certainly be more important to our understanding of Salinger than Laura's note cards will be to our understanding of Nabokov.

Forty-odd years of work in silence! It feels like a tragedy or, at least, a mystery: Was he inscribing more and more on less and less like biblical angels-on-pinhead types? Or did he take off and grow and soar in some way beyond our expectations?

I don't think Salinger was anywhere near what novelist Nabokov was at his best, but he published only one novel. Who knows what he was capable of?

So here's my plea: Mr. Salinger, forgive me my genuinely earnest and well-meaning if intrusive-sounding request, but could you reassure us that—if you have been writing all this time—we'll get to see some of it before … we die?

Must I drive up to New Hampshire and put another letter in his mailbox? Anyway, I started reading Catcher again. It's still good. If you don't misread it.

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