Literary deaths don’t get any bigger. J.D. Salinger, 91, died at his home on Wednesday, January 27, leaving behind one of the most mysterious and pervasive legacies of any great writer of the twentieth century. When John Updike passed, when David Foster Wallace died, word spread among the hallways pretty quickly at Booklist. But this is something else altogether. People who don’t even read much are writing and calling.
The biggest question for us in the lit world is the one that makes us look the most like vultures: What’s in the vault? Like everyone else, I’m fascinated. Are there a few novels? Seven hundred short stories? Terminator fan fiction?
Over the decades since Salinger stopped publishing, there have been numerous reports of varying degrees of reliability that Salinger did in fact maintain a mythical stash. MSNBC reported today:
“I love to write and I assure you I write regularly,” Salinger said in a brief interview with the Baton Rouge (La.) Advocate in 1980. “But I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it.””
The New York Times repeats a claim made by Joyce Maynard, an ex-lover, writing that she knew of at least two novels in a safe, also adding the following:
As for the fictional family the Glasses, Mr. Salinger had apparently been writing about them nonstop. Ms. Maynard said she saw shelves of notebooks devoted to the family.
And this enticing bit of gossip comes from his daughter’s tell-all, in which she explains her father’s organization system for dealing with his output:
A red mark meant, if I die before I finish my work, publish this ‘as is,’ blue meant publish but edit first, and so on.
It’s nearly impossible to imagine that Salinger didn’t see this coming. As inward as his life had become, he was aware of his status in the world, and was unusually sensitive about it, too. Otherwise, would he have repeatedly withdrawn his plans of publishing Hapworth 16, 1924? Would he have rushed out with such vehemence to squash the publication of the so-called sequel? If he really wanted his unpublished works to vanish entirely, he needed to burn them.
I’m not someone who carries The Catcher in the Rye in his back pocket, but I haven’t been immune to the book’s influence. My favorite teacher in college, the brilliant Jay Holstein, put Catcher right alongside The Old Man and the Sea, The Death of Ivan Ilych, and the Book of Ecclesiastes. Holstein devoured the text. Was Catcher really a book about incest? What secrets were to be unlocked by the name of Holden’s brother, B.D.? There were things going on under the hood that I could only begin to understand; the fact that I understood even that was exciting.
This paragraph from the NYT piece strikes me the most:
In the fall of 1953 Mr. Salinger befriended some local teenagers, and allowed one of them to interview him for what he assumed would be an article on the high school page of a local paper, The Claremont (N.H.) Daily Eagle. The story appeared instead as a feature on the editorial page, and Mr. Salinger felt so betrayed that he broke off with the teenagers and built a six-and-a-half-foot fence around his property.
Maybe he thought that children, only children, could be trusted in this life. And when that was revealed to be untrue, then why not wall himself inside a fortress? It might be lonely in there, but at least there were no phonies. Or were there?