J. D. Salinger has been a mystery for more than fifty years. He was an elusive author pretty much as soon as his first book, The Catcher in the Rye, was published in 1951, and he remained so when he died of natural causes on January 27, 2010, in New Hampshire at the age of 91.

A new book and film about him has put him back in the limelight. Jerry would have been pissed off.

When Salinger came home from Europe in World War II, he began work on The Catcher in the Rye.   It was an immediate bestseller.

J. D. SalingerHe wasn’t pleased by all the attention it focused on him and eventually retreated to his Cornish, New Hampshire home.

The book was banned in several countries and some U.S. schools because of its subject matter and obscenities. In the 1970s, several U.S. high school teachers who assigned the book were fired or forced to resign. According to Wikipedia,  a 1979 study of censorship noted that The Catcher in the Rye “had the dubious distinction of being at once the most frequently censored book across the nation and the second-most frequently taught novel in public high schools” (after John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men).

The book remains widely read. It still sells more than 250,000 copies per year and overall has sold more than 65 million copies. I’m sure this year will be a bonus year.

Salinger walled his property from the world and only published three more books. None were novels. His second book was a story collection, Nine Stories.  Franny and Zooey is two long stories and so is the final book was  Raise High the Roof Beam, and Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.

That last story is presented in the form of a letter from camp written by a seven-year-old Seymour Glass (the main character of  Salinger’s story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”).

In structure, this is the same as Salinger’s earlier unpublished story, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” which he wrote more than twenty years earlier.  After the story’s appearance in The New Yorker, Salinger stopped publishing altogether.

There were no more Salinger books and he became even more withdrawn from public life.  Every once and awhile there would be a grainy photo of him in Cornish shot through a long lens or an article about his lawyers trying to stop (usually successfully) reprints of his work and books about his life.

The story was always that although he was in a self-imposed retirement, he was always writing. he just had no interest in publishing.

Salinger told The New York Times in 1974 that he wrote daily, though only for himself. “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing,” he said.

But we never saw any of that writing, so there were also rumors that he could no longer write.

Now that seems to have changed. Since Salinger’s death, two authors have done interviews around the world and have talked to people who had earlier refused to go on the record about their relationship with Salinger.

Their oral biography has resulted both in a book and film .

David Shields and Shane Salerno gained access to more than 100 never-before-published photographs diaries, letters, legal records, and secret documents. Salinger is the new J.D. Salinger biography that came out this month. A film by the same title was also released to theaters. (In January 2014, it will air on PBS as an installment of American Masters.

The authors say that starting between 2015 and 2020, a series of posthumous Salinger releases are planned.  One of the Salinger books would center on “Catcher” protagonist Holden Caulfield and his family, including a revised version of an early, unpublished story “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans.”

Other volumes will focus on Salinger’s World War II years and his immersion in Eastern religion.  Another, referred to as “The Family Glass,” is about the family of Seymour, his parents and siblings, including those found in Franny and Zooey and the later Salinger works.

There were always hints in the early uncollected and unpublished stories. I sought those out in library basements and later online. “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” is one of those unpublished stories and it is about the death of Holden Caulfield’s brother, Kenneth. (Kenneth later became Allie in The Catcher in the Rye.) It was a story set to be published in Harper’s Bazaar, but Salinger withdrew the story before publication.

When I was trying to read all the unpublished stories, I found out that just down the road from my Rutgers campus, that story existed in manuscript form at the Princeton library. Of course, you have to read it while supervised behind the closed doors of a special reading room. Salinger donated the manuscript to Princeton under strict conditions and it cannot be published until 50 years after his death in 2060.

I never got past the guards.

I almost made the pilgrimage to Cornish one college summer to see if I could see Salinger’s house or the man himself. I did find the house, saw the wall, but nothing else. I hung out around town and went to places like the post office that were supposedly places Jerry sometimes ventured out to visit. No action the day I was there.

That story contains a letter from Holden to Kenneth and people have written that this is also the device in “Hapworth 14, 1924.”  That long story (novella?) is a long letter from seven-year-old Seymour Glass while at summer camp. It was  his first new work published in six years. I was able years later to buy a beat up copy of the June 19, 1965 issue of The New Yorker. that it filled up. The story was critically panned and even as a fan, I found it boring.  Not a fan of the epistolary story or novel.

The documentary, Salinger (a film by Shane Salerno), does not name a prospective publisher for all these remaining books or stories.  Salinger’s son, Matt Salinger (an actor), who helps run the author’s literary estate, has not commented on publications or whether Salinger’s publisher, Little, Brown, would offer the new books.

In the mid-1990s, Salinger had actually agreed to allow a small Virginia-based press, Orchises, to issue his novella “Hapworth 16, 1924” which had appeared in 1965, but after news leaked of the planned publication, Salinger changed his mind and it was canceled.

The Salinger estate, run partly by his son and Salinger’s widow, Colleen O’Neill, has remained silent on the subject since the author’s death. They are two people who did not cooperate with Salerno and Shields for their book or film.

The new book is 700 pages and I haven’t gotten very deeply into it. I have jumped around looking at parts that have always interested me.  I always wondered about his World War II years. I had heard that he met – and was unimpressed with – Ernest Hemingway. The book has an interview with Jean Miller, who, as a teen,  inspired his story “For Esmé – With Love and Squalor.”

Those two areas are interesting. The authors’ take on his WWII experiences is that he was deeply traumatized by war.  And, as was evident in bits of news that came out and then in a several books, he had a fascination for teenage girls that he saw as innocent. I guess he did want to be that catcher in the rye that could stop them from falling off the crazy cliff into phony adulthood. If that Peter Pan idea reminds you a bit of Michael Jackson, I felt the same way.

From Catcher:

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”

Teenage girls from Oona O’Neill in the 1940s to Joyce Maynard in the 1970s (who wrote a book about him and their relationship) were certainly a part of his life – and a part that seems pretty creepy.

There is an interview with Mark David Chapman, who cited “Catcher” as a reason he murdered John Lennon in 1980, which I have avoid reading.

I’m sure J.D, would have hated the film and book and would have tried his best to block their publication and release.  Salinger never authorized a biography, but there have been unauthorized books. One of those was written by Ian Hamilton, but in 1987, Salinger successfully blocked release of J.D. Salinger: A Writer’s Life based on Hamilton’s use  of previously unpublished letters. Hamilton turned the legal battle into In Search of J. D. Salinger, published in 1988.

Are all the mysteries solved? No. We still want to see the writing and know why he did what he did. The mystery continues.

Advertisements