J.D. Salinger—The Great Uncommunicator. The only thing more frustrating than the self-imposed seclusion of one of America’s greatest writers has been the intolerable silence of Salinger’s estate in the two years following his death. During this time there has been no word—and certainly no sentences, paragraphs, short stories, novellas, or novels—about the works (if any) left by Salinger after his death. Oddly, we have learned that a few of his words scrawled on a note were offered for $50,000, but nothing from his relatives as to what literary works he gifted the world at his death. We read article upon article of his toilet being offered for $1 million, yet not a whisper about his unpublished manuscripts.
Is the world being made a literary laughing stock? Is this a prose prank of the worst order? Why has there been no press release telling what literary remains were unearthed after Salinger’s death? What was found beneath his bed and in the dark recesses of his closet? Were there tattered spiral binders filled with handwritten stories on his nightstand? Did they find boxes of unpublished manuscripts under his basement stairs or in a worn attic chest or in a back corner of his writing studio?
If nothing was found, no yellowing manuscripts or half-written chapters of the unassailable thoughts of Holden Caulfield or Seymour Glass, then tell the world and be done with it. On the other hand, if a score of unpublished manuscripts were found, let the world know and rejoice until the glorious day of their publication.
The world is waiting. The world wants to know. To the day, it has been two long silent years since his death on January 27, 2010. That’s 720 days of stillness and longing from a literary world adrift in mediocrity; 1,036,800 minutes of hope and emptiness.
Salinger had a wealth of literary gifts at his disposal, perhaps more than some of the greatest writers that ever lived. He decided to only let us open a few of those gifts, the largest of which he called The Catcher in the Rye. The others he kept us from opening. That was his choice as artist and gift giver. In reference to his privacy Salinger wrote: “It is my rather subversive opinion that a writer’s feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him during his working years.” (“People,” Time, 1961-08-04) In a 1974 interview he confessed: “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing .... I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” (“JD Salinger Speaks About His Silence,” Lacey Fosburgh, The New York Times, 11-03-1974)
Did Salinger actually write after his final publication of “Hapworth 16, 1924” in The New Yorker on June 19, 1965? Fortunately, thankfully, what scant historical record we have to date tells us he did. The manuscripts should be there, somewhere. If nothing has been found, has his estate looked everywhere? Have they dug up soft patches of dirt in Salinger’s backyard? Have they checked the trunk of his old Jeep and the glove box and the center console? Did they visit every bank in a twenty mile radius of Cornish, New Hampshire in search of his rumored safe deposit box? Have area rugs been rolled up to reveal possible trap doors in the floorboards? What about behind air vents and beneath sofa cushions? Has every jot and tittle been collected from the backs of envelopes and margins of newspaper articles? If they have found nothing, they need to look harder and keep looking. They need to never stop.
Ray Bradbury stated in Zen in the Art of Writing that “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” Salinger knew this better than anyone. He continued to write so the world would not destroy him. What evidence we have regarding his continued writing habits is telling. The most direct comes from Salinger himself. In a 1994 letter addressed to Michael Mitchell, the dust jacket artist for the first edition of The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger revealed that he continued to “work on” in a methodical fashion where he kept the “[s]ame old hours, pretty much.” His confession that he kept writing some thirty years after the publication of “Hapworth 16, 1924” gives us bright hope that a treasure trove of manuscripts was found upon his death.
Salinger’s only daughter, Margaret, presented further evidence in her memoir of not only manuscripts, but a color-coded system for future publication: “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.” (Dream Catcher: A Memoir, Margaret Salinger, 2000) Then there is Joyce Maynard who lived with Salinger for 10 months while she was 18 and he was 53. She recounted that he continued to write each morning and that by 1972 he had completed two new novels. (At Home in the World, Joyce Maynard, 1998)
And let’s not overlook Salinger’s protective neighbors in Cornish. One stated that Salinger told him he had written 15 unpublished novels. (“JD Salinger’s Death Sparks Speculation Over Unpublished Manuscripts,” The Telegraph, 01-29-2010) If thoughts of having a new Salinger novel published each of the next 15 years doesn’t send literary chills down your spine, your back is broke.
On September 15, 1961, Time magazine featured Salinger on its cover and reported that he intended to write a Glass trilogy. (“Sonny: An Introduction,” Time, John Skow, 09-15-1961) “Hapworth 16, 1924”, a long letter from his character Seymour Glass while at summer camp, was the only novella from the trilogy published.
It is clear Salinger continued to write all these years in his remote cinderblock bunker with its fireplace and writing desk and filing cabinet and packed lunch. (“Sonny: An Introduction,” Time, John Skow, 09-15-1961,) This leaves five possible scenarios for his unpublished manuscripts.
Suppose they were destroyed. This may have happened before his death by his own hand in a fit of public defiance. Salinger did state that he wrote for his own pleasure. Yet he had tagged various manuscripts for publishing, making destruction by his own devices unlikely. Perhaps the 1992 fire where “damage to the house was extensive” torched them. (“Fire Fails to Shake Salinger’s Seclusion,” New York Times, 10-24-1992) There is no evidence this occurred and it would have been contrary to observances by Margaret Salinger and statements to his neighbor that the manuscripts were piling up. In Salinger’s 1994 letter to Michael Mitchell, dated nearly two years post-fire, he stated he continued to write each morning in his normal fashion. It is also reported that Salinger’s writing studio was removed from the hilltop house perched on the 90 acre compound, which likely preserved his manuscripts when the 1992 fire occurred.
What if Salinger lied all these years? What if he never put pen to paper after “Hapworth 16, 1924” was published in 1965? What if the mostly negative reviews caused his fragile persona to give up writing forever? Suppose he spent all day in his writing studio playing video games and surfing the Internet while telling his family he was hard at work. This is unlikely given his statements and the manuscripts his Margaret witnessed at his Cornish, New Hampshire home.
There is the possibility that his manuscripts were stolen, yet there is no evidence of a break-in while Salinger was alive or after his death. This is one of the most unlikely scenarios.
A more plausible explanation for the silence (Excuse me. I once again meant to say “intolerable silence.”) and muted responses of his agent and family is that his will gave pointed instructions not to publish his manuscripts for a certain period of time. Perhaps Salinger went so far as to demand that no word be spoken to the public about what writings he left for three or five or ten years. If breached, all heirs would be cut off from the will and the certain high royalty stream the new novels would bring. Or suppose his manuscripts are in no shape for public consumption and not to be published. That would be quite extraordinary, Nabokov-esq even.
This leaves us with the most hopeful postulation for lovers of all things Salinger—The Great Uncommunicator has left too many manuscripts for his estate to shift through in two years. What if there are squabbling over which book should be published first and in what order? The literary world is holding its collective breath that is the case. If so, the Salinger estate should at least hold a press conference and inform everyone. It is in the realm of possibility that inner-circle squabbles could have erupted between his children and wife over which novel to publish first. Matt Salinger publically disagreed with some of the childhood accounts Margaret wrote about in Dream Catcher: A Memoir. Salinger left a tabbed system of publication, right? Can’t everyone just get along for literature’s sake?
To date the Press has made Salinger out to be a one-hit wonder who, unable to pen another work of prominence, slunk into a life of seclusion as a bitter and frustrated artist. Nothing is further from the truth. Salinger published two novellas, over thirty short stories (some residing in the Princeton and University of Texas libraries). He accomplished all this some fifty years ago and has been writing ever since. Imagine what he has accomplished over the last half century with modern word processors. Imagine what they found Salinger’s closet.
Salinger was anything but a literary hack. He may be the finest example of the opposite. Salinger wrote for the pure love it; not for the supposed glory of publication. He practiced at the very highest level that any true artist can obtain, one without interference from outside influence; and as Holden would put it—far removed from a bunch of morons who sought to destroy him.
In truth, J.D. Salinger never needed the world. It’s always been the world that has needed J.D. Salinger.
And perhaps now is when the world needs him most.