In the wake of the death of J. D. Salinger this past Wednesday there was, as one would expect, an outpouring of accolades and reminiscences about his work. Salinger’s demise also renewed speculation about what the famously reclusive writer has been doing since his last published work, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” appeared in The New Yorker in 1965.
When I first read Salinger in late high school and early college, it was fashionable – even way back then — to speculate about what Salinger had been up to in the intervening years. There were plenty of rumors to feed our imagination. We heard that he writes for hours each day in a bunker behind his secluded New Hampshire house, creating reams of pages he never intends to publish. We wondered what these pages might contain — unseen literary masterpieces or the ramblings of a deranged mind? Perhaps, like Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining, Salinger was madly typing the same sentence over and over again. All work and no play might, indeed, make Jerome a dull boy.
With Salinger’s passing, conjecture about what he’s been doing since the 1960s is once again percolating. The Mirror recounts a report from a neighbor of Salinger’s who, in 1999, was allegedly told by Salinger that he had “15 or 16 books finished” that might one day be published. The Mirror then alternately tweaks fans’ excitement and fuels their angst by citing speculation that Salinger either “wanted the books to be published after his death” or “may have ordered that they should all be destroyed.”
My most vivid memory associated with J. D. Salinger — aside from reading the published stories themselves — is from decades ago in New York City, the location of so many of his tales. On a bright, early autumn day I purchased a beat-up old copy of the first edition of Franny and Zooey from a used bookstore in lower Manhattan.
I didn’t buy the book for its collectible value. The tattered volume, water-stained and excessively worn, was too beat up to have any significant commercial value.
Rather, I took home the book because of the note from the author included on the front and back inside flaps of the dust jacket. There the hermetic Salinger offered a few tantalizing clues about his recent literary activities, and seemed to indicate — as the rumors implied — that he was busy writing. His words fostered the hope that more stories of the Glass family would appear — if not promptly, at least eventually. But they also hinted at a more dismal possibility: “[T]here is a real-enough danger, I suppose, that sooner or later I’ll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods, locutions, and mannerisms.”
These jacket notes penned by Salinger seemed uncharacteristically candid and offered a rare glimpse of what might next come forth from the author’s typewriter.
We may eventually know whether or not there are volumes of unpublished prose in Salinger’s estate. If this material does exist, I hope it comes close to living up to the hype with which it will no doubt be accompanied. Until then, here is the text from the dust jacket that so intrigued me all those years ago:
The author writes: FRANNY came out in The New Yorker in 1955, and was swiftly followed, in 1957, by ZOOEY. Both stories are early, critical entries in a narrative series I’m doing about a family of settlers in twentieth-century New York, the Glasses. It is a long-term project, patently an ambitious one, and there is a real-enough danger, I suppose, that sooner or later I’ll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods, locutions, and mannerisms. On the whole, though, I’m very hopeful. I love working on these Glass stories, I’ve been waiting for them most of my life, and I think I have fairly decent, monomaniacal plans to finish them with due care and all-available skill.
A couple of stories in the series besides FRANNY and ZOOEY have already been published in The New Yorker, and some new material is scheduled to appear there soon or Soon. I have a great deal of thoroughly unscheduled material on paper, too, but I expect to be fussing with it, to use a popular trade term, for some time to come. (“Polishing” is another dandy word that comes to mind.) I work like greased lightning, myself, by my alter-ego and collaborator, Buddy Glass, is insufferably slow.
It is my rather subversive opinion that a writer’s feeling of anonymity-obscurity are the second-most valuable property on loan to him during his working years. My wife has asked me to add, however, in a single explosion of candor, that I live in Westport with my dog.