To Salinger, With Love & Squalor

SalingerOn September 6th a documentary on J.D. Salinger, called simply Salinger, will be released in theaters. For Salinger fans this is a big deal.  The television rights have already been sold to PBS.  A book full of photographs will be in stores September 3rd.  Those attending advance screenings of the film, or who have been given access to the book, have signed non-disclosure agreements.  Of course, tons of information has leaked out.  (You have to wonder how Salinger managed to keep his secrets for decades, when the Weinstein’s couldn’t manage it for a few weeks).  That Salinger was in the intelligence service during WWII, possibly suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, was a jerk to the women he dated (well, that wasn’t necessarily news) and that we may be seeing new works in the next 5 years –  has all been revealed over the past weekend. So I’m looking forward to seeing the actual film next week if only to find out what surprises – if any – are left.

Reading The Cather in the Rye was not a world altering event for everyone.  Some of us prefer Salingers short stories particularly those about the Glass family.  After reading Nine Stories; Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction; and Franny & Zooey I was so enamored that I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to get my hands on anything he’d ever written. What did I discover?  That there wasnt much out there to discover.  Some uncollected short stories on microfiche at the New York Public library; a copy of The Way of the Pilgrim (the source of the Jesus Prayer that Franny takes up in Franny & Zooey);  In Search of J.D. Salinger, a.k.a. – Ian Hamiltons Hail Mary attempt to see a return on years spent researching the Salinger biography he wasn’t allowed to publish; and a small 1960’s paperback collection of essays on Salingers work (more on that later) discovered in a second-hand shop.

I had and have no interest in reading Joyce Maynards memoir. Im still on the fence regarding the book written by his daughter.

I also haven’t read Kenneth Slawenski’s 2011 biography J.D. Salinger: A Life, which came out long after I’d resigned myself to waiting patiently for the subject’s death.*  (I made the calculations… being 55 years younger than Salinger, barring a horrible accident, the chances were pretty good that I’d live to see the posthumously published works).  And, anyway, I was never really interested in learning about J.D. Salinger the man.  I wanted more of the Glass family.

The 1963 collection of essays, edited by Henry Anatole Grunwald and entitled simply Salinger: A Critical & Cultural Portrait, is the book which provided the foundation of my Salinger research.  Originally published by Harper & Row in 1961, mine is the small Pocket Books paperback edition. It includes a number of essays published by the likes of John Updike, Alfred Kazin, Joan Didion and contains an introduction by the editor.  It was from this little book that I learned about Hapworth 16, 1924, the last short story Salinger ever published.  It’s a strange little story (which I can’t imagine the magazine agreeing to publish if the author hadn’t already received so much critical attention) that takes the form of letter home from camp written by a young and precocious Seymour Glass.   Salinger: A Critical & Cultural Portrait also contains the TIME magazine article which states that “a friend reports that Salinger intends to write a Glass Trilogy” and provides a brief overview of Salinger’s military career – a period Slawenski’s biography seems to have covered and the new documentary expands upon.  Less exciting (for me) was the information that the Caulfield family had a cycle of short stories, similar to the Glass family which were cannibalized and consumed by The Catcher in the Rye.  There are about four of these – two only accessible to the public through Princeton University Library – and they all seem to contain major discrepancies from the final novel: name changes, variations on the cause of Holdens younger brothers death (heart condition, drowning, and finally leukemia) and some timeline issues.  For Salinger the two families, Glass and Caulfield, were a constant work in progress.  He couldn’t let them go.

The fact that Salinger continued to write in isolation shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone with even a passing interest in the author.  The real surprise would have been learning that after all these years of waiting he had left behind no manuscripts whatsoever.  Or that he’d left instructions to burn the manuscripts.  *shudder*  Rumors of his continued work have been persistant.  Even my little 1963 paperback mentioned House of Glass – the supposed working title for the epic Glass family history that’s apparently been years in the making.  So the New York Times article published over the weekend regarding the release of new works between 2014-2020  is mildly exciting but for those of us who have been waiting patiently it raises a lot of questions

If David Shields, Shane Salerno and are to be trusted, and there’s no reason at this point to believe otherwise, we have confirmation that there are 5 books and instructions as to when they are to be published.  And that among these manuscripts is a novel The Family Glass.  But how much of the work will be entirely new?  Is this novel a re-working of the early Glass stories – like what happened with Caulfield stories in the writing of The Catcher in the Rye – or a continuation?  We’re also told that there will be more stories featuring members of the Caulfield family. We’re told definitively that these will include new stories, as well as the re-packaged older stories. Have the continuity issues been resolved or will they be preserved?

Which leads to the next logical question:  who will act as editor?  Considering most of the famous short stories were published in The New Yorker and edited by William Maxwell this is of real interest to fans.  Or it should be.

OK, I lied.  This is all more than mildly exciting.

It’s been three year since J.D. Salinger died and I’m still making mental calculations.  If the timeline is right I’ll be under 50 when the last of the new books is published. Hapworth, 16, 1924 appeared in The New Yorker close to a decade before I was born.  I’ve been waiting since I was 14 years old for a new book or story to see the light of day.  That seems strange. (“Sad!” my husband says, looking over my shoulder). And inexplicable. Because I’ve read better authors. There are plenty of books out there with more sophisticated plots. Yet I continue to love Salinger’s stories.  I still want to know what happens to the characters.  So do a lot of other people! (I yelled that last bit back at my husband).

If you’re one of them I’d love to hear why. Are you planning to see the documentary? Are you Team Glass or Team Caulfield? If you’re looking forward to new books and stories, do you have any expectations? Or do you think Salinger was a big phony? Comments are open below… and it looks like we have at least two more years to fill them.

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*Don’t you judge me!

J. D. Salinger (1919-2010): Waiting for the Second Act

The death of an author can be a traumatic event to his (or her) readers, especially if the author was prolific.  John Updike is a good example of this. But J. D. Salinger was not John Updike. As far as his readers were concerned he’s been, practically speaking, dead to them (or more aptly, they were dead to him) since  Hapworth 16, 1924 appeared in the  June 19, 1965 issue of The New Yorker. For close to half a century Salinger protected his privacy and work zealously.  No awards, no interviews, no biographies, films or sequels were permitted. The only access his readers were given was to the one novel and the three amazing short story collections – and in many ways that was enough.  For the obsessive there was always his uncollected works to seek out in magazine back issues and archives.  But there’s been nothing new, of any literary value, for 45 years.  With his death last week that all may be about to change.

A lot was said about Catcher in the Rye these last few days.  My personal infatuation with Salinger began with his short stories – all of which, in one way or another, deal with the Glass family.  The seven children of two retired Vaudeville performers (5 brothers and 2 sisters) are all above average in intelligence, physically attractive and unusually gifted. Seymour, the eldest, committed suicide at age 30 because (if we are to believe his brother Buddy’s version of events) he was too good for this world.  Buddy is Salinger’s alter ego, and the keeper of the family chronicle.  The remaining children:  Boo Boo (the “Tuckahoe homemaker”), Walt (the most cheerful), Waker (a priest, mentioned but never seen) , Zooey (“the blue-eyed Jewish-Irish Mohican scout who died in your arms at the roulette table at Monte Carlo”)  & Franny (the youngest)  were all schooled in Eastern mysticism, philosophy and religion at the knees of their two elder brothers.  If Holden Caulfield was someone I could relate to in my teenage years, reading about the Glass family guided me through my 20’s and helped me discover who I wanted to become.  I can’t really explain why, other than that they were smart and good and all spoke like actors in pre-code Hollywood films.

Not everyone felt the same way.  Salinger’s New York Times obituary has a wonderful quote from Updike (taken from his 1961 review of Franny & Zooey).

Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. Their invention has become a hermitage for him. He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation.

Updike considers this a flaw.  And therein lay the crux of Salinger’s problem with the critics.

I was able to read Hapworth 16, 1924 by painstakingly photocopying  it from microfilm at the NY Public Library.  Stupidly, a year later I lent my copy to someone I admired and it was never returned.   (There’s a karmic lesson in that I’m sure).  But what I remember is a letter home from camp by a very young Seymour Glass written in a very adult voice.  In it he predicts his own death.  And while it rambled on a bit, and didn’t sound very much like a 7-year old boy writing to his father,  it explained a good deal.  It also hinted at some tantalizing possibilities as to what Salinger had planned for the Glass-es.

The Glass family seems to have evolved into more of a spiritual quest for Salinger than anything else – now complete with a Christ figure and assorted martyrs, prophets, apostles and priests (a whole ecclesiastical cast, in fact).  He became too close to his material, emotionally exposing himself every time he published and making many of his readers uncomfortable because of it.   Focusing on spirituality is dangerous ground for any author to walk, doubly so for one who built his literary reputation with stories set on the Upper East Side of New York City and reviewed in  the New York Times and the NYRB.   And yet, with the Glass family, Salinger was shamelessly pushing religion and morality door-to-door like a Jehovah’s Witness.  It must have seemed so unsophisticated, so gauche, so anti-everything the Algonquin Round Table had stood for.  Salinger had broken some mid-century literary establishment taboo, and as a result the critics sprang on him like hyenas on a wounded wildebeest.

Janet Malcolm’s NYRB article from June, 2001 –  Justice to J. D. Salinger – discusses this critical backlash.  I won’t bore anyone with my own attempt.  But I wanted to mention the infamous 1996 incident where  Salinger gave a small publishing house  permission to put out a limited edition of Hapworth 16, 1924.  Typically, the news Salinger was going to have a “new” release caused a minor media frenzy.  (The Washington Post recently featured  an interesting article where the publisher explains what happened).  Critics scurried over to the New Yorker’s archives to write their reviews of the story prior to the book’s release – and what they wrote was not pretty.  Some of it was downright petty.  The reviews are online, if you want to look them up.  Suffice it to say that when it was over I wasn’t the least surprised that Salinger backed out of the deal  and withdrew once again to New Hampshire.

This intensely personal connection and protectiveness towards his work and characters leads me to believe the reports that Salinger continued writing without publishing, despite the lack of proof.  Whether or not what he has written is any good – well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?  I’m fairly confident we’ll find out, regardless of whatever instructions were left.  And I’m grateful for it.  I don’t see it as a betrayal of the author’s wishes, or a situation like the recent Nabokov circus over The Original of Laura.  I’m not expecting half-finished manuscripts being passed off as novels. What Salinger left was not work he held back from publishing because he didn’t think it was good enough.  In his mind we were the parties lacking.

So I expect there will be good writing. There may also be some awful writing… and honestly, what if there is?  At the end of Franny and Zooey, Zooey tells his sister that because she came home “if you look at it a certain way, by rights you’re only entitled to the low-grade spiritual counsel we’re able to give you around here, and no more”.  He makes a good point.  Awful writing comes with the territory and, as always with Salinger, it’s ultimately subjective.  I, for one, have waited a long time to find out where he was headed after Hapworth.  At this point I’ll be happy with whatever I can get.

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