A report in USA Today indicates that “a trove of unknown Salinger works will be published.” For fans of books like Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey, this may be very exciting news, but it could be disappointing if the “works” prove to be less than what we hope them to be.
Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno, a new biography set to be published September 3, 2013, has created this buzz. The authors claim that the new stories will be released over a period of time between 2015 and 2020. The prospect of new stories about Holden Caulfield will make Catcher fans dance with joy, and there are also works about the Glass family of which Franny and Zooey were members, and a World War II “counterintelligence agent’s diary,” said to be “based on Salinger’s relationship with his first wife.”
All of this is quite compelling stuff to contemplate, especially considering Salinger’s self-imposed exile that took place in Cornish, New Hampshire, in the decades leading up to his death at 91 in 2010. Over the years before he died, there were many rumors about his writing during his seclusion. Images of the elderly Salinger going in and out of the post office provoked sympathy for the recluse, who usually reacted angrily to photographers who camped out waiting for a glimpse of the famous author. I recall images of him acting defensively, including what seemed to be the case of him attacking one photographer in his car.
Still, when one thinks of great writers, it is always the work that wins out in the end. When a writer creates an iconic figure like Holden Caulfield, and that character inhabits a seminal piece of fiction like Catcher in the Rye, it sets the tone for the rest of that writer’s career. How do you top a book like that? Writers learn that you probably do not, as Ernest Hemingway did with The Sun Also Rises and F. Scott Fitzgerald with The Great Gatsby.
Salinger and Salerno claim that Salinger didn’t want these new works to be published while he was alive, so we already question the motivations. It could have been that the notoriously private Salinger simply didn’t want more publicity that new works would bring; however, it could be he suspected that they may not have been up to the incredibly high standards he set for himself.
Of course, once someone is dead all bets are off it seems as long as the estate allows things to happen. We have seen fragments of Hemingway’s work, for example, taken and “reworked” by editors, much to his fans’ unhappiness. These kinds of works tend to be derivative, trying to capture the glory that faded long ago. The fear is always that the writer will be like an older actor trying revive a famous character with little success. Sylvester Stallone comes to mind here, and fans who didn’t wince in pain when he last played Rambo or Rocky just don’t understand what I mean.
So the good news is that new works from J.D. Salinger are on the horizon; therefore, that is also the bad news. We cannot be sure if Salinger’s self-imposed exile came from inherent wisdom, but consider the author’s words from Franny and Zooey: “I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.” Maybe the author knew something we didn’t know, and I kind of feel that Salinger preferred to be nobody in the end because it was infinitely easier than being somebody. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had a chance to find that courage when we needed it most?
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