As tributes flow in for J.D Salinger, who died Wednesday, so do whispers about one of the greatest mysteries of Salinger's strange career: Why did the reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye, the bible to generations of disaffected teenage readers, stop publishing more than 45 years ago? And are there publishable manuscripts waiting in the wings?If the answer is yes, that would be a boon to Salinger's publishers. Catcher has sold 60 million copies -- about 250,000 sell in the U.S. annually -- and it has never gone out of print since Little, Brown's (LGDDY) first hardcover edition in 1951. It spent 29 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, and a number of companies have handled its paperback editions over the years.
Dissatisfaction with Publishing
But Salinger's famous retreat into seclusion, in a walled-off home in Cornish, N.H., embodied his dissatisfaction with the business of publishing. Not only was he famously gun-shy about interviews, or showing his face in public (with a couple of rare exceptions, the most recent photos of Salinger date to the 1950s), he complained about the covers of both the original Little, Brown hardcover and the first mass-market paperback, published in 1953 by New American Library's Signet imprint.
When the paperback rights to Catcher reverted back to Salinger a decade later, he resold them to Bantam, and with that 1964 edition, he got the cover he always wanted -- down to the typeface of his initials, and the swatch of red. (Since 2001, all of Salinger's books have been available from Back Bay, the trade paperback arm of Little, Brown -- with, ironically, the original cover art Salinger had detested.)
Just a year later, Salinger would publish his last short story in The New Yorker, his short fiction home for 12 works. "Hapworth 16, 1924" was not well received -- Norman Mailer: "Salinger was the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school" -- but no one predicted it was his farewell to literary visibility.
15 Manuscripts in the Vault?
What we know about Salinger's later years are filtered through the trickle of information from memoirs like Joyce Maynard's 1998 account of her brief relationship with him in the early 1970s, or daugher Margaret's damning 2000 tome that accused her father of drinking his own urine. There was also an occasional court skirmish: Salinger blocked a would-be biographer in 1984 and stopped publication of an unauthorized Catcher sequel last year. And he conducted extremely rare interviews. In a 1974 New York Times profile, he told the paper in a phone conversation: "There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure."
What Salinger has written, at least by neighbor Jerry Burt's account a decade ago, is more than 15 manuscripts -- all locked up in a vault. (In her memoir, Maynard believed at least two books were locked away.) Salinger's literary representative, Phyllis Westberg of Harold Ober Associates, would not comment, and Salinger's third wife, Colleen O'Neill, could not be reached, but the interest in publishing any newly discovered works should reach a fever pitch shortly, especially if noted literary estate-scooper Andrew Wylie gets involved.
The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas–Austin has an interest as well: it houses Salinger's papers and would surely love to be the institution of record for any subsequent works. "The manuscript materials that the Harry Ransom Center owns were acquired from rare book and manuscript dealers, not directly from Mr. Salinger, so we do not have any arrangement with him or his estate," says its associate librarian, Richard Workman.
As the posthumous publication of works by Franz Kafka, Vladimir Nabokov, Roberto Bolaño, Ralph Ellison, and David Foster Wallace (also by Little, Brown, slated for April 2011) demonstrates, privacy pales in comparison to future earnings. That leaves Salinger's heirs with a whole host of future options to consider.
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