One year after J.D. Salinger’s death, we know little more about him than we did in his lifetime.
That has not kept outsiders from trying, or insiders from resisting.
Rumours of completed, unpublished manuscripts remain rumours; no one is talking.
There are still no Salinger e-books or planned film adaptations of his work.
One award-winning biographer was rebuffed in an attempt to write an authorized book about the legendary novelist of The Catcher in the Rye.
Salinger’s longtime literary agent, Phyllis Westberg of Harold Ober Associates, Inc., would not comment on whether the estate had been approached, but said no biography had been authorized and that it was “very unlikely” such a project ever would be.
(The would-be biographer asked not to be identified, citing a desire, fitting for all things Salinger, for privacy.)
Salinger died Jan. 27, 2010, at age 91, an international celebrity although few would have recognized him had he appeared on their doorstep; he avoided the media for much of the last 50 years of his life.
Besides The Catcher in the Rye, he released just three other books: Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour.
His last published work, the short story Hapworth 16, 1924, came out in The New Yorker in 1965. Salinger’s widow, Colleen O’Neill, still lives in Cornish, the small New Hampshire town where Salinger moved in the 1950s and where residents honoured his wishes to be treated as an ordinary and private citizen.
A few weeks after his death, she rose to speak at the annual Town Meeting in Cornish, thanked townspeople for keeping their distance and even for steering astray curiosity seekers looking for the Salinger house.
Nothing has changed since, friends and neighbours say.
“She’s a friend. We respect the family’s privacy, that’s pretty strong,” says Cornish resident Caroline Storrs.
“If somebody wants a public persona, they can have it. If they don’t, then they don’t. That’s not challenged by anybody in the community,” says Salinger neighbour Peter Burling, who described the author’s widow as “a true delight” and “the best of neighbours.”
“Mr. Salinger made it clear years ago he wanted privacy. That’s what he wanted and that’s what he’ll get.”
Remembrances came out after he died, including one from Lillian Ross of The New Yorker, where many of Salinger’s stories appeared, but publishers say they have seen no Salinger tell-alls proposed.
The one major release is a biography by Kenneth Slawenski, unauthorized, of course, which includes blurbs from Peter Ackroyd and James Atlas.
The book was released last year in Britain and Australia and has just been published in the U.S. by Random House.
Slawenski is a Salinger fan who started the online resource http://www.deadcaulfields.com in 2004 and eventually shaped his information into narrative. Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life offers detailed background on the author’s early years and influences on his work.
But there are no revelations about publishing’s greatest mystery: What did Salinger write during his self-imposed retirement and will any of those books, should they exist, be released?
Slawenski, who cites respect for Salinger’s privacy in saying he never met the author or even visited Cornish, has a “hunch,” just a hunch, something will come out next year.
He bases this on speculation that Salinger’s widow and son Matthew (neither of whom he has met) are more “reasonable” than the author.
As evidence, he cites a recent out-of-court settlement in New York that banned publication in the U.S. (but not overseas) of a Catcher sequel written by Fredrik Colting, under the pen name John David California. The lawsuit began in 2009, a few months before Salinger died.
“I don’t see in Colleen or Matthew the litigious nature that Salinger had. I think they wanted the case out of the way,” Slawenski said. “They seem more forthcoming. Salinger, as he grew older, became less reasonable. He became more steadfast in his routine and in having the luxury of not having to produce new work. All of that solidified, that he wasn’t going to publish.”
Westberg, whose agency represents the Salinger literary trust for which the author’s widow and son are trustees, called Slawenski’s “hunch” about new work “stuff and nonsense.”
Slawenski said he contacted Westberg and asked for suggestions for writing his book. He was told, Slawenski said, to stay within certain boundaries, legal boundaries. In the 1980s, Salinger prevailed in a copyright infringement lawsuit against biographer Ian Hamilton, who had wanted to include extensive excerpts from the author’s letters. Slawenski was careful: No close paraphrasing and no direct quotes when possible.
“I looked through the court papers and it was all spelled out where I could tread and where I could not tread,” Slawenski says. “Ian Hamilton’s awful experience worked to my benefit.”
Westberg declined comment.
Screenwriter-producer Shane Salerno, whose credits include “Armageddon” and the current CBS TV series “Hawaii Five 0,” has spent seven years working on a feature-length Salinger documentary and told The Associated Press that he expects it to be released in theatres this November. Salerno says he conducted more than 170 interviews, including with such actors as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Edward Norton, and with authors Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal and E.L. Doctorow. He also collaborated on an 800-page companion book with author David Shields, who referred all questions to Salerno.
“In the final analysis, what distinguishes our film and book project is access — access to Salinger’s friends, colleagues and members of his inner circle that have never spoken on the record before as well as film footage, photographs and other material that has never been seen,” Salerno said. “We take the viewer and reader inside J.D. Salinger’s private world and shine light on a man named Jerry who lived in the shadow of the myth of J.D. Salinger.”
Beyond that, he declines comment.