A few months ago, a story from the Associated Press quoted one of J.D. Salinger's neighbors to the effect that Salinger had told him he had 15 or 16 book-length completed manuscripts locked in his safe at home. The kicker is that Salinger had slipped him this tidbit in 1978, so presumably the Great American Recluse has had 21 years to write, oh, another 10 books, buy himself a bigger safe, and meditate doing one of two things when—as all Salinger lovers hate themselves for thinking about but think about anyway—he, well, dies. Either he gives all those manuscripts to a trusted literary executor who'll proceed to present each precious volume to a Salinger-starved public, in the process making publishing history and possibly altering the course of American literature, or he burns the whole schmeer in one last dyspeptic blast against a world he turned his back on in 1965, when he stopped publishing.
From the rumors that have been flying during the past third of a century concerning Salinger's writing habits—12- or even 16-hour bouts of composition every day, as if his only rivals were Flaubert and Solzhenitsyn—the story isn't entirely implausible. The prospect of thousands of pages of new, burnished, endlessly nurtured Salinger material turning up in bookstores makes even the most cynical reader salivate all over his stuffed shirt. Such a prospect dwarfs the publication hullabaloo over Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth, Henry Roth's Mercy of a Rude Stream tetralogy, or any of the long-rumored, long-withheld "major" works that have been published recently by Thomas Pynchon, William Gass or Harold Brodkey. Surely among that mass of new work, we imagine, there's another Catcher in the Rye, another "For Esme—with Love and Squalor," or—what's more likely—the grand cycle of Glass Family novels that would explain why Seymour Glass killed himself, clue us in on the full histories of his siblings Franny and Zooey, Waker, Walt, Boo Boo and, most interestingly, Buddy (Salinger's alter ego), and—presumably—work out the promise of the Glass Saga, which is a complete vision of how a radically serious spiritual life is possible in America in the latter half of the 20th century.
Will the manuscripts be published or will they perish? At the moment, we have no way of knowing. We don't even know if they exist. But this is what you do if you're a Salinger fanatic—you speculate. You speculate because you've read all four of his published books eight times already; you've searched out the 20 or so magazine stories he never published in book form (which have been bootlegged as The Uncollected Stories of J.D. Salinger, which I got a hold of—entirely innocently—through University of California interlibrary loan, believe it or not); and you keep your eyes peeled for bits of rumor, even though you're a little ashamed of doing it. If you're a Salingerite, your hero simply slammed a door in your face, and ever since, you've been waiting patiently outside, knowing your presence irritates him to no end, but you nonetheless can't help occasionally tapping on the door and saying: "Mr. Salinger? You okay in there? Knock once if you are. Better yet, how about you slip one of those manuscripts under the door?"
You do all these things, plus you read the two crummy biographies that have come out about him. Ian Hamilton wrote the first one back in 1988, called In Search of J.D. Salinger; it was less a biography than the story of how bitter and frustrated Hamilton got when he was prevented—by Salinger's associates, who clammed up almost entirely about him, and by Salinger himself, who sued Hamilton—from publishing the standard biography he originally intended. And you read the latest one, too, Salinger: A Biography by Paul Alexander, which manages to uncover more information than Hamilton did, but which is a bad, smelly book anyway: bad because Alexander, while professing a love for A Catcher in the Rye, is a clueless interpreter of Salinger's work (especially the Glass stories), and smelly because two irrational, totally unfounded and prurient themes run throughout the book. The first is that Salinger's disappearance from the publishing scene for the past 35 years was consciously designed to enlarge his mystique and sell more books. The second—stupider still—is that Salinger has used his disappearance to hide an apparent penchant for pedophilia. (Alexander derives this absurd theory from a lurid and totally off examination of Salinger's young heroines—Phoebe Caulfield, Esme, Franny Glass—as well as the fact that the older Salinger's wives and lovers have tended to be in their early 20s. He offers not a shred of real evidence. How Alexander gets from Holden dearly loving his sister to insinuations about Salinger's perversity should help us understand, if we don't already, why Salinger wants everybody to leave him the hell alone.) Read his book, and you'll completely understand why Salinger wants everybody to leave him the hell alone.
Yet we continue to read because we want to know more about the man whose prose persona, certainly in Catcher and in the Glass stories, is almost transcendently charming. And what do we learn? That J.D. Salinger is himself charmless and not a very nice man. In Alexander's book—even when you factor out the biographer's bitterness—Salinger comes off as a terrible control freak about his work, neglectful of his second wife (the mother of his children), easily nudged into a sense of enormous betrayal by friends who've unintentionally disappointed him, so grouchily covetous of his privacy that he seems misanthropic, and, as Holden Caulfield might say, just too goddamn touchy. But as Buddy Glass once intimated, being nice isn't in a writer's portfolio, certainly not a writer as consumed with his vision as Salinger is. Though he started off—and here Alexander sheds some dim light—writing professionally slick entertainments in the 1940s for The Saturday Evening Post, something happened during the war (Salinger fought at both Normandy Beach and at the Battle of the Bulge) that transformed his postwar fiction into a strange hybrid, combining New Yorker-style precision-cut realism with an elliptical (and shyly apologetic) mysticism. His work begins to embody a blatantly spiritual quest combining elements of Hinduism, Sufism, Zen Buddhism, Kierkegaardian Christianity and Kafka's mysterious Gnostic Judaism. And so, for instance, one of his characters will be walking down a major urban thoroughfare in a Brooks Brothers suit and have a vision of universal divinity that begins, "Suddenly, the sun came up and sped toward the bridge of my nose at the rate of 93 million miles a second." Literal "enlightenment," for sure.
Though the current critical line on Salinger is that his later work got self-indulgent and hermetic and displayed a hatred for everything but his own beloved characters (an interpretation that also conveniently explains his reclusiveness), I think that's way-off: to me, the imperative he learned from his spiritual masters (both Eastern and Western) was to love universally, and his writing, he found, was the only way he could possibly do it with the necessary purity.
"You've got to understand," say Salinger's associates over and over again, "this is a man who's really serious about his privacy." Alexander quotes this and then does his best to violate it. For him, each of Salinger's attempts to escape attention is a coded message craving attention, as if it's impossible to imagine anyone thinking fame undesirable. But fame for Salinger is clearly what gets in the way of his vision, which is ancient and requires the kind of silence and repose that this country forsook long ago. Let the man be, I say, until he's ready to talk to us again. A pox on all his future biographers.
Salinger: A Biography by Paul Alexander; Renaissance Books. 352 pages. $24.95 hardcover.
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