Raise High The Book Offers, Publishers
Boy, when you’re dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.
-Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye
J. D. Salinger might have shared Holden’s disregard for attention after death; he certainly shunned attention when he was alive. The author was reclusive enough that word of his departure took a full day to get out, a rarity in our instant-news age. Nevertheless, the man—and his work—will be getting quite a bit of attention in the coming week. Publishers and movie studios will be paying attention to the workings of his estate for much longer.
Ghoulish as this is, we are at the beginning of an unprecedented literary Gold Rush. The writer may have stopped publishing forty-five years ago, and been avoiding publicity for longer than that, but that doesn’t mean he stopped working. His four books continue to sell very well: cult status understates their popularity, since the cult is larger than many religions. Hollywood has been trying to adapt Catcher in the Rye into a film for over half a century, though Salinger refused with such intractability that his agents didn’t even bother passing on to him the more recent attempts. It’s possible that his heirs will feel differently.
But who is to inherit the Salinger estate? Salinger was reportedly at odds with his daughter, Margaret Salinger, since her publication of her memoir Dream Catcher in 2000. His other child, Matt Salinger, refuted some of her claims in a letter to the New York Observer, and was quoted in the death announcement put out by Harold Ober & Associates, his father’s literary representatives. Matt will presumably be sharing control with Salinger’s widow, Colleen O’Neill, who supported her husband’s desire for privacy.
The younger Salinger and his stepmother hold the keys to a treasure far greater than the film rights to Catcher, though. Several accounts suggest that Salinger continued writing books, many of them about his beloved Glass family, and storing the manuscripts in a safe in his house. Salinger’s former lover Joyce Maynard wrote that by 1972, he had written at least two new books. In a 1974 New York Times interview, Salinger revealed that he was writing every day. Salinger’s friend and neighbor Jerry Burt claimed at one point that he had fifteen unpublished novels (and this was quite a while ago), though at the moment we have no way of verifying that.
Likewise, we can’t know right now what Salinger’s intentions were for posthumous publication, nor how binding his will’s specifications will be. However, the last year alone saw the publication of two long-rumored manuscripts, Nabokov’s The Original of Laura and Jung’s The Red Book. If the dissemination of those two cult objects provides any lesson, it’s that saved manuscripts by revered authors are eventually published if they are not immediately destroyed.
According to the Associated Press’s obituary, Phyllis Westberg, Salinger’s Ober Agency representative, has declined to comment on whether he had any unpublished work. The spokeswoman for Little, Brown and Co., Salinger’s longtime publisher, Heather Rizzo (no relation!), naturally said she had “no news on future releases.” Since I’m sure every publisher in America will eventually end up bidding on these manuscripts, if they exist and the family decides to publish, this is not much surprise. As for what the author himself would have wanted, he was characteristically mysterious in his 1974 interview with the Times. “I don’t necessarily intend to publish posthumously,” he said, “but I do like to write for myself.”
Nick Rizzo is a political consultant and writer. He lives in Brooklyn. You can follow him at www.twitter.com/nickrizzo.
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