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Sunday, May 1, 2016

What's in the safe?

Friday, January 29, 2010

"There is a marvelous peace in not publishing," J.D. Salinger told The New York Times in 1974. "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."

That seemed to be the great quest of Salinger's life, in a nutshell: a search for peace. The 1951 publication of "Catcher In the Rye," followed by its instant (and ongoing) success, afforded him that peace while depriving him of it at the same time.

By selling more than 65 million copies in its 59 years since publication, the novel doubtless made Salinger a wealthy man. It didn't matter that he only published three other books in his lifetime; when a novel continues to sell 250,000 copies each year, it can support the lifestyle of a hermit in New Hampshire.

But there was something else to be considered. Salinger's book made him a hero to so many young people. In him, they saw Holden Caufield, the young narrator who was so weary of all the "phonies" he saw in the world around him.

To play amateur psychologist for a minute, I'd say it was those same phonies Salinger sought to distance himself from when he relocated from New York to New Hampshire.

"Raise High the Roof Bean, Carpenters and Seymour" came out in 1963, and Salinger published no more books. His last short story was published in The New Yorker two years later. That means we had 45 years -- essentially half his life -- of silence.

The kicker is this, though: Salinger apparently never stopped writing. Family, friends and neighbors who darkened his door say he wrote constantly. There are reports of entire, finished manuscripts stowed away in a safe.

Those manuscripts are where the mystery begins. What are they? Are they more stories of the Glass family -- the characters features in "Franny and Zooey" and a number of his short stories? Is there a "Catcher" sequel?

Or are they the incoherent ramblings of an old man who must have lost touch with society after decades as a recluse? I mean, do you think Howard Hughes had any great wisdom to impart after spending 20 years in a single hotel suite? What makes Salinger any different?

We also have no idea what Salinger's family plans to do with the manuscripts. I'd have to think a man who spent so many years hiding from the limelight didn't want his stories published, even after he was gone. Will the kids honor his wishes? Do they even care? According the daughter Margaret's memoir, he was a terrible father anyway, so why not make a quick buck on his name?

That's one thing we can be sure of, though. If these books are published, the demand will be out there. Millions and millions of people have read "Catcher" and Salinger's other stories, and most want a taste of more, if only because it's been so long since there was anything new.

Personally, I'm not even that big of a Salinger fan. As a lit major, I own the full collection of four published books, but they rarely leave the shelves. When I think of authors of basically the same generation, I'd much rather read anything by Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller's "Catch 22." They make me laugh more.

That won't stop me from being in line if a new Salinger book is published. How much bigger will it be to the people who consider "Catcher" to be their favorite book, even after all these years?

Jared Jernagan is the assistant editor of the Banner Graphic. He can be contacted at jjernagan@bannergraphic.com. His favorite Salinger book is "Franny and Zooey."