Imagine this: it’s 2005 and J.D. Salinger is seated in his small shed nestled somewhere in the hills of Cornish, New Hampshire, alone. Little notecards charting his infamous characters like Holden Caulfield and Seymour Glass flutter from a large bulletin board. He writes and writes a little more each morning, secluded from the reality that he renounced shortly after publishing The Catcher in the Rye in 1951. He has not sent anybody a story to publish in over half a century. And still, he concludes this morning’s writing and places the new prose within a fireproof vault next to other stories that fans may never read.
It is now January 27, 2016. Six years have passed since Salinger’s death, and not a single page of his unpublished prose has been placed in the hands of any publisher.
In fact, the rights to Salinger’s works belong to family members who do not seem to have any intention to release the writings. His son, Matthew, once stated, “All families should be able to protect the privacy of a deceased family member,” and by working tirelessly against lawsuits and the Salinger fandom to detain his father’s unseen works, he is doing just that.
This past year, the independent publisher Devault-Graves Agency filed a lawsuit against the Salinger Literary Trust in a Tennessee court on March 16. According to the Agency, the Salinger estate had “thwarted” their attempt to publish international editions of three Salinger short stories, “The Young Folks,” “Go See Eddie,” and “Once A Week Won’t Kill You” in a collection titled, Three Early Stories. The stories have already been in the public domain in the United States since 1972, but the Trust took serious issue with the publisher’s contracts with 13 foreign publishers to reprint the stories. The action would, apparently, violate foreign copyright laws.
Devault-Graves knew that Salinger was notorious for protecting his property and copyright, but this is a different situation entirely. Many of the foreign publishers consequently ended their contracts with Devault-Graves and hampered the Agency’s business relationships. According to Graves, it’s “ridiculous” for the Trust to claim global rights, and the estate has effectively “gone beyond the boundaries of where they should.
The Salinger Literary Trust had their way in the end; Devault-Graves dropped the lawsuit in December 2015, claiming it was “no loss” for the Agency, but a way to put the Trust “on notice that we will defend our right to publish in every foreign market that is legitimately open to us.” The three stories, at this point, have no prospect of foreign publication.
Clearly, neither side of the equation truly wins in a situation so muddied by lawyers and litigations and intellectual property rights. The public domain—surely the underlying threat behind keeping or releasing the works—is still left in the dark despite anyone’s best efforts. Another year has gone by, and Salinger’s literary estate has stayed put, out of print.
The question remains: is it justified to guard unpublished works from the public forever?
Posthumous publication is a controversial and even ethical issue that has affected the ways writers are remembered after their deaths for centuries. Salinger is far from the first writer to leave behind a wealth of unfinished, unpublished manuscripts with little instruction on what exactly is to be done with the documents.
This uncertainty causes debate over authorial intent and the way the unreleased works may affect the lasting perception of the writer by the public. For some, it is especially concerning if posthumous publishing can be justified when an author has explicitly stated that their manuscripts be destroyed after their death (like the poems of Emily Dickinson or The Original of Laura by Vladimir Nabokov). But it’s undeniable that we would lose much more than we would gain if we had always listened.
Take for instance the utterly unconfirmed legend that Virgil had no intention for The Aeneid to ever hit the shelves. And if we’re making a list: Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, The Garden of Eden, and The Dangerous Summer, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, and Love and Friendship, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King; all of these works were published posthumously, without the oversight of the author. Can you imagine if these novels were never printed?
These novels have indisputably enriched our society and our fuller understanding of the artist at work, even after death. With dedicated readers craving every word an author has written, it seems massively unfair to withhold works and breed disappointment; as in the case of J.D. Salinger, authorial intent can only go so far until readers begin denouncing the deceased writers’ intentions with each passing year of non-publication.
A glimmer of hope for Salinger fans came in 2013 with the publication of Salinger, the latest documentary-style biography of the writer by David Shields and Shane Salerno. Within the biography were claims by two “independent and separate” anonymous sources that Salinger left instructions “authorizing a specific timetable (starting between 2015 and 2020) for the release of unpublished work, including five new Glass family stories; a novel based on his relationship with his first wife, Sylvia Welter, a German he married shortly after World War II; a novella in the form of a counterintelligence officer’s diary entries during the war; a story-filled “manual” about the Vedanta religious philosophy; and new or retooled stories fleshing out the story of Holden Caulfield.” Could this really be true?
We can indeed speculate with wide-eyes that the story of Holden Caulfield didn’t end in a mental hospital, but still the unfortunate fact remains: 2015 has passed without any hint of a new Salinger novel on the horizon. Shield and Salerno’s biography has been generally discredited; Matthew Salinger and Salinger’s widow, Colleen O’Neill, have remained determinedly silent on the subject of Salinger’s unpublished works since his death; and agents from Little, Brown and Company (the publishers of The Catcher in the Rye) have also refused to confirm any forthcoming Salinger fiction. For fans, it looks like the waiting game will continue.
In ways, I’m haunted by Salinger’s final interview in 1980. Salinger told reporter Betty Eppes:
“There’s a marvellous peace in not publishing. There’s a stillness. When you publish, the world thinks you owe something. If you don’t publish, they don’t know what you’re doing. You can keep it for yourself.”
So who am I to feel hostile towards the Salinger Literary Trust—the unmoving defender that has kept me from falling in love with more of Salinger’s ingenious stories and characters—when, really, this might be what Salinger wanted?
I realize Salinger’s fanatically reclusive behavior is a testament to the extent that he hated the publishing world and the pure “phoniness” of praise more than most writers would or should. But even if the rumors of his authorized timetable for publishing his unread stories are false, I find it extremely difficult to understand the Trusts’s intentions to continue keeping his work from the public. After all, he is gone—how much can his living wishes matter to us now?
It goes without saying that the value of these unpublished manuscripts has expanded considerably for the obvious fact that there is no more of it. Knowing Salinger’s works inside and out, I can hardly imagine that the manuscripts would be of poor quality and damage the writer’s lasting reputation. If anything, posthumous works honor an artist’s legacy in a distinctive, more essential way than biographies or the already-published works. It’s a twistedly lovely power to freeze a writer in death and continue to watch the writer develop; for a Trust to take that capacity away from loyal readers is always unjust and in opposition to the purpose of art.