JD Salinger dies, what of his legacy?

January 30, 2010

After shunning the public eye with self-imposed exile to a tiny town in New Hampshire since 1952 and fiercely protecting the legacy of his works, the death of JD Salinger this week has many betting on what will be the first unauthorized — or the unlikely scenario of authorized — book, film or stage work that will attempt to recapture the magic of “The Catcher in the Rye” or the mystery of the author’s life.

His last published work, a novella entitled “Hapworth 16, 1924” – one of several of his ‘Glass family’ stories — appeared in the New Yorker in 1965. But since then, nothing.

But by telling a newspaper in 1980 that “I love to write, and I assure you I write regularly” and throwing out hints in other rare interviews of works, as well as friends and family referring to a safe full of more than a dozen completed manuscripts, Salinger fans have long salivated over possible further works.

During his lifetime it was clear Salinger, who grew up in Manhattan the son of a Scotch-Irish mother and Polish-Jewish father, did not approve of unauthorized biographies of him, the search for him, his further writings or any other alleged rip-offs of “Catcher.”

The most damning came in 1999 and 2000, when his former 18-year-old girlfriend Joyce Maynard publisher her memoir 25 years after the end of their relationship and another memoir, called “Dream Catcher: A Memoir,” came a year later came from the daughter of Salinger’s second marriage to Claire Douglas. The daughter, Margaret Salinger, at times portrayed him as an obsessive and controlling figure.

Salinger firmly refused to hand over film and stage rights of “Catcher,” saying in a letter in 1957 he found the idea “odious enough” and that “my mail from producers has mostly been hell” (see www.lettersofnote.com.)

Holden Caulfield was upset by life’s “phonies”. And similarly Salinger hated fame, and all that came with it, of which he has said he felt bitter and had borne all he could bear.

Right up until his death he sought to protect his work. Just last year he sued a Swedish author to block the publication of a “Catcher” spin-off that was a reimagining Holden Caulfield aged in his seventies.

But with the threat of lawsuits possibly diminished, and former loved ones able to dish out more without fear of retribution, what will happen to his image? Will he be remembered as exploited or overprotective? What will the author’s estate do with any works? (his agent has not commented.) And how much of the unauthorized clutter should we bear?

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