Murphy’s Law – Respecting J.D. Salinger’s privacy

Joel Murphy

Joel Murphy

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

– Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye

When J.D. Salinger’s private safe is opened, I hope it turns out to be as empty as Al Capone’s vault on that infamous Geraldo special.

As you’ve no doubt heard by now, Jerome David Salinger, author of one of the great American novels, The Catcher in the Rye, died last week at the age of 91. His last published work was a short story printed in the New Yorker in 1965 entitled “Hapworth 16, 1924.” For over 50 years, he lived a quiet life in Cornish, New Hampshire (home of the longest covered bridge in the U.S.).

To say that he shied away from the spotlight would be a vast understatement. He famously demanded that his photo be taken off the dust jacket of The Catcher in the Rye. He reportedly ordered his agent burn all of his fan mail. Salinger’s reclusiveness was so iconic that it became the inspiration for two Hollywood characters – Sean Connery’s William Forrester in Finding Forrester and James Earl Jones’ Terence Mann in Field of Dreams (who delivered one of my favorite movie lines: “I don’t give interviews, and I’m no longer a public figure. I just want to be left alone, so piss off”).

Fans of Salinger and journalists looking for a scoop would occasionally take trips to Cornish hoping to track down the author. The other residents of the town, respecting the author’s privacy, would lead these poor souls on wild goose chases.

Mike Ackerman, owner of the Cornish General Store, clearly using a metaphor designed to get my attention, said Salinger “was like the Batman icon. Everyone knew Batman existed, and everyone knows there’s a Batcave, but no one will tell you where it is.” Ackerman admitted that when giving directions to curious outsiders, how complex and misleading the directions were “depended on how arrogant they were.”

The only times Salinger made headlines later in his life was when he was attempting to protect his legacy. Most recently, he blocked the release of Sixty Years On: Coming Through The Rye, an unauthorized sequel to his iconic novel. In the 1980s, he sued British literary critic Ian Hamilton to prevent the writer from using quotes and paraphrases from unpublished letters in a biography Hamilton was writing about Salinger. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, but Salinger eventually prevailed.

Joyce Maynard, who had a relationship with Salinger when she was a freshman at Yale, and Salinger’s daughter Margaret both wrote biographies that purportedly revealed intimate details about the reclusive writer. Both books added a Howard Hughes-ish quality to his reclusiveness.

Now that he has passed away though, I can only imagine that we will begin to find out more about Salinger than we ever wanted to know. Since he is no longer alive to file lawsuits, I’m sure we will start to see salacious biographies revealing even more of his eccentric behavior. While the residents of Cornish seem content to protect his privacy, chances are that other people who had connections to Salinger won’t be so kind.

Then, of course, there is the safe I mentioned in the beginning of this column. Reports vary on what exactly this safe contains, but it’s believed that it holds novels, short stories and possibly even haiku. Maynard claimed that Salinger wrote daily and had at least two completed novels tucked away. Salinger’s neighbor, Jerry Burt, said the author had at least 15 unpublished books in his safe.

Salinger himself hinted at the possibility of unpublished works in an interview in 1974.

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

Now that he’s dead, people will undoubtedly begin to believe that he has lost the right to that privacy. I’ve already heard those in the literary field compare the situation to the publishing of Franza Kafka’s novels The Trial and The Castle, which were printed after Kafka’s death, even though he had asked they be destroyed. The claim will be that Salinger’s every outline and doodle is too important not to be published and scrutinized.

It seems a shame, really. In this column and on the podcast, I go on and on about celebrities who overstay their welcome. Lars and I even coined a term for when a public figure loses his edge – we call it “the Eddie Murphys.” When George Lucas tries to destroy his legacy by releasing terrible new Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, I’m the first one to jump up and shout. When Sylvester Stallone feels the need to play an over-the-hill, plastic surgery-ridden Rocky, I berate him as much as possible. When Hulk Hogan is on a mission to replace every fond childhood memory I have of him with a horrible paparazzi story about his train wreck life, I die a little inside, but I still mock him.

Someone like J.D. Salinger is such a rare breed. He could have easily Bret Favre’d his career, making comeback after comeback, releasing terrible novel after terrible novel as the fat paychecks kept rolling in. Instead, he simply dropped the mic and walked away, riding off into the sunset while still in his prime. (Please forgive my somewhat confusing, but still pretty awesome, mixed metaphor of Salinger holding a mic while riding a horse.) You have to respect his decision to do that.

Now, I’m not saying that the writing locked away in that safe is terrible. Obviously, I have no way of knowing that. For all I know, it’s brilliant. (Although, I’m secretly hoping the safe is filled with nothing but penis sketches like the ones Johan Hill’s character drew in Superbad.) I’m simply saying that if Salinger had wanted us to read it, he would have published it. Since he didn’t, I think we should respect his privacy and allow those works to remain a mystery. Why risk tainting his legacy by publishing works he didn’t deem fit to print?

You don’t need to know the intimate details of the man’s life. We don’t need any new tell-all biographies filled with odd details that Salinger isn’t alive to refute. Just enjoy the work he already published without rifling through his private papers greedily looking for more. He’s no longer a public figure. He just want to be left alone … so piss off.

Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at murphyslaw@hobotrashcan.com.

Comments(8)
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