J.D. Salinger, whose life has been one long campaign to erase himself from the public eye, is reversing himself somewhat at 78. Next month will see the publication of “Hapworth 16, 1924,” the first new Salinger book in 34 years.
Salinger is one of the most enduring and influential postwar American writers, and any New York publisher would have paid a bundle for the rights to the story, which appeared in the New Yorker in 1965.
But in the literary coup of the decade, the book will be issued by Orchises Press, a small press in Alexandria, Va., run by George Mason University English professor Roger Lathbury.
Phyllis Westberg, Salinger’s agent, confirmed the deal but would answer no other questions.
Lathbury was not much more forthcoming, especially on the key issue of how he had gotten the approval of a writer so secretive that he had his agent throw away hundreds of letters he wrote, and so aloof he had her throw away all his fan mail without reading it.
Until now, the story has only been available to those who have sought out the June 19, 1965, issue of the New Yorker. “I read it when it came out,” said Lathbury, 51. “I think it’s true.”
“The story. What it says. The main character is right.”
That character is long-standing Salinger hero Seymour Glass, whose suicide in the story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is an oft-analyzed Salinger moment. Couched in the form of a letter from the 7-year-old Seymour to his family, “Hapworth” basically spans the whole issue of the magazine, running from Page 32 to 113.
In “In Search of J.D. Salinger,” Ian Hamilton wrote that the story is “a weird, exasperating tour de force. . . . The Glass family has, in this last story, become both Salinger’s subject and his readership, his creatures and his companions.”
“Hapworth” is “like the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Salinger cult. The real fascination is that somewhere buried in it you might find the key to Salinger’s mysterious silence ever since,” said critic Ron Rosenbaum, who this month in the New York Observer published an essay about “Catcher in the Rye” and about John Lennon’s assassin, Mark David Chapman, who said the answer to his murderous act could be found in Salinger’s novel.
Between 1951 and 1963 Salinger published four books: “Catcher,” “Nine Stories,” “Franny and Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.” From the start, these fictions were dissected, if not worshiped, to a degree practically unimaginable today for a mere text. Salinger’s natural response was to retreat, a reaction that was hastened by his basically shy nature.
He never collected the rest of his stories, or allowed any of them to be reprinted in anthologies or textbooks. One story, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” was turned by Darryl Zanuck into the sentimental but popular “My Foolish Heart.” Never again would Salinger sell film rights.
Eventually, Salinger stopped publishing fiction at all. “Hapworth 16, 1924" was the last story. He has never dropped his guard, taking Ian Hamilton and Random House to court over a biography that used some of his letters and confounding legal experts by winning all the way to the Supreme Court.
Lathbury wouldn’t confirm that he had met with his author, but seems to be proceeding in accordance with his wishes. He’s not sending out any copies to reviewers, for instance. “They’ll buy it--or better yet, not review it.”
Barring last-minute troubles, the book will be on sale by early March.