Proceeding in their usual rhythm, the literary necrophages have moved on from contemplating the legacy of J.D. Salinger to considering how it might now be suddenly enlarged by his demise. Salinger gave few public statements in the last 45 years, but he did insist until at least 1980 that he had continued to write. His daughter’s memoir suggests that he did not intend for this hidden oeuvre to be destroyed by his executors. Quite the contrary: the work seems to have been labelled and organized specifically for the purpose of future publication.
I see three possibilities here, of which only one—and not necessarily the most likely one—is dominating the post-mortem discussion.
1) It’s all been rumour and leg-pulling, and there is no Salingerian treasure chest. If there ever was one, it may have been destroyed—twenty years ago, or last week. And if one survives, it may be full of the equivalent of hundreds of typewritten pages full of “All work and no play makes Jerome a dull boy.” We can agree that the man was at least something of a crank; even though he had a known clinical history of post-traumatic stress, we have a lazy habit of regarding his quirks and reclusiveness as marks of genius rather than pathologies.
2) Salinger left behind exactly what we all expect him to have left behind: a sheaf of terse East Coast fiction about bright, neurotic mid-century adolescents afflicted with various forms of philosophical second sight.
But what about the other outcome, the one nobody is talking about? 3) Salinger eventually grew up. It’s not impossible, Salinger haters! What if he moved on from the Glass family and explored unexpected forms and topics? What if they crowbar open the filing cabinet and it turns out he wrote an allegorical science fiction epic? What if he wrote a biography of Napoleon III? What if he wrote ten volumes of brutal Sadean pornography? What if he spent decades mastering Japanese and wrote exquisite lyric verse that could turn Sapporo into a castle of frozen tears? What if he left behind reams of baroque Barthelmean meta-fiction better than Barthelme’s? What if he assembled a cynical but massively authoritative brief guide for young fiction writers?
None of this is very likely. I don’t want to be accused of not facing facts: writers left alone with money and without deadlines create a lot more crappy watercolour paintings than they do good books. But what does seem very possible is that the temptation to put his own experience in order struck Salinger, as it strikes almost every writer eventually. Surely it is this possibility that should command the attention of the Salinger detractors. Even fans might be willing to admit he was somewhat sophomoric and sentimental; but can there be a critic so stone-hearted that he would not be at least a little interested in Salinger’s personal account of the battle of the Hürtgen Forest?