March 17, 2018

Salinger and the Holden Life

On this day in 1951 J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye was published. Reviews were mixed, but having been pre-selected by the Book of the Month Club, the novel was immediately popular. Rare book dealers regard a good, signed copy of the first edition -- this is the one with the dust-jacket picture of a quixotic, carousel horse -- as "one of the most elusive of 20th century books." The only rare book dealer recently offering one for sale (somewhat damaged, $35,000) says that the last signed edition for sale, about fifteen years ago, was inscribed by Salinger to Harold Ross of The New Yorker. The first of many Salinger stories to appear in the magazine was "Slight Rebellion Off Madison"; this was published in 1946, but it had been purchased by Ross in 1941, when Salinger, at twenty-two, was not much older than its young hero, Holden Caulfield. It was the first appearance of Holden in print, and the basis of the Sally Hayes sections of Catcher in the Rye.

The same rare books' dealer, Ken Lopez, recently had another scarce item for sale: a "suppressed uncorrected proof copy" of Ian Hamilton's biography of Salinger. This has the excerpts from the Salinger letters, the material which eventually led to the original version of the book being squashed; ominously, it also has Hamilton's name misspelled on the cover, spine and title page. Hamilton subsequently took the long view of all this. His 1992 book, Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography from Shakespeare to Plath, tells some two dozen tales of scholarly and biographical misadventure. Richard Altick's The Scholar Adventurers (1950) enjoyably covers the same sort of ground. Both books should be required reading for any biographer hoping to discover whatever joke or treasure may lie in Salinger's New Hampshire bunker.

So few were interested in Margaret Salinger's letters from her father that they were withdrawn from auction several years ago. Joyce Maynard's letters from Salinger, purchased at auction in 1999 by Peter Norton, were returned to him. In the recent Letters to J. D. Salinger, the novelists Tom Robbins and Jim Harrison take the Norton side on the Salinger chase. Robbins refers to Maynard as "that hack who won your confidence and then betrayed you," one whose "karma reeks of weak ink, sour grape and spilled bean"; Harrison calls her a "whining vixenette." W. P. Kinsella also contributed a letter; here we learn that his Ray Kinsella character in Shoeless Joe was inspired by two Salinger Kinsellas -- Ray in the short story " A Young Girl in 1941 with No Waist At All," and Richard in Catcher in the Rye. But in his letter the real Kinsella has another bone to pick:
    I made you a character in my 1982 novel Shoeless Joe because over the years you made yourself conspicuous by hiding, claiming not to want publicity but raising hell every time someone mentions your name in the media.... Hollywood didn't have the balls to use you as a character in the movie Field of Dreams, opting instead for a generic black reclusive author that you couldn't claim was a thinly disguised you. My publisher's lawyers said to me, "Look, all he can sue us for is about the sixth definition of libel called 'false light' in which case he would have to go to court and say, 'I've been portrayed in this book as a kindly, loving, humorous individual, while in reality I as a surly, so-and-so who occasionally shoots at tourists when they drive by my house, therefore I've been portrayed in a false light.'"

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