On Thursday, J. D. Salinger turns 90. There probably won’t be a party, or if there is we’ll never know. For more than 50 years Mr. Salinger has lived in seclusion in the small town of Cornish, N.H. For a while it used to be a journalistic sport for newspapers and magazines to send reporters up to Cornish in hopes of a sighting, or at least a quotation from a garrulous local, but Mr. Salinger hasn’t been photographed in decades now and the neighbors have all clammed up. He’s been so secretive he makes Thomas Pynchon seem like a gadabout.
Mr. Salinger’s disappearing act has succeeded so well, in fact, that it may be hard for readers who aren’t middle-aged to appreciate what a sensation he once caused. With its very first sentence, his novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” which came out in 1951, introduced a brand-new voice in American writing, and it quickly became a cult book, a rite of passage for the brainy and disaffected. “Nine Stories,” published two years later, made Mr. Salinger a darling of the critics as well, for the way it dismantled the traditional architecture of the short story and replaced it with one in which a story could turn on a tiny shift of mood or tone.
In the 1960s, though, when he was at the peak of his fame, Mr. Salinger went silent. “Franny and Zooey,” a collection of two long stories about the fictional Glass family, came out in 1961; two more long stories about the Glasses, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour: An Introduction,” appeared together in book form in 1963. The last work of Mr. Salinger’s to appear in print was “Hapworth 16, 1924,” a short story that took up most of the June 19, 1965, issue of The New Yorker. In the ’70s he stopped giving interviews, and in the late ’80s he went all the way to the Supreme Court to block the British critic Ian Hamilton from quoting his letters in a biography.
So what has Mr. Salinger been doing for the last 40 years? The question obsesses Salingerologists, of whom there are still a great many, and there are all kinds of theories. He hasn’t written a word. Or he writes all the time and, like Gogol at the end of his life, burns the manuscripts. Or he has volumes and volumes just waiting to be published posthumously.
Joyce Maynard, who lived with Mr. Salinger in the early ’70s, wrote in a 1998 memoir that she had seen shelves of notebooks devoted to the Glass family and believed there were at least two new novels locked away in a safe.
“Hapworth,” which has never been published in book form, may be our only clue to what Mr. Salinger is thinking, and it’s unlike anything else he has written. The story used to be available only in samizdat — photocopies of photocopies passed along from hand to hand and becoming blurrier with each recopying — though it has become somewhat more accessible since the 2005 DVD edition of “The Complete New Yorker.” In 1997 Mr. Salinger agreed to let Orchises Press, a small publisher in Alexandria, Va., bring out a hardcover edition, but five years later he backed out of the deal.
Ever since, Salinger fans have been poring over the text, looking for hidden meaning. Did the author’s temporary willingness to reissue “Hapworth” indicate a throat-clearing, a warming up of the famously silent machinery? Or was it instead an act of closure, a final binding-up of the Glass family saga — one that, coming last but also at the chronological beginning, brings the whole enterprise full circle?
“Hapworth,” to summarize the unsummarizable, is a letter — or rather a transcription of a letter — 25,000 words, written in haste, by the 7-year old Seymour Glass, away at summer camp, to his parents, the long-suffering ex-vaudevillians Les and Bessie, and his siblings Walt, Waker and Boo Boo, back in New York.
Seymour, we learn, is already reading several languages and lusting after Mrs. Happy, the young wife of the camp owner. He condescends to his campmates and dispenses advice to the various members of the family: Les should be careful about his accent when singing, Boo Boo needs to practice her handwriting, Walt his manners, and so on.
The letter concludes with an extraordinary annotated list of books Seymour would like sent to him — a lifetime of reading for most people, but in his case merely the books he needs to get through the next six weeks: “Any unbigoted or bigoted books on God or merely religion, as written by persons whose last names begin with any letter after H; to stay on the safe side, please include H itself, though I think I have mostly exhausted it. ... The complete works again of Count Leo Tolstoy. ... Charles Dickens, either in blessed entirety or in any touching shape or form. My God, I salute you, Charles Dickens!” And so on, all the way through Proust — in French, naturally — Goethe, and Porter Smith’s “Chinese Materia Medica.”
“Hapworth,” in short, must be the longest, most pretentious (and least plausible) letter from camp ever written. But though it’s the work of a prodigy, it’s also, like all camp letters, a homesick cry for attention.
Its author is the same Seymour who, while on his honeymoon in Florida years later (but — it gets confusing — 17 years earlier in real time, in the 1948 short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”), will take an automatic pistol from the bottom of his suitcase and shoot himself through the temple as his bride lies napping in the twin bed next to him. And the same Seymour — the family saint, poet and mystic — whom we’ve heard about at such length in the later Glass stories.Or is he the same?