Last Rights for JD Salinger: Genius or Just Average?

Salinger loved privacy, but 'Catcher' author could break silence from the grave

ByABC News
March 5, 2010, 4:42 PM

March 8, 2010 — -- Anthony Herman, who teaches English at Valley Forge Military Academy -- the same boarding school attended by novelist J.D. Salinger and the basis for "Pencey Prep," the fictional school in "Catcher in the Rye" -- selected the Salinger classic to kick off his first year in the classroom.

"It changed my life," said Herman, 25. "I've read it five or six times. But it was incredible to know that not many of my students had ever heard of Salinger. But I got them into it right away. For some of them, it was the first book they had ever read all the way through."

The 1951 novel of teenage angst and alienation appealed to his high school juniors and seniors as "raw" and "honest," but some thought the book's anti-hero Holden Caulfield, who raged against a "phony" world, was a "hypocrite" -- the biggest phony of all.

"You look what he says and it sounds so brilliant and you love his thoughts, but when he is in action, Caulfield does not live up to is ideals and it shows that he's just a kid preaching empty words, not some idealistic prophet," said 12th grader Michael Oden.

The same might be said of Salinger, who died on Jan. 27 at the age of 91 and was always protective of his copyrights and right to privacy.

According to at least two people who knew him intimately, Salinger left a cache of unpublished stories and novels -- some say as many as 15 works.

Though the author is reputed to have color-coded his manuscripts -- blue for "publishing without changing a word" and red for "publishing only after an edit," according to a source who was a close to the author, his family always maintained that Salinger, who last book was published in 1965 and gave interview in 1980, "wrote for himself alone."

Published posthumously, the writing could be that of editorial genius or, perhaps, the ramblings of a writer who is no longer relevant.

But regardless of how the works are critically received, acquaintances of the reclusive writer are certain that, were he still alive, he would be disgusted that they're being publicly received at all.

Only Salinger's literary executive knows his last wishes and could authorize a break from his 45 years of silence.

"Salinger is an important writer, not a great genius -- not like Nabokov or Dostoyevsky," said three-time Pulitzer winning novelist Joyce Carol Oates, who has published more than 50 books since 1963.

"He was a good writer and did well, but what he did was very narrow. He almost seems to have thought he was Shakespeare or Melville, but he was not on that level."

The author, considered by some to be the voice of a generation, may have had "an extremely inflated vision of his own talent," according to Oates, 71, who teaches creative writing at Princeton University.

Salinger's literary agent, Phyllis Westberg of Harold Ober Associates, refused to comment, as did his family, but his letters may speak for themselves.

On March 16, New York City's Morgan Library and Museum will display for the first time an exhibit of 10 Salinger letters to Michael Mitchell, who designed the original dust cover depicting the Central Park carousel for "Catcher in the Rye."

The letters, covering a 40-year period, were donated in 1998, but Morgan honored the author's demand for privacy until his death. They reveal that Salinger kept to a strict writing discipline, completing at least two novels and working on others, even as he struggled in middle age with creativity.