Last Rights for JD Salinger: Genius or Just Average?

Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger diesGetty Imagse/
"Catcher in the Rye" author J.D. Salinger has died at age 91 in New Hampshire.

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According to at least two people who knew him intimately, Salinger left a cache of unpublished stories and novels -- some say as many as 15 works.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

Salinger Hounded by Sycophants

Salinger moved from his Manhattan apartment to rural Cornish, N.H., in 1953, after the publication of "Nine Stories." There he lived in self-imposed isolation, persecuted -- at least by his own accounts -- by hounding fans and literary sycophants. . He lived an increasingly odd life, according to Joyce Maynard, who wrote about the year she lived with Salinger in 1973, eating a macrobiotic diet that consisted largely of frozen peas and under-cooked lamb patties.

Maynard, who was 18 at the time, refused to comment on Salinger, then 53, whom she called "Jerry."

"It's all in the book," she told

She described the author as a crotchety and controlling Caulfield who never showed her his writing, but kept numerous manuscripts locked in a safe, away from the eyes of critics.

"Publication is a messy business," Salinger tells Maynard in her 1998 memoir, "At Home in the World." "All those loutish, cocktail-party-going opinion-givers, so ready to pass judgment. Bad enough when they do that to a writer. But when they start on your characters – and they do -- it's murder."

She described an archive he created of the quirky Glass family, who featured in the novella, "Franny and Zooey," and the story, "Perfect Day for Bananafish," in which he chronicled the suicide of the Seymour, the tortured and gifted patriarch who some say was a grown-up Caulfield and Salinger alter ego.

The characters, according to Maynard, "seem as real to him as the family into which he was born and about whom he feels far greater affection."

"He has compiled stacks of notes and notebooks concerning the habits and background of the Glasses -- music they like, places they go, episodes in their history," she wrote. "He fills in the facts as diligently as a parent, keeping up to date with the scrapbooks."

Salinger fiercely defended not only his privacy but control over his letters.

In 1986, he stopped the publication of a biography by British writer Ian Hamilton.

Maynard herself sold her letters in 1999 to software developer Peter Norton, who said he would return them to Salinger. Even today, after his death, a Swedish writer with the pseudonym J.D. California is fighting a court injunction against publication in the U.S. of a so-called sequel to "Catcher in the Rye."

Famous Authors Published from the Grave

But in death, Salinger has less control over his legacy, and a literary executor could release his safe-bound manuscripts. He wouldn't be the first to have his writing published posthumously.

Ralph Ellison saw his follow-up novel to "Invisible Man" go up in flames in a 1967 house fire. He spent decades revising it, but died in 1994 with an unfinished 1000-page unfinished manuscript, which his literary executor published as "Juneteenth" in 1999.

Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Emily Dickinson and Jack Kerouac all had work published from the grave.

As far back as Virgil, authors have left strict instructions for the demise of their writings, only to be overruled by others.

Most recently, the son of Vladmir Nabokov ["Lolita"] ignored his father's instructions to destroy his last novel, publishing "Laura" last year, three decades after the writer's death. Franz Kafka asked that his writing be incinerated but his friend Max Brod published "The Trial" and "The Castle."

"Max Brod made the right decision" said Jonathan Franzen, who won the National Book Award for his 2001 novel "The Corrections. "Kafka changed my life. Obviously it was good to disobey."

The fact that Salinger's manuscripts were left intact suggests he intended the to be ultimately published, though Franzen concedes the reclusive author might have been holding on to them for personal reasons. "It's hard to throw away the things you have worked on…to strike the match," he said.

And while Salinger's posthumous writing could "surprise us" and be his best work, often artists who "sequester" themselves from the world don't produce their "most vital" work, Franzen said.

Authors like Salinger have a "curious yin and yang connection between hunger for fame and the need to reject that fame. I think it's pretty clear he made himself a victim of that fame," said Franzen.

"At least when Salinger was younger, there was a feeling that he was such a pure soul and couldn't live in the world. I don't think he was such a pure soul -- a sad story about fame in America and you have to be careful what you wish for. The story is about somebody who had trouble being an adult in the world."

Holden Caulfield Still Resonates With Teens

Boarding school teacher Patrick Clements agrees that Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" has "more significance than merit," but he said the book still works with teens.

"When it first came out and was cutting edge, but it's a different world now," said Clements, 56, who has taught English at New Jersey's Peddie School for 28 years.

"It's not the same electric book it was before, because the shocking parts don't ring the same way," he said. "But it's the underneath part that resonates now, the desire of a brother to protect a sister."

Even at Valley Forge Military Academy, 17-year-olds like Justin Capek confess that Salinger "helped me understand who I am and the importance of being one's self."

"I found that, deeply rooted under the fiction, I was being introduced to the reflection of J.D. Salinger's own philosophies that were established within the tales of Pencey Prep and all of Holden Caulfield's antisocial escapades," said 12th grader Matthew Salinger, who is not related to the author.

"Ultimately, Holden taught me more about myself than I was previously aware of, and I was not alone."

But Roger Lathbury, whose Orchises Press came close to publishing Salinger's "Hapworth 16, 1924" before the author killed the deal in 1997, said Caulfield as a character was "largely dead for Salinger" by the mid-1950s and would likely not be resurrected.

"I never asked and he never told me, but I suspect we will see more of the Glass family than Holden," said Lathbury, 64 and a professor at George Mason University.

Lathbury hopes Salinger might might have "an audience of disinterested readers of his words -- the kind who 'read and run' that he lacked in life," as publishers attempt to shape the "unformed and unpolished" manuscripts."

"I am not wholly sure that art belongs to the artist," said Lathbury, who had a long relationship with the author.

"Sooner or later, you will see the complete published work -- the four published books and all the early stories, one or two of which will be very good, and two embarrassingly bad. It will all be put all together sooner or later in the Library of America volumes."

As for the post-mortem obsession with Salinger, Lathbury said of his old friend, "I am afraid he might have hated it. I think he would have disliked this all intensely. He would not have been happy about it."

ABC News' information specialist Nicholas Tucker contributed to this report.