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Play It in the Closet: the Return Farewell of J.D. Salinger

43 years ago J.D. Salinger, the writer who rose to cult status in the 1950s and early 1960s on the strength of his novel The Catcher in the Rye and his stories about the talented but troubled Glass family, as well as his fervent desire for privacy, bade farewell to the published literary life with a long piece of fiction titled Hapworth 16, 1924. It appeared in the New Yorker in June of 1965 and elicited little critical or commercial fanfare; the Salinger media mania that accompanied the publication of his book Franny and Zooey in 1961 had almost completely subsided, and Time, which had put the author on the cover during that same season, noted the new story with only a passing, somewhat acerbic aside. (Although I wasn't around for either, 1961 and 1965 also seem far more than four years apart in the Sixties cultural scheme of things). Hapworth, like everything else Salinger had published in the previous 10 years, concerned itself with the Glass family, but unlike the previous entries, Salinger chose not to put it out in book form. In fact, he chose not to put anything out at all, until 1997, when Orchises, a small Virginia literary press, listed Hapworth as a forthcoming title.

The book (inevitably, some might say) never appeared. A savaging of the story by New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani may have given Salinger pause; whatever the reason, Hapworth's release was postponed, and the title eventually went into limbo. There are signs, however, that it may be once again on the verge of publication. Dead Caulfields, the best Salinger site around, made casual mention many months ago that Hapworth 16, 1924 would be coming out on January 1, 2009 (which also happens to be Salinger's 90th birthday). Now the book is listed with an ISBN number and January 2009 publication date on Amazon's United Kingdom website. (It's also listed on the American Amazon website, but as an import.) Although I'd still tend to bet against holding a hardbound volume in my hands anytime soon, I thought I'd go ahead and post something that I wrote about Salinger and Hapworth in 1998.

Several items of note since this article's composition-Hapworth 16, 1924 can now be readily found online through a Google search, or by buying a copy of The Complete New Yorker on DVD-ROM. Two less-than-flattering memoirs of the novelist have appeared-one by writer Joyce Maynard, who was Salinger's young lover in the early 1970s, the other by his daughter. Neither offers much illumination about what Salinger may have written since 1965, although his remark to Maynard that "it's murder when they (critics) start going after your characters" gives a clue as to why he stopped publishing.

UPDATE: It appears that Hapworth 16, 1924 will not be published in January 2009. Also check out a new analysis of Hapworth over at Dead Caulfields.

Play It in the Goddam Closet: The Return Farewell of J.D. Salinger

I swear to God, if I were a piano player or an actor or something and all those dopes thought I was terrific, I'd hate it. I wouldn't even want them to clap for me. People always clap for the wrong things. If I were a piano player, I'd play it in the goddam closet.

-Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye

J.D. Salinger, that initialed man of mystery, the author from whom nothing has been heard for the past 33 years, has finally decided to publish again. Or has he? Is that Fat Lady who's really Jesus going to get up and sing, or not?

There have been longer absences in American literature-Henry Roth was silent for 60 years-but nobody else has managed to stay so present simply by staying away. Harvey Swados once called Salinger "the Greta Garbo of American letters," and yet he somehow manages to pop up in the news every couple of years, drawing attention to himself by thwarting somebody else's efforts to draw attention to him. A pirated edition of his early stories, a biography that attempted to use his correspondence, and, most recently, an Internet site that featured daily quotations from his classic novel The Catcher in the Rye have all brought the reclusive writer and his team of lawyers out of hiding. (Holden's famous last words at the end of the book might be recast today as, "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, they'll put it on the World Wide Web.")

The irony of Salinger's impending return is that the book he's bringing out isn't new at all-it's a novella-length Glass family story entitled Hapworth 16, 1924, that originally appeared in the June 19, 1965 issue of the New Yorker. Last spring Orchises, an obscure Virginia literary press, announced plans, approved by the Master himself, to publish the novella in hardcover format. Bookstores were given no publication date or price. They knew only that Hapworth wouldn't have a dust jacket. Presumably the title and author's name would be provided on the spine, so that clerks and customers could find the damn thing.

Uproar proceeded to ensue over a thirty-year-old piece of fiction routinely dismissed by critics and readily available to anybody with a library card. The New York Times ran a review of a book that didn't even exist yet on the front page of its Arts and Leisure section, written by its biggest literary gun, Michiko Kakutani, who groused that Hapworth is a "sour, implausible, and... completely charmless story." Esquire, lacking any recent photographs of Salinger that didn't feature him shoving a shopping cart at some paparazzi, put a picture of a gray-haired man holding a copy of Catcher in front of his face on its cover. The article inside reported, among other things, that Salinger had a fondness for consuming donut holes at his local Howard Johnson's; it ended with the journalist backing away from a spray of gravel as a dark car that might have contained Salinger zoomed angrily out of what might have been his driveway.

In the meantime, the book has failed to appear, and attempts to solicit any information regarding it from Orchises produce Waiting for Godot-like conversations. A bookstore employee who called there recently asked if "we can expect Hapworth in our lifetime." "When were you born?" responded a rather jocular and elderly-sounding man who claims to be the publisher, and went on to assure the caller that "it will certainly be available by 2041" (the year that the story enters the public domain). He did say that the book had not been canceled, as rumor had it, but allowed that the publication date was a bit uncertain.

That's the story of the story to date. Anybody who doesn't want to wait 43 years can amble down to the periodicals room of the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library, ask for the bulky bound volume of the 1965 New Yorker, and read Hapworth there-provided, of course, that the pages haven't been ripped out by some unscrupulous predecessor. (But how eerily appropriate that would be-you go looking for the story and it's not there.)

Hapworth 16, 1924 is an extraordinarily long letter written from summer camp by a very young Seymour Glass, the patron saint of Salinger's fictional family and one of the most famous suicides in 20th-century literature. (The day of his suicide is detailed in "A Perfect Day for Bananfish," the 1948 story that catapulted Salinger into the literary limelight; NPR devoted air time to the 50th anniversary of its publication earlier this month.) The story's initial appearance concluded a decade-long stretch in which Salinger published only stories about the Glass family, a group of brilliant, troubled siblings who had achieved a dubious fame by performing on radio quiz shows. Although his books continued to sell well (and still do so today), the high level of critical acclaim he had received in the 1950s for Catcher and Nine Stories diminished rapidly with each new Glass installment. Critics wrote off these works as self-indulgent, peevish, and increasingly shapeless. Hapworth in particular, with its endless riffs on mysticism, its teacherly tone, and its comically bombastic language, was taken as a sure sign that Salinger had lost it. Even his fans found the story rough going. "It seemed so tortured, so ingrown," Dan Wakefield, a stalwart Salinger devotee, said recently of his reaction to Hapworth in 1965. "I thought, 'My God, is he going to stop writing?'"

Nobody knows if Salinger has continued to write-he has claimed several times that he does, and rumors run the gamut from "He has five or six books sitting in a safe" to "He throws it all away at the end of each day." As for Hapworth, I would argue that it's been misjudged, that it is at once another illuminating chapter of the Glass saga and a complex, metafictional literary farewell from Salinger to his audience. It is also a more erudite, fantastic reprise of The Catcher in the Rye, with a youthful character reacting to a world in which adults are unhappily corrupted, more lost than malevolent. Seymour, like Holden, is searching for a path that will help him avoid such a fate. Like Holden, he wishes to aid the salvation of others as well.

Hapworth does indeed lack the charming accessibility of Catcher or even the earlier Glass stories such as "Franny" and "Zooey." It is flawed and masturbatory in several places, particularly whenever Seymour heaps excessive praise on his younger brother Buddy, who is Salinger's literary stand-in. But it doesn't deserve the trashing that Kakutani gave it in the Times. Her charge of implausibility is one that's often leveled against Hapworth, on the grounds that Seymour is only seven when he writes the letter, which contains observations, philosophical digressions, and learned references far beyond the capability of even a precocious child. (Kakutani, strangely enough, also suggests that Buddy, who at age 46 types up a copy of the letter, is its actual author, doing a middle-aged impersonation of Seymour as a child. This case could and has been argued, but it also seems to undermine her complaint of implausibility.)

Other critics have taken the character of Seymour to task for the instructive manner that he uses in addressing his parents, or for his inability to "relate" to the other children in a summer camp from which he writes the letter. Well, c'mon! Salinger was going about the business of creating a religious figure, an unstable but spiritually powerful personality struggling through childhood and adolescence in 1920s and 30s America. One need only remember the story of the 12-year-old Jesus in the temple, rebuking his parents when they attempted to chide him for his disappearance. Seymour Glass is not Jesus, but he is Salinger's ultimately convincing attempt to render the life of a Western mystic in the 20th century. Hapworth rounds out the portrait begun in "Bananafish" (it is the first and only story written fully from Seymour's point of view) and offers more clues as to why that life ended in self-destructive failure. It sheds light on the potential hazards of spiritual fanaticism and withdrawal from the world; in an era of comet-induced, apocalyptic mass suicides, it seems more relevant than ever.

Salinger did not devise an easy project for himself in undertaking these Glass family stories. How does an author tell an epic family tale in which so much of the conflict stems from brooding, interior spiritual monologues? In the later stories, another dimension was added when Salinger made Buddy his fictional alter-ego, conflating their identities in "Seymour: an Introduction," the story that preceded Hapworth. "Seymour," with its agonized self-consciousness and its constant commentary on its own composition, was an early entry in the field of metafiction, the genre that John Barth and others would pioneer so successfully in the 1960s. Oddly, Salinger has been given little credit or examination for this development. Critics have been nearly unanimous in their trouncing of "Seymour" without ever considering it in a metafictional context.

Hapworth also contains a metafictional dimension; in it Seymour describes a vision he has of Buddy working 40 years in the future on a story about a party that will occur two years from the time of Seymour's letter. Buddy, in his introduction to the letter, says that he had been working on this very story when he received Seymour's 41-year-old letter from their mother. The story concerns a businessman's offer to Buddy and Seymour to professionally demonstrate their singing and dancing talents; it is an offer, Seymour writes, that will cause an enormous upheaval in their lives. The introduction of celebrity into their childhoods will have troubling consequences for them all.

This story (rumored to have been written by Salinger but withdrawn from the New Yorker just before publication sometime in the 1960s) and Hapworth form a metaphor for Salinger's career after the huge success of Catcher. He had found himself being hailed as a new Dostoevsky in the 1950s, on the basis of one great novel and a handful of excellent short stories. (Seymour himself sounds like a Dostoevskian character in Hapworth when he writes, "You think I am a kind fellow at heart, is that not so? God reward me with hailstones and rocks, I am not!") There was a charged, magical air to his prose, a way of suffusing words with a palpable charm that made the reader feel the world could be a very special place indeed. "Jesus, life has its share of honorable thrills, if one but keeps one's eyes open!" Seymour says in Hapworth. This charm initially induced critics to make wild exaggerations on Salinger's behalf, and he must have found their inflated tributes difficult to ignore. "I have been knighted for my heart-shaped prose," his alter-ego Buddy writes in "Seymour."

Later, when reaction turned rancorous in the early 60s, Salinger wrote Hapworth and, presumably, the unpublished story about the party in which the Glass children agree to go into show business. Having endured first flattery and then ridicule, did he now regard his own entry into public life as an aesthetic and spiritual mistake? He may have decided that fame was too dangerous, that continued publication would only damage his writing and perhaps even his soul. His most famous character, Holden Caulfield, may have indirectly prophesied this turn of events in Catcher when he discusses a piano player whose skills have been tarnished by fame. Audience reaction, Holden argues, has made the pianist vain and unable to distinguish his good playing from his bad. "If I were a piano player, I'd play it in the goddam closet," Holden says, and that is exactly what Salinger has chosen to do for the past 33 years.

Early in his career, Salinger mocked the romantic myths that writers often create for themselves. "I seldom care to know a writer's birthplace," he said, "his children's names, his working schedule, the date of his arrest for smuggling guns (the gallant rogue!) during the Irish Rebellion." He ended up, inadvertently or not, with a myth of his own, one that still exerts a hold on readers today. Hapworth is a farewell letter to his audience before committing professional suicide, even as it gives us more information about Seymour's eventual decision to kill himself. It is perversely fascinating, a mysterious ending to the Glass saga set chronologically at its beginning. It deserves to be published in book form and to be revisited by theorists and critics. In a most Salingeresque manner, it also haunts us through an absence, the absence of the story that Buddy was writing about the party; as Seymour says in Hapworth, "The only poem of personal, haunting interest to me that I have written so far this summer is the one I have not written at all." A paradoxical magic, like the famous sound of one hand clapping, is still at work. A silence still informs us.

-David Brent Johnson

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