Holden Caulfield would be disgusted: the exploitation of Salinger has begun

He is not buried yet and already the drooling has begun. Everyone from book publishers and biographers to actors and film-makers are on the starting blocks, poised to join the race for every possible remnant and relic of J.D. Salinger, the author of The Catcher in the Rye, who died in his usual solitude on Thursday at 91 years old.

About to erupt is a cultural feeding-frenzy of a kind Mr Salinger would surely have abhorred. Because it will ultimately be about commerce, it is a rush that is certain, as Gawker.com put it yesterday, to be “drawn out and bitter”. Nor is it likely to be dignified, a spectacle of adults clawing for a dead man’s gold that would surely have made Holden Caulfield, Catcher’s teenage narrator, chuckle with disgust.

Might a film at last be made of the celebrated novel? (And who, you are asking, among the latest generation of young male actors would be a decent Holden? Zach Ephron or maybe Daniel Radcliffe?) Now Salinger is no longer around to sue – something he did without hesitation whenever his privacy or the sanctity of his work were at stake – will biographers now vie with one another to give us a new portrait of the mysery-cloaked scribe?

First, though, there is the question of what manuscripts may or may not be hidden in the New Hampshire hideaway that was his home and virtual prison for over fifty years. If, as repeatedly rumoured, there are as many as 15 books penned by him somewhere inside, will his death remove all constraints and allow for their publication?

It is a tantalising notion that for now remains unanswered. Some have reported in the past that Salinger did indeed toil over new works in a concrete bunker on the 90-acre estate he purchased shortly after the 1951 publication of Catcher.

An intruder into the wooden home, hidden behind fences and trees on a small hill outside the small town of Cornish, might find wedges of manuscripts locked in safes or stuffed into drawers. Alternatively, there may be only the ashes of burned pages in the grate of the living room fire.

Some of the suspense would be removed if his representatives and his heirs, notably his two children Margaret and Matthew, would speak up. They may be able to explain what was left behind by Salinger and what stipulations are left in his will about what should be done with any unpublished works. The entertainment world wants to know also whether instructions have been left as regards the rights to the works we know about.

So far no one is cooperating. In the statement announcing his death, his literary agents sent a pretty clear message that there will be no repealing any time soon of his edicts for strict privacy. “In keeping with his lifelong, uncompromising desire to protect and defend his privacy there will be no service, and the family asks that people’s respect for him, his work, and his privacy be extended to them, individually and collectively, during this time,” they said.

A 1957 letter published last year that was attributed to Salinger suggested that he was far from naive about what would occur following his death. In it he speaks of making arrangements in his will for his then-wife, Claire Douglas – they were divorced ten years later – and any other heirs to be financially protected by the provision to them of the unsold rights to his works. He knew then how valuable they would be – and the scramble they would spark. “It pleasures me to no end... to know that I won’t have to see the results of the transaction,” he writes in the letter.

Nowhere would the hunger for those rights be more intense than in Hollywood. For decades, directors, producers and actors have dreamed of giving the celluloid treatment to Catcher . Jerry Lewis used to boast that he was born to play Caulfield. Leonardo de Caprio is another actor who has voiced his desire to portray him on the screen.

While alive, Salinger did succumb to Hollywood just once, agreeing to a film version of his 1949 story Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut. But the result, My Foolish Heart, starring Dana Andrews and Susan Hayward, was panned by the critics, did horribly at the box office and mortified the author. All other attempts to buy film rights off him, even by Samuel Goldwyn himself, came to nought.

Even though Catcher is now more than half a century old, its message of teenage anger and confusion, remains as appealing as ever to film makers, says Dana Polan, a professor cinema at New York University. “Every generation has to go to school, and every generation is caught in this kind of tension between the pressure to conform and perform and the desire for one's own voice and one’s own independence,” he said. “Many US films are made for a young audience and what sells is rebelliousness and angst.”

Much depends now on what instructions Salinger himself left behind in his will. But the attitude of his two children will matter too. While Matthew has remained mostly loyal to his father in public statements, a 2000 book on him by Margaret was by no means flattering. Aside from claiming that his obsession with his health led him even to drink his own urine, she complained about his controlling personality.

It is harder to control from the grave. A Salinger-fest – lucrative and possible lurid – may be just around the corner.

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