Literary recluse Salinger turns 90

New material from <i>Catcher in the Rye</i> author may appear posthumously

There are apparently no plans for J D Salinger, the literary leviathan whose truncated canon most famously includes The Catcher in the Rye, to appear tonight or any time soon on Larry King Live or any of the other television chat shows celebrities usually frequent on the urging of their agents.

This may seem like a missed opportunity. Published in 1951, Catcher, with Holden Caulfield as its adolescent and restless protagonist adrift in Manhattan, is still a hot seller and Salinger certainly qualifies as a superstar. More to the point today is his birthday; he is turning 90.

It is a milestone that fans of the writer will have to celebrate without him, because, over the years, he has come almost as famous for his aversion to publicity as he has for his literary achievements. We will simply have to assume that today Salinger will remain indoors in the house in Cornish, New Hampshire, which has been his home and hiding place since 1953.

That Salinger, a sometime Buddhist and Christian Scientist, has reached such an age is of no small moment for scholars of his life. It is youth, after all, that has most excited the author. "I always write about very young people," he told Harper's Magazine in 1946. Among them was Caulfield.

In life and love, Salinger has tended towards younger souls also. He was 36 when he married his second wife, Claire Douglas, when she was an undergraduate student. He was later to have an affair with Joyce Maynard, whom he also met when she was studying. (She was 18, he was 53.) Since the late 1980s, he has been married to Colleen O'Neill, a former nurse 40 years his junior.

The advancing years of Salinger, who has not given an interview in three decades, has had a tantalising effect on his circle of fans. What has he been doing all this time? Has he been writing as so many people hope and is it his intention to allow some or all of his output to be published after his death?

From time to time, flotsam about the private life of Salinger has come to light. In the 1990s, he was troubled by the release of two memoirs, one by Ms Maynard and another by Margaret Salinger, one of two children he had had with Ms Douglas. The other, a son named Mark, was later to denounce his sister's book, saying that it bore no relation to his memory of growing up in the Salinger household.

Ms Maynard caused further offence by selling off at auction letters that she had received from Salinger. They were bought, however, by a Silicon Valley millionaire, Peter Norton. Himself something of a recluse, Mr Norton said he had purchased them simply to return them to their author.

A smaller writer would surely have exhausted the patience of his fans long ago. Salinger has not published anything since 1965. That was Hapworth 16, 1924, which took up most of an issue of The New Yorker. That said, a plan has been in the offing for more than 10 years to have it republished as a book. It will finally be released this month. Or that, at least, is what it says on the Amazon.com website.

Ms Maynard has given us reason to think Salinger has been writing new material all these years and that we might see it, though posthumously. At the time they were together in the early 1970s, he already had two new novels under his belt, Ms Maynard said, adding that Salinger regarded the bother of having anything published a "damned interruption".

Salinger would rather that we paid no heed to today's date. That would be the best birthday gift we could give him. But he is too mighty and too intriguing a figure for that to be possible, of course.

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