Earlier this week, J. D. Salinger offered a new story to the world featuring his most famous protagonist, Holden Caulfield. Disappointingly, this work wasn’t penned by the author himself but rather by his lawyer. And for a specific audience, the U.S. District Court in New York, where Salinger filed suit against the author and would-be publishers of a sequel to Catcher in the Rye.
Obviously, this is not the famously private Salinger’s first go ‘round in refusing others’ attempts to build on his work. Billy Wilder wanted to make a movie out of the book while it was still banned from most schools’ reading lists. Twenty-some years ago, Steven Spielberg, fresh from making America fall in love with an alien resembling three feet of stacked dog shit, wanted to put Holden’s time in Central Park up on the big screen. He was curtly refused.
The author has reportedly insisted that there’s “no more to Holden Caulfield” and that anyone looking for more should “read the book again.” But that’s not quite the whole story. At Princeton University, in the Firestone Library’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, you can, with proper ID and supervision, thumb through a little more of Holden’s story. Or, to be precise, you can look through his brother Allie’s story.
Princeton came upon the unpublished Caulfield story and other works through the donation of an old literary journal. Some of the stories were declined for publication, others were requested back by the author. The library has been able to keep the collection under one condition: the works are not to be published until fifty years after the author’s death.
Salinger is currently ninety years old, alive, and litigious.
Princeton’s copies are stored away for safekeeping, but reproductions are available for viewing for anyone willing to out himself as a hardcore fan. So if you can endure the rolled eyeballs and tired sighs of a few librarians, there’s more to the story for you.
And, depending on the court's ruling and your stomach for cheap cash-ins, there will probably be more to the story for the rest of us too. The supposed sequel’s defense will rest on a large body of precedent, if and when the court handles the case. It’s unlikely that the publishers will deny the work’s outright connection to Salinger’s original; the author’s pen name is J. D. California and the would-be Holden character is called “Mr. C.”
It’s further unlikely that this book will be viewed, as a matter of statute, as a harm upon the original’s copyright. Would Salinger, unlikely as it seems, choose to pen his own sequel to Catcher in the Rye, I’d bet none of his readers would shrug it off.
Those are secondary concerns anyway. The primary basis that the court would likely assess in its decision would be whether the new work involves a transformational value within itself, a standard closely connected to the assessment of parodies applied next to the original.
Legally, the new work or parody must be seen as a comment on the original source, not a repetition of the original. Supposedly, the sequel posits Holden as an old man, a retired sourpuss living upstate. It may even include Salinger himself as a character. So whether or not it’s any good, it at least acknowledges its origins. But that presents its own problems.
Whatever else it is, Catcher in the Rye, and the mixed-up kid in the middle of it, is a set piece in its time, a fixed position where Holden knows just enough to be dangerous. Enough to buy a hooker but not enough to do anything fun with her. Not enough to be an adult but enough to know his childhood’s gone.
Transform Holden Caulfield? Into what?
Don’t get me wrong, I know he’s an easy target. And the book’s been around for so goddam long that the whole idea’s tired now. He’s a clichéd shorthand for every bored teenager too smart for his own good. Being the ubiquitous model for an entire trope opens one up to merciless and macabre disdain. Just ask the jackals who bid on Elvis’s empty pill bottles this week at auction.
When the quiet man speaks, you’d do well to listen. “Read the book again.”