When Matt Salinger strolls into the lobby of 80 Strand, offices of Penguin Random House in London, he’s not hard to spot. He is tall and lean, as his father was; and his face has a similar craggy handsomeness. He shakes my hand warmly; and there is too in his gaze a directness I’m sure I’ve seen in photographs of J. D. Salinger. Simon Prosser, Publishing Director of Hamish Hamilton, has just taken Matt to lunch and signs him into the building, carefully spelling his name for security – which makes me smile. Like generations of devoted readers around the world, Salinger is a name I feel I’ve always known nearly as well as my own. It’s extraordinary to find myself speaking to his son.
And pretty extraordinary for Matt, too, or so it seems. Sitting down with the likes of me was never really part of the plan. But as he says to me now, it’s the centenary year of his father’s birth and Penguin have just released elegant new editions of Salinger’s four published books. ‘I thought that deserved a little support,’ Matt says. ‘And it seemed like a good time to correct some…’ he searches for the right word. ‘Some misapprehensions that have been propagated by various biographers and reporters. I just thought it was time that the readers that my father cared most about should know some truths, and I wanted to tell them personally that yes, he did keep writing, and yes, we were going to publish pretty much everything that he wrote.’
That simple statement is about as big as news gets in the book world. If you want a reminder as to why, a little background is in order. Born in Manhattan in 1919, Jerome David Salinger got his literary start early: his first published story, ‘The Young Folks’, appeared in Story magazine when its author was 21 years old. His voice, however, would later become most associated with The New Yorker magazine: ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ was published there in 1948, having been accepted by the magazine’s fiction editor, the great William Maxwell. A few years later, Salinger sent over an extract of a novel – but although the magazine had printed six of his stories by that point, they declined to publish this latest offering, telling Salinger that the precocity of the children he’d created was not believable, and that ‘the writing was showoffy—that it seemed designed to display the author’s cleverness rather than to present the story,’ as the critic Louis Menand has written.
They are imbued with the best of him: his love, his kindness, his empathy; it’s there in all the characters
Well, The Catcher in the Rye, published as a book in 1951, went on to do pretty well. To date it has sold around 72 million copies – that’s Matt’s most recent calculation -- and is a talisman of 20th-century American literature. The trouble with talismans, of course, is that they tend to gather dust: but return to The Catcher in the Rye and it remains as astonishingly fresh as when it was first published. The voice of its narrator and protagonist, 17-year-old Holden Caulfield, became the internal monologue of first one generation, and then the next and the next. But the seven siblings of Salinger’s Glass family are just as remarkable, in their own way, the language of the stories in which they appear just as perfect and pin-sharp.
But Salinger, who died in 2010, published nothing after 1965; his final story, ‘Hapworth 16, 1924’ appeared in The New Yorker that year. To put it mildly, he disliked publicity. He refused to give interviews. He moved from New York to Cornish, Hampshire – where Matt and his older sister Margaret grew up – and was variously described as ‘reclusive’, ‘famously reclusive’, ‘notoriously reclusive’. His son would simply say that he wanted to live a private life. And what he wanted to do – and did do – was keep writing.
‘The only thing that changed after 1965 was that he stopped publishing,’ Matt says of his father’s later life. ‘The writing process remained identical. He was able to keep his solitude a bit better: and you know, if he had published in the late 60s or 70s, and in the decades after that, well -- the longer he waited, the more of an “event” it would have been.’ He grimaces. ‘I hate using that word, too, but that’s what it would have been. He just found that kind of attention hugely disruptive.’
Matt, who for most of his life has been an actor and an independent film producer, was born in 1960; his mother was Salinger’s second wife – the pair divorced in the late 1960s. A powerful memory of Matt’s childhood and young adulthood was his father writing, writing, writing – six to eight hours a day. ‘My father needed to do what he did. Some clueless reporters have asked me, “Well, did he stop writing? Is that why he stopped publishing, he just stopped?” How can a writer stop writing? I don’t even understand that. Certainly not the kind of writer my father was,’ Matt says with a shake of his head. Buddy Glass, in ‘Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters’ describes himself as an ‘ecstatically happy man’ – Glass, like his creator, is a writer. Did writing make his own father happy? I ask Matt. He affirms that absolutely, it did. ‘The knock-on effects of his writing, some of the repercussions of his writing, the attention, the fame -- he didn’t want any of that, and that was his cross to bear. But the actual writing process? Yeah, absolutely joyful.’
Matt is co-executor of his father’s literary estate; he and Salinger’s widow, Coleen O’Neill, are slowly preparing 50 years’ worth of writing for publication – a process that Matt estimates will take ‘three to ten years’. (Plenty of wiggle room in there, then.) He won’t say what any of the work will be or what form it will take: that, he says, ‘would affect the readers’ preconceptions, and if I were to do that now, after being so protective for so many years, I would be doing him a disservice and I would be doing the reader a disservice.’ Hard to argue with that. He stresses that his father’s very early stories – housed now in an archive at Princeton University – will not be republished. His father saw it as apprentice-work and had no wish for it to appear again.
The Catcher in the Rye is often described as a young person’s – and specifically a young man’s – book; what can it have been like, I wonder, to read it as the author’s own son? Matt tells me he read Catcher when he was around 11, he thinks; the other books as he moved into his teenage years. Matt describes the experience very plainly, with a smile. ‘I just heard my father’s voice when I was reading the books; and his sense of humour. They are imbued with the best of him: his love, his kindness, his empathy; it’s there in all the characters.’ It’s fascinating to hear Matt say that, because rereading Salinger’s work I have been struck by that very empathy and kindness; there’s a sweetness which I had not recalled, or perhaps noticed as a younger person. And people often talk about Salinger’s work – and about Catcher in particular – as evoking a kind of angsty anomie; this seems to me to be a strange misapprehension, to use a word that’s come up before.
The knock-on effects of his writing, some of the repercussions of his writing, the attention, the fame - he didn’t want any of that, and that was his cross to bear
Which brings us to a principle that was enormously important to the author – and now, to his son. Salinger never wanted anything to come between the text and the reader: it was just those misapprehensions he feared. It’s why there has never been a film, or even an audiobook, of any of his work – well, not since his story ‘Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut’ was adapted as a movie called My Foolish Heart, released in 1949. Long story short, it was a terrible film; Salinger never sold film rights again. ‘My father believed that the writer’s words should not be interpreted or interfered with or corrupted or, you know, thrown in any one direction or in another by anybody, for any reason,’ Matt says now. ‘The reader should get those words as directly and as purely as possible. He wrote a letter to a director once who wanted to direct Catcher, and he said, “I write for the private screening room in each reader’s head: that’s the only movie screen that I care about”.’
And so every new reader finds The Catcher in the Rye – and each of Salinger’s four published books – for himself, for herself. The writing captures a time and place with absolute precision – and yet, it is universal. It doesn’t matter where you come from: these books, these stories, speak to you. I wonder if Matt has any thoughts on why that is. ‘Well,’ he says carefully, ‘I don’t think you or anybody would really care too much what my opinion is. I’m not a professor, I’m not his spokesperson.’ But then he tells me about the thousands of readers he met a couple of months ago in China – people from a completely different culture, but who responded to his father’s work ‘with the same open heart, the same love,’ Matt says. It’s clear that these encounters with his fathers devoted readers have moved him more than he ever would have expected. He recalls Holden’s encounter with his former teacher, Mr Antolini; it’s Mr Antolini who tells Holden that it’s possible to forge real connections with those around him. ‘You'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior,’ Mr Antolini says. ‘You're by no means alone on that score.’
Matt Salinger’s bright blue eyes are intent as he thinks of all the millions and millions of his father’s readers. ‘When you feel like you’re alone in the world and a little bit lost, to find that is like salvation.’