When J.D. Salinger’s obituary was published on the Web site of The New York Times a week ago this past Thursday, if you, like me, have an ongoing fascination with the practice of writing—with the details of why and how writers write, or don’t write, and when in their lives and careers they write and don’t write—then you, like me, may have been particularly curious about this paragraph, which appeared on the second page of the obit:
But was he writing? The question obsessed Salingerologists, and in the absence of any real evidence, theories multiplied. He hadn’t written a word for years. Or like the character in Stephen King’s novel The Shining, he wrote the same sentence over and over again. Or like Gogol at the end of his life, he wrote prolifically but then burned it all up. [Joyce] Maynard said she believed there were at least two novels locked away in a safe, although she had never seen them.
That’s the paragraph in the form in which it still continues to exist (with editorial tweaks here and there; “though” instead of “although,” “burned it all” sans “up,” etc.); here, however, is the last sentence of that paragraph as it was originally uploaded:
Quote TK from Salinger’s agent about surviving manuscripts, if any, and plans for them.
That line has been cut and pasted elsewhere on the Web; in at least a few places, the intent of republishing it seems to be limited to demonstrating that the ’Times was hasty in posting the obituary, or to show that the ’Times, too, makes mistakes. (Gotcha, Gray Lady!)
But to me, that brief sentence is heartbreakingly hopeful; to me, it implies that Chip McGrath (and/or whichever other writers, editors, and researchers may have contributed to the obit that carries his byline) sincerely and geniunely hoped, up until the moment the word arrived that Salinger was dead, that there might immediately be news of new Salinger manuscripts; that perhaps word of his death would be coupled with an announcement that yes, in fact, the author had written these, say, fifteen novels and three story collections during his decades of silence, and had instructed his agent and attorneys to announce immediately upon his passing that they would be available for publication, and that the author would at long last be delighted to share them with the world, now that he would no longer have to suffer the indignity, the tsuris, of it.
There’s plenty of speculation still whirling around out there about unpublished manuscripts in a safe. (A safe! Just the image of a safe full of typed pages in an old farmhouse in New Hampshire is hopelessly romantic.) (Don’t Google “Salinger’s agent” at the moment if you don’t want to get depressed about the matter.) But until there is a book, or books, there is still this hope—a difficult-to-diminish hope—for what might still be TK.
Re burned books: See also.