J. D. Salinger is not a happy chap. His one significant work, The Catcher in the Rye (1951) is a well-guarded bastion of literary worth. On Monday, he sought to block the publication of a supposed sequel by John David California, 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye. The effort by California supposedly features a 76-year-old character by the name of Mr. C who flees from a nursing home to explore New York, a redux-styled escape in the manner of Holden Caulfield’s flight from a prep school in The Catcher.
The lawyers representing Salinger have filed a suit in the US District Supreme Court in Manhattan, arguing that, “The sequel is not a parody and it does not comment upon or criticize the original. It is a rip-off pure and simple.” This is a rather mangled way of looking at it. But then again, there is not much else you could expect from the creator of a character so self-obsessed, angst-ridden and neurotic as Holden Caulfield.
Salinger, living in self-imposed isolation in New Hampshire, only seems to engage with the public through lawyers. Ian Hamilton found himself in a touch of bother in 1986 when he sought to publish an assortment of Salinger’s letters in a biography. While the biography did emerge two years later, the letters had been paraphrased with a fine-toothed comb.
The dogmatic insistence that The Catcher is a masterpiece pure and beyond change, adulteration or imitation is naïve at best, disingenuous at worst. The world of art and literature involves eternal amendment and revisions of familiar themes and characters in a manner that the art theorist Theodor Adorno might have called uncommitted crimes. Not even the accusation of imitation should be sufficient to sink a piece — the manner of imitation can itself be original.
A few re-workings should be mentioned. The Odyssey is a high water mark of retellings and revisions, whether it be through Charles Lamb’s effort in 1808 with The Adventures of Ulysses, which gives pre-eminence to Polyphemus the Cyclops, or David Bader’s seventeen syllables in One Hundred Great Books in Haiku:
storms, chance of one-eyed giants,
A perhaps more pertinent example is the attempt by the Argentine wordsmith, Jorge Luis Borges, to rewrite Cervantes’ Don Quixote in Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. Borges’ Menard seeks to “re-create” the original Spanish from scratch in an effort to tackle the problems of translation. That effort is itself praised by the fictitious reviewer as one that surpasses Cervantes.
California himself suggests that his narrative on Mr C. is significantly different. He refrains from calling the work a sequel as such, and he may well be right doing so. “It’s a story about growing old and old age and finding yourself in the world.” It might even be worthwhile to see how an author tackles the transformation from Salinger’s garrulous teenager frustrated and estranged, to the exigencies of old age.
Perhaps Salinger, whose body of published work is modest, crowned by the titanic effort of The Catcher, wants to keep Caulfield’s world to himself, one beyond imitation or revision. But given the work’s permanence, however justified, on school curricula and the standard literary canon from that period, he has little reason to worry. Sales are unlikely to be affected, and may even go up. Such imitation has invariably flattered him, even if a litigious Salinger doesn’t quite see it that way.
Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.