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Image: J.D. Salinger and Catcher in the Rye
Lotte Jacobi via AP
“Catcher” was published in 1951, and its very first sentence, distantly echoing Mark Twain, struck a brash new note in American literature.
updated 1/26/2011 10:22:54 AM ET 2011-01-26T15:22:54

One year after J.D. Salinger's death, we know little more about him than we did in his lifetime.

That has not kept outsiders from trying, or insiders from resisting.

Rumors of completed, unpublished manuscripts remain rumors; no one is talking. There are still no Salinger e-books or planned film adaptations of his work. One award-winning biographer was rebuffed in an attempt to write an authorized book about the legendary novelist of "The Catcher in the Rye." Salinger's longtime literary agent, Phyllis Westberg of Harold Ober Associates, Inc., would not comment on whether the estate had been approached, but said no biography had been authorized and that it was "very unlikely" such a project ever would be. (The would-be biographer asked not to be identified, citing a desire, fitting for all things Salinger, for privacy.)

Salinger died Jan. 27, 2010, at age 91, an international celebrity although few would have recognized him had he appeared on their doorstep; he avoided the media for much of the last 50 years of his life. Besides "The Catcher in the Rye," he released just three other books: "Nine Stories," "Franny and Zooey" and "Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour." His last published work, the short story "Hapworth 16, 1924," came out in The New Yorker in 1965.

Salinger's widow, Colleen O'Neill, still lives in Cornish, the small New Hampshire town where Salinger moved in the 1950s and where residents honored his wishes to be treated as an ordinary and private citizen. A few weeks after his death, she rose to speak at the annual Town Meeting in Cornish, thanked townspeople for keeping their distance and even for steering astray curiosity seekers looking for the Salinger house.

Nothing has changed since, friends and neighbors say.

"She's a friend. We respect the family's privacy, that's pretty strong," says Cornish resident Caroline Storrs.

"If somebody wants a public persona, they can have it. If they don't, then they don't. That's not challenged by anybody in the community," says Salinger neighbor Peter Burling, who described the author's widow as "a true delight" and "the best of neighbors."

"Mr. Salinger made it clear years ago he wanted privacy. That's what he wanted and that's what he'll get."

Remembrances came out after he died, including one from Lillian Ross of The New Yorker, where many of Salinger's stories appeared, but publishers say they have seen no Salinger tell-alls proposed. The one major release is a biography by Kenneth Slawenski, unauthorized, of course, which includes blurbs from Peter Ackroyd and James Atlas. The book was released last year in Britain and Australia and has just been published in the U.S. by Random House.

Slawenski is a Salinger fan who started the online resource http://www.deadcaulfields.com in 2004 and eventually shaped his information into narrative. Slawenski's "J.D. Salinger: A Life" offers detailed background on the author's early years and influences on his work. But there are no revelations about publishing's greatest mystery: What did Salinger write during his self-imposed retirement and will any of those books, should they exist, be released?

Slawenski, who cites respect for Salinger's privacy in saying he never met the author or even visited Cornish, has a "hunch," just a hunch, something will come out next year. He bases this on speculation that Salinger's widow and son Matthew (neither of whom he has met) are more "reasonable" than the author.

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As evidence, he cites a recent out-of-court settlement in New York that banned publication in the U.S. (but not overseas) of a "Catcher" sequel written by Fredrik Colting, under the pen name John David California. The lawsuit began in 2009, a few months before Salinger died.

"I don't see in Colleen or Matthew the litigious nature that Salinger had. I think they wanted the case out of the way," Slawenski said. "They seem more forthcoming. Salinger, as he grew older, became less reasonable. He became more steadfast in his routine and in having the luxury of not having to produce new work. All of that solidified, that he wasn't going to publish."

Westberg, whose agency represents the Salinger literary trust for which the author's widow and son are trustees, called Slawenski's "hunch" about new work "stuff and nonsense."

Slawenski said he contacted Westberg and asked for suggestions for writing his book. He was told, Slawenski said, to stay within certain boundaries, legal boundaries. In the 1980s, Salinger prevailed in a copyright infringement lawsuit against biographer Ian Hamilton, who had wanted to include extensive excerpts from the author's letters. Slawenski was careful: No close paraphrasing and no direct quotes when possible.

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"I looked through the court papers and it was all spelled out where I could tread and where I could not tread," Slawenski says. "Ian Hamilton's awful experience worked to my benefit."
Westberg declined comment.

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Screenwriter-producer Shane Salerno, whose credits include "Armageddon" and the current CBS TV series "Hawaii Five 0," has spent seven years working on a feature-length Salinger documentary and told The Associated Press that he expects it to be released in theaters this November. Salerno says he conducted more than 170 interviews, including with such actors as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Edward Norton, and with authors Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal and E.L. Doctorow. He also collaborated on an 800-page companion book with author David Shields, who referred all questions to Salerno.

"In the final analysis, what distinguishes our film and book project is access — access to Salinger's friends, colleagues and members of his inner circle that have never spoken on the record before as well as film footage, photographs and other material that has never been seen," Salerno said. "We take the viewer and reader inside J.D. Salinger's private world and shine light on a man named Jerry who lived in the shadow of the myth of J.D. Salinger."

Beyond that, he declines comment.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Recalling Salinger, ‘Catcher in the Rye’

  1. Closed captioning of: Recalling Salinger, ‘Catcher in the Rye’

    >> do.

    >>> and now to the death of reclusive author j.d. salinger , one of the most influential american writers of all time. he died at his new hampshire home on wednesday, leaving behind a horde of unpublished works. if you really want to hear about j.d. salinger , the first thing you'll probably need to know is he was an intensely private man who died at his home in new hampshire at the age of 91. his full name was jerome david salinger . and while he wrote a few collections of short stories, he was best known for his only novel, "the catcher in the rye ." * released in 1951 , salinger 's book still resonates with readers today.

    >> i think i read it in sixth grade and then reread it every year until i was 20. it's just the first thing i ever read that felt honest. * sometimes i feel like "the catcher in the rye " *

    >> reporter: "the catcher in the rye " is a symbol of youth, rebellion and the societal contradictions of american life .

    >> i took it in a bag to a coffee mat in the middle of the night and printed up 110 copies. even the cover looked like "the catcher in the rye ."

    >> what you reading?

    >> "the catcher in the rye ." i'm named after it.

    >> whose "the catcher in the rye " is this?

    >> let's see now. if it has my name on it, then i guess it's mine.

    >> at times controversial, the colt of catcher turned murderous in 1980 when chapman killed john lennon and blamed the book. salinger was married three times and is survived by two children.

    >> he said he always knew he wanted to be a writer.

    >> reporter: a notable chapter in his life was an affair with joyce maynard , who after exchanging letters and phone calls with the author dropped out of college at the age of 18 to live with the then 53-year-old.

    >> i had felt alienated and outside of normal life in many ways for all of my 18 years, and here was this person who said me too, come with me, we're alike.

    >> always a top seller, in his memory, "the catcher in the rye " is moving up sales charts today.

    >> i think it appeals to everyone.

    >> readers taking comfort in the novel's antihero, holden caufield , whose take on death is classic salinger . "boy, when you're dead, they really fix you up. i hope the hell when i do die, somebody has the sense enough to dump me in a river or something, anything except sticking me in a cemetery. people coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on sunday and all that crap. who wants flowers when you're dead? nobody." we were just saying how we all have our original copies for when we read it.

    >> at home. i read a lot of books as a kid, but mostly sports books , and when i read that book, i felt proud that i had read a real book .

    >> a real book .

    >> a real one.

    >> you haven't done that since, have you?

    >> no. i've read that same book over and over again. now it's on tape.

    >> and it's weird to see your children, yours will be reading it soon. mine have read it.

    >> yeah.

    >> it's a real loss of a brilliant author. back in a moment.

    >>> still ahead, the search for

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