Kept under lock and key, JD Salinger's three unpublished stories have now escaped online, to a mixed response from fans
If the reclusive, controlling, JD Salinger had not died three years ago, inevitably he would be suspected as the source of the leak of three short stories, including an early version of The Catcher in the Rye, which he had ordered not to be published until decades after his death.
Salinger's life and work have been wreathed in conspiracy theories, fanned by the temperament of the man himself, including assertions that his greatest masterpieces were being written during the silent years, and that a safe – or an entire room – full of unpublished treasure would one day be discovered. A recent biography claimed that the author had planned the phased release of a string of works.
Now, apparently accurate transcripts of three stories, whose original manuscripts are kept under lock and key in university libraries, have escaped into the world.
In a particularly Salingerish touch, the source appears to be a scan of a pirate edition of the texts with a title page bearing the brain-twisting words: "The three stories in this book remain unpublished and locked by JD Salinger for publishing."
The copy, said to be one of 25 printed in London in 1999, was apparently sold on eBay in September by a seller listed as seymourstainglass, with an address in Brentford, west London. It sold for a mere £67.50, considerably less than a first edition of The Catcher in decent condition.
The scans were posted on a members' only site, called What.cd. The site later took the post down, but by then the stories were being commented on and copied across other sites, including Reddit.
These three stories were not unknown unknowns; Salinger scholars knew of their existence, but the terms on which the world at large would ever see them were sternly laid down by the author.
The stories include An Ocean Full of Bowling Balls, which has only been available under lock and key to scholars at Princeton library.
The tale is an early version, originally written for Harper's Bazaar magazine but withdrawn before publication, of The Catcher in the Rye. The narrator is the older brother of Holden Caulfield, the teenage narrator of the later book.
The terms attached to the donated work were precise: the story was not to be published until 27 January 2060, half a century after Salinger's death in 2010.
The other stories, entitled Paula, and Birthday Boy, were held by the University of Texas under similar conditions.
Kenneth Slawenski, a Salinger scholar and biographer, who has read the stories in the university libraries, told the website BuzzFeed that the text appeared accurate. "While I do quibble with the ethics (or lack of ethics) in posting the Salinger stories, they look to be true transcripts of the originals and match my own copies."
PJ Vogt, a Salinger fan and radio producer, said the text of An Ocean Full of Bowling Balls appeared accurate but the scan was not a copy of the Princeton manuscript. "When I finally read it I was just convinced it was the best story I'd ever read," he added.
A Princeton University spokesman said: "The story is probably an unauthorised version transcribed longhand in our reading room. It's also possible that it came from photocopies of the typescript probably made before the mid 1980s when we decided we'd no longer allow photo-duplication for any work by Salinger."
Salinger, born in New York in 1919, was apparently traumatised by the wildfire success of the Catcher, a classic of teenage angst, which regularly tops lists of favourite and most influential books, and which has never been out of print.
He increasingly withdrew from public view, staying at the New Hampshire village of Cornish where shopkeepers delighted in misdirecting literary pilgrims. He took back some stories already offered to magazines, and published less and less, until, as far as the world understood, he stopped writing in 1965.
Further glimpses were afforded by his efforts to squash various memoirs, including the 1972 account, and the auction of letters by Joyce Maynard, telling of their nine-month affair when she was 18 and he was 53. There was also legal action against a proposed unauthorised sequel to The Catcher in the Rye.
A biography by David Shields and Shane Salemo claims Salinger completed a string of works, including autobiographical material and stories, for which he planned a release over the coming decades.
Fans are split between those eager to get at every unpublished word, and those respectful of their eccentric hero's determination to control his literary legacy from beyond the grave.
Dead Caulfields, a J D Salinger fan site goes into the unpublished stories in depth, but notes: "We are respectfully aware of the author's privacy … while walking on eggshells, it is our attempt to shed as much light as possible on these stories without overstepping either legal or moral bounds."
The scans posted to What.cd, then removed by the site, prompted the website to state: "Due to this case's rare and unlikely circumstances, due to the unnecessary and unwanted attention the Salinger leak has brought, and due to our desire to comply with the desires of the Salinger estate or other involved parties in this matter, the content has been removed … It is not to be re-uploaded under any circumstances, and anyone found doing so will have their account disabled." Salinger could hardly have put it better.
How much do you like the fiction of JD Salinger? It has long been an option open to fans of the author, who wrote so wonderfully but left us tantalisingly little, to buy a flight to New York, get on a bus to Princeton, New Jersey, and sit in a comfortable reading room in the university's library (under discreet supervision), reading The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls, which is regarded as a key peripheral text to Catcher in the Rye. You can then take off on a short flight to the Harry Ransom Center, in Austin, Texas, and do the same for the short stories Paula and Birthday Boy. A number of devout Salingerologists have undertaken such a pilgrimage.
There are excellent summaries of the above stories on the delightfully named Dead Caulfields website. But Salinger ordained that these works should not be published until 50 years after his death. It's an edict of extraordinary egotism – not to say spite. Salinger, one deduces, came to hate his contemporaries: not until every single one of them was dead should there be access to the fruits of his genius.
That prohibition has been overturned by the sale on eBay, of all places, of a so-called book – or what bibliographers call "a ghost"; a non-book that doesn't actually exist – containing the three stories. The copyright page describes it as number six of 25, printed in London in 1999, but there's none of the formal copyright data that a printed book requires. It also contains the misinformation that all three manuscripts are in Texas, whereas the most interesting is in Princeton. The text is clearly not typeset, but word-processed.
The sale itself is hugely suspicious. Only 14 bids, with the winner paying a derisory £67.50. Everything points to the conclusion the book was mocked up and the sale rigged to get the contents into the public domain, which the website Reddit has duly done.
Whereas lovers of Salinger will rejoice, Princeton university and the Harry Ransom Centre will be most miffed. Some will claim they have failed in a duty of trust to Salinger's estate, so vigilant of copyright that it is said it will charge you for the use of the words "and" and "the".
There's a concept in law called mortmain, meaning the hand of the dead. How powerful should that hand be? At the time of his death, Vladimir Nabokov was working on a novel. A perfectionist, he decreed that the imperfect manuscript should never be published. And then, instead of destroying the text, he perversely deposited the manuscript in a Swiss bank vault in the custody of his wife and son. It was an exquisite dilemma for them. Eventually, his son Dimitri gave his permission for it to be printed. The Original of Laura was, after all this, found to be disappointing.
No one will be disappointed by the three Salinger stories. But they have got into general circulation by an elaborate ruse. Who did it? One doesn't yet know. But it is a certainty that some will be applauding – most notably those who believe the internet has made mortmain historically obsolete.