By Matthew Haag
After decades of silence, the famously reclusive writer J. D. Salinger finally had something to tell the world: Leave me alone.
It was November 1974, and Mr. Salinger briefly stepped out from his secluded life in a small New Hampshire town to denounce the unauthorized release of his early works. In that interview, one of his last before his death in 2010, he confirmed he was still writing — long hours and every day, he said.
J. D. Salinger called a reporter at The New York Times in November 1974 to criticize the unauthorized release of some of his early writings.
Nothing new by Mr. Salinger has been published since 1965, and no one close to him has suggested after his death that anything ever will be. But in 2013, a documentary about the author and a related book offered a bold assertion: He had not only continued writing, but also left detailed notes to his trust about releasing the material between 2015 and 2020.
The blockbuster claim sent a ripple through the publishing world and became the subject of numerous news stories. “Rebel in the Rye,” a new film about Mr. Salinger released in theaters last month, makes clear that he continued to write long after his last work was published.
But it is almost 2018 and no books have been released. So where are they?
“Yeah, what came of those?” Matthew Salinger, the author’s son, said in a brief phone interview this month.
When the author’s widow, Colleen O’Neill, answered the phone at her home in New Hampshire this month, she said, “I’m sorry, I can’t take this phone call,” and hung up.
Mr. Salinger, who controls the J. D. Salinger Literary Trust along with Ms. O’Neill, shares his father’s disdain for the public spotlight. Did his father continue writing late into his life? Did he leave anything to be published?
“You are not going to get an answer from me,” Mr. Salinger said. Before hanging up, he added, “I would consider the source.”
The source was “Salinger,” the 2013 documentary and book by the same name, by David Shields and Shane Salerno, who spent nine years researching and producing them. In the last pages of the book, they cite two “independent and separate” anonymous people who assert that J. D. Salinger left instructions “authorizing a specific timetable” for the release of five additional works.
Over the years, a friend of Mr. Salinger’s, a former lover and even his daughter, with whom he had a difficult relationship, said he continued to write, both exploring new tales and picking up where his published stories had ended. His daughter, Margaret Salinger, wrote in her 2000 memoir, “Dream Catcher,” that her father had shown her his “vault” in his home, where he wrote in privacy and marked manuscripts with colored dots indicating what was to be edited, published or discarded after his death.
Ms. Salinger could not be reached for comment, and her book publicist said she had not worked with Ms. Salinger in years and did not know how to find her.
But all of the claims lacked specificity until “Salinger,” which detailed what Mr. Salinger was said to have written, edited and prepared for publication. The five works came from what Mr. Salinger compiled from 1941 to 2008, according to “Salinger.”
One new book, “The Family Glass,” is said to include five new stories about the Glass family, who also appeared in the 1961 book “Franny and Zooey” and other stories. There would also be a novel set during World War II and based on his first marriage; a novella about his time in the war; and a retooled version of the short story “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans” that would include new stories about the Caulfields, the fictional family in “The Catcher in the Rye,” his signature 1951 book that remains required reading for high school students every year.
Mr. Salerno, who produced and directed the documentary, said in a recent interview that he stood by the claims. He said the veracity of the assertions in “Salinger” could be questioned only if nothing were published by Jan. 1, 2021.
“How did I ever manage to get any of this stuff without Matthew Salinger?” Mr. Salerno wrote in an email. “It’s very simple, despite his fervent hope to be the only source about his father, Matthew Salinger is ultimately just one source. It’s critical to point out the following: Matthew Salinger has never disputed a single fact contained in either the book or film.”
Throughout his life, J. D. Salinger craved control over his writings. When he broke his silence in 1974, he agreed to an interview with The New York Times so he could condemn the publication of “The Complete Uncollected Short Stories of J. D. Salinger, Vols. 1 and 2,” an unauthorized release of his early writings. (“Some stories, my property, have been stolen,” he said.)
His last published work, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” appeared in The New Yorker in June 1965, but Mr. Salinger decided in the mid-1990s to release it as a novella. He chose a small publishing company, Orchises Press, and demanded that the distribution be limited, that bookstores could not discount the price and that his name not be included on the cover.
But shortly before the work’s release, a reporter uncovered details about it in a Library of Congress catalog, and the story spread. Afterward, Mr. Salinger never called Orchises Press to finalize the publication and it was never released, Roger Lathbury, the company’s owner, recounted in New York magazine after the author’s death.
The author’s son and widow have continued to exert strict control over Mr. Salinger’s writings. His literary trust objected when a publisher in Tennessee compiled three of Mr. Salinger’s earliest stories, which it claimed were no longer under copyright, and printed them in an e-book and then in paperback. Two of the stories were first printed in the 1940s in the magazine Story, whose editor, Whit Burnett, is portrayed by Kevin Spacey in “Rebel in the Rye.”
The Tennessee publisher wanted to sell the book, “Three Early Stories,” overseas but claimed the author’s literary trust had worked with international publishers and literary agents to thwart its publication. The publisher, the Devault-Graves Agency, sued the trust but dropped the case in 2015.
As for whether Mr. Salinger’s fans should believe new books are coming, his son declined to say. Maybe one day he will reveal if any exist, Matthew Salinger said.