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Betraying Salinger

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It seems clear now how everything happened. Hindsight is always clear. I remember that the reporter told me this would be an article about Orchises Press as well as Salinger. She asked me basic questions, about how I’d got Salinger to say yes, about the size of the press run. Foolishly—if reasonably—I answered most of them. I compared our press run to those of Salinger’s earlier books, mentioning them by name. I thought I could control myself, but my ego came into play. Anyway, what harm could it do? This was a tiny paper.

Then someone at the Washington Post saw it. A writer, David Streitfeld, called. I refused to speak at first, then answered a few questions, nervously, about what I liked about Hapworth and when it would appear. He asked if I’d met Salinger, and that, at least, I kept to myself.

The story appeared in the Post in January 1997. My phone nearly exploded. Newspapers, magazines, television stations, book distributors, strangers, foreign publishers, movie people. South Africa, Catalonia, Australia. The fax machine ran through reams of paper. People wanting review copies. (There were to be none.) People wanting interviews. I held as closely as I could to “no comment,” but when asked for a publication date, I gave one—at first March 1997, then later. I held to the $15.95 price for everybody: bookstore, distributor, chain store, fruit stand, anyone who wanted Hapworth.

The only one who didn’t call me was Salinger. I asked his agent, and repeatedly got the same answer: No news. I couldn’t proceed without him, because we still had too many details unsettled.

Meanwhile, bookstore chains—frustrated by the no-discount rule—had decided to simply mark the book up to $22.95. I inferred (from Westberg’s questions) that Salinger thought I had jacked up the price, to capitalize on the publicity and gouge everyone. I hadn’t, but I’ll never know for sure what he believed.

By February 1997, I had heard nothing for three months, but I had not yet given up hope. On February 20, Michiko Kakutani, working from the original text in The New Yorker, published a punishing review of Hapworth in the New York Times. I have no way of knowing, but this may have been the last straw. It was as rough as anything that Mary McCarthy or any other critic had ever said about Salinger’s work.

I yearned to write to Salinger, but I knew that it would do no good. He must have been furious with me, for betraying him by leaking news to the press, or even confirming it. I could no longer be trusted. I had proven myself part of the crass, opportunistic world that Salinger’s heroes disdain.

We were at a standoff, and soon enough, the contract’s time limit passed. I lost the book on June 1. Westberg’s office told me then that any subsequent moves would be up to Salinger, and that was that.

Some people, when they hear this story, blame Salinger for backing down after going this far, but I find this unfair. Such people want J. D. Salinger to be someone other than J. D. Salinger. Nor is the problem the Washington Post. I know where the blame lies. After thinking I could do right by a man I admired, I let him down.

In the end, I’m left with a box. It contains the buckram sample case and the die used to stamp the cockeyed spine printing. It also contains a stack of wonderful, kind letters from a man who has meant as much to readers as any writer ever can. I have not looked at those letters in years; to reread them would be too painful. Nor will I sell them. That, at least, I can do.


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