How Amazon Ruined the Publication of a Secret J.D. Salinger Novel
"Hapworth 16, 1924" was set to have a zero-fanfare release—until the fledgling e-commerce giant spilled the beans
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
Each “Unfinished Business” will examine an unfinished work left behind by one of our greatest authors. What might have been genius, and what might have been better left locked in the drawer? How and why do we read these final words from our favorite writers — and what would they have to say about it? We’ll piece together the rumors and fragments and notes to find the real story.
In November of 1996, Orchises Press, a tiny independent publisher in Alexandria, Virginia known mostly for putting out small books of poetry, quietly began to tell booksellers that early the following year it would be publishing the first new book by JD Salinger since 1963. The book had an odd title, Hapworth 16, 1924, and would mark the first break in the reclusive author’s decades-long silence. Curious Salinger fans soon were even able to preorder the book on a new bookselling website, Amazon.com.
There was no official release date set, but it was said to be expected in April. But as April arrived, a notice went up on Amazon.com saying that the publication was delayed indefinitely. In the end the book was never published, and neither was anything else by J.D. Salinger, even after his death thirteen years later, in 2010.
What was Hapworth 16, 1924, and why had it almost–and then not–been published? Only recently have readers finally begun to get some answers. The saga of Salinger’s missing book spans decades, involves a 20,000 word New Yorker story about summer camp, former New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, billionaire Jeff Bezos, and a man named Roger Lathbury who dreamed of bringing his favorite author out of hiding.
Today, most readers know J.D. Salinger for his 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye and its protagonist Holden Caulfield. The novel remains widely-read around the world and is assigned often in high school English classes, despite perennial debates about its continued relevance. J.D. Salinger spent the better part of the 1940s writing stories about Holden and the Caulfield family, sending pieces like “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans” and “A Slight Rebellion Off Madison” to editors at Story Magazine and the New Yorker, even while he was a soldier in Europe during World War II.
But after the success of Catcher, Salinger turned his devotion to another character, and another family. In January 1948, the New Yorker published his story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” later collected in Nine Stories (1953), in which a young man named Seymour Glass, freshly home from the war, has a lengthy chat with a little girl on the beach, and then goes back to his hotel and shoots himself. The story cemented his reputation in the literary world, three years before Catcher, and earned him a spot as one of the New Yorker’s frequent contributors. It also cemented the character of Seymour Glass in his literary work, and ever since writing the story, Salinger returned, over and over again to Seymour and his brothers and sisters in the Glass family.
In 1961, he published Franny and Zooey, a book containing two previous stories from the New Yorker involving Seymour’s two youngest siblings. Then in 1963, he repeated this move, taking two more New Yorker pieces and gathering them into Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, with both sections surrounding Seymour yet again.
Most consider this fourth book to be the last Salinger publication before he entered a reclusion that would stretch on for nearly 60 years to his death.
But there is another.
Two years later, in June of 1965, the New Yorker published a 20,000-word short story by Salinger titled “Hapworth 16, 1924.” It is, in fact, the author’s true final publication, and it takes up almost the entire magazine. Today, those with a digital subscription to the New Yorker can still read the entire thing, online, but at the time one would have to find a rare, physical copy. “Hapworth” is “like the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Salinger cult,” critic Ron Rosenbaum explained in a 1996 New York Observer piece. (Surviving print copies of the New Yorker issue currently sell for $250 and up.)
“Hapworth” is written in the form of a (very long) letter sent home by Seymour at the age of seven, while he is away at summer camp. Only instead of recounting his time fishing on the lake, or making charm bracelets with the other children, Salinger has Seymour writing like no seven-year-old who has ever lived.
“Bessie! Les!” (he addresses his parents). “Fellow children! God Almighty, how I miss you on this pleasant, idle morning! Pale sunshine is streaming through a very pleasing, filthy window as lie forcibly abed here. Your humorous, excitable, beautiful faces, I can assure you, are suspended before me as perfectly as if they were on delightful strings from the ceiling!”
Discussing a fellow camper named Griffith Hammersmith, he says, “Oh, what a heartrending boy he is! His very name brings the usual fluid to my eyes when I am not exercising decent control over my emotions; I am working daily on this emotional tendency while I am here, but am doing quite poorly.”
He goes on and on, mixing little reminiscences with spiritual advice, eventually asking if someone can send him “The complete works again of Count Leo Tolstoy. … Charles Dickens, either in blessed entirety or in any touching shape or form.” And if that wouldn’t be enough to last anyone a few years, let alone a few weeks, Seymour also requests all of Proust, in the original French.
Critics almost universally hated the story, unable to work out what is meant to be going on in “Hapworth.” Is it total self-indulgence? Some kind of satire? It marks a sharp departure from his early realist style, and even from the already unpopular didactic spiritualizing that marked “Seymour: An Introduction” a few years earlier.
But many devoted Salinger fans dearly loved “Hapworth” and found much to enjoy in Seymour’s oddly pretentious, insecure, and homesick letter. One such fan was Roger Lathbury, then 18 years old. And as he grew up and eventually became an editor at Orchises Press in Virginia, he never forgot the strange lost story of Seymour at summer camp.
In a New York Magazine article called “Betraying Salinger,” Lathbury finally shared in 2010 how he almost turned the piece into Salinger’s first new book in over 30 years.
In 1988, Lathbury sent a letter addressed only to “J. D. Salinger, Cornish, NH,” hoping the post office would deliver it properly. In it, he confessed to his love of “Hapworth” and suggested that Orchises, as a small publisher dealing mostly in reprints of classics and books of poetry, would be a good match for the private author.
Eight years passed with no response.
Then in 1996, Harold Ober Associates reached out to get more information. In a subsequent phone call with the agency’s president, Phyllis Westburg, it was confirmed that the author was seriously considering the arrangement.
Two weeks later, Lathbury received a letter from Salinger, written on a manual typewriter. Then, over the phone, they discussed “Hapworth” and Lathbury recalls Salinger saying, “he thought […] was a high point of his writing.” They arranged to meet at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Lathbury retyped the entire 20,000-word story from the original New Yorker issue, and formatted it as he imagined it might look in Salinger’s exacting specifications for book form.
“We went over small details of bookmaking. (Running heads at the top of the page? No. The fabric headband at the ends of the spine? Plain navy blue. ‘Can’t go wrong with that!’ Salinger said, with an explosive laugh.) The cover would carry just the title and, below it, his name. There would be no dust jacket. I showed him a mock-up of the spine, and when he saw the horizontal type, he said, warmly, ‘Oh good.’”
Lathbury discovered that part of the appeal for Salinger was the limited distribution abilities of Orchises Press.
“He told me, ‘Nothing would make me happier than not to see my book in the Dartmouth Bookstore.’”
Salinger’s ideal publication run would be limited, under-the-radar, and relatively inexpensive. Later, it would come out that Salinger wanted the books to be sold only at retail price, with no mark-up for the store at all—and that he wanted his name removed from the cover entirely. It should just read Hapworth 16, 1924, with no author listed.
Lathbury agreed and proceeded to order two boxes of empty book covers done to these specifications, sending one to New Hampshire for Salinger’s approval.
He also applied with the Library of Congress for “Cataloging in Publication” data, or CIP: the dry legal text included in the copyright page of any book. “The filings are public information,” Lathbury writes, “but I didn’t imagine that anyone would notice one among thousands. It would be like reading a list of register codes at the grocery: apples 30, bananas 45, oranges 61.”
Lathbury expected nobody would sit there, scanning through thousands of boring title listings, and happen upon a new work by Salinger. But he neglected to factor in Amazon.com, the new bookselling website founded by Jeff Bezos in July of 1994, one year earlier.
“What I know now, but did not then,” Lathbury writes, “was that CIP listings are not only public but also appear on Amazon.com, even for books not yet published. Someone spotted Hapworth there, and his sister was a reporter for a local paper in Arlington, the Washington Business Journal.” Because the listing was on Amazon.com, anyone doing a simple keyword search for “Salinger” could come up with this odd new listing.
The reporter called Lathbury and he decided to speak to her, thinking that it was only a small local paper. But their interview was spotted by David Streitfeld at The Washington Post, who wrote his own article about Hapworth in January of 1997. “Salinger Book to Break Long Silence,” the headline read. “Barring last-minute troubles, the book will be on sale by early March.”
After that, the cat was out of the proverbial bag, and “last-minute troubles” were soon everywhere.
“My phone nearly exploded,” recounts Lathbury. “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. […] 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.”
Then, in February, critic Michiko Kakutani dug up the old New Yorker story and wrote an article expressing serious disappointment in the source material. “The infinitely engaging author […] who captured the hearts of several generations with his sympathetic understanding, his ear for vernacular speech, his pitch-perfect knowledge of adolescence and, yes, his charm, has produced, with ‘Hapworth,’ a sour, implausible and, sad to say, completely charmless story.”
For many years, Salinger fans blamed Kakutani’s “review” for Salinger’s fresh retreat, but Lathbury’s 2010 description of events suggests that the author had likely already decided to cancel it even before that.
Bookstores everywhere had begun to list the book as a pre-order for $22.95, including the mark-up that Salinger intended them to forego. Lathbury knew that if reporters were calling him, they were surely calling Salinger’s agents, and even trying to reach Salinger up in Cornish for comment.
He never gave any to the reporters, or to Lathbury. The contracts eventually expired, and the Hapworth saga ended. As far as we know, Salinger never again even considered publishing his work during his lifetime.
Ten years have passed since the death of J.D. Salinger, and still no one knows for sure if we will ever see a book publication of Hapworth, or of anything that he may have written since, though some recent signs are promising.
Salinger’s last public interview was in 1974, over the phone, with Lacey Fosburgh of The New York Times. In it, Salinger claimed to still be hard at work. “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”
In a 1998 memoir, Dream Catcher, Salinger’s daughter Margaret described her father going to his desk to write nearly every single day, often for ten or more hours, as well as a “vault” filled with manuscripts. She claimed he had a color-coded system for indicating what could be published, and how long, after his death.
And author Joyce Maynard made similar observations of a still-writing Salinger in her memoir At Home in the World, in 2000, in which she also described her consensual, but emotionally abusive relationship at age 18 with “Jerry,” then 53.
Kenneth Slawenski’s 2010 biography, J.D. Salinger: A Life, speculates that the author might have left behind as many as fifteen novels, but that he may have requested they be held for as many as 80 years after his death, meaning that—unless his executors overruled his wishes—no one would see this work until 2090.
At a talk in 2011, I asked Salwenski if he believed that Salinger’s estate would maintain the 80-year hold. He said that he imagined this would depend entirely on the quality of the author’s late work—if it was strong, he said, they’d be likely to want to release it sooner, to maintain Salinger’s legacy. But if the work was not up to par, we’d likely never see any of it, because they would not want to damage his reputation. It might take several years, he cautioned, as the author’s reported pace, over the span of nearly 50 years of isolation, could mean there were thousands or even tens of thousands of pages to sort through.
In 2013, writer David Shields released another biography of Salinger in which he and his filmmaking partner Shane Salerno claimed to have knowledge of “at least five additional books—some of them entirely new, some extending past work — in a sequence that he [Salinger] intended to begin as early as 2015.” His sourcing for this was anonymous, and the claims were refuted by the author’s son, Matthew Salinger, who co-manages the Salinger Literary Trust with Colleen O’Neill, the author’s widow.
By 2015, nothing had been released, and there was no news of anything on the way either. In 2017, Matthew Salinger was asked by New York Times reporter Matthew Haag about the books that Shield had promised. “Yeah, what came of those?” he responded. “You are not going to get an answer from me […] I would consider the source.” But Shields stood by his claim, saying that he still expects there will be new work released before January 2021.
The Shields biography specifically asserts that the coming works will include a novel set during WWII, based on his first marriage to a German woman while he was an American soldier. (In 1948 Salinger published a story along these lines, “A Girl I Knew,” in Good Housekeeping.)
There would also be a novella based on his own time in World War II (something Salinger generally avoided writing about) and a collection of stories about the Caulfield family based around an unpublished piece, “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans” which involves Holden’s brother D.B. (named Vincent in the original) preparing to leave for the war despite his mother hiding his draft card in a kitchen drawer. (I described this story and another about the Caulfields in more detail in the earlier piece about Princeton’s collection.)
Finally, Shields suggested there would be a novel about the Glass family, but it isn’t clear if Shields is referring to a wholly unknown novel, or novels, or if this could be Hapworth 16, 1924 once again.
About a year ago, in February of 2019, Matthew Salinger broke his customary silence to throw cold water on some of the rumors started by Shields and others about these new works.“They’re total trash […] The specific bullet-point dramatic quote-unquote reveals that have been made are utter bullshit. They have little to no bearing on reality.”
He specifically dismissed the idea that his father would write a novel about his brief first marriage to a German woman after the war, calling it “hysterically funny” and “beyond the realm of plausibility.”
But he did confirm to Guardian reporter Lidija Haas that his father had left behind unpublished work: some 50 years worth of material, and that eventually much of it would “be shared with the people that love reading his stuff.”
Whether this will involve any new, finished novels remains to be seen. Haas shares Matthew’s descriptions of working arduously through, “pages typed on Underwood and Royal typewriters, as well as what Salinger called ‘his squibs, or his fragments’ on ordinary paper cut into eighths: ‘a lot of handwritten, very small notes.’” He goes on to add that there is “‘no linear evolution’ in the later work: ‘It becomes clear that he was after different game.’”
It has taken him much longer than he expected, he explains, to get through everything and to organize it. But he promised Haas, “when it’s ready, we’re going to share it.”
As Matthew has been working on this project, he’s also recently sponsored, through the Salinger Literary Trust, a small New York Public Library exhibit about his father, which reveals many previous letters and images about the author and his reclusion that had been unseen.
The first thing one sees upon entering the small exhibit is Salinger’s 1948 Royal manual typewriter, loaded with a piece of paper, upon which a line has been typed and abandoned: “now is [gibberish] for all good [gibberish]” This turns out not to be a garbled line from a mysterious final work-in-progress, but a standard typing drill: the full quote “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country” perfectly fills a 70-space line.
Next to Salinger’s typewriter is a small jar filled with yellow crayons, worn down to the nub, which he apparently used as highlighters. Beside this is a small collection of handwritten extracts from various religious texts: Vedanta, Jewish, Islamic, and Catholic mysticisms which he called his “Vade Mecums” (Latin for “Go With Me”). And then, a fragment of something, tantalizingly cut-off along the right edge, involving one of Salinger’s most famous characters, Seymour Glass:
Seymour: A biographer/ admitted to his / just deceased-subject / reclusive bedroom will / later record in print / with what the reader / will assume to be / rather immensely …
Nearby are photographs of the elderly author sitting at his writing desk, white-haired, back to the camera, seemingly hard at work on—something. But what?
There is also a rotating bookshelf, which was kept near his bed in the last year of his life when he was not as mobile: The Portable Anton Chekov, works by Kierkegaard, Russell Baker’s Book of American Humor, The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Lao-Tzu’s Te-Tao Ching, and many more. Its shelves contain many of the very books requested by young Seymour while he was at summer camp—enough to fill a lifetime, or at least a few weeks.
And perhaps conspicuously, beside the rotating bookshelf is a copy of the original typescript of “Hapworth 16, 1924” just waiting—one manuscript that is all ready to go (back) into print. Perhaps someday soon, it will.