Literary daybook, July 16

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published July 16, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On July 16, 1592, Philadelphia reveals her discoveries to her brother.
-- "A Surfeit of Guns" (1996)
by P.F. Chisholm

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1951, J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" was published. Having been preselected by the Book of the Month Club, the novel was immediately popular. Rare book dealers regard a signed copy of this edition -- this is the one with the dust-jacket picture of Holden on a quixotic carousel horse -- as "one of the most elusive of 20th century books," and worth about $35,000. On the other hand, there was so little interest in Margaret Salinger's packet of letters that they were withdrawn from auction last December. With Salinger in his 84th year, perhaps those interested in such are willing to wait for whatever treasure or joke might surface from the New Hampshire bunker.

Ian Hamilton ("In Search of J. D. Salinger," 1988) is beyond caring, having died last year, but there have to be long odds against those researchers still interested in the Salinger chase. Hamilton himself turned to the long view in his 1992 book "Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography From Shakespeare to Plath." This tells some two dozen tales of scholarly or biographical misadventure -- the big, bad researcher knocking at the door, the literary guardian, for whatever reason, with his chinny-chin-chin up.

There have been several such case studies lately -- "Sleuthing C.S. Lewis," by Kathryn Ann Lindskoog; "The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes," by Janet Malcolm -- and the tradition goes back to Richard Altick's "The Scholar Adventurers" (1950). This enjoyable book ranges wider than Hamilton's, and includes research tales that arrive, whatever the labyrinth, at a happy ending. One such is the tracking down of the "Angria" stories written by the Brontës throughout their teens and early 20s -- scores of manuscripts, some of novella length, many written in a script so small, on a page about 1-inch square, that a powerful magnifying glass is needed to read them. It took a century, but when finally rounded up and analyzed these romances became essential documents for the study of Brontë life and literature.

Altick's book is both inspirational and cautionary for any scholar with high Salinger hopes. So too is the lurid cover of my 1953 Signet paperback edition of "The Catcher in the Rye," the cover that got Salinger so angry in the first place, and moving so quickly toward the bunker. This shows Holden standing before a peep show, suitcase in hand, red hunting cap on backward, the blurb reading, "This unusual book may shock you, will make you laugh, and may break your heart -- but you will never forget it."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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