Holden Caulfield, It's Time We Let Go

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Y.A. author Mary O'Connell plans to feature J.D. Salinger's most-famous character, Holden Caulfield, in her upcoming book for adults, In the Rye, which has been acquired by Amy Einhorn Books, an imprint of Putnam. Per The New York Times, in O'Connell's novel, “Caulfield steps out of the pages of The Catcher in the Rye and into the life of a high school senior searching Manhattan for her missing American lit teacher." 

J.D. Salinger, however, was pretty adamant about what should and what should not happen with his books. He never wanted Catcher in the Rye to become a movie, for example, though many people hoping to capitalize on the popularity and resonance of the story tried to convince him otherwise. Cameron Crowe posted part of a 1957 letter from Salinger explaining why, exactly, he was against the idea. In it, the writer explains, "I keep saying this and nobody seems to agree, but The Catcher in the Rye is a very novelistic novel. There are readymade 'scenes'—only a fool would deny that—but for me, the weight of the book is in the narrator's voice, the non-stop peculiarities of it ..." He writes that "it is possible that one day the rights will be sold," but "It pleasures me no end ... to know that I won't have to see the results of the transaction."

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Salinger clearly had an intense and oddly private relationship with his most-famous character, perhaps because, as Kenneth Slawenski wrote in a piece for Vanity Fair in 2011, the character and writing that would become the book accompanied Salinger throughout much of his adult life. And so, not only did he not want the book to be made into a movie, he didn't want the character to be made into other books. Salinger was so protective of the depiction of his character in the media that he didn't even want book covers to feature the image of Holden Caulfield. Further, according to a 2010 piece in Salon, "he asked to have his image taken off the dust jacket, and he objected to James Avati’s art [at right] for the paperback (he didn’t want any art on it at all)." Hence, the cover designs that have become iconic representations of the book—the white one with the rainbow stripes in one corner, or the plain maroon cover with gold lettering. (More covers here.)

In 2009, before Salinger died, his estate prevented the book 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, by a writer with the (clear homage) pen name John David California, from being published in the U.S. According to the affidavit, on the matter of Salinger's refusal to create or authorize the creation of derivatives, "Although Catcher and the character of Holden Caulfield have a distinctive place in contemporary American culture, neither Salinger nor anyone else (with or without his permission) has written any new narrative for Holden Caulfield or created any works derivative of Catcher in the 58 years since the novel's release. For over 50 years, Salinger has been fiercely protective of both his intellectual property and his privacy has been well-documented. He is equally protective of his work." Phyllis Westberg, Salinger's agent and president of Harold Ober Associates, added in that document, "Based on my 40 years as a literary agent and 19 years of representing Mr. Salinger, I have no doubt that if Salinger were, contrary to his stated intention, to write and publish a sequel to Catcher, it would command substantial payment, including at least a $5 million advance.... While Salinger's copyright in Catcher is potentially therefore quite valuable, it is his wish not to further exploit it. That too goes for Holden Caulfield, the character he created and who narrates Catcher."

Harold Ober Associates still manages the rights to the Salinger Estate, and we've reached out to Westberg, to Marcia Paul (the lawyer in the California case), and to Putnam/Amy Einhorn Books as well as to O'Connell to find out more about the rights as related to her upcoming new work. In the absence of their responses, we can look to the previous case (note: it's unclear in the New York Times report on the deal whether the publisher has acquired rights from the Salinger estate to publish this book; what is clear is that the publisher bought the book from O'Connell). According to Jon Tandler, a publishing lawyer in Denver, who spoke to TIME's Andrea Sachs about Salinger's copyright in 2010,  "If he says that he doesn't want a revised work, or a secondary work or a derivative work, or he doesn't want anything related to Catcher in the Rye licensed, then whoever is managing his estate would be bound by that. He can say, 'Thou shall not create a sequel.'"  

Of course, just because Salinger wanted things a certain way hasn't prevented people from trying to reprise his plot and character and, even, from people writing that he was kind of being a selfish jerk by wanting to control his own material so stringently. A piece published by the Economist in 2011 following the legal win against John David California's book focused on the writer's "miserly legal legacy": 

This change in the mood and tools of the creative class has made Salinger's legal aggression against biographers, filmmakers and inferior writers seem less like charming New Hampshire get-off-my-lawn curmudgeonism and more like a contemptible failure of generosity. A decent man does not shoot at kids taking a shortcut across his back forty. But Salinger, again and again, lawyered up, aimed carefully, and fired.

Yet it's hard to truly control the imaginations of other creative types, and even with Salinger's repeated denial of rights to publishers and producers and playwrights, among others, you can count any number of "Holden Caulfield-esque" characters in books and movies (who aren't named such) that may or may not have been informed by their predecessor. At the same time, each time an author tries to use Caulfield in a book, or a producer tries again to get the movie rights, or an director or actor or writer bases a character upon what they think of of that seminal character, Caulfield comes up in our minds yet again, nameless or not. Are we sick of him yet? In 2009, at the time of the lawsuit against John David California, the New York Times published a piece about how we might be. Jennifer Schuessler wrote, "'Teachers say young readers just don’t like Holden as much as they used to. What once seemed like courageous truth-telling now strikes many of them as 'weird,' 'whiny' and 'immature.'" According to an English teacher quoted, "I had a lot of students comment, ‘I can’t really feel bad for this rich kid with a weekend free in New York City.’" (Update: Hillary Clinton agrees.)

It's interesting that the copyright strife, far from preventing us from thinking about Caulfield, serves to make him more ours, cementing him in the collective imagination, a kind of universal intellectual property, as he wends his way into the public conversation for another day or month or year. It doesn't hurt that people keep reading that book. It's debatable whether Salinger was aware of how long people would continue to try to fight for the right to bring their own versions of Caulfield to the page and screen, though Westberg's comments in the affidavit make us think he was fairly knowledgable about what he'd wrought. But maybe there's another parallel here, too. As Schuessler wrote, "Some critics say that if Holden is less popular these days, the fault lies with our own impatience with the idea of a lifelong quest for identity and meaning that Holden represents." Are we equally impatient with the apparent lifelong quest of acquiring the meaning and identify of Holden Caulfield himself?

You wonder, sometimes, when examining books and films on a deeper level, if everything must be derivative or such whole-cloth homage. Do we need, for instance, so many remakes, and what value are they, really? Is there anything new under the sun? I also wonder whether, at some point down the road, Salinger would have stopped caring if his character was used in a new book by someone who says she herself was inspired to become a writer by his original work. If history is any indication, the estate will fight the publication of this book, too. But at some point, presumably, the character and the work itself will revert the public domain, and then the deluge of redux and redux again will really begin. The question is, will anyone care at that point? Probably.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.