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Did The Post kill Salinger's "Hapworth" book?

When Roger Lathbury, a George Mason University professor who runs his own publishing house, Orchises Press, brokered a deal in 1996 to publish J.D. Salinger's short story, "Hapworth 16, 1924," he was thrilled. Here was a guy from Alexandria, miles from Manhattan's literary powerhouses and power lunch spots, who somehow swayed Salinger into giving him the rights to publish the story -- which had only appeared in The New Yorker in 1965 -- for the first time in book form.

But the discretion Lathbury demonstrated in pursuit of the Salinger book was all for naught: When The Washington Post published a feature in the Style section announcing that, as the headline put it, "Salinger Book to Break Long Silence," the book deal quickly dissolved. In an interview last week, Lathbury blamed himself for agreeing to be interviewed for The Post's story, but also said that Salinger's representatives were rankled by The Post's story, written by then-books reporter David Streitfeld, which shattered the reclusive author's sense of propriety and privacy.

"They were upset with David Streitfeld," Lathbury said. "I was naive about the business. I didn't know the way things worked."

Readers of Friday's story about how Lathbury got to know Salinger in the first place -- initially by writing him a letter requesting to publish "Hapworth" and later through a lunch meeting and a series of correspondence -- wanted to know: Does Streitfeld feel guilty?

So I called Streitfeld to seek out his thoughts, now that it's been 13 years since he wrote his feature. "I am sorry the book wasn't published," said Streitfeld, now a reporter for the New York Times financial desk at the paper's Chicago bureau. "It might have been more of a moral quandary if Lathbury was a friend of mine and asked me if this should be published or not. But [the news of the Lathbury-Salinger deal] was out there in some publications. It was news. I really didn't wrestle with the moral quandary that much."

Streitfeld is perplexed about why the short burst of publicity would have irritated Salinger, who coveted seclusion and loathed adulation. "It didn't occur to me that Salinger would have changed his mind. He would have had to have know that agreeing to do this in any way, shape or form was going to be huge news," he said.

After reading that Lathbury still has the letters he received from Salinger, Streitfeld praised the professor for not striking back at the Salinger estate and seeking fortune by publishing the correspondence. "I would like to, after all these years, express my admiration for Lathbury in keeping to the Salinger code of silence," Streitfeld said. "He would have been within his rights to quote from the letters."

As for Lathbury, he has no plans to publish any of the letters, which he described as deeply personal. "Memories have started flooding back," he said. "There are things he said that I remember vividly -- his comments on Edmund Wilson and F. Scott Fitzgerald." Now, he wants to concentrate on writing a 10,000-word magazine piece about his relationship with Salinger.

By Ian Shapira  | February 1, 2010; 10:04 AM ET
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