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Alexandria publisher reveals more about J.D. Salinger

In January, the day after author J.D. Salinger died at age 91, Roger Lathbury, gave me his first interview tracing his unlikely relationship with the reclusive author. Lathbury, who operates an independent publishing company called Orchises Press, explained how he had acquired -- but then suddenly lost -- the rights to publish Salinger's last piece of fiction in book form, the novella "Hapworth 16, 1924."

Now, Lathbury writes his own story about that friendship in a New York magazine essay under the brutally critical headline: "Betraying Salinger: I scored the publishing coup of the decade: his final book. And then I blew it."

In the New York piece, Lathbury, who is also an English professor at George Mason University, offers up several nuggets that will intrigue those hungering for clues about Salinger's private life and private writings. He also offers more of his perspective on whether The Washington Post played a role in killing the book deal.

In 1988, Lathbury wrote Salinger on a lark with the pitch to publish "Hapworth," a short story in the form of a letter from 7-year-old summer camper Seymour Glass to his parents. The story had been printed in the New Yorker magazine -- running for dozens of pages -- but Lathbury wanted to publish the piece as a book. Salinger, amazingly, wrote back saying he'd consider the deal, signing off, Lathbury recalls in the article, with the initials "JDS." Eight years passed without further word from the writer holed up in his Cornish, N.H., home.

Then, from out of the blue in 1996, Lathbury received a letter from Salinger's literary agent that began, “It might be wiser to sit down before reading the rest of this..." Lathbury had scored Salinger's green light, the agent said.

Soon, Lathbury received what would be the first of several letters from Salinger -- letters that once gave him joy but now fill him with loss and speculation. Lathbury recalls the first piece of Salinger correspondence in 1996 as if it had arrived last week:

It had been addressed on a Royal manual typewriter...Inside was a full-page letter, and it took my breath away. Chatty, personal, with that rare sweet and endearing tone that characterizes the story I wanted to publish, it expressed Salinger’s high pleasure in finding a way to put out "Hapworth." He proposed a meeting. Just by chance (could this be true?), he would soon be close to Washington, D.C. Might we have lunch?

During their lunch at the National Gallery of Art cafeteria, Lathbury recalls how he summoned the gall to question Salinger on some stylistic matters in "Hapworth." "I had spotted a few inconsistencies within the text, and I brought them up, fearing the wrath of the lion," Lathbury writes. "Yet he said, mildly enough, “No, no. I want it left as it is.”

The two worked out a deal on pricing: $15.95 per book, for individuals, distributors, and retailers. "He had told his agent, generously, to let me make some money on it," Lathbury writes.

The new friends bussed their trays and parted ways. Then, more letters. "They were remarkably open, even garrulous, with notes on family life, social observations, gripes about train travel, little jokes about himself," Lathbury recalls.

The deal seemed to be moving toward one of those history-making moments that inspire all underdogs--a tiny press, a one-man show in suburban Virginia, on the verge of a publishing blockbuster. But then reporters found out about the impending publication and started calling Lathbury, who, to his everlasting regret, started talking. First, The Washington Business Journal wrote a small, mostly unnoticed article about the "Hapworth" deal. Then The Washington Post followed with a 1,200-word feature that subjected Salinger to the thing he had spent most of his life most scrupulously avoiding: media attention.

The letters from Salinger stopped arriving at Lathbury's home. The deal petered out. Lathbury blames himself:

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.

Now, all Lathbury has is a box of Salinger's letters. Not once does Lathbury quote from the correspondence in his New York piece. Even after Salinger's death, Lathbury feels protective of the author's privacy. Lathbury can't even bring himself to open the box and read the letters; he feels too much pain to see what he nurtured, and what he mysteriously lost. "I have not looked at those letters in years; to reread them would be too painful," Lathbury writes. "Nor will I sell them. That, at least, I can do."

By Ian Shapira  | April 12, 2010; 10:01 AM ET
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If you know something that you don't want anybody else to know, don't tell anybody. Duh.

Posted by: TooManyPeople | April 12, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Correction: Washington Post "blew it" with Salinger

Posted by: steampunk | April 12, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

But what was Salinger thinking? That a new book from him could just appear without any attention? If the media frenzy hadn't come before the book was published, it would've come after. Why spend years (allegedly) typing new novels that he refused to publish, and then try to republish an old story? The whole thing's very strange. Which, I guess, shouldn't be surprising.

Posted by: EWade | April 12, 2010 11:57 PM | Report abuse

Sounds to me more like a phobia than a wish for privacy. One can't blame themselves for someone else's irrational fear. If it wasn't this slight, surely it would have been another. I recommend auctioning all the letters save your favorite, and then take a nice vacation compliments of JDS.

Posted by: member8 | April 13, 2010 6:26 AM | Report abuse

Poor Roger. I feel for him.

No matter who is to "blame," Roger is a man with great integrity who feels as though he let down another trusting person, and I know that hurts.

In the end, no one knows what could have transpired had things gone differently. And that brings no comfort to the living.

Posted by: cfow1 | April 13, 2010 8:58 AM | Report abuse

In isolating himself, Salinger became a cipher, and most literati have apparently decided that in that cipher is some beautiful, authentic genius.

I disagree. I see a relatively talented but disturbed neurotic who relished the public image he spurned the way a child who stomps out of a room will sneak back when they realize no one is paying attention anymore. In my opinion Salinger was in his own sad way one of the biggest publicity hounds of all.

Roger Lathbury should not blame himself. His mistake was thinking that Salinger gave a damn about writing or literature or readers. When he had accrued enough perceived slights to perform a new petulant stomp out of the room again, he did so. Lathbury gave him exactly what he wanted.

And I believe Salinger, wherever he is, would want Lathbury to publish his letters. The last thing even a dead Salinger would ever want is for people to REALLY stop talking about him.

Posted by: bidalah | April 13, 2010 6:33 PM | Report abuse

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