We’re a tad more than a week removed from the 50th anniversary of the famed rooftop performance by The Beatles, which stirred once again in the thoughts of fans and music historians the familiar refrain.
“What if ...?”
What if the Fab Four had somehow never disbanded? What if they had come together for a one-night benefit concert? What if they had secretly recorded decades of music for their own private joy before the events of Dec. 8, 1980?
What if this hypothetical “new” music — not the cobbled-together contraptions in 1995 of “new” singles “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love,” or the remixes and reissues of their catalog — had tarnished their legacy?
The bliss is in knowing that we’ll never know.
Perhaps because that London rooftop performance was fresh in the memory, or that Beatles analogies are never far from the outer limits of my cerebral cortex ... but the “What if ...?” door opened once again last week when it was announced that the heretofore unpublished works of J.D. Salinger were indeed on their way toward being made public.
Salinger — literary touchstone for high schoolers for generations — continued working long past his last published original work, the lukewarmly received 1965 short story “Hapworth 16, 1924” ... which essentially was another slice in the life of Seymour Glass, the protagonist in Salinger’s first success, “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.”
In the announcement that the notoriously reclusive author’s unpublished works eventually would find their way into print, it was noted that he had compiled a 50-year trove of the unread.
For many, the news was greeted with the sort of enthusiasm that would have followed had Geraldo Rivera actually found anything inside Al Capone’s vault.
For others, there was immediate apprehension akin Rivera opening the vault and revealing nothing of consequence.
“Certain things, they should stay the way they are,” said the indefatigably quotable Holden Caulfield. “You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”
And that’s where we find ourselves today with the Salinger question: That these 50 years of work are the trapped in a big glass case as some variation of a literary Schrodinger’s Cat.
Unopened, unpublished, the works are alive with possibility. They could be as mesmerizing and groundbreaking as (OK, I’ll finally type the words) “The Catcher in the Rye” was in 1951.
But once that hermetically sealed case is opened, and the pages are unleashed upon the reading public ... what then?
It is a drastically different cultural world that Salinger would be introduced to, with depths of sharpened criticism crouching in the shadows. In his time, he was showered with flowers for his highest heights; but also was on the receiving end of the sort of bayonets often reserved for those of whom more (and better) was expected.
Again, the comparison with The Beatles comes forward. In various anthologies and compilations, their “new” music is merely recordings made during their time together that hadn’t been released.
When the long and winding road ended, there was nothing more produced. Salinger’s half-century of work is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, and will be put through a meat grinder of public consumption — not that he would necessarily care about those bayonets or bouquets.
“When you’re dead, they really fix you up,” Caulfield/Salinger says. “ People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.”
The closest literary Schrodinger’s Cat likely would be that of “Go Tell A Watchman” — the apparent sequel (although that is in dispute) to author Harper Lee’s only previously published novel, “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
Swamped in controversy from the moment it was published — less than a year before Lee’s death — “Watchman” was greeted with skepticism and disdain in some corners for, among other things, its less than saintly depiction of the iconic hero of “Mockingbird” ... stalwart lawyer Gregory Peck.
Lee’s glass case was even more pristine than Salinger’s — “Mockingbird” was the one and only. It was as if The Beatles had released only a single of (your choice may vary) “Help!” and then just walked away.
What would we do if within the unreleased Salinger material is a sequel to “Catcher” — and, no, the unauthorized “Coming Through The Rye” written by a Swedish book publisher under the pen name John David California doesn’t count — wherein the iconic anti-hero of Holden Caulfield fails to live up to our expectations?
What if ... what if ... what if?
If there’s any foreshadowing to what awaits the release, it might be found in how the legacy of “To Kill A Mockingbird” is undiminished by “Go Tell A Watchman.” Last summer’s “Great American Read” poll on PBS reinforced the popularity and public standing of “Mockingbird,” which was named “America’s Favorite Book.”
The Salinger family will say only that it could take as long as 10 years for all the remaining works to be released — which is a long time for delight or dread or disinterest to develop.
In the meantime, book lovers are all just standing on the edge of some crazy cliff, waiting to catch a body of work.
All of us at firstname.lastname@example.org wish to thank Laurie Heuston for her dedication to Tempo, and her years of friendship and support.