The perfect partner for J.D. Salinger The latest chapter in the reclusive author's life is being told - or not - by the eccentric owner of a tiny Virginia press.

Publishing

June 07, 1998|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

FAIRFAX, Va. - The right person for this particular publishing job would be Roger Lathbury, a soft-spoken man who loves books, who loves books so much he's not interested in peddling them through the media, arranging author interviews, working the party circuit or hustling reviews.

"The idea of angling for reviews, angling for publicity, strikes me as reprehensible and degrading," says Lathbury. "If a book appeals to enough people," he says, it will sell itself "by word of mouth."

Yes, that will do nicely.

Better yet: Lathbury, who runs Orchises Press in Alexandria, Va., loves books so much that he professes no great interest in the lives of the people who write them. Such biographical details, he says, may interfere with the reader's experience of an author's work.

"I don't know anything about Homer," says Lathbury. An associate professor of English at George Mason University, Lathbury is now teaching an undergraduate course on Ancient Western Literary Master Works, including the "Odyssey" by Homer, who as far as Lathbury knows, "might be a construct."

Yes, that will do quite well.

So if anyone can claim the oxymoronic title of "Publisher of the Latest J.D. Salinger," it might as well be Lathbury. He appears to have as little use for money-celebrity culture as the famously reclusive Salinger, who created a post-war sensation with "The Catcher in the Rye," built a following with a series of stories about the fictitious Glass family, then retreated to the New Hampshire hills never to publish again. His last published work took up most of the June 19, 1965, issue of the New Yorker, an epistolary story called "Hapworth 16, 1924."

From his home near Cornish, N.H., Salinger, now 79, has occasionally dispatched lawyers to stop any unauthorized publication of his letters, stories and quotations. Only two interviews with Salinger have been appeared since the Claremont Eagle, a New Hampshire paper, published one in 1953.

In the fall of 1996, though, the gates of the silent fortress opened a crack. Word surfaced that Salinger had authorized publication of "Hapworth" in book form. It would be Salinger's fifth book; the first since "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" and

"Seymour, an Introduction" in 1963. The press would be Lathbury's Orchises (Or-KYE-sis).

Excitement rustled the book world. Salinger fans gabbed on the Internet. "Hapworth" orders were placed with online book services. Esquire published a story about a writer's fruitless "search for J.D. Salinger," echoing the title of an unauthorized 1989 biography.

Then the original "Hapworth" publication date came and went, as did two more postponements. Eighteen months after the first publication date, there's no book, no explanation - and no comment.

Lathbury wasn't and isn't talking. On a recent unannounced visit by a reporter, he was cordial, happy to chat about books and Orchises ("orchids" in Greek) in his cinder-block cell of an office at George Mason. But he would say nothing about "Hapworth" other than this: The deal's still on, but he cannot say when the book will appear.

Why the delay?

No comment.

How many copies will be in the first run?

Can't say.

OK. Publishing arrangements aside, what's his interpretation of "Hapworth 16, 1924"?

Rather not talk about that.

Is he a Salinger fan?

"If you are someone of my age, you've read the books," Lathbury replies. "I've read the books. That's all I can say."

Lathbury, 52, a New Jersey native and a specialist on poet W. H. Auden, opened Orchises Press in 1983. He has published more than 60 titles - about six books a year, mostly poetry, in both paperback and hardcover. This year, Orchises published a first-edition facsimile of James Joyce's "Ulysses" copied from a first edition Lathbury bought in London a few years back. To copy the pages, Lathbury had to cut the sewn binding of the 1922 book apart with a razor. Although he knew he'd have the $6,700 book repaired later, that was painful.

"Comparable to committing murder," he says.

"Hapworth" has only recently aroused such passion. The hubbub over its republication might seem odd to those who remember its appearance in 1965.

"When it was published in the New Yorker, it wasn't that big a thing," says Salinger scholar Will Hochman of the University of Southern Colorado. "What it really was was a curiosity."

Hochman, at work on a book called "Salinger's Readers," is among the few critics who do not dismiss "Hapworth" as mediocre Salinger. He agrees that it will probably interest only avid fans of the author and his Glass family saga. Hochman considers "Hapworth" - a 20,000-word letter from summer camp by 7-year-old Seymour Glass - an insightful meditation on the relationship of reader and writer that "is trying to get at the joy and the spirituality of what it means to be a writer."

He's not troubled by the fact that Seymour speaks with a vocabulary and perspective suited to a middle-aged literary scholar. Hochman reads this as "Salinger's way of saying 7-year-old Seymour is the reincarnation of another life. He remembers other lives."

The enigma of Seymour Glass - his suicide at 31, his status as Glass family mystic, "ringding enlightened man, God knower" - resonates in the riddle of Salinger himself. And now there is the reputed partnership of Salinger-Lathbury: the writer who has not published and the publisher who shuns publicity drawn together by circumstances no one will reveal.

A match made in heaven could hardly seem more fitting, or mysterious.

! Pub date: 6/07/98

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