Saving Salinger

February 1, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 31 5 min read

Recently, I took a train to Princeton University in search of two lost J.D. Salinger stories about Holden Caulfield’s family.  “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans” and “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” have never been published in the nearly sixty years since Salinger wrote them.  Princeton’s Firestone Library now protects the only known copies.

The librarian at the front desk had me pegged as a Salinger fan before I even opened my mouth.  I suspect it is a meek and eternal frustration in my eyes, one otherwise known only by members of the Green Party and Mets fans.  My colleagues have been known to laugh out loud when I say that Salinger is my favorite author.  The literary criticisms I’ve brought into my classroom are almost universally negative and thirty years out-of-date.

covercoverOnly my students ever seem to love Nine Stories and The Catcher in the Rye half as much as I do.  Yes, they see Holden as superior, obnoxious, and immature – but they respect that he holds nothing back.  He does not simply wear his heart on his sleeve, Holden’s heart is his sleeve.  His whole self is enveloped in this bloody but still beating muscle.

But, perhaps like Holden, I fear they will soon grow out of it.  They will soon hear the same dismissive slights as I have – that Salinger is overly precious, terribly smug, and above all, not serious.  Just a minor, young adult writer.

For fifteen years, I dreamed of the discovery of a massive treasure trove of brilliant novels upon Salinger’s death.  But months after his obituary had been printed, I’d gotten tired of waiting for something to appear.  I’d come to Princeton to find proof of Salinger’s early genius and write some essays that would settle the matter for good.

The Princeton librarian had my photograph taken for an ID badge and I signed a form promising not to damage the rarities.  I was instructed to lock up my bag and wash my hands.  Off-handedly, the librarian added, “You can bring your laptop in if you want.”  I could hardly believe my ears but I did not stop to ask questions.

Inside, I was given a sharpened pencil and three sheets of bright orange paper.  Another librarian pulled Box 14 out of a cabinet.  Inside was Folder 26.  All that distinguished Salinger’s folder from the others was a red label along the edge, reading: NO PHOTOCOPYING.

Anxiously I flipped through dozens of old issues of Story and Collier’s.  These were hard to find online but most I had read before.  Then, at last, I found what I’d come for: two typewritten manuscripts, complete with typos and smudges.

“The Last and Best of the Peter Pans”, the earliest known Caulfield story, features Vincent (Holden’s brother “DB” in Catcher) and his mother arguing after he discovers she has childishly hidden his Army draft survey in a silverware drawer.  At one point, Vincent yells that it is as if she is trying to stop a child from falling off a cliff by asking a man without legs to catch him, a line which, for any Catcher fan, is a delight.  Vincent soon realizes that his mother can’t help the way that she is – like Peter Pan, she cannot grow up, and so he finally forgives her.

The title of the second story, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” refers to a short story written by Vincent and read aloud to his brother Kenneth (Allie), who dislikes the unnecessary meanness of his ending: a bowling ball is thrown through a window by an angry, cuckolded wife.  Kenneth reminds Vincent that he can write stories where good things happen, so why not?  Vincent rips up the story and takes Kenneth out for steamers.  The little brother goes swimming in the ocean, but the waves batter the boy like so many bowling balls.  The next part is beautiful but I can’t do it justice in paraphrase.  I will confess that I found myself tearing up, hoping the other researchers wouldn’t notice.

Inspired, I cracked my laptop open, intending to begin writing a brilliant defense of my favorite writer.  It took a moment before I realized that no alarm bells had sounded.  What if I began to retype just a few scattered lines from “Peter Pans”?  If anyone came to yell at me, couldn’t I easily claim to just be taking down a few quotes?

Could I copy whole paragraphs, then pages?  If I swallowed my thumb drive, would the files survive a little internal digestion?  I envisioned angry librarians smashing my laptop to pieces.  I’d have to hit “save” every ten seconds.

Some time passed before a new librarian arrived and made a beeline for me. “You’re not allowed to use your laptop with the Salinger,” she informed me.  Heart pounding, I closed it up.  How much, I wondered, could I manage by hand?  By the time I lost my nerve and fled, I was checking over my shoulder all the way to the train for trailing Princeton Security.  On the way home I stared unhappily at the gaping holes in my notes.

I called Salinger’s literary agents and asked them what sort of permissions I would need to write some essays about the unpublished stories.  “I have to say no,” said the man on the other end of the phone, “to anything involving the Salinger estate.”  No matter what I asked, this was all he would say.  Then, just to be sure I’d gotten the point, the man apparently called Princeton, got my contact information from the forms I’d signed, and e-mailed me again, just to be sure I knew that he had to say no to anything involving J.D. Salinger.

That night, my wife asked me what old J.D. would think about my adventures.  How would he feel about a fan travelling across state lines to get ahold of his work?  He’d be on my side, I insisted.  I have been a lifelong defender of his name and a studier of his craft.  I’ve read and reread, notated and underlined, interpreted and reinterpreted.  But I was not some joyless, phony, unpleasable critic!  I’d always stuck up for Salinger – a man who had hardly ever stuck up for himself.

She didn’t buy it and, really, neither did I.  Salinger wouldn’t have given me a pass just because I knew the name of the short story collection that Vincent/DB wrote (The Secret Goldfish), or what Ginnie Maddox kept in her pocket for three days (a dead Easter chick), or what Esmé sent Sergeant X in the mail (a broken wristwatch).  Salinger never wanted or needed me to stick up for him.

Still I wished I could show my colleagues what I’d seen.  If they could just read those stories, I thought, they would understand why Salinger will always be a major writer to me.

In the Princeton folder I’d also found a letter from Salinger to an editor, explaining that he was tired of writing stories where his characters lay broken apart at the end.  He wished he could write stories that put their pieces back together again.  It is the same urging that Kenneth delivered to Vincent in the story.  It is one I would make to my fellow writers.  We can write anything, so why write that which delights only in misery?

Yes, maybe pretending that this world is anything other than miserable is futile, but like hiding your son’s draft card in a silverware drawer, this pretending is an act of love.  It is impossible to save children from falling out of the rye, but that doesn’t keep Holden from wishing that he could.  You have to dive into the ocean, Salinger tells us, precisely because it is full of bowling balls.  It is having hope which requires real guts.  So wear your heart on your sleeve and if it bleeds, let it, so long as it still beats.

A week later I was back on a Princeton-bound train.  Again, the librarian needed no indication of what I’d come for.

My compromise with old J.D. has been this: as much as I’d love to prove his genius, I haven’t written any of the essays about the stories that I’d hoped to.  Only this, which contains no information which is not already available in Salinger’s few biographies.  The stories are there for whoever wants to go and read them.  Whatever I did or did not save on my laptop, I’ve shown to no one.  Not my colleagues or my students.  Those stories are my Secret Goldfish, my dead Easter Chick, my busted wristwatch… and they are safe with me.

Bonus Links: J.D. Salinger, 1919-2010, Salinger in Vienna

(Image: D.B. was here from sevenhungrybadgers’s photostream)

studied fiction at Johns Hopkins and Columbia Universities. His critically-acclaimed debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, was published by Viking/Penguin in 2013. He writes the Literary Artifacts column for Electric Literature’s blog, “The Outlet.” His work has also been published in The New York Times, The Believer, Slice Magazine, the Blue Mesa Review, and on The Millions. He is a Creative Writing Lecturer at SUNY Purchase College and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son.


  1. As someone who has struggled with choosing titles, I have to say that the titles alone of these two stories are enough to make them sound impossible to resist or dislike….

  2. I love Salinger. It makes me sad that you have to defend him to fellow writers. Although, at the end of the day, most of his writer-ctitics who are absolutely allergic to sincerity and heart will be gone and forgotten, while Salinger will continue to be read by future generations.

  3. Oh, I am so envious! I want to see those rarities! It saddens me that you feel you have to defend your love of Salinger. But I often feel the same way too.

    I still remember how I felt last year when I found out he died. Until that moment, I had not realized just how much his work had meant to me. I’ve just been struggling with what to read next, but I think I have it now. I’m going to read the works I haven’t read/finished yet (Nine Stories, Seymour: An Introduction). And I’m going to re-read The Catcher in the Rye (which I haven’t read since 8th grade).

  4. I don’t mean, not entirely anyway, to be a dick but: Ginnie Maddox did not keep the dead easter chick in her pocket- that’s where she put the sandwich after accepting it. She left the dead easter chick in the sawdust at the bottom of her wastebasket for three days after she found it.

    I do mean to be a dick about it. I feel like you probably should have gotten a fact checker or something.

    Sara K.

  5. “A few years before, it had taken her three days to dispose of the Easter chick she had found dead on the sawdust in the bottom of her wastebasket.”

    It does says she finds the chick there, though not specifically that she leaves it there for the three days before disposal. I guess I’ve always imagined that, like the sandwich, she carried it around with her in her pocket after that, but you’re right, there’s nothing in the text that says she does.

  6. I feel like an asshole. I was drunk and indignant when I wrote that. Something being heavily implied does not make it necessarily true. Sincerest and all apologies.

    Sara Kang.

  7. None necessary. I’d definitely never thought twice about that line before. Every time I read or teach Nine Stories, I’ll run into something like that – one little assumption i didn’t see I’d made or random word I’d missed. I guess that’s why I never get tired of re-reading it!

  8. Brilliant writing. I’m dying to see these manuscripts now. I’ve heard there are letters too. Definitely worth a trip.

  9. I totally agree with your comment about inferring things from the text, it seems so loaded with meaning and is so tightly crafted that each time I read the stories again there’s more meaning to be found along bits I’ve missed or added.
    I’m always on the look out for simple things that are very hard to create, I love the veneer of something being beautiful and uncomplicated but on closer inspection or after a little thought you realise how very complex it would be to make something that is comprised of just the most essential elements, nothing more and nothing less.
    Anyway, one day I hope to cycle to America and when I do Princeton is right at the top of my list. I just hope I live to be 105…

  10. Hello, Professor Jansma (I took your class in Fall 2007). Pleased to see that you’re doing well. How are things?

  11. can someone just bring in a camera or iphone and snap copies?

    like I trust princeton NOT to have a fire.

  12. I read Catcher with my inner-city sophomore and juniors every year. there’d always be one or two with the same twinkle we first had. most people don’t understand it or Salinger or peter pans in general. we’re the lost boys. this piece made me cry like the little bitch that I probably am. 29 and still wanderlust, curious, hungry, and without root. I’d kill to run away with Holden and Dean Moriarty and Nick Urfe and Ginsy and Sidd and Dorian and Jake Barnes and Nick C and Charles B and the rest. oy. a little scotch will go a long way.

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