Leaked Literature: Why We Should Respect Salinger’s Wishes

January 2, 2014 | 2 books mentioned 14 5 min read


Literature fans have doubtless heard about the three unpublished J.D. Salinger stories leaked online last month. A scanned manuscript entitled Three Stories in a style reminiscent of the Bantam Salinger editions surfaced on a torrent site in November, and the stories, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” “Paula,” and “Birthday Boy,” were previously kept under wraps in the research sections of the Princeton and University of Texas libraries. The most viable theories say that the manuscript was photocopied in the years before the libraries cracked down on security, or that someone surreptitiously copied it in longhand when no one was looking.

coverThough “Birthday Boy” and “Paula” are rougher, less succinct drafts with typos and cross-outs, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” will hold the most interest for readers, as it contains a young Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye and shows the death of Holden’s younger brother, an incident only alluded to in the novel. The story is memorable, insightful, and funny, and easily ranks among Salinger’s best. So why did he insist it not be published until 50 years after his death?

When Salinger was writing Catcher, he was also writing short stories about Holden Caulfield and his family. Some got published, and some didn’t. Like “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” some of them are narrated by Holden’s older brother Vincent, an aspiring writer renamed D.B. in Catcher, where he’s off “being a prostitute” of a screenwriter.

coverVincent Caulfield’s status as narrator evokes Buddy Glass from Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour — An Introduction, two of Salinger’s interconnected stories about the Glass family of child geniuses now grown up. With Vincent, we can imagine Salinger as a young writer playing with themes and relationships he would develop more fully later on. Salinger also does this with two early stories narrated by Holden Caulfield himself, “I’m Crazy” and “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” in which readers will recognize events from Catcher. Check your copy of the novel: the title page says that incidents from the story previously appeared in Collier’s and The New Yorker, and these are the two they’re talking about.

So where does the hidden story “Bowling Balls” fit in? In Catcher, Holden talks about his younger brother Allie, who wrote poems all over his baseball glove and died of leukemia in Maine when Holden was younger. We don’t hear much about Allie, except that he “was about fifty times as intelligent” as Holden, and after he died Holden was so upset that he slept on the garage floor and smashed all the windows with his fist. The scene comes early in the novel and shows a lot about Holden through his childhood trauma.

In “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” we see the day Allie died — except here, his name is Kenneth; the family’s in Cape Cod, not Maine; and Allie dies of a heart condition, not leukemia. Vincent Caulfield narrates Kenneth’s last day, and we hear the precocious Kenneth chastise Vincent about a clichéd story he’s written and share a cynical letter from a young Holden that shows Salinger’s ability to capture childhood grammar and misspellings. Salinger fans will also recognize a girlfriend of Vincent’s who keeps her kings in the back row when they play checkers — a bad sign for their sex life, but a charmingly naïve observation coming from Kenneth. The climax comes when Kenneth suffers heart failure during the stress of an ocean swim, and Holden pauses in his nose-picking to scream when he sees his brother passed out.

“Bowling Balls” is certainly as good as any of Salinger’s Nine Stories, but aside from its continuity issues, it shows a version of Holden Caulfield far tamer than the one in Catcher, weakening the character mythos the novel creates. Holden’s letter home — albeit clever and funny — shows signs of, but doesn’t quite match the voice that gives Catcher its distinction. One can forgive this difference by arguing that Holden is younger and less misanthropic than in Catcher, though there’s no disputing that the story’s end does little to show how Kenneth’s death has affected him. Aside from the aforementioned scream, Holden’s reaction to the death fails to match Catcher’s angst, and the story’s final, mournful reflection belongs only to Vincent. Compare this with Holden’s version of the incident in Catcher:

I was only thirteen [when he died], and they were going to have me psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage. I don’t blame them. I really don’t. I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it. I even tried to break all the windows on the station wagon we had that summer, but my hand was already broken and everything by that time, and I couldn’t do it.

What readers can infer as a violent, emotional scene reads as more subdued through Holden’s distance from the event, but its severity remains vivid. Holden tells us everything we need to know before filing the incident beside his reflections on Stradlater’s razor and Jane Gallagher’s checker-playing habits, though generations of readers have used it in their own attempts to psychoanalyze Holden.

Do we really need Allie’s death played out in a separate story, to know any more about it than what Holden tells us in Catcher’s one and a half pages? Do we really need the scene filtered through a narrator we don’t know very well or have as much invested in? The answer to both is a resounding no. To see Allie’s death as it happens removes the mystery that Catcher lends it, and detracts from the raw power of Holden’s window-breaking.

Writers experiment with ideas when they’re writing novels. When these ideas don’t work, the writer throws them away. When they kind of work, the writer reshapes them into something that does. Vincent Caulfield is a likeable, well-developed character, but he doesn’t narrate nearly as well as D.B. Caulfield listens in Catcher. “Bowling Balls” would work well as a stand-alone story with different characters, but the story as is has no place in an official Salinger canon. Readers should approach it not as a prequel, but an instance of a young writer figuring out how one character’s death fits into a larger story, a curiosity for those interested in how Catcher came to be.

coverMaybe Salinger kept “Bowling Balls” hidden because he knew readers would try to fit it into a Caulfield saga, and would inevitably emerge from this quest confused and frustrated by their attempts to reconcile its differences from the novel. If that’s the case, he was right to preserve the integrity of his canon so the Caulfield family in Catcher would feel as consistent as the Glass family does in his novellas. How would we view A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man if one of Joyce’s early stories showed Stephen Dedalus as a contented extrovert?

However, those interested in Salinger’s early work and the development of his characters can still seek out his other published stories about the Caulfield family: “Last Day of the Last Furlough,” “This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise,” “The Stranger,” “I’m Crazy,” and “Slight Rebellion Off Madison.”  All of them appeared in magazines in the 1940s, and all are available online. Though these Caulfield stories don’t fit into the family canon any better than “Bowling Balls,” they’re different in that they’d already been published before Catcher came out. Salinger couldn’t keep people from tracking them down in the library storage room, but he could stop them from mass market re-publication. With “Bowling Balls,” his task was much easier. Readers will no doubt gain enjoyment from reading the leaked Three Stories manuscript, but they would do well to partially respect the author’s wishes by viewing its stories as experiments from an earlier time.

has worked as a courtroom transcription proofreader, an environmental protection steward, and a teacher of English in Japan. He currently studies creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. You can read more of his musings at A Wave of the Hand.


  1. I often feel guilty reading a work that was not intended for release. If the author/writer had felt comfortable enough with the work I am sure they would have published.

    I sometimes feel like readers become a bit arrogant and entitled, as if we’re some how “owed’ a work of fiction simply because we’re fans of their writing.

    I am not sure I will read these short stories or experiments as you term them.

  2. Kafka should have chosen an executor who hadn’t already told Kafka he wouldn’t burn his writing.

  3. Your argument sounds like it should be about fan-fiction or Dr. Who or Star Wars, not Salinger. Canon? Is this how we want to treat authors? Sure, you can look at it like that, like a television show with characters that you follow and have an emotional connection with, but you’re only selling yourself short – it’s the Wes Anderson school of Salinger Appreciation.

    There’s a lot more to JDS than that, and making a point of arguing for how something should be seen and fits into your “list” only reveals a shallow appreciation on your part. I don’t care what he wanted or what he was insecure about, I don’t care if something was a sketch or a refined piece — everything tells us something about him and his art and can and should be enjoyed together with everything else.

  4. Before I read this, I chose not to read the stories on my own.

    You read the stories, write about them here, and tell people not to read them.

    By the title of this post, I was expecting something different: an argument based on a debatable point of view by someone who did not read the stories. I don’t understand how you can tell other people not to do something you’ve not only already done yourself but then use one story to explain why they shouldn’t read it.

    Are we in some totalitarian where the elite read and view content so they can decide whether it’s fit for “lesser” people to see? Who died and made you

  5. Nice comments! The paradox of don’t read what I read is perceptive, as is the point by B.S. because there is no “official Salinger canon” — only his son and wife will decide what is released, and when, as well. I did appreciate the author’s conjecture about why Salinger chose not to publish TOFOBB. It’s certainly a fine story on its own, as many scholars have already noted.

    I object to the internet distribution of the stories because they are illegal. Anyone with access to them must sign an agreement not to quote or publish a word without permission. I’m trying to say that the way in which the stories are accessed is wrong, but the stories themselves are required reading for Salinger scholars and any fans with a library card can enjoy them as well.

  6. While the term “canon” is often associated with television shows and movies, it has its place in literature when continuity affects how we view novels and stories. Writers like Joyce (mentioned above), Faulkner, Mark Twain, John Updike, and Brett Easton Ellis all place their characters within a specific continuity consistent among multiple works, and these works reads more smoothly because of it. Tolkien did too – though it required he make a few changes to The Hobbit first.

    Also, as the last sentence of the essay says, I don’t advocate placing the stories back into the annals of the library storage room, but I do think we should read them as early works in progress, with incomplete character relationships. This requires a different mindset than reading other kinds of stories, and isn’t a task that everyone can handle well. Fans interested in the specific development of Salinger’s writing probably can handle this, though I argue that the casual reader probably can’t. In this respect, “Bowling Balls” is the same as the other published Caulfield stories, especially the ones with Vincent, that conflict with Catcher.

    The decision whether to read the stories, in this case, lies with the reader, and is certainly not mine to make. (Though it’s debatable how much influence Salinger’s estate has on this decision, or whether he’s morally justified in guarding his work in this way, I have no opinion about either question.) The point of this essay is to explain “Bowling Balls”‘s relationship to The Catcher in the Rye, and to conjecture why Salinger didn’t want this specific story to be published.

  7. Rogers makes a great point about canon in Salinger’s world. It’s all very tight and world-specific when it comes to the four books he published. Not only are there connections between side characters (for one minute example, Eloise’s dead beau is a Glass family twin in “Uncle Wiggily” and her husband Lew is Buddy Glass’s company commander in Raise High). We’re also told that Bessie Glass’s maiden name is Gallagher, tying the Glass family universe with the Caulfields. There’s also Buddy’s implication that he wrote, at least, Bananafish, Teddy, Esme and Catcher. It’s a deliberately constructed world and while, true, these pre-Catcher Caulfield stories inform the reader of Salinger’s trials to write the novel, they would create a paradox in the Salinger world (for instance, Holden and DB both die in WWII in the early works).

    I don’t think, as several comments mention, Rogers is telling us not to read these leaked stories–but to not lose sight of the finished product that Salinger did intend us to read, the novel he spent ten years perfecting.

  8. I wonder if we’d have the same conversation about, say, music. If there was one extant copy of a Beatles EP containing four songs that were only heard by the people who went to some obscure museum in the UK and listened to it on headphones under close supervision, and then someone leaked them onto the Pirate Bay, would anyone write an article about how we shouldn’t download and listen to them? All this talk about ‘canon’ is hogwash. I think I am an astute enough reader that I can handle something as trivial as an inconsistent character, and that a ‘lesser’ story by an author isn’t going to ruin his best work. The Beatles’ crap songs don’t ruin the good ones.

    In any case, this sort of argument never stopped anyone from eagerly devouring the notebooks and letters of the deceased. Is anyone going to hew to this argument fifty years after Salinger’s death?

  9. In response to timble I have to say–I think that’s rather missing the point. No one is saying the stories are “bad” although “Birthday Boy” and “Paula” are both a little on the under-developed side. They’re early-works so of course they won’t compare to Salinger’s most polished, mature prose. That being said, “Bowling Balls” is a beautiful story and I think it holds its own.

    This isn’t about good or bad writing entering Salinger’s body of work, it’s about how these old works fit in with the narrative of his best-known novel. And I think Rogers is saying that with a story like “Bowling Balls” or any of the other pre-Catcher Caulfield stories, it’s important to not think of them as prequels, but more as drafts that inform the final product. At least that’s what I gathered.

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