For the most dedicated Salingerites, much of the material in the collection is familiar, available in old copies of literary magazines from the 40’s – never republished, but nonetheless out there. However, the real jewels of the collection are the typewritten manuscripts for several unpublished works, including the legendary ‘The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls.’
Of all of Salinger’s unpublished stories this is the one whose reputation has spread farthest, with the few who have read it declaring it to be one of his greatest works. I quickly and hungrily dug through the folders eager to read this one first. I also ended up reading it last, at the end of the day.
The story itself is a kind of precursor to The Catcher in the Rye, dealing with the Caulfield family and illuminating the circumstances surrounding the death of Holden’s younger brother, which is mentioned in the novel. Even read just in the shadow of Salinger’s more famous work, the story is fascinating, unveiling a few details which would later be reworked for The Catcher in the Rye (such as a checkers player choosing to keep all of her kings at the back), and relationship dynamics which would reappear in the Glass family saga. However, the story is also one of Salinger’s most accomplished works in its own right, with the brotherly relationship between Vincent and Kenneth (renamed D. B. and Allie in The Catcher in the Rye) and the story’s tragic overtones providing some of the most affecting moments he ever committed to the page. The famous Holden Caulfield is barely present in the story – he is confined to a letter sent home from summer camp which his brothers read – and it is the tragic figure of Kenneth/Allie who becomes the main focus, and seems to stand as a kind of prototype for Seymour Glass: a deeply gifted figure who exudes an air of reverence, attaining a saintly reputation after death.
Holden is also conspicuously absent from another unpublished Caulfield story, ‘The Last and the Best of Peter Pans’, which instead fleshes out the family matriarch, who appears only very briefly in The Catcher in the Rye. The story concerns an argument with her oldest son (Vincent/D. B.) who discovers she has hidden his draft letter. (This brief capsule summary may bring to mind Franny and Zooey, much of which also consists of an argument between son and mother). While it is true that Salinger seems to have been an avid recycler of ideas and characters, every time they are presented in a different way, suggesting different themes, and making these unpublished works worthy pieces of literature in their own right.
For instance, World War II is a recurrent topic in Salinger’s work, and, in addition to the aforementioned Caulfield story, three more of the unpublished works in the Princeton archives directly revolve around it, though all in entirely unique ways: ‘The Magic Foxhole’ follows a ‘battle-fatigued’ soldier who has visions of his unborn son fighting in a future war; ‘Two Lonely Men’ tells of an unusual friendship on an Army base; and ‘The Children’s Echelon’ takes the form of a series of diary entries by an eighteen year old woman against the backdrop of the war.
The focus on World War II in these unpublished works is fascinating for those familiar with Salinger’s biography: he was present at many significant conflicts, including the D-Day landings, where he is said to have stormed the beaches with an early draft of The Catcher in the Rye in his backpack. The war is known to have affected him greatly, and the openness with which he expresses the numerous effects of war in these unpublished stories is perhaps surprising to those who think of Salinger only as the reclusive figure he later became.
However, what is most surprising about these short stories is that, despite being unpublished, they rank among Salinger’s best work. But there is also something else, external to the stories themselves, which makes them uniquely special: the circumstances in which they are read.
When one reads these stories, all the time aware that they may never read them again, a strange kind of revelation is catalyzed. The reader finds him/herself reading with an attentiveness that has become almost alien in the information age, trying to commit the prose, or at least the feelings it provokes, to permanent memory.
The widespread availability of literature is undoubtedly a magnificent thing, but in an age where everything is preserved, it is refreshing to experience literature in a fleeting way. Many people buy books only for them to remain languishing on shelves gathering dust, simply serving as a comfortable reminder that the owner could choose to read them at any time. In reading a story that one consciously knows he/she cannot later refer back to or see, the experience gains significance, the work becomes more powerful, and the joy of reading is rekindled. Literature is reclaimed as an art form, rather than an object of consumption.
Perhaps it is foolish to speculate, but I believe this kind of experience is something Salinger himself would very much have approved of. In 1997, during an attempt to have Hapworth 16, 1924, his last published work, republished, Salinger notably went with a small publishing house, and remarked “Nothing would make me happier than not to see my book in the Dartmouth bookstore.”
Whichever way one interprets this remark, the current status of the unpublished stories is nonetheless fitting for J. D. Salinger, a man who lived the last six decades of his life in seclusion, and did not publish again after 1965, despite being one of the world’s best-selling writers. Although I spent many hours in the library reading and rereading the stories, they remain cloudy and somehow intangible in my mind. Just like the man himself, they are uniquely elusive and untouchable in the world of literature.
Five unpublished works by J. D. Salinger are available to read at the Firestone Library at Princeton University. They are ‘The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,’ ‘The Last and the Best of Peter Pans,’ ‘The Children’s Echelon,’ ‘The Magic Foxhole,’ and ‘Two Lonely Men.’ In addition to this, the collection includes letters from J. D. Salinger and older works which have never been anthologized. For more information visit http://rbsc.princeton.edu/