Holden Caulfield’s Christmas Prequel to ‘Catcher in the Rye’

Before J.D. Salinger’s iconic teenaged character ever appeared in the author’s most famous novel, he was the protagonist of a Christmas short story in The New Yorker.

Seventy years ago, a Holden Caulfield very different from the Holden Caulfield we know from The Catcher in the Rye, made his appearance in a Christmas story that even diehard J. D. Salinger fans rarely read. The story, “Slight Rebellion off Madison,” debuted in the December 21, 1946 issue of New Yorker, five years before The Catcher in the Rye. It wasn’t included in Salinger’s 1953 collection, Nine Stories.

What makes this early version of Holden—whose story is told in the third person rather than in his own words—interesting now is that it reveals how much Salinger changed in his writing to turn The Catcher in the Rye into a novel that went beyond the coming-of-age trials of a Ne w York City preppie home on Christmas vacation.

Had Salinger been satisfied to continue the kind of writing he did in “Slight Rebellion off Madison,” he certainly would have found success as a social satirist, but there would have been no breakthrough novel at the start of his literary career. His first Holden is a sulky kid rather than a genuine rebel who can spot phonies a mile away.

“Slight Rebellion off Madison” was accepted by The New Yorker in the fall of 1941 and scheduled for publication in December of that year. But in the wake of Japan’s December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor, The New Yorker‘s editors concluded “Slight Rebellion off Madison,” with its focus on upscale Manhattan, was not the kind of fiction they wanted to publish during wartime.

The New Yorker’s decision to postpone publication was painful for Salinger to accept. As his leading biographer, Kenneth Slawenski, has pointed out, Salinger thought of The New Yorker as his ideal literary home. In letters he wrote in 1941 to his friend Elizabeth Murray, Salinger is overjoyed about his first sale to The New Yorker and anxious to do more stories about Holden Caulfield.

A year later, Salinger’s mood changed completely. “I resent The New Yorker’s never having published the piece they bought from me last year,” he told Murray. “Slight Rebellion off Madison” was, as he confessed, a piece that was “spiritually” autobiographical.

For The New Yorker, which would later turn down the chance to publish excerpts from The Catcher in the Rye, the Christmas vacation setting of “Slight Rebellion off Madison,” was grounds for including it in the 1946 magazine issue closest to December 25, but the editors made no effort to feature the story. They buried it in the back pages of the magazine.

“Slight Rebellion off Madison” is, readers of The Catcher in the Rye will recognize, similar to an episode in the novel in which Holden takes Sally Hayes, a girl who is also home from prep school, to a Broadway matinee, then ice skating at Rockefeller Center. Their date ends up with them quarreling when Sally shows no sympathy for Holden’s complaints about boarding school and rejects out of hand his plan for the two of them to go to off to live in Vermont.

But the differences between the Sally Hayes story in “Slight Rebellion off Madison” and in The Catcher in the Rye are significant despite the plot parallels. In “Slight Rebellion off Madison” Holden has come home for vacation. He has not been expelled from school. He doesn’t face criticism from his parents. As soon as he drops off his luggage, Holden calls Sally. He is drawn to her because she is so good looking. There is no bond between them.

In their conversation Holden’s complaints about boarding school are vague, and his plan to escape to Vermont has no chance of succeeding. Sally has every reason to think that Holden is not serious when he tells her that he has $112 in cash and can borrow a friend’s car to drive to Vermont. When “Slight Rebellion off Madison” ends with Holden going home alone on the Madison Avenue bus after having too much to drink at a bar, there is no sense that he is deserving of a better outcome.

By contrast in The Catcher in the Rye, Holden’s proposed flight to Vermont is born from a genuine desire to assert his independence. From the opening pages of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden’s first-person narration lets us get inside his head to see what is worrying him. Holden has gotten himself kicked out of a boarding school that is stultifying, and he has shown a side of himself that makes his values clear. He befriends the homely daughter of his boarding school’s headmaster. He worships the memory of his dead, younger brother, who wrote poems on his baseball glove. He worries about the ducks in Central Park surviving the winter.

This Holden may be naïve, but he is not shallow. There is a moral seriousness to the choices he makes and in his constant defense of the vulnerable. Holden’s description of all that he dislikes as phony is not, Salinger shows, groundless, and when Holden asks Sally to run away from him, he is desperately hoping to have someone beside him in a world he can’t fit himself into.

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Holden’s preoccupation with the dangers of social conformity reflects an issue that in the 1950s was the focus of such bestsellers as David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd and William H. Whyte Jr.’s The Organization Man. Holden doesn’t have a clear alternative to the tried-and-true path that his parents and teachers want him to follow, but he is unwilling to settle for their idea of the acceptable.

What it took for Salinger to transform this early version of Holden to his final version (a pre-Catcher in the Rye Holden would also appear in a 1945 Collier’s story, “I’m Crazy”) resists easy explanation. The gradual changes in Salinger’s craft in the early postwar years can be seen in such short stories as “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “For Esme—with Love and Squalor,” but there was a deepening of Salinger’s thinking along the way to The Catcher in the Rye that had nothing to do with craft.

By his own admission, Salinger had come back from World War II—which for him began on D-Day—a changed man. “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live,” he told his daughter on one of the few occasions he spoke openly to her about his wartime experience with Nazi concentration camps.

In a brief author’s note Salinger published in Esquire in 1945, he made it clear that he believed the kinds of novels the postwar world needed—and vets in particular deserved—amounted to a “trembling melody rendered without embarrassment or regret.” For Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, rather than an epic story of combat, was his trembling melody.

Nicolaus Mills chairs the literature department at Sarah Lawrence College. He is currently at work on a book about Ernest Hemingway and his World War II circle.