What the Leaked J.D. Salinger Stories Reveal About the Author
Three short stories by J.D. Salinger leaked just before Thanksgiving against the author’s wishes. But is that such a bad thing? What they reveal about the icon.
On Thanksgiving eve, Nov. 27, three unpublished stories by the late, great, reclusive author J.D. Salinger—"The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls," "Paula," and "Birthday Boy"—leaked online after a paperback containing pirated copies of them sold on eBay.co.uk for £67.50. The stories had been known to exist before; the first had been housed for decades at Princeton University's Firestone Library, and the other two had been under lock and key at the University of Texas, Austin. But only registered, supervised researchers had ever been allowed to read them.
Now that the whole world can, the assumption everyone seems to be making is that Salinger would not have been very happy about the leak. "The appearance of the stories would undoubtedly have enraged Salinger, who died at 91 in 2010 and worked very hard during his lifetime to prevent people from publishing anything he had written (or conceived) that he didn’t want published," The New York Times. "The creator of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye would not be pleased," USA Today. “It’s hard not to feel a bit guilty when devouring something that he didn’t want the world to see,” concluded Buzzfeed’s Summer Anne Burton.
The peanut gallery has a point. Salinger famously refused to publish anything after 1965, even though he continued to write—every day, by some accounts—from his bunker in Cornish, N.H. Less famously, Salinger also refused to release anything from his archives written before 1948 (such as the three leaked stories) or even to permit the republication of any stories that had been published prior to that year. In 1974, for instance, a renegade gang of Salinger fans located, transcribed, and bound together 21 of the author's published but uncollected works, creating an illegal two-volume anthology called The Complete Uncollected Short Stories of J.D. Salinger. Salinger immediately threatened to sue. "I wrote [these stories] a long time ago, and I never had any intention of publishing them," Salinger told The New York Times. "I wanted them to die a perfectly natural death. I'm not trying to hide the gaucheries of my youth. I just don't think they're worthy of publishing."
But is that accurate? Why write them at all, then? When I heard about the latest Salinger leak, I decided to dig a little deeper. What I discovered is that Salinger wasn’t being entirely honest when he said he "never had any intention of publishing" these stories. The truth is, Salinger did want to publish them at one point. The question now, more than six decades later, is why he changed his mind—and what these resurrected works reveal about an author who was obsessed with revealing as little as he possibly could.
With "Paula," at least, the story itself was the problem. In late 1941, Salinger was still very young (22) and very unproven. He had published four stories—the first, "Young Folks," had appeared in Story only a year earlier—and written perhaps eight more. His dream was to see his byline in The New Yorker, so he made several attempts at the sort of sophisticated, cosmopolitan short fiction that Harold Ross's magazine liked to publish. But "Lunch for Three," "I Went to School with Adolf Hitler," and "Monologue for a Watery Highball," "The Long Debut of Lois Taggett," "The Hang of It," and "The Heart of a Broken Story," were all rejected (and some have since been lost).
By the time Salinger sat down to write a story titled "Mrs. Hincher," he was deeply frustrated. He was working on another piece at the same time—a thoughtful New Yorker-ish vignette about an Upper East Side prep-school kid named Holden Morrisey Caulfield—but he didn't know if Ross & Co. would accept it. So in the meantime Salinger decided to try his hand at what he called "a horror story": a dark tale about an apparently infertile woman, Paula Hincher, who suddenly tells her husband Frank that she is pregnant and must stay in bed for the duration of the pregnancy. After nine months, Mrs. Hincher locks herself in her bedroom with the "baby," whom she will not let her husband see. When Frank finally enters the room, he discovers his wife curled up in the fetal position, naked in the crib.
"Mrs. Hincher" wasn't literature. It was commercial work designed to get Salinger's name in print—an "experiment," according to biographer Kenneth Slawenski, meant to "distinguish what was salable to various magazines." Salinger retooled it, retitled it "Paula," and sold it to Stag, a middlebrow publication for men. And then, in October 1941, he received news that The New Yorker had accepted his Caulfield story, "A Slight Rebellion off Madison." Salinger was ecstatic, believing, as Slawenski puts it, that "he had finally won the recognition he so frantically craved." In a letter, Salinger wrote that "Paula" would be his "first and last" horror story. "He would now concentrate on stories about Holden Caulfield instead," Slawenski explains. "'Slight Rebellion' had unlocked a path to creativity that had altered his life."
When "Paula" stalled at Stag, Salinger must have been relieved. The story was never published, Salinger never mentioned it again, and in 1961, the magazine reported that it had "gone missing" from its files. The version at the University of Texas—which is presumably the one that leaked—is an incomplete draft that seems to include fragments of both "Mrs. Hincher" and "Paula." It's an interesting biographical footnote, a Hemingway-meets-Twilight Zone curiosity—worth reading for a rough sense of what Salinger's oddest story may have been like. But it's hardly essential. No wonder Salinger never revived it.
"Birthday Boy" is more compelling. While serving in World War II, Salinger witnessed the atrocities of D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and a Dachau sub-camp; throughout the war, he continued to write stories and work on his unpublished Caulfield novel. But as the battles wound down in early 1945, Salinger's muse vanished, and for more than a year he failed to complete a single story. It wasn't until he absconded to Florida in July 1946, shortly after his wartime marriage to an alleged Gestapo informant dissolved, that he managed to overcome his writer's block. The story that did the trick, Salinger told a friend in a letter, was called "A Male Goodbye." He added that it was "unlike anything I have done before."
"A Male Goodbye" is now lost, but Salinger scholars believe that "Birthday Boy" may be an earlier version of the same story. It's a simple tale. Ethel, a sweet, long-suffering young lady, visits her fiance Ray, a taciturn, bitter, recovering alcoholic, in the hospital; when she refuses to give him "a drop" of liquor, he calls her a "bitch" and tells her to "get the hell out of here." Salinger's last line is particularly devastating. "The elevator descended with a draft," he writes, "chilling Ethel in all the damp spots."
The prose in "Birthday Boy" is signature Salinger: the spare, chiseled descriptions; the lapidary, lifelike dialogue. It's too bad that "A Male Goodbye"—perhaps the more polished version—is gone forever. But it's not hard to see why the story was never published. As Slawenski puts it, "Birthday Boy" "offers neither enlightenment nor redemption. It is an expression of sheer sourness, a tart splatter of forlorn rage."
In other words, “Birthday Boy” is barely a story at all. Instead, it's Salinger finally confronting his own wartime trauma—his own pent-up pain—and finding a way to control it on the page. It's a test. After "Birthday Boy" and "A Male Goodbye," Salinger began to infuse all of his work with this "hidden emotion"—this "fire between the words," as he put it—and unleashed the streak of near-perfect New Yorker stories that would make his reputation: "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut," "Just Before the War with the Eskimos," and so on. As the story that broke the logjam, "Birthday Boy" is a fascinating read.
Best of all, however, is "The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls.” Salinger himself was not conflicted about the story; he tried for years to have it published. First he included it on a list of 19 early stories meant for The Young Folks, an anthology he assembled for Whit Burnett's Story Press in 1945 or 1946. (So much for wanting “the gaucheries of [his] youth” to “die a perfectly natural death.”) Eventually, J.B. Lippincott Company rejected the book, and Burnett urged Salinger to devote himself to the novel that became The Catcher in the Rye.
Yet even then Salinger didn't abandon “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls.” In 1948, he sold the story to Woman's Home Companion, but the magazine's publisher found it too "downbeat" and refused to print it. A year later, Salinger likely submitted another version (titled "A Summer Accident") to The New Yorker, and when The New Yorker also passed, he took it to Collier's. This was an unusual move for Salinger. "He had abandoned the slicks by 1949, and if a story was rejected by The New Yorker, he generally refused to submit it elsewhere," Slawenski writes. "Yet he made a rare exception for 'Ocean,' confirming his attachment to it." Unfortunately, the same man who had turned down "The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls" at Woman's Home Companion was now employed by Collier's—and he objected once again. Salinger reclaimed his story and never sent it anywhere else.
It's clear why Salinger was so attached to "The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls." Written in late 1944 or early 1945, just before the writer's block set in, the story is a pivotal entry in the Caulfield family saga; it depicts the last day in the life of Kenneth Caulfield (who is rechristened Allie in The Catcher in the Rye). All of the ingredients of Salinger's mature work are here: the preppy setting (in this case, Cape Cod); the enlightened child (the red-headed 12-year-old Kenneth); the siblings arguing about literature ("The Bowler," a story about infidelity written by Vincent, the 18-year-old narrator); and a traumatic death in the family (at the end of the story Kenneth, struck by a wave, succumbs to "the severest kind of heart trouble" after an impromptu swim in the ocean.) Holden Caulfield himself makes an inspired cameo, and there are early flashes of the Glass Family in the brothers' dynamic. And yet "The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls" doesn't require this kind of foreshadowing to work. It stands entirely on its own as one of Salinger's saddest, loveliest stories.
After The New Yorker rejected "The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls," Salinger returned to the novel that he had been slaving over for the better part of a decade—the one about the prep-school boy. By the time Collier's turned "Ocean" down, Salinger's book was pretty much complete. Now Kenneth was Allie; his "heart troubles" were leukemia; he died at 11, not 12. You can imagine why, at this point, Salinger decided to bury "Ocean" in the vault: releasing it would complicate a narrative that had now become Holden Caulfield's instead of Kenneth's. But even in The Catcher in the Rye, one heartbreaking detail from “Ocean” remains: the southpaw first-baseman's mitt onto which Kenneth "copied down lines of poetry in India ink"—lines "he liked to read when he wasn't at bat or when nothing special was going on in the field."
According to Salinger's terms, "The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls" cannot be legally published until 50 years after his death. "Birthday Boy" and "Paula" cannot be published at all. And yet each of these stories helps us better understand Salinger's life and fiction, and one of them ranks among his finest work. There's little doubt that Salinger would not be giving thanks if he were still alive today. But history shows that he didn't always object quite so strongly. Neither should we.