Back in high school, one of my English teachers gave us “Teddy” by J.D. Salinger to read and then talk about in class, and at the end of the term he put Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” on the final exam. (And on a high school English lit final that’s just cruel, considering how perplexing that story is.) After that, I started reading the rest of J.D. Salinger’s short stories, and I fell in love with them, especially all of those involving the Glass family. My absolute favourite, though, isn’t a Glass family story; it’s “A Girl I Knew.” The ending just leaves you (well, me) feeling completely empty and emotionally drained.
I came across an article about Salinger’s Nine Stories on JSTOR, which describes the ending of Salinger’s stories:
“In lieu of the customary author photo–which Salinger had refused since the third print run of The Catcher in the Rye–was a Zen koan: We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping? A koan has no right answer; it’s designed to float in the mind of the Zen aspirant. While the riddle may be approached from all sides, often over the course of many years, the essence of the conundrum remains insoluble. This seems to mirror Salinger’s mission with Nine Stories: to create engaging paradoxes or puzzles that, at their core, both reflect life yet refuse to be a part of it.” (Smith 641)
[You can read a bunch of his stories, including all the ones I just mentioned, here.]
Anyway, I got to the point where I’d read all the short stories by Salinger that were available. Later, I even read one in its original formatting from the CD version of The New Yorker archives–it wasn’t that exciting. However, there are a bunch of stories I haven’t read, because Salinger is, of course, a famous recluse. Has he spent the last 50 years writing? Who knows. (There is evidence to suggest he has written something, or was writing something at some point during his seclusion.) But there a bunch of “lost stories” that are available to be read, assuming you are willing to go to the one library that has them, sit alone in a room, read them, and then leave. The Dead Caulfieds website on Mr. Salinger has good info on these harder to find works.
In particular, I’d really love to read “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” (Dead Caulfields summary of it here) and “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans” (again: Dead Caulfields summary). They’re not about the Glass Family, but they are about the Caulfield one from Catcher in the Rye. The provide insight that you obviously can’t get from the book alone. Holden Caulfield has little to do with these stories; Vincent Caulfield is the main “subject” in each (he narrates one and is at least a primary character in the other). In Catcher in the Rye we know Vincent as “D.B.”
After looking around the net a bit, I got the idea in my head that I’d spend a few days and drive down to Princeton’s Firestone Library, the one place where you can read them. They have a collection of unpublished Salinger materials. You have to give them a bunch of ID, then sit in a room with the story–no pens, no pencils–and read it, then leave. I called up the Firestone Library one time, asked about it, and whomever I was talking to said, “Yeah, yeah, look: just find the call number and come in.” Well, I never did.
The thing is, I think some solid academic criticism about these stories would be really cool. The problem is that reading a story sitting in a room, taking no notes, and then going home to immediately write down as many thoughts as you can, is a really inconvenient way to try and construct a critical argument. Perhaps if you were allowed to take notes as soon as you left the room that would be a little better, but still.
It remains one of my fantasies to really examine Salinger’s entire body of work from a critical viewpoint, including his lost short stories, his letters and manuscripts. There is so much intertextual stuff between his stories that you really need to have the whole picture in front of you, even if you’re not going to try to create an argument that encompasses the “whole picture.” Who knows, maybe one day.
Smith, Dominic. “Salinger’s Nine Stories: Fifty Years Later.” The Antioch Review 61.4 (Autumn, 2003): 639-439. JSTOR. Web. 6 Nov. 2009. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4614550>.