Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Serial Publications of JD Salinger

I read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time when I was an undergraduate student at Akron. At the time, I was working at a paint and wallpaper store. Aster Paint was located in Firestone Park before the owner, Dave Johnson, moved the store to a larger location in Portage Lakes. I got the job from the recommendation of a friend of mine who now also teaches high school English. Aster was a fun place to work. Dave was probably the nicest boss I will ever have the privilege of working for. When we weren't unloading stock, waiting on customers or custom matching paint or stain, Dave let us do whatever we wanted. Down-time took many forms. One popular game was Aster-Ball in which we would literally play baseball with a version of a baseball made from tape. The store was set up in a square, so we just had to switch our perspective to make it a diamond. The wall above the wallpaper book shelves was the home-run area, and the only foul territory was behind the service desk. Dave would often join in the fun himself: "We work hard, and we play hard."

Aster-Ball usually happened on the weekend, when many of us were scheduled to work at the same time. During the week only one or two of us might be on staff, so in lieu of Aster-Ball, I would often read. After Aster closed, I got a job at Ace Hardware. I remember asking the general manager if we could read during down-time. I don't think anyone had ever asked him that. He looked at me and frowned. "I suppose if you're reading MSDS sheets or literature on products." Dave Johnson he was not.

I read Catcher in one day. I read about half of it in between customers at Aster, and finished it when I got home from work. I remember laughing at just about everything Holden had to say and Dave wanted to know what was so funny. Dave was a great salesman and he loved jokes. I tried to explain what was so funny, but of course it sounded stupid, so I committed the crime for which literary snobs have been guilty for centuries: I recommended he read the book himself.

I read the book again within the week. I was in a creative writing class at Akron with Bob Pope and I was happy to find that everyone had read the book and knew exactly what I was talking about when I said it was one of my favorite books. Another student named Chris claimed it was the book that got him back into reading as a high school student. Another guy named Ed claimed he read it every winter break. I quickly discovered that Catcher fans worshiped the book and everyone had a story. I talked about Catcher in the Rye in a job interview to teach English at a vocational school. I remember saying that I wanted to meet young Holden Caulfields and help them figure out how to use their towering goodwill before it tears them to pieces. I got the job and have taught the book nearly every year since. Student reactions have been favorable. Last year during our literacy initiative a poll was taken: name your favorite book. Catcher scored number two on the list just behind the Stephanie Myer books. I can't take all the credit, but out of nine English teachers, only two of us teach the book. Those are some odds! It has been common for students to lend the book to their parents when they're done with it, which has made for some interesting parent teacher conferences. In eight years I've only ever spoken with one parent who "didn't like the book." She didn't give much of a reason and I asked her if she read the whole book. She claimed she had but didn't build much of an argument against the book, just that she "didn't like it." Maybe it had something to do with language. OR, I have found that between the sexes women have a harder time identifying with Holden. Those who object to him think he's whiny, cynical and a downer. In one journal I ask female students if they'd date Holden. Most of them say they would not. I can't blame them, really.

Like any author, fans eventually run out of reading material and are forced to reread old material or turn to a different writer while they wait for the new book. For Salinger fans waiting for the new book was apt to be a long wait indeed. Among his other books, I read the memoir put out by his daughter, but at the time I was thinking a lot about the short story and couldn't get enough of Nine Stories. Especially "Just Before the War with the Eskimos," which I was teaching in school as a kind of reader's theatre. We'd highlight the speaking parts and let it rip. I loved Salinger's short stories, but was disappointed there were only nine. Somehow I got wind of his uncollected serial publications. It wasn't long before I had compiled the list and started searching in the basement of Bierce library among the periodicals. It was slow going. Some of the pages were missing, one was graffitied, and for every two stories I was able to find, I was missing one. And I had to pay for the copies, so it wasn't long before I lost my enthusiasm and the project was reduced to a handful of copied pages (mostly off centered) crinkled at the bottom of my book bag.

My father is probably one of the most obsessive collectors I have ever met. I caught the germ to some degree (I have almost all of the Amazing Spider man comics), but I believe my sister is far sicker than me. Couple this fact with her being a National Merit Scholar and PhD student at OSU (their library is bigger), and after mentioning in passing that I was collecting Salinger's uncollected serial publications but couldn't get them all, the next Christmas I was presented a neatly organized binder filled with plastic sleeves containing Xeroxed copies of the stories: one copied on heavy, yellow paper, and one copied on white paper (in case I need to make more), and a table of contents in beautiful script font. The stories are listed in the chronological order they appeared in print, and it is probably the most thoughtful gift I have ever received. I have included the information in the table of contents:

"The Young Folks" Story, March-April 1940
"Go See Eddie" The Kansas Review, December 1940
"The Hang of It" Collier's, July 12, 1941
"The Heart of a Broken Story" Esquire, September 1941
"Personal Notes on an Infantryman," Collier's December 12, 1942
"The Various Brothers" Saturday Evening Post, July 17, 1943
"Both Parties Concerned" Saturday Evening Post, February 26, 1944
"Soft Boiled Sergeant" Saturday Evening Post, April 15, 1944
"Last Day of the Last Furlough" Saturday Evening Post, July 15, 1944
"Once a Week Won't Kill You" Story, November-December 1944
"A Boy in France" Saturday Evening Post, March 31, 1945
"Elaine" Story, March-April 1945
"This Sandwich has no Mayonnaise" Esquire, October 1945
"The Stranger" Collier's, December 1, 1945
"I'm Crazy" Collier's, December 22, 1945
"Slight Rebellion off Madison" The New Yorker, December 22, 1946
"A Young Girl in 1941 with No Waist at All" Mademoiselle, May 25, 1947
"The Inverted Forest" Cosmopolitan, December 1947
"A Girl I Knew" Good Housekeeping, February 1948
"Blue Melody" Cosmopolitan, September 1948
"Hapworth 16, 1924" The New Yorker, June 19, 1965

I experienced sadness tinged with excitement when I heard the news that Salinger died at the age of 91. I always thought his writing captured the voice that so many of us (myself included) might lock away in a dark room because we're afraid it might betray something personal and therefore terribly fragile, and that's how I see his characters, full of petty jealousies, naive cynicism, intellectual immaturity, a dangerous sentimentalism, and, above all, the desperate need to be understood. Thank you, Jerome David Salinger, for your courage.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"You'd better pay your dues with whatever talent you got... otherwise the world sends in its debt collectors. And those fellas aren't interested in takin a bite out of your wallet. Them fellas take a bite right out of your ever-lasting soul!"
-Gordon J. Fuller, PhD

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Chaos is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on with diligence. - Buddha

Did you ever wonder if it's a coincidence that the concept of samsara is a circle, and the Earth is a circle?

Was Buddhism thousands of years ahead of Magellan's voyage without even knowing it?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What's in the briefcase, sir? A bomb, or a literary journal... or, Lord help us, both?

I had a student (a poetic, mohawk-ed one, I might add) say, "The only way people take notice in this country is if you blow something up." I might have stored the comment in the de-atomizer of my brain until its virulent energy dissipated. However, this student is interesting, and the comment struck a chord. I've decided to detoxify his words through this blog post... if I can. The literary equivalent of rolling a nematode up on a matchstick. Before it lays eggs.

The question that prompted the comment had to do with whether or not poetry is still an effective means of protest in today's society. I suppose it's debatable whether or not poetry has ever been an effective means of protest... but then of course I've been teaching them that it is by showing them Ginsberg and Snyder and the oldies like Oliver Wendel Homes, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Bob Dylan, etc. I've realized I'm far more faithful to my ideals at the front of a classroom. I'm stronger. Quacking into this thing, or late at night when I'm alone with my thoughts... that's when the voices come out and really do their thing. I mean, right now I'm thinking... my God, maybe this student is right! Maybe we've allowed terror to degrade our society and we've empowered violence with our orange threat levels and airport security checks...

At this point, the spokesperson for my parent's generation (who looks like Lewis Black) comes out on stage in my imagination and laughs derisively... in my face. "You pussies have it easy compared to what my generation had to go through! Ever hear an air raid alarm? It makes your @$$hole pucker up! Ever been asked to hide under your desk in case a nuclear bomb hits the school? You guys are afraid of toothpaste, or that some person will build a bomb into their shoes, or (God forbid!) stick one up their @$$. You're afraid to write detentions because some pissed off kid will come in and shoot up the place. That's what you should have done with mohawk. Teach him to raise his hand if he has something to say. What ever happened to the nuke! What ever happened to a worthy f*%#@ing adversary?! And, after all, isn't war itself one big protest movement? Furthermore, what human rights or cultural freedoms were ever earned through poetry? Aren't poets the equivalent of big top performers willing to sell their very souls for a drip of praise? They're not social revolutionaries. Writers are overeducated window lickers!"

Luckily, Lewis stayed in the basement of my mind tinkering with his model trains when the money was on the table. I reacted with poise. My fingers did not twitch for a cigarette ( I haven't smoked in months), nor did I fold under the pressure and crap out a redirection. I squared my shoulders and hit that baby. Over the fence, I think.

"In one hundred years, society will forget the names of the extremists, and more than likely, we’ll forget their causes. The initial shock of an exploding airplane is more powerful than a poem or a story, but the effects aren’t likely to last as long, or penetrate as deeply into our minds and hearts. Language has the power to change the world for the better. Bombs and guns and terror do not."

I wasn't even sure if I believed the words coming out of my mouth. But now I know. I believe this with my whole heart. Even now, while Lewis is chain-smoking Chesterfields and asking me, "Well, what about MLK, and Christ and Gandhi, and Phil Hartman?!"

Be quiet, Lewis. Go watch the Home Shopping Network. Let me have this one. It sounded good.

Heck, it even sounded patriotic.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Found Poem

I discovered today that the principal at my school is resigning and, moments after, feeling strangely excited, sad and nostalgic, read this list left on our network printer. I thought it was a poem, maybe a sonnet, because of the block type. However I soon discovered it was a list of vocabulary words. Besides, there are only 12 lines, and they don't rhyme. But, I read it like a poem anyway and decided I liked it very much. I think I might call it "The Public School." I hope you enjoy it.