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.


Zach said...

I go to readings every thursday night at prout chapel here at BGSU. Last thursday I went up to the mic and asked for a moment of silence for Salinger. A lot of people looked at me weird for doing it, but I could tell that a few people understood.

"What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wished the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it."-Holden Caulfield. R.I.P. Salinger.

On another note, I still can't get my blog to update properly so I may have to just scrap the whole Idea.

John said...

Dig it, Zach. How do you like the readings at BGSU? Any Nazi Storm Troopers in dem dere parts?