Catcher in the Grass

I RECENTLY SPENT THREE WEEKS in New York and had the great fortune to visit with my dear friend Ms. Michiko Kakutani, the acclaimed New York Times book critic. Michi is a warm and generous soul, and, one night, while I was visiting at her apartment, she showed me her collection of vintage 1940s and ’50s paperbacks of classic American novels, which she keeps in neat plastic envelopes in a cabinet below her stereo.

She had an early edition of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye featuring an illustration of Holden Caulfield in red hunting cap and overcoat on the streets of New York.

Picking up the book, I commented on how “fun” it was to see Holden in a picture. She mentioned, while putting her paperbacks away, that there are a number of short stories by Salinger that were originally published in The New Yorker, but which Salinger had prevented from ever being reprinted in book form. Some of them, she explained, featured Holden. She went on to suggest that it would be worth my while to find them in archived New Yorkers at the library. As she spoke, I imagined myself going to the downtown L.A. Central Library when I returned.

The following weekend I was back in Los Angeles, driving through my Silver Lake neighborhood, when I noticed a sign for an estate sale up in the hills above my apartment. Being that it was a leisurely Saturday morning, I turned my car up the steep hill and parked my old Volvo in front of a house where a lifetime’s worth of belongings (not the furniture and accessories of a mansion) were on sale. This particular sale featured the belongings of its hostess’s deceased mother-in-law. The hostess herself was dressed in a cheerfully bright Indian cotton tunic and an oversize sunhat.

There were clothes racks, boxes of china, purses, 1950s shoes, gloves, scarves and the customary cardboard boxes of books on the lawn. I have a soft spot for used books that dates back to childhood, when my mother, at the time an out-of-work actress, would drag me to the many used bookstores that once peppered Hollywood and the Valley but are now almost as rare as the books they carried. The smell of old books has always comforted me.

I knelt there on the sunny lawn rummaging through the deceased lady’s library, already eyeing a few familiar covers like Beckett’s 1954 Grove Press edition of Waiting for Godot and the brown Bantam version of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar with a single red rose on the cover. You can tell an awful lot about people by looking at their books, and I was starting to like this dame, and, for that matter, her daughter-in-law.

With the sun warming my shoulders, I sifted through the piles, hoping I might find a great 1950s paperback that could serve as a gift for Michi. I began putting some titles to the side: Plath, Sartre, Faulkner, Dürrenmatt... And then I saw a modest book with an illustration, like a Norman Rockwell, on its cover. Above it, in what looked to be the old Saturday Evening Post typeset, read the name J.D. Salinger. I visibly twitched. The thing is, as any J.D. Salinger fan will tell you, there are only four Salinger books in publication, and consequently the familiarity we have with their covers is comparable to the familiarity you have with your childhood street — you just know it. And this book that was now in my hand was not a book I knew. It was called The Complete Uncollected Short Stories — Volume 2.

Eyebrows raised, I peered into the cardboard box beside me, and there was Volume 1! Combined, these two humble, anonymously published books offered 22 Salinger stories that I had never heard of and, more importantly, had never read. Stories he had written for The New Yorker and Story, between 1940 and 1965 (the year he stopped publishing). All stories that the reclusive, litigious writer had prevented from ever being reprinted.

Needless to say, I bought them, and another small stack of books, for 50 cents apiece, and headed home. I phoned to tell Michi of my find, then poured myself some iced tea, climbed onto my sofa and cracked the books open. The collections were ordered chronologically. The first included pithy pieces like “The Young People,” the first story Salinger published and which almost reads like Dorothy Parker or Fitzgerald. So rich in detail and Salingerian observation about the spaces between people’s spirits, and written how young people actually speak. Reading it felt like an indulgence.

The first volume also included “I’m Crazy” and “Slight Rebellion off Madison,” two early stories narrated by Holden Caulfield. The first is set on the night he is kicked out of boarding school and the second focuses on his date with Sally Hayes, stories that were essentially incorporated into The Catcher in the Rye.

The second collection, though, was the one that broke my heart, because it features “The Inverted Forest,” a wonderful story about a marriage. I will leave the rest a mystery, just in case you discover it on your own, except to say it may be one of the saddest stories I’ve read.

But my favorite was “Hapworth 16, 1924,” the last story Salinger ever published, which was recently included in a New Yorker collection and had been seriously rumored to be coming out in book form a few years ago, only to have Salinger eventually pull the plug.



“HAPWORTH 16, 1924,” written in 1965, is told in the voice of 7-year-old Seymour Glass, in the form of a brilliantly verbose letter “home” to his parents, who are touring on the vaudeville circuit while he and his soul-mate brother Buddy attend summer camp in Hapworth, Maine. It is the only time Seymour is heard in first-person narrative.

His voice, even at that tender age, is much like that of Buddy, who is sometimes considered to be Salinger’s alter ego, and is best known as the narrator of many Salinger stories, including Franny and Zooey, “Seymour” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” all of which take place after Seymour’s suicide, which is tragically depicted in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”

Seymour Glass is a tenderhearted figure, the eldest child of Les and Bessie Glass, two vaudeville performers who raised their Jewish-Irish children in their warm, eccentric Manhattan apartment. The kids all appeared on a radio program called Wise Child, which highlighted their precocious intelligence and reportedly helped finance their education.

Seymour made a choice early on that it was his place to mentor his six genius-level younger siblings — Buddy, Boo-Boo, Walt, Waker, Franny and Zooey — in all things spiritual, intellectual and worldly. Fascinated with Eastern religion, Vedic truths and Jesus Christ, he cultivated their exceptionally compassionate hearts and then broke them when he killed himself at 31.

Where Holden was disgusted by people’s shortcomings, Seymour strove to be compassionate. It was he who famously told his siblings to polish their shoes and look their best when they went to tape their radio show, because all the sad, sick, lonely, beautiful radio fans would be able to tell. The much-quoted line, pulled from Salinger’s “Zooey,” is “Do it for the fat lady.” In “Hapworth,” Seymour wonderfully describes the children and counselors at camp whom he adores, despite their obvious flaws and weaknesses.

The serendipitous events that led to me finding these short stories are impossible to know, but I can in part attribute them to the power of a few leisurely hours and what that can do for a person. Seymour repeatedly credits a little leisure as one of the most magical things in this world, and the reason he’s able to write his letter home . Of course, I might not have made my find had my friend in New York not mentioned the stories to me in the first place. As Seymour would most assuredly also attest, sharing with our loved ones information that might add to the development of their spirit — and all great art develops and lifts the spirit — is a profound thing. Such an impulse probably inspired the person who anonymously printed the books I now have in hand.

So I dedicate this anecdote to all who have ever loved Seymour Glass, or his beautiful siblings, and to Mr. Salinger, who I hope will allow these stories to again be published, because some of us need to learn by example.


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