Literary Fun Fact of the Day: Little-known writer Norman Mailer once wrote an essay on why Ernest Hemingway should be president of the United States. One of his reasons? The president “must of course be Hip, and yet not display himself unduly as a hipster.”
Hemingway, a hipster before being a hipster was cool.
(just look at him rocking those hipster glasses though)
Literary Fun Fact of the Day: While at the University of Algiers, philosophy’s father of absurdism, Albert Camus, was goalie for the university soccer team.
What ended his athletic career? Maybe it was all those cigarettes. Here’s what is undeniably the most important achievement of my freshman year at college—a collage of Camus smoking that I made for my introduction to philosophy class:
Literary Fun Fact of the Day: The Catcher in the Rye turns 63 today! Celebrate by looking at these adorable, rare photos of Salinger with his daughter and his dog, Benny!
Literary Fun Fact of the Day: Margaret Atwood, Canadian novelist and poet most well-known for The Handmaid’s Tale, is actually a seashell.
Literary Fun Fact of the Day: When author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) was once asked about Tom Wolfe, who chronicled Kesey’s drug-fueled trip across the United States in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Kesey said of Wolfe’s writing abilities: “Shit floats, and cream rises. You can’t always tell which is which just because it floated to the top.” Ouch. Nice thing to say about a guy who made you the Christ of the 60s. Here’s a picture of the bus, called Further, that Kesey filled with acid and Wolfe made an American icon:
Literary Fun Fact of the Day: Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, the acerbic wits behind Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse Five, respectively, had a bromance of sorts in their later years. In fact, Vonnegut even wrote a poem entitled “Joe Heller” to commemorate the author’s death in classic Vonnegut style (Read it here). Here’s a picture of the two with their wives on a nice summer day in Easthampton:
Literary Fun Fact of the Day: This picture of Oscar Wilde in
drag Greek National Dress is totally a thing. The context of this picture is unknown, but the picture exists, and that’s all that matters.
Literary Fun Fact of the Day: I don’t know about you guys, but sometimes it upsets me deeply that I’ll never be able to hear the voices of my favorite authors. Sure, I can read their words, but what did they sound like? Don’t you ever wonder whether Hemingway spoke in a gravelly baritone or an unexpected tenor? What about Oscar Wilde? Shakespeare? Luckily, the literary gods have gifted us with a recording of Flannery O’ Connor reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in 1959. Supposedly, this is the only existing recording of the author reading her work. Her accent sounds like my grandma’s, but exactly.
The year is 1948, perhaps 1949. It’s early December, and the ponds in Central Park have just frozen over for the winter. Young, mordant Holden Caulfield is aimlessly wandering the streets of Manhattan, leaving a smoldering trail of cigarette butts in his wake as he—wait. There’s something wrong with this picture.
Holden Caulfield is supposed to be dead.
Yes, you read that correctly. Holden Caulfield is supposed to be dead, because he was reported Missing in Action during WWII. In fact, his older brother, D.B., should be dead, too, because he was killed by mortar that was dropped on his campsite, also during WWII. By the purported time during which The Catcher in the Rye takes place, all three Caulfield boys (Allie, Holden, and D.B.) are well in their graves, leaving one to suspect that the Holden most readers are familiar with must live in a parallel universe.
Forget everything you know about the Caulfield family. We’ll start at the beginning.
Before Holden was immortalized in Salinger’s classic novel, The Catcher in the Rye, he was a mere supporting character, not even alive or present for most of the stories that mentioned him, in a series of early Salinger short stories (which you can read, in somewhat crude formatting, here. For more info on these stories, check out this website). Imagine for a moment that The Catcher in the Rye is the Bible (because I’m sure some of you do that anyways): If the episodes included in the novel are canon, then we might consider the uncollected Caulfield short stories as apocryphal. These stories primarily focus on the tragic Vincent Caulfield, who we all know and love as Hollywood “prostitute” D.B. Caulfield. The first story in the timeline (heads up—we’re not going through these stories in the order they were published, but in the order that their events occur) is “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” which was never published and can only be read in Princeton’s Firestone Library—that is, if you can present two forms of ID and don’t mind being supervised while you read, probably by a little old lady who smacks gum as she glares at you over the tops of her reading glasses. The rare story, which has reached legendary status within the Salinger library, was leaked online this past fall…but I totally don’t have a copy or anything. It’s definitely not on my Kindle. I’m not looking at it now. Uh, moving on.
“Bowling Balls” recounts the day of Allie Caulfield’s death—except here he goes by Kenneth. This story is essential for any Salinger fanatic, for it features the first documentation of Holden’s signature angst. (In another story, “The Last Day of the Last Furlough,” Vincent states that he is nine years older than Holden; since Vincent is either eighteen or nineteen in “Bowling Balls,” we can assume that Holden is only nine or ten.) The only existing relic of Holden’s childhood comes in the form of a letter to Kenneth from “Camp Goodrest for Slobs,” and from this epistolary look into the young Holden’s psyche, it’s apparent that he didn’t do a lot of growing up between then and his Pencey Prep days. I would reprint the letter here in its entirety if I had access to it, but alas, the letter is in Princeton, and I am not. I will, however, provide for your reading pleasure a few of my favorite quotes:
“They got a contest between the reds and the whites. I am supposed to be a white. I am no lousy white.”
“This Mr. Grover thinks he is a hot singer and tried to get me to sing with him last night. I would of, only I don’t like him.”
“I sure miss you Kenneth also Vincent also Phoebe. What color hair has Phoebe got. It is probly red I bet.”
So far, parallel universe Holden doesn’t seem so different.
What happens to Holden next should be familiar to you. In “I’m Crazy,” Holden visits old Mr. Spencer, gets lectured, and immediately heads home, where he talks to his little sister, Phoebe…and his other little sister, Viola.
Now, one of two things has happened here: Either A.) Holden has an extra little sister in the original Caulfield short stories, or B.) In the Catcher universe, the Caulfields forgot about little Viola. Someone call child services.
According to Holden’s narration, Viola is “a crazy kid if ever there was one, but strictly one of us.” If she’s crazy, she doesn’t show it: Her only purpose in the story seems to be to ask for a Donald Duck toy that the maid took from her.
Moving forward. Although “I’m Crazy” just seems like an extremely condensed version of The Catcher in the Rye, its ending might provide important insight into why Holden joined the military in the first place, an institution that Holden would no doubt find phony. Holden’s final words in the story are unprecedented, at least for Holden—he actually admits to being wrong. He morosely admits that he will never be successful, that “I knew that this time when Father said that I was going to work in that man’s office that he meant it, that I wasn’t going back to school again ever, that I wouldn’t like working in an office.” Holden’s fate, post-Christmas shenanigans, is to be confined to a cubicle, surrounded by phonies. I don’t think it’s far-reaching to assume that this job, this abrupt plunge into the banalities of adulthood, drove Holden off the cliff and into the military, and therefore to his death. It seems only logical that the idyllic Holden, faced with real life, had to die.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In another story, “Slight Rebellion off Madison,” we learn in the first sentence that Holden has a middle name—and no, it isn’t Vitamin. He’s Holden Morrisey Caulfield. Nothing new happens in this story, either. Holden embarrasses Sally, Holden embarrasses Luce, Holden embarrasses himself. Holden also reiterates his disdain for the business world his father will soon force him to enter: “We’d have to go downstairs in elevators with suitcases and stuff…And I’d have to work at my father’s and ride in Madison Avenue buses and read newspapers. We’d have to go to the Seventy-Second Street all the time and see newsreels…”
But of course, Holden never has to endure those elevator rides, because he dies.
Chronologically, we first hear about Holden’s death in the short story “The Last Day of the Last Furlough,” during which Vincent visits his friend Babe Gladwaller the day before the two are meant to leave for Europe. It is during this story that Vincent breaks the news that Holden has been declared Missing in Action.
However, Vincent elaborates more on his brother’s death in “This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise.” Spoiler alert: This story has nothing to do with sandwiches. Through a heart-wrenching stream-of-consciousness narration (that, I might add, almost one-ups Holden’s sardonic narrative style), we learn that Vincent cannot focus on his surroundings at a Georgia military base because he’s too preoccupied with the death of his younger brother:
Who swiped my raincoat? With all my letters in the left-hand pocket. My letters…from Holden. Aw, listen, I don’t care about the raincoat being swiped, but how about leaving my letters alone? He’s only nineteen years old, my brother is, and the dope can’t reduce a thing to a humor, kill it off with a sarcasm, can’t do anything but listen hectically to the maladjusted little apparatus he wears for a heart. My missing-in-action brother. Why don’t they leave people’s raincoats alone?
Like Salinger, Holden came through the war in Europe okay; it was after he was “shipped out to the Pacific” that things went wrong.
Salinger doesn’t give Vincent a long time to grieve, though—only a few months after “This Sandwich has No Mayonnaise” was published, “The Stranger” eulogized Vincent in Colliers magazine. This story focuses specifically on Babe, who bears the unfortunate task of telling Vincent’s ex-girlfriend that Vincent is dead:
He died in the morning. He and four other G.I.s and I were standing around a fire we made…Some mortar dropped in suddenly—it doesn’t whistle or anything—and it hit Vincent and three of the other men. he died in the medics’ CP tent about thirty yards away, not more than about three minutes after he was hit. I think he had too much pain in too large an area of his body to have realized anything but blackness. I don’t think it hurt. I swear I don’t. His eyes were open. I think he recognized me and heard me when I spoke to him, but he didn’t say anything at all. The last thing he said was about one of us was going to have to get some wood for the lousy fire—preferably one of the younger men, he said you know how he talked.
And there you have it, three dead Caulfields, two of whom somehow manage to transcend the laws of physics in The Catcher in the Rye, because they’re still hanging around in 1948 or 1949, years after the war—and their lives—ended. I don’t think, however, that Salinger meant Catcher to read as a sci-fi novel, in which Holden is a spirit come from the underworld to take his revenge on New York City…although that would admittedly be kind of cool. The Catcher in the Rye simply takes place in a completely different literary universe than the original Caulfield stories, sort of in the same way that Tobey McGuire’s Spiderman can’t operate in the same New York City as Andrew Garfield’s Spiderman, or how Biff’s Pleasure Paradise only exists in a time travel paradox that was created because Marty McFly just had to buy that darned sports almanac…see what I mean?
But so what? You say, rolling your eyes. Those are uncollected stories, rough drafts to Catcher’s polished finished product. Why should I care?
That’s easy: You should care because somewhere along the way, Salinger made the decision to save Holden’s life.
Let’s look at the Caulfield timeline from a publishing perspective:
Literary Fun Fact of the Day: Today’s fun fact is brought to you by my philosophy professor: Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children, lectured at Emory while my professor was a grad student. After the lecture, he was invited to dinner with several professors, but politely declined and went off to get drunk with the students.