The Young Folks


 

Salinger was just 21 years old when he published his very first story, The Young Folks, a critical portrayal of a shallow college party. It was published in 1940 in Story, a small but reputable literary magazine that new authors turned to after being rejected by the likes of The New Yorker or Collier’s.
 
Salinger opens the story throwing poetic jabs at his characters, who are mingling with highballs and cigarettes in hand. Salinger describes Edna Phillips sitting in a big red chair, “wearing a very bright eye which young men were not bothering to catch.” Lucille Henderson “sighed as heavily as her dress would allow, and then, knitting what there was of her eyebrows, gazed about the room…” Salinger clearly does not think highly of this crowd, which he repeatedly points out includes a “small blonde” and “three young men from Rutgers.
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The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls and More

 
 
 

In 2013, three of J.D. Salinger’s unpublished stories leaked online. The most well-known of these stories is The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls (1947), set to be published 50 years after Salinger’s death, in 2060. Ocean is understood to be the precursor of The Catcher in the Rye, as all Caulfield children make an appearance in perhaps their original form. Ocean’s Vincent will become Catcher’s D.B., Holden’s screenwriter of an older brother, while Kenneth will become Allie, Holden’s late younger brother with the poem-scrawled baseball mitt.
 
Ocean alludes to Holden’s early troubles. Lassiter, the owner of a local bar that Vincent and Kenneth visit, calls Holden “the little crazy one.” In a letter that Holden sends to Kenneth from camp, he calls his fellow campers “rats,” and in true Holden fashion despises all of the forced activities, like going on hikes, making things out of leather, and singing in the dining hall. “He’s just a little old kid and he can’t make any compromises,” says Kenneth.
 
Ocean is a quiet, rhythmic story. The events unfold unassumingly, capturing the natural tempo of everyday life. This has an unnerving effect, as a devastating event is tucked into the folds of a seemingly normal day. In a 1997 column for the Chicago Tribune, Mary Schmich wrote a piece called “Wear Sunscreen,” later made famous by director Baz Luhrmann. It is a hypothetical commencement speech in which she offers advice that is captured well in Ocean:
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A Salinger September


 

I was predictably introduced to Jerome David Salinger as the voice behind Holden Caulfield. After completing the rite of passage that is The Catcher in the Rye, I met the Glass family in Franny and Zooey, and like many before me, I matriculated at the school of Salinger. I was lucky to be introduced to Franny and Zooey by an English teacher who guided her class through an intense and labored dissection of the stories, so that I was trained from the start to read Salinger’s work with extreme care. She taught us that even within the landscape of reading, there is a direct correlation between effort and reward.
 
I ventured into Nine Stories, Raise High the Room Beam, Carpenters, and Seymour: An Introduction on my own, and in due course re-read all of Salinger in varying degrees of frequency. A Perfect Day for Bananafish and For Esmé – with Love and Squalor, both from Nine Stories, along with Franny, remain my favorite.
 
Through Holden Caulfied’s adolescence, Salinger introduces us to one of his main themes: the competing interests between self and culture, or even, self and circumstance. As we further explore Salinger’s work, we quickly learn that the struggle goes well beyond teenage angst, and that his characters are fraught with deeply existential questions; questions not of the pretentious kind but of the wide-awake-at-3AM kind. The struggle can be terrifying, but Salinger gets that, and his characters respond in their own unique but Salinger-esque ways.
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On Short Stories and College

During one of those predawn, sluggish, unknowingly pretentious conversations that thrive in college dorm rooms, a floormate brought up Edgar Allen Poe. By that point, it was late Winter Quarter, I had stopped asking, This stuff happens?
 
See, on the first night of my first year in college, I was alone and homesick in my dorm room. Right outside my door I heard feet shuffling and bodies settling and soon after guitars strumming. Following social protocol, I left my room to join whomever was outside because I read it’s important to make friends during your first week in college. There were about ten people crowded together in a narrow hallway. By the time I sat down, two boys had started playing “Wonderwall” by Oasis and everyone was singing along. Like summer camp. I thought, This stuff happens?
 
During that predawn in winter, I learned that Edgar Allen Poe kept his writing short because he thought readers should be able to finish a story in one sitting. Poe hated the thought of a story stretched out over multiple days because “the affairs of the world interfere.” Real life is distracting. Only uninterrupted reading could offer the unity that was essential to experience a story and grasp its meaning. Poe therefore stuck to his poems and short stories, which worked out alright.
 
At the risk of disappointing the late Mr. Poe, I hardly ever read an entire book in one sitting, though I want to work on that. I do read a lot of short stories in one sitting. Short stories are a good way to re-visit an old story without taking away from any new one to discover. They are short but dense, tricky but beautiful. I recently re-read Teddy from Salinger’s Nine Stories, and I often “recently re-read” stories from that collection. My all-time favorite is For Esmé – With Love And Squalor. In college I even told people that I wanted “Faculties Intact” tattoed on my wrist, which comes from two lines in the story, including the final one: “I hope you return from the war with all your faculties intact.” Years later I told a friend about the tattoo idea and she said it sounded like some declaration after a long stint in a psychiatric hospital. By that point, I agreed.

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