The short story form is a special kind of animal. It is the form that students of fiction are made to learn first, as though crafting a finely-spun tale of less than twenty or so pages is the first step toward tackling the beast that is the novel. But this is mostly nonsense. The short story is not a stepping stone, but a final, perfect form all its own, that many have tried to master. William Faulkner once said of the short story that “[every novelist] tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.” It is demanding because it requires a clarity of vision and a terseness of one’s prose, a command of language and human behavior, all coming together in a delicate balance such that a story has pace and weight and action and plot and an end that comes only a few pages after a beginning. It is a novel concentrated. Of course, not everyone has such a lofty opinion of the thing. Cormac McCarthy, Faulkner’s modern spiritual successor, said of the medium: “I’m not interesting in writing short stories. Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.” But I would hope that this comment would be ignored, mainly because it is nonsensical. McCarthy is perhaps giving too much weight to the form’s name, and to the “short” that makes it seem like little to no effort needs be spent to create a piece that lasts. This is untrue. The short story is as fine an art as any; perhaps McCarthy is merely too unskilled to drive himself to the edge of death in an attempt to craft one.
Princeton is a school with a rich literary tradition, dating back to when Cottage Club was a different sort of place. But as tour groups visit that old palace so that they might pace about the library that Fitzgerald began to write _This Side of Paradise_, a whole trove of scholars and readers trek to Princeton each year to take part in another sort of communion, as they visit Firestone to read the unpublished stories of J. D. Salinger. Salinger is one of the most elusive figures in fiction. His body of work is slight and his appearances in public are legendary, merely because there are so few to discuss. After the 1965 publishing of his novella “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which took up most of an issue of The New Yorker magazine, he moved to Cornish, New Hampshire and released no new material. For the next forty-five years of his life he was generally labeled a recluse, a man whose artistic abilities had been exhausted during a prolific stretch in the 1940s and 1950s, and who had retreated to rural New England to live out his days away from the demands of the public. “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing,” Salinger told The New York Times in 1974. “It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” Salinger’s career is measured almost entirely on his sole novel, _The Catcher in the Rye_, and his many short stories, only a handful of which he actually published. Those contained in the slender volume Nine Stories are some of the most influential of the past century, and authors as diverse as Updike and Nabokov and Philip Roth were noted fans. His writing made him a sensation, beloved by an entire generation who responded and connected with Seymour and Sergeant X and Holden. But though Salinger forged a connection with the public through his work, he continued to retreat from the public setting, and some of his works which he previously offered to have published, were instead kept to himself. Firestone’s collection is made up of several of these, including “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” a story that has become almost mythic to those Salinger fanatics that frequent internet chatrooms and literary blogs. Salinger originally sold it to Harper’s in 1947, then chose instead to keep it to himself. As stipulated as part of his donation of the manuscript to Princeton, the story cannot be published until fifty years after the author’s death. Thus, if anyone wants to read it before January 27, 2060, they will have to do what I did a week ago. You must check in with a librarian in the Department of Rare Books and Manucripts, who, if you’ve never been there before, will require you to sign several forms and supply a good deal of contact information. You will be asked to show some identification. You will be asked to clip your identification to your shirt by placing it in a plastic sleeve, which will then hang awkwardly from your shirt collar or jacket lapel. You will be asked to write down your name and the purpose of your visit in a large book cataloguing the all of the visitors to the collection over the last several months. You will be asked to wash your hands in a small bathroom using soap and water.
After you have done this you have access to the reading room, a small, sanctuary-quiet space in the corner of the library with eight large tables facing a desk, where a librarian sits looking at a computer and occasionally at those reading materials much older than themselves. I do not know what it is like to ask for any material that is not Salinger’s, which I assume is among the most popular requests in the library, and thus is very easy for the librarian to retrieve. You will be directed to a seat and the materials will be brought to you. No pens. No paper of your own. You may have a laptop. If you would like to write notes, you may only do so on orange paper provided, using a blunt number two pencil. This is what happened to me.
There are two thick folios of Salinger’s work in the reading room. The first begins with a three page essay on short stories. Salinger calls the field “small and rather specialized” and clearly feels a sort of pride at being a practitioner of this form of art.
The next document is “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls.” It is a photo copy of the original and has stamped on the back of every page the names of the room, the library and the school that you are attending. It is eighteen pages long and printed in what looks like Courier. It isn’t the highest quality copy. Some of the lettering is blurred. The word “gladioli” looks instead like some truncated form of gladiator, and I was thoroughly confused for a few moments as to why a handful of Roman slave-warriors were laid before a gravestone. But it is a subtly beautiful experience, reading this story. P.J. Vogt, an assistant producer at NPR, called it the best story he ever read. In 1948, Collier’s fiction editor Knox Burger said that a letter sent from Holden Caulfield to his brother, included in the story, was the “greatest letter home from camp ever composed by man or boy.” This is all hyperbole, and in a way the story deserves it because it feels like a treasure. Reading it you know that at this moment you are the only person in the entire world who is doing this exact thing. There are very few experiences comparable. The story is lovely and sad and strange, as many of Salinger’s stories often are. I will give you a brief, purposefully incomplete synopsis.
“The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” concerns a few days in the life of Kenneth and Vincent and Holden Caulfield. Vincent is the oldest and trying to be a writer. He is self-conscious about this, and unsure about the quality of his work. And so he comes to Kenneth, his precocious, shockingly red-headed twelve-year-old brother eager to discuss with him his newest story, called “The Bowler.” Kenneth is the earliest form of Allie Caulfield, the brother whose death haunts every page of _The Catcher in the Rye_. In that beloved novel Salinger used Holden’s tendency to utter the word “phony” and proclivity to run away to mask a variety of troubles, including his grief at his brother’s death. We hardly get a glimpse of this brother so sorely missed in the novel, but in “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” he’s fully realized. He still has that left-handed baseball glove with poetry written all over it. In green or India ink depending on the text you read. But here some of the poetry is actually quoted, including several lovely lines of Browning. Here Kenneth actually speaks. Here Kenneth actually exists.
“The Bowler” is a sad story, and Kenneth tells Vincent so. Vincent is disappointed and burns the story and then takes his brother to a restaurant in town where they can get steamers. They get the steamers and then go for a drive, ending up by the ocean. They leave the ocean and return home. Vincent goes around Europe while a soldier in the war, and Holden goes all over too, and Kenneth is with them all the time. The story ends.
When you’re done in the reading room you simply put the materials back into the folio and leave, and a librarian swoops in and stores them. When I read the story I felt like I had been there for over an hour but in actuality it had been hardly forty-five minutes. I had sat there in a trance and now the trance was over.
The thing that is remarkable about “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” is how its elements are echoed and repeated throughout Salinger’s best known works, all of which came afterwards. Holden’s final plea at the end of Catcher is “don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do you start missing everybody.” “Bowling Balls” ends with a similar sentiment, and there are semblances of “Teddy” and “Bananafish” and “For Esmé” in the story. It is perhaps with this story, this unpublished work held within the thick walls of our campus library, that Salinger finally put together his voice. In the hands of Salinger, the short story is nothing less than sacrosanct. It is the perfect medium. It’s a small treasure that tells you that you’re alive.