November 6, 2019

Channeling Baseball at the J.D. Salinger Centennial Exhibition

By Stuart Mitchner

Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.
—J.D. Salinger, from The Catcher in the Rye

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is how a column about last week’s World Series, Walter Johnson, Buster Keaton, and old Baron von Humboldt has landed like a well-hit, wind-blown foul ball smack on top of the typewritten manuscript of The Catcher in the Rye displayed in the New York Public Library’s J.D. Salinger centennial exhibition, which is free, if you want to know the truth, and will be on view through January 19, 2020.   

In the first place, Salinger is the only American writer you could pair with Shoeless Joe Jackson, roll the dice online, and score a winning answer, and in the second place, you’d need to read his story “The Laughing Man” about a group of kids from P.S. 165 on 109th Street called the Comanches and a “shy, gentle young man” called the Chief, who had once been “cordially invited to try out for the New York Giants’ baseball team.” According to a financial arrangement with the parents, the Chief would pick up the boys outside school in a “reconverted commercial bus” and drive them over to Central Park to play soccer or football, or, in this case, baseball. Afterward, the Chief would treat them to a running story (“it tended to sprawl all over the place”) about the adventures of the Laughing Man, “who had been kidnapped in infancy by Chinese bandits.”

The plot of the story proper turns with the arrival in the Chief’s life of a peerlessly beautiful Wellesley girl who insists on playing center field with a catcher’s mitt but is welcomed for her prowress as a hitter and speed on the bases (“She seemed to hate first base; there was no holding her there”). The hideously deformed anti-hero of the Chief’s story, his head having been twisted “several turns to the right” in a carpenter’s vise by his kidnappers, is so terrifying to behold that he wears a gossamer mask made out of poppy petals (“he reeked of opium”).

Given the setting of the centennial exhibit, you should know that on rainy afternoons, in addition to his duties as a driver, father-figure, storyteller, and coach, the Chief takes the Comanches to the Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with probably an occasional trip south to the big Beaux Arts building on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street where, as the exhibit commentary notes, Salinger spent many hours and “retained a lifelong affection for the Rose Main Reading Room.”

Allie’s Mitt

Another thing about Salinger and baseball obliquely related to the author-editor material from the publishing game displayed in the small room with the large name (the Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Gallery) is the composition Holden Caulfield agrees to write for his too-handsome-for-his-own-good roommate Stradlater. Told that the subject had to be “anything descriptive,” like a room or a house “or something you once lived in,” Holden chooses to write about the left-handed fielder’s mitt that belonged to his dead brother Allie, who penned poems in green ink all over it so “he’d have something to read when he was in left field and nobody was up at bat.” Holden figures all he has to do is copy down the poems on the mitt and change Allie’s name, so the teacher will think it’s about Stradlater’s brother. Readers and visitors to the exhibit may be reminded of Salinger’s dealings with publishers and reviewers when Holden admits that he “wasn’t too crazy” about using something so precious and personal in a ghostwritten essay, and especially when, like an author who has put his heart on the page, he describes Stradlater’s response: “He stood there, reading it, … with this very stupid expression on his face.” One presumptive publisher’s rationale for rejecting The Catcher in the Rye (“Is Holden Caulfield supposed to be crazy?”) is echoed by Stradlater’s “You always do everything backasswards.” When Holden grabs the paper out of his “editor’s” hands and tears it up, all vicarious writer-readers everywhere will feel like cheering.

The Deleted Passage

If you were fortunate enough to read The Catcher before it was famous, that is at a time when no teacher was allowed to assign it (the likely kiss of death to spontaneous appreciation), you may have bonded with Holden for keeps in the scene where a Pencey Prep classmate named Edgar Marsalla does something “very crude in chapel” during a pompous, platitudinous speech by “this guy Ossenburger,” an alum who “made a pot of dough in the undertaking business.” My reason for mentioning Marsalla’s epic fart (he “damn near blew the roof off”) is that it precedes the deleted passage in the manuscript displayed in the centennial exhibit. Imagine readers in the sway of Holden’s unapologetically vulgar style going from “We tried to get old Marsalla to rip off another one” to a forced, phony-to-the-core disclaimer in which the author bends his character out of shape to justify a novel powered by profanity. At the same time, what makes it one of the most noteworthy items on display isn’t the evidence of Salinger’s thankfully brief submission to an editor fearful that readers will be repelled by Holden’s language, but the disturbing revelation that an author who has literally carried his creation through harm’s way from Normandy to Nuremberg could be made to compose a paragraph so contrary to the spirit and energy of the novel. One advantage of highlighting this stage in the publication process is what the last sentence says about Salinger’s unusually intimate, unguarded, almost diffident approach to the reader: “If you do read my book, what I’ll do is tell you things I never told anybody in the world. I’ll write the book as if you were a terrific friend of mine.”

The “Hapworth” Elephant

For the world of readers who have been looking forward to the work Salinger was doing for the last four decades of his life, the elephant in the gallery is the typescript of his novella “Hapworth 16, 1924,” a tour de force that first saw the light in June 19, 1965 New Yorker and has remained in the dark ever since. An indispensable contribution to the Glass family saga, “Hapworth” would have been published in 1997 if not for a series of mishaps related to the author’s strict rules about publicity, not to mention the preemptive attack by the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani, a misreading so misguided and mean-spirited that Salinger would have seen it as the embodiment of the book-chat circus of publishing he’d left behind.

William Faulkner’s observation that every time Holden “attempted to enter the human race, there was no human race there” comes to mind whenever I think of the misreadings, not only of The Catcher and “Hapworth” but of Salinger’s work in general and the myth of the cranky, embittered recluse holed up in his New Hampshire bunker. Among the centennial exhibition’s most interesting items is a 1982 legal document wherein Salinger admits he’s been writing fiction “rather passionately, singlemindedly, perhaps insatiably” since he was “fifteen or so” and “positively rejoice[s] to imagine that, sooner or later, the finished product safely goes to the ideal private reader, alive or dead or yet unborn, male or female or possibly neither.”

The Big Train

The summer of 1924 was in the news last week when the Washington Nationals won the World Series. The last time the franchise once known as the Senators was on its way to a championship was the summer Seymour Glass and his younger brother Buddy were at Camp Hapworth. Although Walter Johnson, who pitched the final four scoreless innings of the decisive seventh game, is not mentioned in Salinger’s long story, the Big Train haunted the recent series and by extension this column, which prints on his birthday. The pitcher who struck fear even into the heart of Ty Cobb (“I hardly saw the pitch, but I heard it, the thing just hissed with danger”) was born on November 6, 1887, in Humboldt, Kansas, so named after Baron Alexander von Humboldt, the polymath, naturalist, geographer, explorer, and prophet of climate change. Some 17 miles due south of Humboldt is Piqua, Kansas, the birthplace of Buster Keaton, whose favorite sport was baseball (“I started playing the game as soon as I was old enough to handle a glove”). There’s a YouTube clip from The Cameraman (1928), if you really want to see it, in which Buster does a one-man pantomime pitching, fielding, running, hitting, and sliding home head first in the empty vastness of Yankee Stadium.

And if you really want to know the truth, Salinger himself was born in New York City, January 1, 1919, the year that gave the world the Black Sox scandal and W.P. Kinsella’s novel, Shoeless Joe. In the last chapter, titled “The Rapture of J.D. Salinger,” the reclusive author joins the team of the living dead, disappearing with Shoeless Joe and the others into the mists surrounding the field of dreams.

The New York Public Library’s centennial exhibition is organized by J.D. Salinger’s son Matt Salinger and widow Colleen Salinger with Declan Kiely, director of Special Collections and Exhibitions at the Library. For more information, visit