Sex in the Salinger archives?

Scrutinizing culture.
Feb. 4 2010 9:30 AM

Sex in the Salinger Archives?

A little-known short story might be a clue.

Also in Slate: Joanna Smith Rakoff on answering Salinger's mail; Troy Patterson on the two Salingers; Stephen Metcalf on Salinger's genius; Nathan Heller on Nine Stories; Chris Wilson on " Seymour: An Introduction"; Jody Rosen on Salinger's New York; Dana Stevens on Hollywood Holdens; Donald Fagen on his love for Franny Glass.

Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters.

The great mystery J.D. Salinger left behind, of course, is just what he'd been writing all these years. There have been repeated sketchy reports that he was still writing in those last 45 years or so since he stopped publishing. There were, supposedly, completed manuscripts in his lonesome house of refuge on a hill in Cornish, N.H., a house I once paid a conflicted visit to.

But no one seemed to have any real evidence about what it was he was working on. Will we find reams of pages covered with "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" a la The Shining? Or arcane tomes on one of his esoteric, mystical enthusiasms, such as homeopathy? Or—sigh—more, yet more Glass family sagas, centering on that supposed saint, the tedious Seymour, no matter how much his last, vexing visitations in "Seymour: An Introduction" and "Hapworth 16, 1924" tried the patience of his most avid followers.

I know it's wishful thinking, but I wonder whether there's a clue in a little-known, unpublished—at least, not in book form—story that I came on the first time a day after Salinger's death. A story called "Go See Eddie."

You're not supposed to know about this particular Salinger story. Very few do, and those who do will probably become fewer still, thanks to what seems like a strange and hasty Web cover-up maneuver someone pulled off last weekend.

"Go See Eddie," was J.D. Salinger's second published story, the one that first appeared in an obscure journal called Kansas City Review in December 1940 and then disappeared into musty library stacks for a nearly a quarter-century until an archivist in the Midwest uncovered it in 1963.

I'd never read "Go See Eddie" before Salinger died, but several years ago, I'd bookmarked a Web site that had links to all the known unpublished (between hard covers) stories of J.D. Salinger. The ones that had mainly appeared in places like The Saturday Evening Post and Mademoiselle. The ones he'd sued people over any attempt to reprint them in book form.

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Something funny, weird, mysterious—Salingeresque—happened to that Web site in the weekend after Salinger died. I knew that he had sicced lawyers on someone who had tried to publish an unauthorized edition of these stories. But the Web site had been there for years, so I assumed it was, if not authorized, then tolerated.

When I clicked on the site the day after his death, I read "Go See Eddie" and his first published story, "The Young Folks." But after I'd started writing this column, I clicked on my bookmark for the site again and found myself gazing at what seemed to be the Web site of a Hungarian technical business magazine.

At least that's what I guessed from its list of menu options:

sített toplista

Gyakran Ismételt Kérdések
MySQL beállítások
Technikai beállítások
Kiegészítők
Regisztráció keresőkbe
Kapcsolat

These do not seem to be Salinger titles translated into Hungarian. A number of Google entrees that once linked to the Salinger site now linked to the Hungarian site. Fascinating: Who did this and why? The Salinger estate? The original creator of the site out of fear of the Salinger estate?

I did discover on Amazon that there were (as of this writing) seven copies left of an out-of-print college anthology of 30 short stories published in 1969 that includes Salinger's "Go See Eddie." This in itself is interesting. Because it means that at some point, four years after he stopped publishing, he permitted one of his first two stories to be republished. (It's unlikely his agent would have done it without consulting the famously sensitive author.)

And although Salinger has tried to unauthorize all these stories late in life, there had been a point at which he'd authorized "Eddie." But something is happening right before my eyes: Almost all the Google and Yahoo links to Salinger have either disappeared or turned Hungarian. Hiked the Appalachian trail. So I almost feel like Melville's survivor or the Ancient Mariner, and I alone am left to tell the tale.

"Eddie" starts with a naked redhead brushing her lush hair, just after getting out of the bath, having previously disposed of "cream jars and soiled tissues" from last night's makeup removal.

Salinger has a knack for what you might call the erotics of indirection. We only learn that she's naked and has red hair after she calls her maid for a robe whose royal blue we're told contrasts with her red and because a man is calling on her.

Maybe it's a John O'Hara vibe, Butterfield 8. (Check it out; it's great; it's O'Hara's House of Mirth.)

The man is her brother, and they conduct a long conversation that keeps coming back to her complicated love life and what the brother overheard some tough guys saying about her in Chicago, from which he's just returned, and the brother's refrain: "Go see Eddie."

Eddie has a job for her, he maintains, some kind of chorus-girl gig. But you get the feeling from her repeated hostile response to the suggestion that Eddie wants more than a chorus girl and that what's unspoken—not explicit, but not in doubt—is that the brother has promised to pimp her out to Eddie, maybe to get out of a jam or debt.

It sure seems that way when he loses his temper over her obstinacy and a nasty little touch of violence enters the picture with the brother knocking the sister's nail file out of her hand across the room and threatening to "push in" her glamorous face.

Meanwhile, she's lying to him about having an affair with a married man that's "the real thing" while actually using that lie to disguise an affair with one of the tough guys from Chicago. You're not sure whether she's quite in control of the whole complicated situation; you get the sense she's not sure, that behind her bravado is a terror about the insecurity of her existence and the abyss she could easily fall into with all this erotic maneuvering.

You can see the stakes of self-definition in the choice of whether to "go see Eddie" or not, and you care. It's almost all dialogue, andit reads like a Raymond Carver story, now that I think about it, the old Gordon Lish-edited, carved-to-the-bone Raymond Carver stories.

I must admit, I'm not a big fan of the so called "juvenilia" of authors I admire. I loved the two-hundred-plus pages of footnotes Christopher Ricks appended to T.S. Eliot's Inventions of the March Hare juvenilia, an unforgettable glimpse of the fevered Symbolist milieu, but I really couldn't stand the poems themselves. I'd read one or two of the unpublished early Salinger stories and didn't find much above the generic mass-market magazine short story of the time.

Like the first one he published, "The Young Folks," which appeared in the March/April 1940 issue of Story magazine and almost seemed like a reverse-time-warp thing: Salinger channeling the Whit Stillman of Metropolitan, a story about two unhappy losers making each other unhappier at a deb party.

Most of the other unpublished stories on the now-Hungarian site were variations on that theme or scene. And then there was "Go See Eddie" which, to use a Holden Caulfield phrase, knocked me out. It was unmistakably Salinger but it was unlike anything else Salinger had written. For one thing it was sexy. Sexy in a film-noir satin dressing-gown-dame way.

It was set in a sinister, louche world of sex, violence, gangsters, and hard-partying bad girls. It had the ring of hardboiled Hemingway or Dashiell Hammett (the Hammett of the amazing Red Harvest). Indeed, I first found myself wondering whether Salinger was sending up Hemingway in the way Hemingway had sent up his predecessor Sherwood Anderson in The Torrents of Spring. (The fact that it appeared in the Kansas City Review and Hemingway started out as a reporter for The Kansas City Star was suggestive but proves nothing, since Salinger submitted it first to Story and Esquire, both of which rejected it.)

But then I read it again and the sexual innuendo in the dialogue seemed cutting, not parodic. And there was that ugly bit of violence and a brother who might have been pimping out his sister, and I thought, no, this may be more than a pastiche or a parody. He could have done this for a living. This may have been the road not taken. Hard-boiled Salinger: It sounds like an oxymoron.

And—speaking of torrents of spring—in the torrents of verbiage that poured forth after his death, so much of it was devoted to regurgitating old arguments about the direction of his later work—was it admirably exquisite or tiresomely solipsistic?—that I might offer this little freshet of thought about a neglected way of looking at him, by speculating on the path he chose not to take. A thought about Salinger and sex. Because "Go See Eddie" is, how shall I put it, in an exquisite, deliberate way: hot.

And when I say it's the road not taken by Salinger, a road to a different Salinger than the deliquescent Zen-tea-ceremony pointillist and mystic he became, I mean that for all we know, it's the road that he has taken—that in the work he left behind to be published, he may well have given us the sex that he drained out of his hermetic world in his later published fiction, leaving it more desiccated than delicate.

The road, he hinted to Renata Adler, he might want to take. She recounts in her memoir Gonethat Salinger told her he stopped publishing in The New Yorker because he wanted to write about sex, and he felt embarrassed to show such material to the ostensibly shy and prudish "Mr. Shawn."

The Renata Adler memoir—combined with "Go See Eddie," the road-not-taken story—tempt one to speculate that Salinger left behind, in that house on a hill, a treasure trove of Salingeresque erotic novels. Who knows—even porn. No writer had a keener ear for the innuendoes of human speech and eye for gesture, and to have that attentiveness focused on sexual tension …

Well, it's just a possibility, sure to be refuted, but that's what I'm hoping we'll find, something shocking and sexual that will give the world a new vibrant Salinger to contend with.

"Go See Eddie" may not be a polished work, but it reminds us of what we lost as Salinger systematically excised sex from the world of his fiction.

It's not that he was anti-sexual in his later New Yorker fiction the way Tolstoy, say, turned anti-sexual. Sex was unbearably present for the Tolstoy of The Kreutzer Sonata and the late novella The Devil (one that he hid from his wife and would not allow published until after his death). In the latter, the narrator's obsessive attraction to a peasant girl, which torments him with its uncontrollable possession of him, its degradation of his dignity, maddens him enough to murder the young girl. So it's sexually anti-sexual.

But in Salinger's later work, sex isn't bad or good, it's just absent. Much of the posthumous discussion of Salinger has been about how to regard this later work, with advocates pointing to Janet Malcolm's influential and persuasive essay "Justice to J.D. Salinger" in a 2001 issue of The New York Review of Books, while others regard as lame the attempts to convince us to take seriously the mystical profundity Salinger has all his other characters attribute to Seymour.

I could find myself completely convinced by Janet Malcolm's cogent exegesis yet still not convinced enough to care about the Seymour of "Hapworth 16, 1924," where his saintliness is insisted on to the point of driving you to distraction in its coy self-assurance. One can hear the ancient cries of editors everywhere: "Show, don't tell!"

Does anyone really like this? Can anyone really stand Seymour? And why don't we? Does the sexlessness of the later fiction have something to do with it? Can you think of another author you like from whose work sex, longing, love, lust was absent? Yes, it was there in Catcher. "Franny" was sexy, the character, the situation structured as a seduction ritual. "Zooey" not so much, and then came the deluge of details about sexless Seymour.

What a jolt to come on the Salinger of "Go See Eddie" and realize not only that "Go See Eddie" is hot but that Salinger is good at it, at innuendo and the sexual power struggle, and the precise balance—that tension—a woman had to maintain if she liked a good time but didn't want to be commodified as a slut or worse.

Well let's hope we find out that Renata Adler is right, that he's been writing about sex these last 45 years or that his new work is infused with sexuality. He's such an observant writer. He captures the human voice so perfectly and all the conflicts and longing it embodies. One yearns to see what it would be like if he embodied bodies with the same expressiveness. Literature needs a hot writer now.