Reader’s Guide – “A Slight Rebellion Off Madison”

Contributed by Tim Towslee. Thank you Tim!

Publication History:

  • c. 1941, sold to the New Yorker in November 1941 as “Am I Banging My Head Against the Wall?” (Greiner), publication delayed due to U.S. entry into WWII
  • p. 21 December 1946 in The New Yorker as “Slight Rebellion Off Madison”
  • collected in David Remmick’s Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker (2000)

Character List:

Holden Caulfield: The central character. His middle name is Morrisey.

George Harrison: An acquaintance of Sally Hayes. He is a student at Andover.

Sally Hayes: A girl Holden likes and is meeting in the city for ice skating.

Carl Luce:: Carl is described as overweight and unattractive. He is a classmate of Holden’s at Pencey Prep.


This story is the assumed basis for The Catcher in the Rye, Chapter 17. In it, Holden Caulfield goes ice skating with Sally Hayes. After some small talk with her, Holden reveals his thoughts about his perceived pointlessness of prep school. He tells her he’d like for them to move away, far away, from the city; but Sally dismisses this as a ridiculous notion. Later, Holden and Carl Luce appear at the Wadsworth bar, where they drink scotch and sodas. Holden calls Carl an “intellectual guy” and asks him what he would do if he hated school and wanted to “get the hell out of New York.” Later, when he is alone Holden drunkenly calls Sally twice on a payphone. Then, after chatting with the piano player, Holden waits for a bus on the corner of Madison Avenue with tears in his eyes.

Reception and Criticism:

Eberhard Alsen in “The Catcher in the Rye” from Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: J.D. Salinger, New Edition (2008)

J. D. Salinger invented the central character of The Catcher in the Rye 10 years before the publication of that novel. The sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield first appears in the story “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” which Salinger sold to New Yorker magazine in 1941 and which he later transformed into Chapter 17 of The Catcher in the Rye. “Slight Rebellion” is the story of Holden’s relationship with his girl friend Sally Hayes. Holden eventually alienates Sally by calling her “a royal pain” because she doesn’t want to run away to the woods of Massachusetts or Vermont with him. The New Yorker shelved the story in 1941 but finally published it in 1946.

… Salinger’s choice of the first person point of view not only gives the novel its special flavor of authenticity, it also allows Holden to express thoughts and feelings that we would not be aware of if the novel were told by from an objective third person point of view. The choice of the first person point of view strengthens the reader’s identification with the narrator-protagonist and ultimately makes the reader care more about the Holden’s personality than the events of the plot.

The rightness of Salinger’s decision in favor of the first person point of view becomes apparent when we compare a passage from “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” to the reworked version in The Catcher in the Rye. In the early story, Salinger uses an objective third person point of view. Therefore, we see Holden only from the outside and hear what he says, but we don’t find out what he thinks and feels. In the early story, Holden tells Sally Hayes:

“You don’t see what I mean at all.”

“Maybe I don’t. Maybe you don’t either,” Sally, said.

Holden, stood up with his skates slung over one shoulder.

“You give me a royal pain,” he announced quite dispassionately.

(“Rebellion” 84)

And that’s how the scene ends in the short story. We don’t find out what Holden thinks. We don’t even find out how Sally reacts. Here now is the reworked passage as it appears in the novel:

“You don’t see what I mean at all.”

“Maybe I don’t. Maybe you don’t either,” old Sally said. We both hated each other’s guts by that time. You could see there wasn’t any sense in trying to have an intelligent conversation. I was sorry as hell I’d started it.

“C’mon, lets get outa here,” I said. “You give me a royal pain in the ass if you want to know the truth.”

“Boy did she hit the ceiling when I said that. I know I shouldn’t’ve said it and I probably wouldn’t’ve ordinarily, but she was depressing the hell out of me. (Catcher 133)

The major difference between the scene in the story and the novel is that we learn much more about Holden’s thoughts and feelings in the novel than we do in the story, and we can therefore identify more with him.

Warren French in J.D. Salinger, Revisited (1988)

Only a year after Salinger’s professional debut in Story, he achieved an accolade few apprentice writers could anticipate, when a story about Holden Caulfield was accepted by The New Yorker; but alas, the attack on Pearl Harbor followed too close on this acceptance, and the story was shelved for the duration.

An updated version, “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” appeared in postwar Christmas issue (21 December 1946)….

[E]vents repeated in the novel from [this] story are portrayed in the novel as occurring during Christmas week in 1949. The dates of

the action in “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” and Catcher are unmistakably established in the account of Holden’s taking Sally Hayes to a Broadway theater to see Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne: in the short story the narrator summarizes a play that is unmistakably O Mistress Mine [he doesn’t, he gives the title with no summary of the play whatsoever], which opened in February 1946, so that the action of the story seems contemporaneous with its publication; in the novel Holden satires the plot of I Know My Love, which opened in the fall of 1949. …

William Maxwell’s comment that The Catcher in the Rye is more subjective than the 1946 novelette version is particularly arresting, because a principle difference between the 1946 New Yorker story, “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” and the novel is that the former is written in the third person, so that it lacks the poignancy and immediacy of the final version’s first-person narration. Salinger, however, had been experimenting with his approach to his material even before The New Yorker story appeared, because “I’m Crazy,” which contains material later used in Catcher, is narrated by Holden himself at the time of his expulsion from what was then called “Pentey Prep.” Holden as not been expelled in “Slight Rebellion Off Madison”; he has just come home on Christmas vacation, bearing a middle name “Morrisey” that never turns up anywhere again. …

Although “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” appeared a year after “I’m Crazy,” the Holden Morrissey Caulfield who appears in it cannot be reconciled with either the Holden in the earlier story or the later novel. It seems likely that “I’m Crazy” comes from the 1946 manuscript that William Maxwell mentions, while “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” is an updating of the story that The New Yorker accepted in 1941. Rather than a misfit, he is, quite incongruously in view of what happens in the story, a nattily dressed young man about town. The third-person narrative does, however, contain one passage that is repeated almost exactly in the novel, bringing out the one enduring trait in Holden’s shifting characterizations. At the Radio City ice-skating rink, where Holden and Sally Hayes go after attending a play starring the Lunts, their hitherto playful dalliance takes a serious turn when Holden asks, “Do you like school?” Sally replies:

“It’s a terrific bore.”

“Do you hate it, I mean?”

“Well, I don’t hate it”

“Well, I hate it,” said Holden. “Boy do I hate it” (77) [or (83)]…

The important comment in the conversation, however, which is even more highly italicized in the novel than in the short story, is Holden’s insistence that he hates school. The crucial difference between Holden and Sally, whom he calls “queen of the phonies” and “a royal pain in the ass” ([Catcher] 173; The New Yorker had to cut the sentence short at “pain”), after unsuccessfully proposing to her, is that Sally’s reaction to school – as indeed everything else – is the predictably fashionable one. It’s OK to be “bored” with school (one does not want to be a “brain”); but to hate school, as Holden proclaims, is to make public unfashionably strong feelings, to reveal too much of one’s self. It is not becoming to take something seriously enough to hate it. (34-39)

Donald Greiner in “Updike and Salinger: A Literary Incident”

Although Salinger had been publishing short stories from the time “The Young Folks” appeared in the March-April 1940 issue of the famed Story and had continued to publish stories in such magazines as Kansas City Review, Cosmopolitan, Mademoiselle, Esquire, Colliers, and the Saturday Evening Post while serving with distinction in World War II, he later repudiated his early work by refusing to let it be collected or reprinted. More important, he even dismissed the story that led to The Catcher in the Rye in 1951 and that featured a prep school boy named Holden Caulfield on Christmas break. Written in 1941 with the title “Am I Banging My Head against the Wall?” and accepted by The New Yorker, the story was finally published in the 21 December 1946 issue as “Slight Rebellion off Madison.” His breakthrough year was 1948 when he published three stories in The New Yorker that confirmed he was a major new talent with a singular new voice and brought him critical as well as popular recognition: “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (31 January 1948), “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” (20 March 1948), and “Just Before the War with the Eskimos” (5 June 1948). (117)

Sarah Graham and Jack Salzman say little more than the fact that the story was written in 1941 and published in The New Yorker in December of 1946.

Dominic Smith mentions that the story was published, but it was not collected in Nine Stories.

Finally, points out that the story was republished fairly recently in David Remmick’s Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker (2000).

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why is Holden’s only a “slight rebellion?” What does this say about his character? Does this version of his character live up to the Holden Caulfield reputation?
  1. Eberhard Alsen and Warren French comment on Salinger’s use of the objective third person in “Slight Rebellion Off Madison.” They criticize the story by comparing its voice with the later first person from The Catcher in the Rye. While we do get a different image of Holden Caulfield, is it fair to deem this story a weak one?
  1. Does the long gap between composition and publication, with WWII in between, affect our reading of the story at all?
  1. How do the ads in the original publication contribute to the narrative? Notice all of the bars advertised are within short walking distance of the story’s setting. The far off vacation spots are places Holden and Sally could vacation without having to resort to staying in a cabin in the woods. Then, there are all of the ads for clothes and liquor, and – other things that Holden hates about school. Is this intentional, or coincidence?

Works Cited:

Alsen, Eberhard. “The Catcher in the Rye.” Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: J.D. Salinger. New ed. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Bloom’s Literary

Criticism, 2008. Print.

French, Warren. Twayne’s United States Authors Series: J.D. Salinger, Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1988. Print.

Graham, Sarah. Routledge Guide to Literature: J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Greiner, Donald J. “Updike and Salinger: A Literary Incident.” Critique 47.2 (2006): 415-30. Literature Online. Web. 17 October 2009.

Salzman, Jack. New essays on The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print.

Smith, Dominic. “Salinger’s Nine Stories: Fifty Years Later.” Antioch Review 61:4 (2003): 639-49. Literature Online. Web. 17 October 2009.

“Uncollected Stories of J.D. Salinger.” 14 August 2009. Web. 1 November 2009.

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