Sitting next to me in our seventh-grade study hall, one of my classmates began laughing uncontrollably. The cause of his laughter was the opening pages of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. He laughed right through the time he was punished for his misconduct in breaking the study hall’s silence. I’d never heard of the book before, but I tracked down a copy as soon as possible. I’d always enjoyed reading and liked lots of books, but Catcher in the Rye might have been the first book I really loved.
As an English student at Dartmouth, I also tracked down the unimpressive house sitting at the top of the hill to which Salinger had famously retreated in Cornish, New Hampshire in order to seclude himself from the world. I enjoyed Salinger’s other books, mostly about the Glass family, but found them relatively paltry things beside Catcher. Salinger lavishes a humorless and cloying adoration on the Glass family. David Skinner capably captured the quality of these stories in “The sentimental misanthropist.”
As the father of three precocious daughters, I hold one Salinger story (unmentioned by Skinner) in a special place in my heart. In “For Esmé, With Love and Squalor,” collected in Nine Stories, Salinger brilliantly toyed with narrative frame and voice, shifting from first-person to third-person and drawing the reader up short in a final sentence addressed in the second person directly to Esmé.
The narrator of the story is an American soldier who meets Esmé together with her younger brother when she is 13. The narrator tells Esmé in response to one of her questions that he likes to think of himself as a professional short-story writer. Esme’s wedding is the occasion of the story; the story fulfills a promise the soldier had made to her when they met in the English countryside as he trained for D-Day.
According to Esmé, he is “the eleventh American [she’s] met.” Seeing him taking tea alone, Esme tales pity on him. Joining him at his table, she says he looks lonely and that she is training herself to be more compassionate. She and her brother are being raised by their aunt; they have lost both of their parents. Her father, she memorably explains to the soldier, spelling it out to protect her brother, was “s-l-a-i-n” in North Africa.
The soldier promises to write a story for Esmé according to her specifications. “Make it extremely squalid and moving,” she orders. And it is, though it is more moving than squalid.
Where did that story come from? The narrator’s self-description suggested an autobiographical element. Reading the excellent obituaries by Richard Lacayo and James Perse, I learn, as I should have known but did not, that Salinger was a bona fide member of the greatest generation. He had much more in common with that American soldier than the soldier’s profession as a short-story writer. RIP.
UPDATE: Boston College Professor George O’Har provides what he describes as “a more critical view of Salinger” in “The writer as Peter Pan.”
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