On January 16, 2014, PBS.org posted an article titled “Six Degrees of Salinger,” a play on the Six Degrees of Separation thing where you point out connections between people not commonly known. They link Salinger to Judy Garland, Billie Jean King, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway, Sam Goldwyn, Harper Lee, John Lennon and James Baldwin. Some of the connections were true connections, others are just similarities, but it is a pretty good read and you can find it here: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/jd-salinger/six-degrees-of-salinger/2834/ .
They also tell us that PBS will be airing Shane Salerno’s Salinger documentary tonight, January 21, 2014 from 9-11:30 PM. We’ll be setting the DVR to check out the documentary and we’ll certainly post about it soon.
Also coming soon is information about the new biography by Shields and Salerno, recently-released criticism and we’ll be adding to the Reader’s Guides and more.
Editor’s Note: We realize that MLA format has been updated yet again, so we will be doing our best to audit the site and get the correct MLA citations into previous posts as soon as possible. That being said, please double check your MLA format with your current handbook (should be MLA 9) rather than use ours. We’ll post as soon as it’s all fixed. Then they’ll probably update MLA format again.
As two of the most influential and well-known authors of the 20th century it is not surprising that F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway would inspire a great many young writers. The surprise is that one of those young writers would go on to achieve a comparable level of importance to his predecessors in the literary world. Fitzgerald and Hemingway both influenced Jerome David Salinger but in very different ways.
Although J.D. Salinger never met F. Scott Fitzgerald he was still greatly inspired by Fitzgerald through his work. In his biography of Salinger In Search of J.D. Salinger, Ian Hamilton states that “the authors he most admired were Sherwood Anderson, Ring Lardner, Scott Fitzgerald: These three had almost classic status in his mind. (53). As he developed as a writer Salinger came to see himself as following in Fitzgerald’s footsteps and perhaps even achieving what Fitzgerald could not. As Hamilton reports:
In 1941 Salinger would have liked to think he was doing what Scott Fitzgerald had to do. Fitzgerald had died a year earlier, and his legendary aspects were fresh in everybody’s mind. Salinger, in his letters, always spoke warmly of him and took heart from the knowledge that it was the Saturday Evening Post that had supported the writing of the Great Gatsby. In later years he would denounce Fitzgerald’s association with the magazine. For the moment though, he believed that he—Fitzgerald’s successor—could perform a balancing act, which the master himself could never master: between the Nathan and the Woodford worlds, between integrity and commerce (64)
Aside from Fitzgerald’s overall influence on Salinger’s vision for the direction his career would take; there is also evidence that Fitzgerald’s writing directly inspired Salinger’s own works. One prominent example of this is the end of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” which bares a striking resemblance to the end of Fitzgerald’s novelette “May Day,” published in 1920. In his hotel room Fitzgerald’s main character Gordon Sterrett took the revolver he bought at a sporting goods store and fired a shot into his own head “just behind the temple” (Fitzgerald 141). Salinger’s main character, Seymour Glass also committed suicide in a hotel room.
In Time magazine’s 1961 article Sonny, An Introduction, John Skow gave the following account of J.D. Salinger’s meeting with Ernest Hemingway during the Second World War: “In France, Staff Sergeant Salinger had an audience with War Correspondent Ernest Hemingway, who read Salinger’s work and, possibly in appreciation of it (‘Jesus, he has a hell of a talent’), took out his Luger and shot the head off a chicken.”
In the years that followed, almost every Salinger critic has reported some version of this story. But as the half-century anniversary of the infamous chicken myth draws near, it is time, at last, to set the record straight.
Unfortunately, the myth has led scholars to ignore the fact that meeting Hemingway during the war is the most overlooked event in Salinger’s formation as a writer. Considering the meeting involves two of the most influential writers of the 20th century, the oversight is difficult to comprehend. Salinger died in January at age 91; Hemingway, who died in 1961, was born 111 years ago last week (July 21).
By all accounts, Salinger first met Hemingway at the Hotel Ritz after the liberation of Paris in 1944. In a letter dated a couple of weeks later, on Sept. 4, 1944, Salinger tells his editor, Whit Burnett of Story Magazine, that he met Hemingway and found him soft in comparison to the hard, tough demeanour of his prose. Salinger also says Hemingway was generous, friendly and unimpressed by his own reputation.
“J. D. Salinger and Kingsley Amis are brothers, with a common inheritance, tendency, and temperament.”
Green points to similarities in the works of Salinger and Kingsley Amis, but says, “… the point is not that they are so similar, as that they are so different from everybody else.” (21) Green notes ways in which their styles differ from the Modernists, notably Hemingway , Faulkner, James, and Kafka. By comparison he says, Salinger and Amis are more playful with language and themselves, noting their sentences are “strikingly personal, self-conscious, clumsy, [and] “clever.” (21)
He notes that they write about similar people and stresses that this is why the sentences quoted from both authors’ characters are “equally the utterance of the author.” (22) Green states that the “crucial category … is the phony.” (22) The effort to be not phony and also not too kind or rude to those who are phonies leaves both authors’ heroes “unable to live a normal life” as they “fight a perpetual guerilla war with the ordinary world.” (22)
Green suggests that in spite of “temperamental and national differences” their situations have a similarity as well. He presents Amis as more interested in the squalid world and less forgiving of his characters, noting that Salinger’s central characters are “beautiful and much loved” and “never lose their natural dignity.” (22) Green also emphasizes that both writers are connected by their attention to characters’ language, specifically their slang and that their level of personalization is what separates them from other “comic” writers.
Moreover, Green says, the characters gain even more similarity during the serious points of their works. He labels both Salinger’s and Amis’s heroes as “puritanical” and “pedagogical,” noting how difficult it is to make characters sympathetic at the same time. (*Editor’s Note: While there is some didacticism in the example he gives of Franny speaking to Zooey, and even, it could be argued, some fanaticism, it is difficult I think to make the case that all of Salinger’s characters are this way.)
The main problem both writers tackle, Green argues, is “how to take one’s place in intelligent, privileged, ruling-class society–which presents itself to both of them as horribly inadequate and dangerous.” (24) Green asserts that Salinger and Amis provide “at last a positive , life-giving alternative” to the Modernism of Hemingway, Faulkner, Greene, Waugh, McCullers and others. (25)
“For Esme – With Love and Squalor” was published in The New Yorker on April 8, 1950. It was later collected in Nine Stories (1953)
Staff Sergeant X (also The Narrator)
Narrator of the story, who has suffered shell shock and is telling us the story of a special child he met right before his unit participated in the D Day landings, as well as the dark period he suffered after battle. The story is split parts, and in one part the narration is first person, in the other it is third person. The third person narration is the point in the story where the narrator is referred to as “Staff Sergeant X.”
The young girl who has a conversation with Sergeant X the day before he goes into battle, and subsequently sends him a letter that reaches him once the battle is over. In the beginning of the story, we are told that Esme is getting married, and that she invited Sergeant X to the ceremony, even though she only met him once.
Esme’s little brother, a source of comic relief in the story and the focus on many critical studies along with the two main characters.
Corporal Z (Clay)
Sergeant X’s roommate after the battle. Some critics say he is the foil to Sergeant X’s character, and others say he represents the “squalor” from the title. He is crass and crude, and very much a caricature of a young, toughened Army grunt.
Esme and Charles’ governess. She has a small role in the story, mainly as a not-very-good governess who allows the children to sit with and talk to Sergeant X.
Staff Sergeant X’s Wife
Sergeant X’s mother-in-law. Mentioned at the beginning of the story.
Salinger: A Biography by Paul Alexander tells us:
“As soon as The New Yorker published ‘For Esme – With Love and Squalor,’ Salinger began to hear from readers. On April 20, he wrote to Lobrano from Westport to tell him that he had already gotten more letters about ‘For Esme’ than he head for any story he had published.”
Hamish Hamilton (a British publisher) wanted to publish a collection of Salinger’s stories. Salinger was reluctant. He ended up publishing Nine Stories (not with Hamilton), but “two months after Little, Brown published Nine Stories, Hamish Hamilton released the book in England. There was, however, one major difference between the American and British versions. Hamilton felt strongly that the generic name Nine Stories would have been the worst possible title to put on the book and he somehow convinced Saligner to let him use as the title for the collection “For Esme – With Love and Squalor,” the story that was perhaps Salinger’s most famous in England if not the United States as well. To the public, Hamilton also finessed the fact that the book was a collection of stories by emphasizing in the advertising copy the idea that For Esme was the next book from the author of The Catcher in the Rye. Hamilton wanted to downplay the truth, since story collections never sell as well as novels.”
Hamilton put the book out in 1953. It did not do well financially, but was well-received critically. Later the same year, Hamilton sold the book to Ace Books – a mass market publisher. They did not usually deal with “real literature.” Hamilton thought it was a good financial decision. Ace published the book with an inappropriate picture of an older, sexy blond girl on the cover. Hamilton didn’t consult Salinger before the sale, and Salinger was truly angry. Salinger never spoke to him again.
The story opens with a first person narrator informing the reader that he received an invitation for an English wedding that will take place April 18th. He expresses a desire to go to the wedding, but tells the reader that his mother-in-law (Mother Grencher) is coming to visit, so he can’t. He says that he has “jotted down a few revealing notes on the bride as I knew her almost six years ago.”
The narrator then tells us that in April of 1944 he was stationed in Devon, England. We learn that he is American, that he was an enlisted man, and that he was part of a “rather specialized pre-Invasion training course.” His unit trained for three weeks, and then they were scheduled to be a part the “D Day Landings.” On this last night before the deployment, the narrator had already packed his bags, so he gets on his outdoor things and walks into town.
Once in town, he stops at a church where schoolchildren are having choir practice. He notices one child in particular, who has a clearer and nicer voice than the other children. She is around thirteen years old, and is a very pretty child. After the song ends, the narrator goes to a tearoom. Soon after, the pretty young girl from choir practice comes into the tearoom with a governess and a little boy.
The girl eventually approaches the narrator, and he asks her to join him. The conversation that takes place is witty and delightful, and the narrator is obviously very impressed by his companion’s intelligence. The girl, named Esme, tells the narrator about her aspirations, her past, her family, and we learn that her father has died in the war.
Esme’s brother Charles comes over and tells the narrator a joke, “What did one wall say to the other wall? Meet you at the corner!” Charles is very amused by his joke and laughs uproariously.
The narrator notices the large wristwatch that Esme is wearing. It belonged to her father. She, having learned that the narrator was a “professional short-story writer” before the war, tells the narrator that she wishes he would write a story for her – and that she prefers “stories about squalor.”
Charles tells his joke again, and the narrator finishes the punch line. Charles gets angry and stomps away, and soon it is time for the children to leave the tea house. Before she goes, Esme asks the narrator if he wants for her to write to him, because she writes “extremely articulate letters.” The narrator gives her his rank and name so she can write to him. She tells him she’ll write to him first so that he doesn’t feel “compromised” in any way. Charles and Esme come back into the tea room because Charles wants to kiss the narrator goodbye. The narrator asks Charles “What did one wall say to the other wall?” and Charles happily replies, “Meet you at the corner!”
The narration shifts and we have the first person narrator telling us that “this is the squalid, or moving, part of the story, and the scene changes.” The narration shifts to a third person narrator and the setting of the story shifts to Gaufurt, Bavaria “several weeks after V-E Day.”
Staff Sergeant X, possibly recovering from a nervous breakdown and suffering shell shock. He is not able to sleep, he is chain-smoking, his gums are bleeding, and he is generally in ill health. His friend Clay, whom he refers to as “Corporal Z” talks to him about his girlfriend Loretta, and tries to get X to come to some parties in town. X declines, and stays in his room alone. He finds a pile of mail that he had not yet opened, and opens a letter that is from Esme.
In the letter Esme apologizes for her delay in writing, and asks him to “reply as soon as possible.” She sends her father’s wristwatch in the package, and at the end of the letter Charles has added “HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO LOVE AND KISSES CHARLES.”