“There is a feeling in many quarters that altogether too much fuss is being made about J. D. Salinger.”
from the Introduction, page ix
“There is a feeling in many quarters that altogether too much fuss is being made about J. D. Salinger.”
from the Introduction, page ix
“When J.D. Salinger’s “Hapworth 16, 1924”—a very long and very strange story in the form of a letter from camp written by Seymour Glass when he was seven—appeared in The New Yorker in June 1965, it was greeted with unhappy, even embarrassed silence. It seemed to confirm the growing critical consensus that Salinger was going to hell in a handbasket. By the late Fifties, when the stories “Franny” and “Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters” were coming out in the magazine, Salinger was no longer the universally beloved author of The Catcher in the Rye; he was now the seriously annoying creator of the Glass family.”
“As I began to write this essay I had come to it fresh from reading three items that seemed to me suggestive in different ways. The first was a report that William Golding’s Lord of the Flies had overtaken and passed J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye as the most-read novel among young college readers. Also, I had just gone through a book entitled Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait, which contained nearly three hundred pages about the author contributed by twenty-five writers. Finally, I had seen a report that Salinger had given permission for the publication in book form of two more previously-published Glass stories, to be called Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.2 These items suggested to me comments which I wanted to make about matters of change and stasis – to use a currently fashionable word – in the public and the criticism, and the work, respectively, of J. D. Salinger. In brief, it appears that he is now past the peak of the popularity he enjoyed in the late 1950’s. Further, Salinger criticism has now resolved itself into a dialogue in which the Anti’s, scarcely heard at first, now have substantial and vocal representation, a colloquy which has its own set of cliches and war-horse citations of evidence. The recent published and republished work itself is part of an extended phase of preoccupation with spiritual crises which has concerned the author for nearly ten years now, a phase in which the only change discernable has been an even more intense interest in the spiritual coupled with increasing experiment characterized most strikingly by prolixity of style. To indicate a further direction, all of this makes a Salinger adherent wish for certain things, almost for a moratorium now on Salinger criticism as well as for evidence that this gifted writer has assimilated the influences which have both informed and swamped his later work, evidence that he is ready to break through from a minor phase to a major one, as he once did earlier in his career.” (100)
Written in 1963, Blotner’s article suggests the high point of Salinger’s popularity has passed, but leaves open the possibility (the hope?) that Salinger may still renew or even surpass his previous success. He writes:
…all of this makes a Salinger adherent wish for certain things, almost for a moratorium now on Salinger criticism as well as for evidence that this gifted writer has assimilated the influences which have both informed and swamped his later work, evidence that he is ready to break through from a minor phase to a major one, as he once did earlier in his career. (101)
He further notes that the “antis” (those who are more critical of Salinger’s work) have gained standing and that early critics who praised Salinger, while still in the majority have been increasingly silent. Therefore, Blotner is less optimistic about the state of Salinger criticism, stating:
one wonders how long, even with Catcher and the non-religious stories in the Salinger corpus considered too, such a relatively slim body of work can support such extensive analysis. (102)
Blotner begins the essay noting that William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies has overtaken The Catcher in the Rye as the most read novel among young college readers. He revisits this issue later in the essay as he discusses Salinger’s move away from dealing with the squalid world to dealing more exclusively with love.
Frederick Gwynn and Joseph Blotner’s slender volume of commentary addresses the bulk of Salinger’s oeuvre. The body of the book is divided into three convenient sections and seven sections in total comprise the work.
“For the future historian, the most significant fact about American literary culture of the Post-War period may be that whereas young readers of the Inter-War period knew intimately the work of a goodly number of coeval writers (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Wolfe, Sinclair Lewis, for example), the only Post-War fiction unanimously approved by contemporary literate American youth consists of about five hundred pages by Jerome David Salinger.”
The introductory section details the prevailing critical responses to Salinger’s work. They briefly describe the critical stance of critics Heiserman and Miler, David Stevenson, Ihab Hassan, Leslie Fiedler, Donald Barr, William Wiegand, and Maxwell Geismar, though they do not engage with their theoretical stances in the introduction.
Gwynn and Blotner also identify “For Esme-With Love and Squalor” the “high point of Salinger’s art” (for more information, see the “For Esme…” readers guide).
The Long Debut: The Apprentice Period (1940-1948)
This section discusses the twenty or so stories that appeared largely in magazines such as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, but also in a handful of others such as Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping). Gwynn and Blotner describe these as being of five types, “The Short Short Stories,” “The Lonely Girl Characterizations,” “The Destroyed Artist Melodramas,” “The Marriage in Wartime Group,” and “The Caulfield Stories.”
The New Yorker, May 4, 1957 pages 32-42, 44, 47-48, 50, 52,54,57-59, 62, 64, 67-68, 70, 73-74, 76-78, 80-82, 87-90, 92-96, 99-102, 105-106, 108-112, 115-122, 125-139 (original appearance). Later published by Little Brown as Franny and Zooey in 1961, and dedicated to William Shawn.
Frances Glass (“Franny”)
A 20 year old college student
Zachary Martin Glass (“Zooey”)
Zooey is 25 years old. He is considered one of the most attractive and successful of the Glass children. It is noted that he is a successful television actor.
Irish-born family matriarch. Bessie worries about her children who have all seemed to grow up almost by themselves after years of success on “It’s a Wise Child.”
The absent father, Les is more or less only mentioned in “Zooey.” He is of Jewish descent and he and Bessie were successful Vaudevillians
Buddy is the second-oldest of the Glass children, he teaches at a women’s college.
Seymour has been dead 13 years during the course of events that composes “Zooey.” Franny says she wants to talk to Seymour and that doing so is the only thing that will make her feel better.
“Zooey” continues the story of Franny’s “spiritual awakening” on Monday, two days after Franny’s trip to Princeton. The novella also gives the reader additional information about the unusual upbringing of the Glass children, whose radio appearances as child geniuses, has created a unique bond among them. Salinger indicates even more in “Zooey” than in other Glass family stories that the Glass siblings have a unique understanding of one another based on this shared experience.
The narrative opens with Zooey, smoking and soaking in a hot bathtub, reading a four-year old letter from his brother, Buddy. The letter encourages Zooey to continue pursuing his acting career. Zooey’s mother, Bessie, enters the bathroom, and the two have a long discussion, wherein Bessie expresses her worries about Franny, whose existential anxiety seen in “Franny” has progressed to a state of emotional collapse. During the conversation, Zooey vacillates between a sort of tit-for-tat banter with his mother and a downright rude dismissal of her and repeatedly asks that she leave. Bessie accepts Zooey’s behavior, and quips that he’s becoming more and more like his brother Buddy.
After Bessie leaves, Zooey gets dressed and moves into the living room, where he finds Franny on the sofa with her cat Bloomberg, and begins speaking with her. After upsetting Franny by questioning her motives for reciting the “Jesus Prayer,” Zooey goes into Seymour and Buddy’s former bedroom and reads the back of their door, which is covered in philosophical and literary quotations. After contemplation, Zooey telephones Franny, pretending to be their brother Buddy. Franny eventually acknowledges the ruse, but she and Zooey continue to talk. Knowing that Franny reveres their oldest brother, Seymour – the spiritual leader of the family, who committed suicide years earlier – Zooey shares with her some words of wisdom that Seymour once gave him. At the end of the call, as the fundamental “secret” of Seymour’s advice is revealed, Franny seems, in a moment reminiscent of a mystical satori, to find profound existential illumination in what Zooey has told her.
“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.”
X finally starts to feel sleepy, and the reader is left with the feeling that he might come out of this after all. Continue reading “Reader’s Guide – “For Esme – With Love and Squalor””