This Day In Writing History
On April 8th, 1950, For Esmè - with Love and Squalor, the famous short story by legendary American writer J.D. Salinger, was published in The New Yorker. The story, set during World War 2, was based in part on the author's own experiences in the conflict.
The narrator is an American ex-soldier who refers to himself only as Staff Sergeant X. The story opens with X receiving an invitation to a wedding in England. Though he wants to go, he can't because his mother-in-law is coming to visit at that time. So, he decides to make "a few revealing notes about the bride as I knew her almost six years ago."
We flash back to Devon, England, circa 1944, where X is stationed along with some 60 other American soldiers as part of a secret three-week training program for an upcoming invasion - the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
On his last day of training, after packing his bags, X takes a final walk through Devon and ends up at a church where a "children's-choir practice" is taking place. He finds himself entranced by the singing of one particular child - a thirteen-year-old girl “with straight ash-blond hair of ear-lobe length, an exquisite forehead, and blasé eyes that, I thought, might very possibly have counted the house.” Hers is the “sweetest-sounding” voice, but she seems “bored with her own singing ability.”
X leaves the church. Later, he goes to a tea room, where he orders tea and cinnamon toast. The girl he'd seen singing at the church enters the room, along with a little boy and "an efficient looking woman." They sit a few tables down from him.
When the girl notices X staring at her, she gets up and walks over to him. She is surprised to see him at the tea room, because she "thought all Americans despised tea." X asks her if she'd like to join him, and she accepts the invitation. As they engage in a conversation, the girl, whose name is Esmè, surprises X with her precociousness when she asks him if he goes “to that secret Intelligence school on the hill.” She also asks him if he's married.
Esmè describes herself as "a terribly cold person" and says that she's teaching herself to be more compassionate. She and her little brother Charles live with their aunt. Her father was a solider, killed in action in North Africa. Charles comes over to join Esmè and X. When Esmè asks what X's job was before he became a soldier, he tells her that he'd like to consider himself a professional writer, but he has yet to be published, which he blames on American editors.
When X notices the "enormous-faced, chronographic-looking wristwatch" that Esmè is wearing, he asks if it belonged to her father. She says that it did and “I’d be extremely flattered if you’d write a story exclusively for me sometime.” She prefers stories about squalor. Before she leaves, Esmè offers to write letters to X, adding that "I write extremely articulate letters." He tells her that he'd love it if she wrote to him, and gives her his contact information.
The story flashes forward to V-E Day in 1945, as X tells his tale of personal squalor. He suffered a nervous breakdown from combat stress and is currently living in a "civilian home" for shell-shocked soldiers in Bavaria. (Which is what happened to J.D. Salinger after his own wartime experience.) X suffers from psychosomatic symptoms such as facial ticks and a badly shaking hand. He's gaunt, he can't sleep, and his friend Corporal Z says that he "looks like a corpse."
Instead of partaking in the festivities taking place in town, X stays in his room and turns his attention to a pile of unopened letters by his writing table. Nauseous and trembling, X opens a letter. It's from Esmè. She apologizes for not writing sooner and asks if X is well, obviously worried about him. She also asks if he would write her back as soon as possible.
Enclosed in Esmè's letter is a note from her little brother Charles and a present - her father's wristwatch. X sits there for a while, contemplating the letter and the present, then "suddenly, almost ecstatically" feels sleepy - something he hasn't experienced in a long, long time.
For Esmè - with Love and Squalor was a huge hit. It would be included in Salinger's 1953 short story collection, Nine Stories. That year, the legendary British actor Sir Laurence Olivier asked Salinger for permission to adapt For Esmè - with Love and Squalor as a BBC radio play. Salinger turned him down. When another one of his short stories, Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut, was adapted as a Hollywood feature film, the result was a critical and commercial failure that had little to do with the story upon which it was based.
An irate Salinger vowed that no more adaptations of his works would be made - a vow he kept until he died in January of 2010 at the age of 91 - despite Hollywood's dogged determination to adapt his celebrated novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951) as a feature film.
Quote Of The Day
"I don't suppose a writing man ever really gets rid of his crocus-yellow neckties. Sooner or later, I think, they show up in his prose, and there isn't a hell of a lot he can do about it." - J.D. Salinger
Today's video features a memorial tribute to J.D. Salinger that aired on PBS News Hour around the time of his death in January, 2010. Enjoy!