J. D. Salinger
Mid Devon landscape

Arguably J.D. Salinger’s best short story, “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor” (1950) is lyric, ironic, and understated.  It fulfills, by its existence, a war debt accrued six years earlier—in April 1944-- over a tea table between the narrator and a young teenager he first notices at a children's choir practice he idly attends at the village church. The narrator is a U.S. G. I. on a “rather specialized pre-Invasion training course, directed by British Intelligence, in Devon” (97-98); Esmé is titled, orphaned, a wartime evacuee who claims she is “’not terribly gregarious,’” but who is nonetheless attentive, poised and sensible.  During their brief conversation, she tells the narrator she approached him in the tea shop because he looked “‘extremely lonely’” (114) and she is “‘training [her]self to be more compassionate’” (106). She confesses her ambition “‘to sing jazz on the radio and make heaps of money. . . [and] retire and live on a ranch in Ohio’” (103) and she describes her beloved father who has been “‘s-l-a-i-n in North Africa’” (107).  When Esmé learns the narrator is a published author, she asks him “‘to write a story exclusively for [her] some time,’” adding that she “‘prefer[s] stories about squalor’” (110).  For her share, Esmé offers the narrator the parting wish that he “‘return from the war with all [his] faculties intact’” (114).  In the second part of the story, Esmé herself helps to fulfill this wish when she gives the narrator her father’s watch as “a lucky talisman” (124), posting it after the soldier’s departure to the D-Day invasion. It is received only a year later, after VE Day, at exactly the moment when it seems inevitable to the narrator that his "faculties" might be so completely shattered that he cannot survive. But Esmé's artless gift gives him pause, and he does survive.  As in its title, the story balances squalor (of war, of vulgarity and domestic banality, of loneliness, brutality and despair) with Esmé’s simple compassion.

 

The countryside around Tiverton, a small town in mid-Devon, is itself lyric and understated, probably much like it was when Salinger was stationed there in March and April 1944 with a detachment of the U.S. Army’s Fourth Infantry Division for intelligence training. Although his biographers have been unable to identify an original inspiration for Esmé (Ian Hamilton “even advertised in the local paper” but found “little here except the hill [Salinger] used to walk down from his camp into the town and the church in which the soldier in the story first encounters  Esmé” [82]), enough of Salinger’s own history adheres to the narrative—the Tiverton posting, the D-Day landing, the brutalities of the Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge, his apparent  hospitalization for battle stress in 1945 (Hamilton 85-89; Alexander 95-107)—that its mid-Devon  roots seem undeniable.  Writing of his general suspicion of war novels and his refusal to write one, Salinger observed that “‘The men who have been in this war deserve some sort of trembling melody rendered without embarrassment or regret’” (qtd. by Hamilton 95).  “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor” may fulfill that debt as well.

 

Alexander, Paul.  Salinger:  A Biography.  Los Angeles:  Renaissance Books, 1999.

Hamilton, Ian.  In Search of J.D. Salinger.  London:  William Heinemann Ltd, 1988.

Salinger, J.D.  For Esme—with Love and Squalor and other Stories.London:  Hamish Hamilton, 1953.

 

 

© Copyright Kim McMullen 2007