‘For Esmé With Love and Squalor’ — Salinger’s masterpiece?

Among American novels, J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” is one of those that until not many years ago every high-school student would read — perhaps had read in junior high — and would read again as a young adult to savor its protagonist Holden Caulfield’s wry put-downs of the “phoniness” of the adult world.

I have always enjoyed teaching the novel, especially to high school Advanced Placement English classes or college literature classes and watch students’ understanding of Holden change as the awareness dawns on them that he is the worst “phony” in the book. Though his heart is frequently in the right place, he fails to see that his assessment of the adult world is far too frequently warped by his fear of entering it.

Hence his constant talk of running away — perhaps to a cabin in a remote region of the Rocky Mountains where he can be free of adult society’s demands and conventions. Were the book written today, one can imagine the glee with which he would blast Facebook and other social media.

For it is Holden’s desire to be “the catcher in the rye.” He shares with the reader his recurring dream of himself in a field of rye in which a group of children are playing ball. From time to time, one will have to chase a fly ball — but the field is on top of a cliff and the kid with his eye on the ball is oblivious to the fact that he could easily tumble over the edge; it is Holden’s duty to catch him before he goes over. 

This becomes symbolic of Holden’s desire to save innocent children from the corruption of adulthood.  But, throughout the novel, Holden’s various encounters are driving him not just to avoid the responsibilities of adulthood but toward a dangerous state of nihilism.

“You don’t like anything that is going on,” his little sister Phoebe tells him. And in the beautiful scene near the end of the book in which Holden takes her to Central Park to ride the carousel, it is her obvious love for him that ultimately pulls Holden back from the plunge over his own psychological cliff.  Phoebe is the true “catcher in the rye.”

One of the criticisms frequently leveled at Salinger is his elevation — perhaps beatification — of children. His stories of the Glass family siblings which obsessed Salinger later in his writing career have always struck many critics as artificial and “precious,” as anyone who has waded through works such as “Franny and Zooey” will understand.

For all of Holden Caulfield’s cynical comments about modern life, the novel’s characters are vividly portrayed and the evocation of the sights and sounds of late-1940s New York City at Christmastime bring it to life as an exciting place filled with experiences that Holden constantly deprecates. The Glass stories tend toward much musing on philosophical and social issues, and while they contain many profound ideas to ponder, they lack Salinger’s marvelous ability to create a sense of place and fill it with vivid characters as he did in “The Catcher.”


Meeting Esmé 

But his collection called “Nine Stories” — many of which first appeared in The New Yorker — contains a precocious but stunningly appealing child in the mold of Phoebe Caulfield.  The middle section of the story titled “For Esmé, With Love and Squalor,” she emerges as an even more memorable “catcher in the rye.”

The story begins some years after World War II when the nameless narrator of the story, a published writer and veteran of the war, receives an invitation to a wedding in England. Given the cost of travel, he decides he cannot attend, but he composes a memoir that he plans to send to the bride though he intends it for her soon-to-be husband: “to edify” — he says — “to instruct.”

The first-person narrative then flashes back to a miserable, rainy day in a small village in England from which the narrator, a soldier, is to entrain that evening for London in anticipation of the Normandy invasion.

He is clearly haunted by thoughts of the dreadful events surely to come; a few letters he has received from relatives back in the States, which he describes as “stale,” offer no comfort, filled with bland news and apparently lacking in understanding of the impending peril.

One from his mother-in-law — blithely oblivious to his dangerous situation — asks him to send her some British cashmere. Rather than sit in his barracks and nervously await departure time, he wraps himself in a rain slick and wanders off through the village.

The atmosphere is vividly evoked: muddy streets and a pitiless cold rain falling, making the village’s old buildings seem anything but picturesque, a scene from one of the darker passages of a Harry Potter novel. Hearing the lilting sound of singing children, he wanders into the small village church in which choir practice is being held.

Among the tots is a pretty blonde little girl — he guesses she is about 13 — whose silvery voice stands out above those of all the other choristers. She seems bored by the directions of the woman leading the practice as she is clearly the most accomplished of all the singers.

When the practice ends, he heads out back into the rain but is soon drawn to the village tearoom to get warm, having avoided the local Red Cross recreation room, which seems packed to the doors with soldiers who, like the narrator, are nervously awaiting departure.

 Nearly deserted, the tearoom’s atmosphere is dreary, but he doffs his drenched rain slick and has no sooner settled into a quiet corner for tea and cinnamon toast when the door opens and in comes three new patrons: a governess or “nanny” followed by two children, one of whom is the little girl from choir practice who has in tow her squirming 5-year-old brother. 

It is clear from the outset that the little boy — who we learn is named Charles — will behave only for his sister and is quite out of the control of the governess.

Sensing the narrator’s loneliness, the young girl gives him a smile that he describes as “oddly radiant,” and shortly joins him at his table. She recognizes him at once as an American and introduces herself as “Esmé” but tells him, “I don’t think I shall tell you my full name for the moment. I have a title and you may just be impressed by titles. Most Americans are, you know.” But the narrator stresses that she does not intend to be snobbish — simply matter-of-fact.

Then begins the sequence that takes up much of the first half of the story. Esmé questions him briefly about his marriage — “Are you very deeply in love with your wife? Or am I being too personal?” — but she intuits that he is isolated and in need of someone with whom to talk.

It also rapidly becomes clear that she is one of Salinger’s precocious children — like a British cousin of Phoebe Caulfield or one of the more sensitive of those who were heard on the fictional radio show “It’s a Wise Child” in his Glass Family stories.

Though she asks an occasional question about other aspects of the narrator’s life, she reveals to him personal details of her own: Among them are that she aspires to be a jazz singer when she grows up, and that she and her brother were sent to live in the countryside with an aunt when the war broke out.

Both of her parents are dead; her father, she says, a soldier in the British army, was “s-l-a-i-n in North Africa,” spelling out the word in deference to little Charles. The little girl wears a watch that had belonged to him.  Salinger describes it as “a military-looking one … much too large for her wrist.”

It merges as a powerful symbol of the love that existed between her and her father. While Esme and the narrator converse, Salinger skillfully keeps the tone of the story from becoming maudlin by counterpointing their talk with the antics of Charles.

Obviously seeking attention from the narrator, he repeatedly asks a silly riddle  — “What did one wall say to the other wall?”— and goes into great fits of laughter when he provides the answer: “Meet you at the corner!”

He makes faces and at one point delivers a loud raspberry. “He saw an American do it in a fish-and-chips queue,” says Esmé. “Now he does it whenever he is bored.”

Salinger deftly sketches Charles as goofy but endearing, one of what must have been thousands of young children orphaned during World War II and placed in the care of a relative — in this case, clinging to an older sibling to try to make sense of a situation that he is far too young to understand.

When the narrator tells Esmé that before the war he was a writer, she asks if he would write a story for her some time. “I prefer stories about squalor,” she says. “I’m extremely interested in squalor.”

Though protected from the violence of the war, she has still experienced the loss of two parents and seems well aware that other people elsewhere are suffering far more than she. He promises that he will, and Esmé then asks for his APO address and promises to write to him.

The narrator feels a curious sense of loss when the children depart with their governess — but again Salinger saves the scene from becoming maudlin when they return almost at once because Charles wants to kiss the narrator goodbye. “He came forward…and gave me a loud, wet smacker just below the right ear.”

Departing, Esmé tells him, “Goodbye.  I hope you return from the war with all of your faculties intact.”


The squalid part

What the narrator calls the “squalid, or moving” part of the story is a shocking contrast to the sweet melancholy of the second section. It takes place sometime after D-Day when the narrator is in Gaufurt, Bavaria as the allied troops dismantle the Third Reich. 

This section is told in the third-person and the narrator tells the reader that he has disguised himself so that he is unrecognizable. But he is clearly the character branded “Sergeant X” whom he describes as “a young man who had not come through the war with all of his faculties intact.” 

The letter X is of course commonly used to represent the unknown or something that has been obliterated — an ominously appropriate designation for the young man whose personality and health have been horribly changed by the violent, nihilistic events of the war. 

Salinger makes an oblique reference to time X has spent in a hospital — evidently having been traumatized by his war experiences — and we are told that he has been chain-smoking for weeks to the extent that his gums bleed at the touch of his tongue. His hair is long and dirty.

Anyone who has seen the D-Day sequence that opens “Saving Private Ryan” has been immersed in the grotesquely violent events of the landings to an almost unbearable degree. I was personally acquainted with a veteran of the landings in Normandy who retreated from the theater only 20 minutes into the film.

But Salinger does not describe any bloody, chaotic battle scenes. Instead, he sets the action in the house of a low-level Nazi Party official that has been seized to quarter American troops. 

X has been attempting to read a paperback novel provided for the troops but his hands shake violently and his mental condition is such that he has first been reading then re-reading whole paragraphs and is now doing the same with individual sentences. Afflicted with violent insomnia, X from time to time feels that his mind is slipping away and, as if to prevent his brain from literally spilling out, he presses his trembling fists against his temples.

Scattered on a writing desk next to X is stack of letters and several packages addressed to him in which he seems to have no interest.  Instead, he picks up a book that had belonged to the daughter of the house’s Nazi owner — both of them now imprisoned — and finds that on its end paper she has inscribed the words “Dear God, life is hell.” 

X tries to pen a written response to her silent cry — a quotation from Dostoevski to the effect that hell is the inability to love — but due to his shaking the scrawl is illegible. Desperate for some diversion, he opens a letter that has reached him from his brother back home only to find a request that he bring back for his nephews some souvenir German bayonets or swastikas. Shaken by his brother’s inability to comprehend the horrors he has endured, he crumples the letter and hurls it into a wastebasket.

Shortly thereafter, a fellow soldier named Clay enters with the intention of persuading X to listen to a Bob Hope show coming on the radio. His repeated attempts at small talk — to most of which X does not wish to respond — are punctuated by his comments on X’s current appearance and a recent hospital stay: “Ya looked like a…corpse.  How much weight you lose?...You ought to see your hands — boy, have you got the shakes…Did you know the side of your face is jumpin’ all over the place?” 

Clay has written his girlfriend back home that X has had a nervous breakdown and recounted an event that occurred as the attack on Gaufurt was under way. Clay and X were sheltering under a jeep and a cat jumped up on its hood during a lull in the fighting; Clay shot it for no apparent reason. 

He evidently has talked repeatedly about the event, which seems to encapsulate for X the madness of the war. He implores Clay not to go on about it yet again and then is suddenly seized by the massive need to vomit. Acceding to X’s wishes, Clay leaves after extending a half-hearted invitation to join him in attending a dance for the soldiers being held that night.

It is at this moment that the reader feels that Sergeant X — like one of the children in Holden Caulfield’s “catcher in the rye” dream — is about to go over some psychological cliff to crash on whatever unknown boulders lie below. But he suddenly notices a small package that has been re-addressed to him with at least three different A.P.O. numbers.

He opens it without first looking at the return address to find that it contains a military watch — the very one that had been on Esmé’s wrist that rainy afternoon in the tearoom, the watch that had belonged to her beloved father. With it is a handwritten letter from Esmé with a postscript from little Charles.

Breathlessly, she tells X that everyone is “excited and over-awed” about the D-Day landings and in phrasing mature beyond her years is living with the hope “that it will bring about the swift termination of the war and a method of existence that is ridiculous to say the least.”

She states her concern for X’s health and well-being and extends her warmest wishes to his wife. She then explains the gift of the watch and expresses the wish that it might serve as a “lucky talisman” for him. At the bottom of the page, her brother — whom Esmé is teaching to read and write — has printed the word “Hello” a dozen times and has signed it “Love and kisses, Charles.”

It is a profound moment for X.  For a long while, he sits holding the watch and evidently re-reading the letter multiple times. Then, Salinger tells us, “Suddenly, almost ecstatically, he felt sleepy.”

Sleep along with any sense of purpose in life has eluded him. But the gift of Esmé’s father’s watch and the concern she and Charles have written to him following their brief encounter in the tearoom make X realize that, in spite of the horrors of the war, the destruction and senseless deaths — even of animals — somehow love has survived.

As in “Catcher in the Rye,” a troubled soul has been kept from going over the cliff into nihilism.

This is the “memoir” X has composed to send to Esmé and her husband as a wedding gift.  It is filled with more love and gratitude than any material gift could be.  And he concludes his memoir with the glowing statement: “You take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of becoming a man with all of his fac — with all of his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”

More Letters to the Editor

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.