For Esmé—with Love and Squalor
"For Esmé—with Love and Squalor" is a short story by J. D. Salinger. Originally published in The New Yorker on April 8, 1950, it was anthologized in Salinger's Nine Stories two years later (while the story collection's American title is Nine Stories, it is titled as For Esmé—with Love & Squalor in most countries).
The short story was immediately popular with readers; less than two weeks after its publication, on April 20, Salinger "had already gotten more letters about For Esmé than he had for any story he had published." According to biographer Kenneth Slawenski, the story is “widely considered one of the finest literary pieces to result from the Second World War. Author Paul Alexander calls it a "minor masterpiece".
Salinger began a major reediting of his original manuscript and shortened it by six pages when it was returned by the The New Yorker in late 1949.
The story is presented in two episodes, the events separated by a year.
The first occurs during a stormy evening in Devon, England, in 1944. A group of enlisted Americans are finishing up training for intelligence operations in the D-Day landings. The narrator is “Sergeant X” (though not introduced as such until the second episode). He takes a solitary stroll into town, and enters a church to listen to a children’s choir rehearsal. One of the choir members, a girl of about thirteen, has a presence and deportment that draws his attention. When he departs, he finds that he has been strangely affected by the children’s “melodious and unsentimental” singing.
Ducking into a tearoom to escape the rain, the narrator encounters the girl again, this time accompanied by her little brother and their governess. Sensing his loneliness, the girl engages the narrator in conversation. We learn that her name is Esmé, and that she and her brother Charles are orphans – the mother killed in the Blitz, the father killed in North Africa while serving with the British Army. She wears his huge military wristwatch as a remembrance. Esmé is bright, well-mannered and mature for her age, but troubled that she may be a “cold person” and is striving to be more “compassionate”.
The scene changes; allied forces occupy Europe just weeks after V-E Day. Sergeant X is stationed in Bavaria, and has just returned to his quarters after visiting a field hospital where he has been treated for a nervous breakdown. He still exhibits the symptoms of his mental disorder. “Corporal Z” (surname Clay), a fellow soldier who has served closely with him, casually and callously remarks upon the Sergeant’s physical deterioration. When Clay finally departs, Sergeant X begins to rifle through a batch of unopened letters and discovers a small package, post-marked from Devon, England almost a year before. It contains a letter from Esmé and Charles, and she has enclosed her father’s wristwatch - “a talisman”- and suggests to Sergeant X that he “wear it for the duration of the war”. Deeply moved, he immediately begins a recovery from his descent into disillusionment and spiritual vacancy, regaining his “faculties”.
As the war receded in memory, America was embracing an “unquestioned patriotism and increasing conformity”, and a romantic version of the war was gradually replacing its devastating realities. Salinger wished to speak for those who still struggled to cope with the “inglorious” aspects of combat.
For Esmé – with Love and Squalor was conceived as a tribute to those Second World War veterans who in post-war civilian life were still suffering from so-called "battle fatigue" – post-traumatic stress disorder. The story also served to convey to the general public what many ex-soldiers endured.
Salinger had served as a non-commissioned officer of intelligence services at the European front – the narrator “Sergeant X” is “suspiciously like Salinger himself”. The story is more than merely a personal recollection; rather, it is an effort to offer hope and healing – a healing of which Salinger himself partook. Slawenski points out that “though we may recognize Salinger in Sergeant X’s character, [WWII] veterans of the times recognized themselves."
- Alexander, Paul (1999). Salinger: A Biography. Los Angeles: Renaissance. ISBN 1-58063-080-4. p. 144-5.
- Slawenski, 2010, p. 185
- Slawenski, 2010, p. 184-185
- Slawenski, 2010, p. 186
- Slawenski, 2010, p. 185-186
- Salinger, 1950, p. 103
- Salinger, 1950, p. 90
- Slawenski, 2010, p. 182
- Salinger, 1950, p. 106
- Slawenski, 2010, p. 186-187
- Slawenski, 2010, p. 188
Cited in footnotes
- Salinger, Jerome D. 1950. For Esmé – with Love and Squalor in Nine Stories. Little, Brown and Company. New York (1981).
- Slawenski, Kenneth. 2010. J.D. Salinger: A Life. Random House, New York. ISBN 978-1-4000-6951-4