She nodded. “Make it extraordinarily squalid and moving,” she suggested. “Are you at all acquainted with squalor?”
I said not exactly but that I was getting better acquainted with it, in one form or another, all the time…
–J.D. Salinger, “For Esme — with Love and Squalor” (1950)
Everyone talks about how reading The Catcher in the Rye is one of those seminal rites of passage. I would be a phony, I figure, not to include myself (and all). For starters, what do you call a rite of passage involving a lot of middle-aged (or older) folks talking about the passing of an author who wrote one of the ultimate rite of passage novels? Indulgent? Inevitable? Ironic? All of the above?
By the time I got around to Holden Caulfield, I was already a senior in high school. Too young? Too old? Just right? For better or worse, I was either too old, or not alienated enough, to feel the full force of Salinger’s operetta of adolescent angst. Of course, I’m selling it short (or am I?), but I’ve heard very few adults whose opinions I admire mention falling under this novel’s spell while revisiting it as an adult. Myself, I couldn’t tell if it was too obvious this book was the result of a grown man trying (diligently, and in that overly mannered, oft-imitated style) to sound like a disaffected but acutely sensitive sixteen-year old, or if it’s because he succeeded so thoroughly that, even as a seventeen-year old, I wasn’t especially simpatico with his anguished, if solipsistic observations. Which is not to say that his plight did not move me, or that his situation is not, at times, rendered with profound artistry by Salinger.
Perhaps it would be a bit unfair, if mostly accurate to conclude that The Catcher in the Rye is the archetypal novel of adolescent alienation for teenagers/young adults who don’t read a great deal of fiction. Just as there are certain types of movies and music that, through a perfect storm of critical consensus and a groundswell of contagious public approbation, get anointed as authentic touchstones of a particular moment in time (I would say “tapping into the zeitgeist” but I try to avoid using the dreaded z-word if at all possible).
Regarding the almost half-century of silence that followed his initial burst of creativity, Norman Mailer decreed Salinger “the greatest mind to ever stay in prep school.” That is harsh but it is also — based on the available evidence — all but indisputable. On the other hand, when people hold up The Catcher in the Rye (or even Franny and Zooey) as the zenith of Salinger’s oeuvre, they are overlooking (or more likely, have never read) “For Esme –With Love and Squalor”, in my estimation one of the five best American short stories of the 20th Century. Indeed, what Salinger accomplishes in those twenty-odd pages greatly exceeds the sum-total of Mailer’s voluminous, if mostly perishable output. Everything that Salinger didn’t do, or didn’t do convincingly, or didn’t do well enough to reward subsequent readings by a more mature audience, in his canonized novel, he does in spades with this short story. It is a compact, devastating illumination of the cruel machinery we, for lack of a better or more appropriate word, call adulthood. How fittingly ironic, then, that a writer celebrated (and minimized) for being the consummate chronicler of what Pete Townshend later called “teenage wasteland” actually wrote a shattering treatise from the trenches (literally and figuratively) that endures well into a new millennium.
If Catcher in the Rye does (or does not) offer the ideal, if occasionally uncomfortable, source material for making that awkward (but earnest!) leap from adolescence to young adulthood, “For Esme — with Love and Squalor” is among the handful of indispensable short stories (along with Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” Tolstoy’s “The Three Hermits,” Kafka’s “First Sorrow,” James Joyce’s “Eveline,” and especially Joao Guimaraes Rosa’s “The Third Bank of the River”) that resonate on profound and permanent levels with a certain type of person at a certain age.
Perhaps, as already acknowledged, I simply came to The Catcher in the Rye too late (although, as already suggested, I am uncertain it was capable of working its celebrated charms on me, not because I didn’t relate to Holden Caulfield on some levels, but more because as I read I kept thinking “Yeah? Is this all you got?”). There can be no doubt that I came to “Esme” at exactly the right age: after digesting Catcher and spending many a session (and, the writer would be remiss to overlook, at least one enchanted, and mycologic evening) uncovering the ultimately not so mysterious mysteries of Aqualung. I was, inevitably, an ardent if confused soul quite concerned with “again becoming a man with all his fac– with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact”.
Like the very best literature, “For Esme — with Love and Squalor” is every bit enjoyable and edifying to adult eyes as it is to, say, the wider eyes of a college sophomore. In fact, Salinger’s achievement is that much more poignant (and devastating) to an older audience who has actually known people who have been wounded or killed in war. But the narrator of this story is reeling from actual experience in the real world, so it resonates to a young reader about to enter it, and certainly a more mature reader who has seen and felt some of those proverbial slings and arrows. If there is a more quietly coruscating image in literature than the narrator lifting Esme’s (KIA) father’s wristwatch, which has shattered in transit, out of the care package, I’m not aware of it. The question, as the story ends, is: does that broken glass represent the narrator’s spirit, or will he rally to once more become part of the world?
This is the question so many (but apparently not enough, considering we are still fighting wars and still taking less than acceptable care of our veterans) young adults grapple with at a crucial time in their lives.
This is the question J.D. Salinger may or may not have answered, in his own inscrutable fashion, once he turned his back on fame — and his fans — and spent the last decades of his life in a golden cage of his making. Whether or not he was quietly desperate, or just quiet, will presumably be answered once those elusive and much-discussed manuscripts see the light of day.