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October 18, 2017

Salinger, "Esme," Squalor

On this day in 1950, J. D. Salinger's "For Esme -- With Love and Squalor" was published in The New Yorker. Though still fifteen months away from the fame of The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger had many stories published in the high-circulation magazines at this point, and had drawn increasing attention from critics, fans and even Hollywood. The publication of "Esme" would accelerate this process, Salinger saying that his story of Sergeant X, on his way to war and crack-up, and Esme, well on her way to adulthood, brought more mail in two weeks than anything else he'd written. This is the moment of their last words, Esme reminding the Sergeant that he has promised her a story:
    . . . "Make it extremely 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, and that I'd do my best to come up to her specifications. We shook hands.
    "Isn't it a pity that we didn't meet under less extenuating circumstances?"
    I said it was, I said it certainly was.
    "Goodbye," Esme said. "I hope you return from the war with all your faculties intact."
    I thanked her, and said a few other words, and then watched her leave the tearoom. She left it slowly, reflectively, testing the ends of her hair for dryness.
The story's popularity would also accelerate Salinger's lifelong attempt to control or run from fame. In 1953 Salinger agreed to allow his British publisher, the respected Hamish Hamilton, to bring out his edition of Nine Stories under the title For Esme -- With Love and Squalor. When the collection did not do well in England, Hamilton sold the paperback rights to Ace Books, a specialist in cheap, mass-market imprints. In the mid-50s, they reprinted the collection with a cover that featured a tacky blonde and a lurid blurb-line: "Explosive and Absorbing -- A Painful and Pitiable Gallery of Men, Women, Adolescents and Children." By the time Salinger discovered what had happened it was too late for any intervention, besides tearing up his remaining contracts with Hamilton.

At about the same time, Salinger received a request from Laurence Olivier, through Hamilton, to allow him to present "Esme" as a half-hour radio drama on the BBC. Olivier's radio series had included classics by Dickens, Conrad, Stevenson, Melville and others; Salinger would be in illustrious company, and the only contemporary author so honored. Against these benefits Salinger apparently placed his recent experience with another story, "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut." In the late 40s he had sold the film rights of the story to Samuel Goldwyn, who had his scriptwriters (the Epstein brothers, of Casablanca fame) add characters and plot and a Top Twenty theme song, so turning Salinger's indictment of bourgeois emptiness into the sentimental, My Foolish Heart. Critics found the film a "four handkerchief" tearjerker, one so "full of soap-opera cliches," said the New Yorker, that it was "hard to believe that it was wrung out of a short story...that appeared in this austere magazine a couple of years ago." It did not take Salinger long to decide that Olivier would not get "Esme" for the radio and, despite years of trying, Hollywood would never get The Catcher in the Rye.

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