Somewhere in England, I so want to believe, lives a jazz-loving, relentlessly honest, incisively bright, deeply sentimental 78-year-old woman named Esmé who long ago befriended an American GI in a tea shop on the eve of the D-Day invasion. They only talked for half an hour -- this self-confident and vulnerable 13-year-old girl, a war orphan, and this Army sergeant, who, in civilian life, had published a few fledgling short stories -- chaperoned by her governess and her young brother, Charles. They never met again, although they exchanged letters, but somehow this chance encounter mattered deeply to both of them. Maybe it was the way that Esmé told him, with the frankness and gravity of youth, "I'd be extremely flattered if you would write a story exclusively for me sometime. I'm an avid reader." The soldier promised that he would, although he warned that he was not terribly prolific.
That short story (or one eerily like it) appeared in the April 8, 1950, issue of The New Yorker with the title, "For Esmé – With Love and Squalor." Its author was J.D. Salinger. Rereading it in the aftermath of Salinger's death Wednesday at 91, I found myself -- not naturally weepy -- fighting back tears. It was not the eternal silence of death that got to me, since it is hard to mourn the loss of a writer who last published in 1965 and whose hermetic life in New Hampshire made Greta Garbo seem garrulously social. What touched me was the poignancy of the story itself, particularly its final portrait of the shell-shocked sergeant (whose military career, including a D-Day landing, paralleled Salinger's own) sitting in a house in occupied Germany, a few weeks after the Nazi surrender, fighting hallucinations and struggling to steady himself enough to light a cigarette.
Adults should know that fiction is not memoir, that characters on a page do not automatically have real-life doppelgangers. But there is something so compelling about Salinger's creations (and this is not limited to Holden Caulfield) that you want to will them to be real. So maybe, just maybe, there was a precocious 13-year-old girl in Devon who mailed to an America soldier her late father's oversized wristwatch ("extremely waterproof and shockproof") as a "lucky talisman" to get him through the war.
As near as can be told from afar about a writer this elusive, Salinger was as haunted by World War II as, say, Joseph Heller or Norman Mailer. The bleak short story "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut," published in The New Yorker in 1948, depicts two suburban women in their late twenties, Eloise and Mary Jane, getting soused on highballs and "talking in the manner peculiar, probably limited, to former college roommates." But the story's dominant character is as permanently offstage as Godot: Walt -- the love of Eloise's life -- a soldier who died in a freak accident in occupied Japan packing a souvenir stove for some colonel. As Eloise describes him, her tongue thick with drink, "He was the only boy that I ever knew that could make me laugh. I mean really laugh."
It is out of stubbornness, perversity, and a determination not to marginalize Salinger as a one-trick pony that I have come this far without mentioning "Catcher in the Rye." Published in 1951, it transformed Salinger into a troubadour of troubled teens, a fierce cultural warrior against "phony slobs." Reading his obituaries, it was hard to believe that this novel (in deference to Holden Caulfield's hatred of inauthenticity, I will not call it "iconic") was based on Salinger's own experiences in flunking out of the Valley Forge Military Academy in 1934. Yes, 76 years ago, back in the days when adolescents were still finding inspiration by reading Booth Tarkington.
Dipping into "Catcher in the Rye" for the first time in maybe 20 years last night -- a station of the cross in my personal Salinger retrospective -- I was gratified to discover that the little nuggets were as good, if not better, than I had remembered. Every writer, including Babylonians carving hieroglyphics, can relate to Holden's lament after his handsome roommate Stradlater convinced him to ghostwrite an English paper: "He wanted you to think that the only reason he was lousy at writing compositions was because he stuck all the commas in the wrong place." Equally memorable is Holden's observation, "What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it."
When you come upon that passage, it is impossible to resist tossing your ironies into the fire. To spell it out for the terminally dense (maybe I am channeling a little too much of Holden's hostility), for more than four decades Salinger vied with Thomas Pynchon as the literary world's most prominent MIA, an author whose de facto address was the Dead Letter Office. Protected by his neighbors in rural New Hampshire (the political reporter in me wonders if he ever voted in the presidential primaries), Salinger, who was last interviewed in 1974, became the ultimate "don't ask, don't tell" author.
Those years in the deep shadows (with Salinger going all the way to the Supreme Court to successfully protect the privacy of his unpublished letters) may ultimately diminish his literary accomplishments, much as the sight of an obese Orson Welles doing "no wine before its time" commercials for Paul Masson tarnished the memory of "Citizen Kane." Are there unpublished Salinger manuscripts, the fruits of his invisible-to-the-world middle years? Did his obsession with the fictional Glass family (Salinger's Jewish-Irish-Buddhist quiz-kid version of the self-absorbed real-life Mitford sisters) leave him stuck, unable to back up, on a literary cul de sac? Or was Salinger's long public silence nothing more than a writer withdrawing from the world because he had nothing further to say?
I do not need answers to these riddles any more than I needed to call up Salinger whenever I felt like it or befriend him on Facebook. What mattered for me, nearly a half century after I first marveled at "Catcher in the Rye," was that Salinger still endured as the sphinx of Cornish, New Hampshire. Somehow I feel that his death -- certainly not untimely at 91 -- has erased the last remnants of my own adolescence. I wonder if, somewhere in England, Esmé feels the same way.