Most of us associate the name J.D. Salinger with one thing: The Catcher in the Rye. However, this influential writer gave us much more than Holden Caulfield and his anti-conformist teenage angst. In fact, the body of Salinger's work available to us is mostly in the form of short stories (in the collections Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, and Nine Stories).
The story we're concerned with, "For Esmé – With Love and Squalor" is one of the pieces found in Nine Stories. Some might even go so far as to call "For Esmé" the masterpiece of this collection, which also includes the Salinger classic "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." In fact, in most countries, Nine Stories was published as For Esmé – With Love and Squalor, and Other Stories.
But what is it about this particular piece that makes it stand out in a collection of consistently amazing short stories? First of all, its emotional content really hit home with readers after its initial publication in 1950 (in The New Yorker) – at that time, everyone reading it had been affected in some way by World War II, and it really resonated with the reading public. Salinger received more letters about "For Esmé" than he had about any of his many, many other short stories. Even now, more than sixty years after the end of World War II, there's something about "For Esmé" that really reaches out and grabs the reader – and its optimistic message still tweaks the heartstrings after all this time.
Why do we care about the first day of sunshine after a long, dark winter? Why do we care about stories in the newspaper about people helping each other in times of dire need? The answer to all of these questions is simple: it's hope for humanity, and for the world. We still need to believe in the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, and we always will.
For the same simple but oh-so-important reason, we care about "For Esmé – With Love and Squalor," even sixty years after its initial publication. This story of loss, fear, and hope still hits a nerve, though World War II is just a list of dates in a history book to most of us. Even though we don't necessarily have that same direct emotional connection to the events of the story as Salinger's original readers who lived through the war, it's still impossible not to respond to the very basic, very human emotion that Salinger summons up here: the story is a delightful and moving concoction of sadness and joy, fear and reassurance. Like real life, "For Esmé" demonstrates the fact that every moment is a balance of positive and negative, and even when we think, like Sergeant X, that things will never be OK again, something comes along to remind us that this too shall pass, and the sunshine after winter may come after all.