Wristwatches, Wars, and Faculties: J.D. Salinger’s Post-War Battles with Love
“Dear God, life is hell.” (For Esmé–with Love and Squalor)
At the time the Nazi’s came to power, Jerry Salinger was the prototypical dapper, gregarious young adult. Growing up on Park Avenue in New York, with all the amenities of an upper-class lifestyle, counteracted his experiences in military academies and boarding schools, keeping him sane and happy in his younger years. Yet this levity was utterly obliterated when Salinger joined the army. His participation in both the bloodiest battle of the war and the liberation of a concentration camp landed him in a hospital for the treatment of “combat stress reaction.” As Salinger once told his daughter Margaret, "you never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live."
Shortly after the conclusion of the war, Salinger published a short story in the New Yorker: For Esmé—with Love and Squalor”, which he wrote from point of view of a hospitalized World War II soldier dangling by a thin thread. An exploration of the internal turmoil of soldier-life, the story was undoubtedly an outlet for Jerry’s troubling war-experience. Critics and fans generally regard this story as the key to unlocking the mysterious post-war personality of Mr. Salinger, carefully picking apart the war distressed soldier, to find clues about the author. Perhaps it is not in the obvious places that the post-war Salinger hides, but rather, in an oversized wristwatch.
Thirteen-year-old Esmé, with “ash-blond hair” and “exquisite forehead” at first seems indistinguishable from the countless young girls who frequent Salinger’s stories. Esmé, however, wore an oversized man’s wristwatch. Years later, in 1972, The New York Times published an article entitled An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life. From the wrist of the eighteen-year-old on the front page, there dangled an oversized wristwatch. It was at this moment that J.D. Salingers Esmé took on a new role, became more than just a fictitious name in print. The war-destroyed writer needed his Esmé to become real. He needed to believe in honesty, in innocence, in purity again, and only an Esmé, his self-created ideal, could prove it to him.
Daphne Joyce Maynard–called Joyce–was born in 1953, around the time Jerry Salinger neared his 34th birthday. As a young girl, Joyce was drawn to the writing world, and in her teenage years landed herself a front page article in Seventeen Magazine. The fifty-three year old, graying Salinger happened to come across this article whilst waiting in the check-out line of a convenience store. Perhaps it was the simple and articulate smile of the girl on the cover page, maybe her fearlessness, the sincerity of her voice. Or could it be the he had found Esmé? That he had been waiting to find Esmé? Twenty minutes later, Jerry was writing a letter to the girl in the paper and the two immediately established a correspondence.
Jerry’s first letters to Joyce protectively informed her of the dangers of the literary world, of corruption, encouraged her to preserve her innocence. He also, however, fed Joyce praise, admiration, adoration, lots of it. A friendship promptly developed between the two and, letter-by-letter, intimacy bubbled.
From “For Esmé with Love and Squalor”, written twenty-two years before the two ever met:
“Would you like me to write to you?” [Esmé] asked, with a certain amount of color in her face. “I write extremely articulate letters for a person my—”
“I’d love it,” [replied the soldier].
A powerful novelist, and therefore poignant letter writer, Salinger captured easily and wholly the heart of this firefly youth. Joyce was cockeyed and enigmatically flattered that the J.D. Salinger had been interested in her writing—but not only her writing, he was interested in her, a measly little college girl who barely knew how to accept a ‘B’ on her transcript. Mr. Salinger–Jerry–told her she was interesting, intelligent, genuine. She was beautiful and precious. After only a few months’ correspondence, swirling-eyed Joyce was so spellbound by Salinger that when he asked her to come visit him, she packed her bags without even finishing his letter.
Joyce’s impulsive visit turned into a ten-month affair. She happily dropped out of Yale to spend her time secluded in the New Hampshire woods with her letter-found lover. Spellbound Joyce had become what Salinger wanted. She was that naive and wide-eyed girl from his stories. She was his Esmé.
“I purely came over because I thought you looked extremely lonely. You have an extremely sensitive face.”
I said she [Esmé] was right, that I had been feeling lonely, and that I was very glad she’d come over.
As any eighteen-year-old girl would be, Joyce was infatuated with Jerry, would have done—and did—anything for him. Consequently, on an unusually windy day in the fall of ‘74, Joyce expressed to Jerry that she wanted children, but to Jerry, this was not a thought that Esmé should be thinking. Esmé was supposed to be innocent, oblivious, and thirteen. Joyce had violated their utopia of innocence, away from the rest of the world, away from nonfiction realities like commitment and family, from difficulty and pain. And thus, when Joyce uttered the words of family, Salinger sent her away. As Esmé’s story is a short one–a mere eighteen pages–so is that of Jerry and Joyce.
“I’d be extremely flattered if you’d write a story exclusively for me sometime. I’m an avid reader.”
I told her I certainly would.[...] I said that I wasn’t terribly prolific.
Although Joyce Maynard’s story remains the most well-known, J.D. Salinger developed a reputation for participating in similarly suspicious relationships with a plethora of other girls: an Elaine, a Colleen, a Claire, an Oona, a Lily, and a Miriam, just to name a few. All of these women were explicitly resemblant of his fiction. Salinger, extremely talented writer that he is, was perfecting that strange and eerie power of actualizing his fairy tales.
Life was hell, for, as the soldier in Esmé’s story proclaimed, “hell is being unable to love.” As his daughter Margaret Salinger puts it, Jerry Salinger is “semi-faithful, but never sentimental.” Jerry mingled and toyed with countless women. He latched onto them, shook them around, stirred up their insides, then pushed them away. He brought them into his home, he made love to them, he frightened them. He even married them and had their children. Jerry did everything but love. Maybe combat had rendered this capacity irreparable. Perhaps it had drained from him the romantic ideal of love–for people, humanity, himself.
Jerry’s world—a world in which one cannot love, in which love is an old fallacy—is a hell. Yet when Jerry spotted that watch dangling from the wrist of the eighteen year-old, when he saw other watches dangling from similar-sized wrists of similar young women, in Jerry, a tiny spark of hope ignited. If he tried hard enough to make his fictitious worlds real, then maybe, just maybe, he could escape. If he could make his female characters real, his naive and innocent princesses who said things like: “I hope you return from the war with all of your faculties in tact” (For Esmé with Love and Squalor), Salinger could get through the day. Salinger, in fact, returned from the war with none of his faculties intact, yet it is the sweet innocence that he projects from fiction into real life, that keeps him going.