What J.D. Salinger Understood About Chance Encounters

A.M. Homes on the short-story writer’s “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor,” and the lifelong effects of fleeting interactions

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Colum McCann, George Saunders, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.

doug mclean

When I was in high school, I sent J.D. Salinger a letter, enclosing a blue dollar bill from the 1930s I’d gotten back as change from the diner. The additional offering, I hoped, might help me seem as precocious, eccentric, and generous as his famous child characters, and make my words stand out in the author’s flood of unanswered mail. I badly wanted a letter back from Salinger—something to prove the connection I felt to his work was as profound and extraordinary as I suspected. I wasn’t like his other fans. I had to make him see that.

Why do some books make us want to know an author personally, identifying so thoroughly with the public work that we try to lay claim to the private self? In a conversation for this series, the writer A.M. Homes explored her own relationship to Salinger—the strange coincidences tying his work to her life, her brief, disappointing brush with the real-life author, and how she ultimately learned to let him go. We discussed how the Salinger story “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor” celebrates missed connections, reminding us that even brief, glancing encounters can be enough to change a person for the better. In Homes’s view, the relationship depicted in the story is a good model for the one between writer and reader: a pure association that redeems without grasping toward the messiness of everyday life.

“For Esmé” helped to inspire “The National Cage Bird Show,” a story in Homes’s new collection, Days of Awe. Like Salinger’s original, the story features a shell-shocked soldier and a troubled teenager who forge an unlikely, fleeting bond (this time, in an online chat room). In 12 stories, the book explores the ugly legacy of war, the unease of the modern American spirit, and the ways alienated people seek connection in the most surprising places.

A.M. Homes is the author of 12 books, including the memoir The Mistress’s Daughter and the novel May We Be Forgiven. A recipient of fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she teaches writing at Princeton. We spoke by phone.

A.M. Homes: For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve felt a deep sense of connection to J.D. Salinger’s work. It starts with the pervasive sense of loss in his books—the way his characters seem to be trying to bridge the gap between innocence and an awful kind of knowing, one that involves an awareness of trauma and grief. Part of it, too, is the way he often breaks from the action to talk directly, informally to the reader. It’s easy to feel, Oh, he’s talking to me. But there have also been these eerie points of resonance between Salinger’s books and my own life that have made me feel a special kinship with his work.

I had an older brother who died before I was born. Unarticulated grief was a key part of my childhood. And as a young person, I was stunned to encounter the part in The Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield talks about his dead brother and the baseball mitt he left behind. Weirdly, growing up, we’d always kept my brother’s baseball mitt, too. At some point, without realizing how much it meant to me or anyone else in the family, my dad gave it away because no one was using it. It was a super practical decision that just killed me. And it was impossible not to feel addressed by The Catcher in the Rye when it shared such a close detail with my own my life.

There have been other points of connection. Several years ago I had a strange thing happen with my cousin, who is in her 80s and now suffers from Alzheimer’s. That family grew up in Paris and was on the run in France during World War II and the Holocaust. She said to me, “I’m going to give you something, and only you will understand what it means.” She handed me this little box, and inside of it was what I would describe as the heart of a watch—just the inner workings of it. Her father had traded the outside gold case during the war for food or transportation.

One reason her gift resonated so deeply with me was because the same image—a broken watch—is at the core of one of my favorite Salinger stories, “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor.” The watch in the story is an emblem of what Salinger’s work is so often about: trying to find connection in a world that can both disappoint and damage. It’s about stopped time and what is lost, and also refers to Esmé’s hope that her correspondent has returned from war with his faculties intact. Clearly a broken watch is not exactly intact.

The main character in the story is a sergeant in the army during World War II, a man who’s incredibly lonely and isolated. (In the story, we come to know him as Sergeant X.) He and the other guys in his military unit are all loners, spending their time writing longhand letters to people back home, and only talking to each other when they have to. The story turns out to be a lonely man’s plea for connection, and also a reminder that we are all connected—that you just have to be able to look beyond the end of your nose.

By chance, he meets Esmé, a precocious 13-year-old, who lives under the watchful eye of a governess. We learn her father has been killed in North Africa, and it’s clear she’s experienced a good deal of loss and grief. And yet she has this incredible curiosity. It’s a quality she shares with many of Salinger’s child characters—a sadness combined with this intense desire to better know the world. I think that’s Esmé’s appeal to Sergeant X, and to Salinger, and to us: She reminds us that one can be curious, and optimistic, and open-minded, and at the same time disappointed, depressed by man’s cruelty. Ultimately, that realization helps save the sergeant as he’s recovering from his traumatic experience of the war. Salinger was very influenced by Buddhism at the time he wrote “For Esmé,” and there’s something very Buddhist about this: It’s an insistence that we can hold great suffering and wonder in ourselves at once.

It’s somewhat Buddhist, too, the way that these characters have only the most transient of encounters, one that nonetheless manages to have long-lasting implications. In the story’s present frame, the sergeant has an opportunity to attend Esmé’s wedding in London, years later. Ultimately, he chooses not to go—and so, in the end, “For Esmé” is the story of a missed connection. X doesn’t need to go to Esmé’s wedding. They don’t need to be friends, or take up any kind of daily place in one another’s lives. Their single, short interaction—we learn, later, that it only lasted half an hour—somehow contains enough connection for a lifetime. Perhaps that’s the symbolism of the watch Esmé mails to Sergeant X, as a “lucky talisman.” The watch crystal has been broken in transit, and maybe that’s fitting. In a way, both characters’ clocks stopped on that day in 1944. It’s a moment that exists strangely out of time, one they’ll both forever return to.

I tried to explore this idea in my story “The National Caged Bird Show,” which is a kind of homage to “For Esmé.” The two main characters in my story, a grief-stricken soldier stationed in the desert and a girl on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, end up meeting in a chat room for lovers of budgies, a nickname for parakeets. To me, it was interesting and heartbreaking that they both went to a place, this budgie chat room. It was about innocence, and nature, and a kind of purity, a topic that provided comfort from what was happening in the rest of their lives. And even though one was defusing IEDs in a war, and another was a girl trying to grow up in a world that was not hospitable to her, they both had something to offer each other. As in “For Esmé,” these characters have the opportunity to meet one another in person, but they don’t pull it off in the end. And yet you get the sense that that’s okay. They were both in uncomfortable situations where they had no sense of agency, and their brief moment of connection helped to make things better.

A similar thing happens with literature. After all, we rarely get to meet our favorite writers. Like the characters in my story—who never meet but only connect through words exchanged in a chat room—we typically engage with our favorite authors only through limited encounters with the writing itself. And yet their words have the power to change us anyway. That’s more than enough. With someone’s artwork—whether it’s their music, their painting, their short stories—you’re getting the best of them. You’re getting a distillation, the purest form of them. You get the good stuff without the weirdness and messy qualities we have to navigate when we really try to know a complete human person.

It reminds me of the joke Sergeant X shares with Esmé’s 5-year-old brother:

“What did one wall say to the other wall?”

His face lit up. “Meet you at the corner!” he shrieked, and raced out of the room, possibly in hysterics.

Our lives meet in these oblique, indirect ways. Our most important meetings happen, often, only at the corner. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.

It’s a lesson I learned from my own real-life run-in (of sorts) with Salinger himself.

When I was 19 and a sophomore in college, I wrote a play inspired by the fact that Mark David Chapman pulled out The Catcher in the Rye after he shot John Lennon. The play was titled The Call-In Hour, and was staged like a call-in radio show. A man calls in who says he’s Holden Caulfield, and that he’d met Salinger on a train years ago, and that Salinger had stolen all the details of his life to write the book. But he’d grown up, and gotten on with his life. His message to listeners was that other people needed to do that, too.

I was always disturbed by the way people hung onto that book, the very specific and personal way they took ownership of it. I think they went far beyond what Salinger wanted them to do. He didn’t want it to be iconic in that way. It was too much responsibility. And I was trying to say: We can love this book without needing to hero-worship the man, or driving up to his house in New Hampshire to try and befriend him the way people used to do. We already have The Catcher in the Rye. We don’t need to cling to Salinger.

I was very young when I wrote this play and I sent it out all over the country in that way you only do when you’re a kid. It won a playwriting award and was produced at the Source Theatre in Washington, D.C. I guess that’s how Salinger’s agent caught wind of it—and said, “Hey, you can’t do this. You don’t have permission to do this.” It became a very interesting question of copyright, because the question was: Is Holden Caulfield now a public figure? I didn’t use any material from Salinger’s life or Salinger’s work. I hadn’t written it to provoke Salinger in that way. I was basically saying, Hey, let go of the guy. But it turned into a whole thing.

Ultimately, I didn’t want the play to be a test case. So we changed The Catcher in the Rye to a fictional book called Life in the Outfield, and made a few other small adjustments. But at that point, it had been already written about in The Washington Post and other local papers, so everybody knew what it was. I was so shy at that point in my life. A funny, Salinger-esque detail that nobody knows is that I skipped the opening night of the play. I was so stricken by all of this that I couldn’t even go. My parents went. My aunt came in from Chicago. And I spent the night just driving around Washington, D.C., in my parents’ red Volvo, just doing laps around the city, because I just couldn’t go.

People will talk about Salinger’s obsession with childhood or innocence, but I think it’s more about the sadness and grief of what it means to know too much. Whether it’s Holden Caulfield or Seymour in A Perfect Day for Bananafish, there’s this horrible sense of knowing what cruelty humans are capable of. It’s about acknowledging the pain of knowledge—whether that’s personal loss or the multigenerational fallout from war. But I think there is, within that, a kind of hope, for lack of a better word. There’s a desire for the kind of untainted connection that can redeem all of that.

The big thing in life is moving from a sense of disappointment to a kind of curiosity or acceptance. That’s a very difficult transition to make in life, because one can be easily disappointed—and not just with one’s heroes. How do you work with that disappointment and make it into something else? I think that’s part of what’s going on with Salinger and his missed connections. It’s a reminder that we shouldn’t take any one person too seriously, hold them in too high esteem. Take some of what you can, of course. But remember that there is no one word, no one story, no one writer or one person who should define you, who can tell you for certain what is right or wrong.