When Holden Caulfield decides to kill some time by going to see a war movie, he reflects that “It was probably the worst thing I could’ve done.”1 The movie is about an English soldier “that was in the war and loses his memory in the hospital and all,” a soldier who falls in love with a girl over a shared interest in Oliver Twist and starts a publishing company with her, learns he’s duke along the way, recovers his memory, and inadvertently sets his ex-fiancée up with his new girl’s alcoholic brother; the film “ends up with everybody at this long dinner table laughing their asses off.”2 Holden tells the whole story because “it isn’t that I’d spoil it for you or anything. There isn’t anything to spoil.”3 Holden, and many of Salinger’s readers as well, have heard this phony kind of story told many times, in many places, before.
The worst part about his cinematic experience is not the movie, however; it is the “lady sitting next to [Holden] who cried all through the goddam picture. The phonier it got, the more she cried.”4 Though her tears might suggest she is “kindhearted as hell,” to Holden, she is just the opposite, ignoring the boredom— and need of a bathroom break—of the little kid with her so as not to miss any of the movie. She prefers the phony story, disregarding the discomfort and pain of the person in her care.
Holden’s contempt for this phony kind of war story, and for listeners who react like this woman, reflects a view of these kinds of war stories and these kinds of listeners—a view that permeates Salinger’s fiction. For many readers, this kind of storytelling about war might seem normal: an ex-soldier, or even a filmmaker’s depiction of an ex-soldier, tells an uplifting tale of hope wrested from war’s hardship, as the audience listens raptly, tears spilling from their eyes. Such stories, however, peddle a false sense of community and understanding of another’s pain. Like the movie Holden sees, they tell phony stories of war that ignore that reality of war’s pain, terror and meaninglessness. And like the movie distances the woman from the child’s needs, so such stories distance us from the real pain of those around us by offering an emotionally satisfying and undemanding replacement.
Throughout his work, Salinger excoriates this pattern of telling and hearing war stories. In its place, his work suggests a different view, one that eschews phoniness and ultimately promotes genuine community and healing instead of sentimental tears. Across the pages of Salinger’s war stories, people and communities have war experiences, and all of them face grief and trauma as a result of those experiences. This shared experience allows soldiers, families, friends, and loved ones to unite in and communicate grief in ways that promote healing and neighborly connection—or at least “some quick, however slight, therapy.”5 In other words, J. D. Salinger’s work defines what it means, and why it is so necessary, to be a neighbor during and after war, a context dedicated to the defeat, destruction, and dehumanization of others.
Salinger’s work accomplishes this both negatively and positively. First, his work shows the significance of neighborliness before and after war by showing what happens when such neighborly attitudes are not adopted, and communities of soldiers and civilians are further alienated from each other, preventing healing. Second, his work shows what happens when people do acknowledge each other’s war experiences and build relationships based on that acknowledgement—when they, simply put, are good neighbors to each other. By focusing on people, their brokenness and their joy, their need for community and their imperfect building of it, Salinger’s work articulates a neighborliness that responds to and heals the effects of war on soldiers and families.
Salinger’s war experience and the ways in which it shaped his writing are topics seldom addressed in the scholarship about his work; how these experiences dovetail with neighborliness and building community are addressed even less. The extent to which Salinger was involved in the Second World War is a subject most thoroughly investigated by his biographers, most notably Ian Hamilton and Kenneth Slawenski.6 Those scholars who do discuss Salinger’s war experience, relating it to his fiction, do so with some variety, though all agree that the strongest link between Salinger’s fiction and his war experience is that of trauma and recovery for the individual soldier.7 Other scholarship on the relationship between Salinger and war tends to focus on the intersections between The Catcher in the Rye and the Cold War period.8
Though these scholars are correct to point out that Salinger’s work concerning the war deals much more with its traumatic effects on the soldiers involved rather than the brutality and inhumanity of war itself, none of the scholarship concerning Salinger and war discusses it in light of its distinctly communal view of war experience and its effects not just on individuals, but on whole families and communities. A more complete understanding of the role of war and war stories in Salinger’s work must consider this communal view. The best way, in my view, to articulate this perspective is through the language of neighborliness; specifically, how ignoring the pain of others is easy to do, especially in the context of modern warfare, and how dwelling with others in their pain allows Salinger’s characters to find healing and community.
To help shape this argument, I look to Elaine Scarry’s book The Body in Pain, which articulates the paradox surrounding the relationship between the one who suffers from physical pain and the one who watches the one who suffers from physical pain. “When one speaks about ‘one’s own physical pain’ and about ‘another person’s physical pain,’” Scarry writes, “one might almost appear to be speaking about two wholly distinct orders of events.”9 The one in pain, Scarry argues, must work to deny or ignore that pain’s existence; “what is ‘effortless’ is not grasping” the pain s/he is in. But for the one who watches the sufferer, whether s/he is stranger or close family, what is effortless is ignoring that pain’s existence; it is acknowledging and understanding the other’s pain that takes effort. “Thus pain,” Scarry writes, “comes unsharably into our midst as at once that which cannot be denied and that which cannot be confirmed.”10 Pain separates us from each other in times of dearest need for community and healing, because at its core, it is something incommunicable; it resists language and even “actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.”11
The incommunicability of pain is compounded, Scarry discusses later in her book, in the context of war. Though Scarry states baldly that the “main purpose and outcome of war is injuring,”12 seldom is this fact addressed, and it “may disappear from view simply by being omitted”:
One can read many pages of a history of strategic account of a particular military campaign, or listen to many successive installments in a newscast narrative of events in a contemporary war, without encountering the acknowledgement that the purpose of the event described is to alter (to burn, to blast, to shell, to cut) human tissue, as well as to alter the surface, shape, and deep entirety of the objects that human beings recognize as extensions of themselves.13
Whatever the grand purposes of sovereign states or uniting ideologies of nations that wage war, Scarry’s work emphasizes what we might easily ignore: that such purposes and ideologies distance us from the bodies that are injured, maimed, and destroyed in their name.
This process, in which we read about and discuss and even protest war without acknowledging its “main purpose and outcome … [of] injuring,” is made easier by modern warfare. One author who discusses this idea is Andrew Delbanco, who in his book The Death of Satan describes the insidious and easily ignored evil of military progress as it relates to human beings:
[This evil] made itself known, with incremental horror, in our military “progress”—in the repeating rifles of the Civil War; then, during America’s first great foreign engagement, in trench warfare where the enemy became an indistinct mass into which gas was dispensed as if into a swarm of hornets; then, in World War II, in the practice of carpet bombing, where the extinction of human lives was signified by distant thumps and puffs of smoke as the plane, having relieved itself, banked for home; and, finally, in atomic incineration. In our own time we have taken it a step further with “smart bombs” that with eerie silence report themselves to the sender as blips on a video screen. What all these technologies have in common is their ability to destroy a human target whose humanity is out of range.14
How, in the midst of war, and in a time where the humanity not just of enemies but also of those whose experiences differ greatly from our own, can anyone, family or friend or soldier, bring others’ humanity back in range, and forge true neighborly relationships that promote healing?
Salinger’s work provides a response. Scarry’s work focuses on physical bodies in physical pain, and presents the problem of understanding, let alone acknowledging, the pain experienced by another body. Salinger’s war writing deals with human beings whose war experiences seem as incommunicable as physical pain, but who, in some cases, come alongside each other to put each other’s humanity back in range, and join in community to dwell together in ways that promote healing.
Salinger’s war writing puts his characters’ humanity back in range by showing what happens when that humanity is put out of range, whether this is done during warfare itself or afterward when communities are—or long to be— reunited. These stories accomplish this task in two ways. First, they illustrate the ill effects that result when the pain experienced by and inflicted upon soldiers’ bodies during war is overlooked in favor of an image of a soldiery that privileges boorish violence and well-weighted lapels over sacrifice. Like a flag draped over a coffin, this image of soldiery covers the men it is to characterize and smothers their ability to communicate and reintegrate themselves with people on the home front whom they love. Second, these stories focus on how, after war when soldiers have returned home, the violence and pain they experienced can again be overlooked—this time not in favor of an image of soldiery, but in favor of ignoring the war and its effects altogether and focusing instead on preoccupation with social niceties and appearance. This image of postwar peace is a negative peace bent on ignoring war’s effects rather than helping others heal from them. In these two ways, Salinger’s war writing shows the need for neighborly connection after war by displaying the pain that results from that connection’s absence.
First, then, Salinger’s work rejects an image of soldiery that ignores soldiers’ pain, and may also perpetuate war itself. This image of soldiery is most clearly depicted in Salinger’s short story “The Last Day of the Last Furlough.” Significantly, this story was written around the time Salinger learned he would be, after a year and a half of frustratingly mundane service in the Air Corps, an agent in the Counter Intelligence Corps, and would soon be shipped out to Europe.15 His posting came through in January of 1943, and “The Last Day of the Last Furlough” was originally published in The Saturday Evening Post in July of 1944; Salinger had sent it to the Post not long before his departure for Europe. Its main character, Babe Gladwaller, has the same army number as Salinger did: 32325200. Ian Hamilton, one of Salinger’s biographers, proposes that “the story can be read as a kind of letter home, a last letter, possibly”; by giving Babe his own army number, Salinger suggests—strongly—that those close to him “should attend to this story with special care.”16
To what, then, should readers attend with such care? In my view, and in the views of other scholars and biographers of Salinger (Slawenski and Hamilton among them), it is Babe’s speech to his father, a pivotal speech in the story, a speech that Slawenski calls “Salinger’s statement on war.”17 This speech is more than a “statement on war,” however; it is also Salinger’s indictment of a view of soldiery that perpetuates war and ignores the actual pain of soldiers. Babe gives his speech in response to his father’s. The Gladwallers and Babe’s friend and fellow soldier Vincent Caulfield have just finished dinner when Professor Gladwaller begins to hold “forth at the dinner table. He had been in the ‘last one,’ and he was acquainting Vincent with some of the trials the men in the ‘last one’ had undergone.”18 Chief amongst these trials seem to be “cockroaches,” or so Professor Gladwaller said, “impressively”: “‘Everywhere you looked, cockroaches.’ […] ‘They must have been a nuisance,’ Vincent said.”19 Babe interrupts his father’s holding forth with a speech of his own. In it, Babe derides his father’s example of telling stories of his service in the “last one,” refusing to become one more link in a generational train of stories that crafts a false image of soldiery and perpetuates war. Babe tells his father:
Daddy … sometimes you talk about the last war—all you fellas do—as though it had been some kind of rugged, sordid game by which society of your day weeded out the men from the boys. … It seems to me that the men in Germany who were in the last one probably talked the same way, or thought the same way, and when Hitler provoked this one, the younger generations in Germany were ready to prove themselves as good or better than their fathers. … But if we come back, if German men come back, if British men come back, and Japs, and French, and all the other men, all of us talking, painting, making movies of heroism and cockroaches and foxholes and blood, then the future generations will always
be doomed to future Hitlers. It’s never occurred to boys to have contempt for wars, to point to soldiers’ pictures in history books, laughing at them.20
Babe rejects this image of soldiery, its promotion of rugged heroism that elides the actual pain and suffering of soldiers, and he rejects the stories that perpetuate it. This image contributes, in his view, to war’s continued presence in human history; it ironically knits people of different nations together via their de facto commitment to injuring each other every generation. Unfortunately, the fact that Babe’s father not only buys into this image of soldiery but also seeks to advance its cause through Babe and Vincent indicates that he does not share Babe’s view of this image. In fact, he mocks Babe’s criticism: “Professor Gladwaller grinned. ‘I didn’t mean to romanticize the cockroaches,’ he said. He laughed and the others laughed with him, except Babe, who resented slightly that what he felt so deeply could be reduced to a humor.”21
This is not to say that all aspects of soldiery are rejected in Salinger’s work— or, at least, in this story. The aspect affirmed is, significantly, one which aims to preserve community, though it still uses violence to do so. “I believe in this war,” Babe tells his father in the same speech quoted in part above. Later in the story, the reasons for Babe’s belief become clearer, though he speaks them only to himself. While Professor Gladwaller’s grandiose “holding forth,” and the movies of cockroaches and heroism, are to Babe detestable perpetuators of violence, the desire to protect—with one’s gun, or with one’s life—the people one loves is, in this story, and admirable trait. “This is my home,” Babe thinks to himself as he watches his little sister Mattie sleep. “This is where Mattie is sleeping. No enemy is banging on our door, waking her up, frightening her. But it could happen if I don’t go out and meet him with my gun. And I will, and I’ll kill him. I’d like to come back too. It would be swell to come back.”22 In Salinger’s work, then, some aspects of soldiery—protectiveness, and the desire to preserve one’s home and return to it—are depicted positively; they are even right responses, things to be believed in, things that preserve community despite war’s violence rather than fracturing it. However, the image of soldiery brought to the forefront by people like Babe’s father does nothing but perpetuate violence. Indeed, it even undermines the protectiveness Babe feels for his home and family, because this image contributes to a justification of war based on longing for blood and violence and heroics, not based on preservation of community.
Another story in which Salinger negatively depicts this image of soldiery is comparatively lacking in war-related detail when we consider it alongside “The Last Day of the Last Furlough”; this story, “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” was originally published in The New Yorker in 1948 and later included in Nine Stories. Similar to “The Last Day of the Last Furlough,” however, the story contrasts an image of soldiery, one that alienates others from the soldier’s humanity and pain, with a positively depicted character who is a soldier and whose humanity is—at least for one of the characters—in range. This image of soldiery is valued by both Lew and Mary Jane, who are the husband and college friend of the story’s protagonist, Eloise. Eloise has lost her first love, Walt, in the war; when Mary Jane asks whether Eloise ever speaks to Lew about Walt, Eloise says: “I started to, once. But the first thing he asked me was what his rank was.”23 Mary Jane’s reply is to ask, “What was his rank?”24 Here, Mary Jane and Lew both place value on Walt’s military rank, even tying his identity to how the military might categorize him. Walt becomes not a person, a part of a family and community, but an insignia, and Eloise herself seems to have given up on getting others—or, at least, her husband Lew—to see Walt as anything else.
But Walt himself provides an alternate view to this image of soldiery, and thus so does Salinger. Eloise tells Mary Jane a story about Walt’s view of military rank—and just how much it means to him—immediately after Mary Jane has asked for that rank. “You know what he said once?” Eloise asks Mary Jane:
“He said he felt he was advancing in the Army, but in a different direction from everybody else. He said that when he’d get his first promotion, instead of getting stripes he’d have his sleeves taken away from him. He said when he’d get to be a general, he’d be stark naked. All he’d be wearing would be a little infantry button in his navel.” Eloise looked over at Mary Jane, who wasn’t laughing. “Don’t you think that’s funny?”25
For Walt, and for Eloise, rank means little; what matters here is Walt’s sense of humor, a trait that, instead of characterizing Walt as a particular type of military man, makes him beloved and brings his humanity in range. Walt’s soldierly striptease, while funny, is also a poignant symbol of what readers should do with the image of soldiery Salinger criticizes here: we should peel off the surface film of heroic soldiery to reveal the man underneath, the human in pain with whom we can join in community.
In “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” published in The New Yorker in 1950 and later included in Nine Stories, Salinger again excoriates this image of soldiery that prevents others from entering into community with soldiers and comprehending their suffering. Corporal Z—Clay—embodies this image of soldiery more perfectly than any of the characters I have discussed so far. He is a “huge, photogenic young man of twenty-four” who had been photographed for a national magazine in which he had posed, “more than just obligingly, with a Thanksgiving turkey in each hand.”26 When he walks into Sergeant X’s room, interrupting X’s letter-writing, “his brick-red hair, just combed” drips with the amount of water he requires for “satisfactory grooming.” On his olive-drab shirt, he wears “the Combat Infantryman’s Badge (which, technically, he wasn’t authorized to wear), the European Theatre ribbon, with five bronze battle stars in it (instead of a lone silver one, which the equivalent of five bronze ones), and the pre-Pearl Harbor service ribbon.”27 One of the reasons Clay has interrupted Sergeant X is, it turns out, to tell him that they should drive to Hamburg “or someplace” early the next morning to “pick up Eisenhower jackets for the whole detachment,” because “they look good.”28 Clay is a heroic, photogenic surface without depth; well-groomed and festooned with honors, the image of a healthy young soldier seen by many in a national magazine.
Clay is also stupid and cruel. While he wears many medals, he does not deserve all of them. He also “took a pot shot” at a cat that jumped up on the hood of his and Sergeant X’s jeep, an incident that his psychology-student girlfriend tells him is a result of temporary insanity “from the shelling and all,”29 but which Sergeant X recognizes is an act as senseless as any other type of killing. “You weren’t insane,” X tells Clay.
You were simply doing your duty. You killed that pussycat in as manly a way as anybody could’ve, under the circumstances. … That cat was a spy. You had to take a pot shot at it. It was a very clever German midget dressed up in a cheap fur coat. So there was absolutely nothing brutal, or cruel, or dirty, or even—.30
X, unable to finish his sentence, vomits, but not until Clay swears at him and pleads, “Can’t you ever be sincere?”31 The irony is, of course, that it is X who is sincere, and Clay whose soldiery is only an image, a phony, photogenic surface of heroism with nothing at its core, used to sell magazines back home.
However, while Salinger does lambaste the image of soldiery exemplified by Clay, characterizing it as a gaudy cloak of good looks and medals shrouding imbecility and cruelty, he also criticizes a view of warfare that trivializes soldiers’ lives, suffering, and experiences. In “The Last Day of the Last Furlough,” Babe’s prewar drive to protect his sister and his home was a positively depicted soldiery that readers were encouraged to value rather than discard, because it valued community and relationship. In “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” it is the seriousness of Sergeant X’s postwar trauma, tied to the gravity of the situations he has lived and fought through, that readers should take seriously, and not ignore or trivialize. And Salinger passes judgment on those who do trivialize it, just as he passes judgment on soldiers like Clay. When Sergeant X begins to read a letter from his older brother, for example, he stops after the words, “Now that the g.d. war is over and you probably have a lot of time over there, how about sending the kids a couple of bayonets or swastikas…”32 X tears up the letter and throws the pieces into the wastebasket. X’s brother’s letter evidences a view of war and soldiery that equates it to an extended overseas trip, from which one might bring home swords and swastikas as souvenirs, and ignores and overshadows X’s genuine trauma.
Salinger’s war writing does not only critique—often harshly—an image of soldiery that puts actual soldiers’ pain and humanity out of range, alienating soldiers and civilians from each other and preventing them from reforming neighborly community. These stories also focus on another way in which the violence and pain soldiers experience can be overlooked, not in favor of an image of soldiery, but in favor of ignoring the war and its effects altogether. Those who display this kind of willful ignorance are often preoccupied with surface and appearance rather than depth and character, and their unwillingness to acknowledge others’ suffering prevents the soldiers in their midst—even in their own families—from reintegrating into community and finding healing after war.
Several characters in Salinger’s stories embody this kind of willful ignorance, but none displays it as perfectly as does Muriel Glass, Seymour Glass’s wife. Readers meet her at the beginning of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” published first in The New Yorker in January of 1948, shortly before “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” and later included in Nine Stories. Muriel, we are told as the story begins, is “a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing,”33 one who uses her time waiting for a call to primp the surface of her body and clean the things she uses to coif and lacquer that surface: “She washed her comb and brush. She took the spot out of the skirt of her beige suit. She moved the button on her Saks blouse. She tweezed out two freshly surfaced hairs in her mole.”34 When the call—to her mother—finally does go through, she and Muriel discuss her husband Seymour, who, we learn, has been recently discharged from an army hospital, is unbalanced, and “may completely lose control of himself.”35 Muriel’s mother is worried not for Seymour, but for Muriel’s safety; however, when Muriel’s mother begs her to come home from her and Seymour’s trip to Florida, fearing that Seymour might become violent, Muriel refuses, not out of concern for Seymour but at least partly because she “couldn’t travel now anyway. I’m so sunburned I can hardly move.”36 When her mother asks if she has talked to the hotel psychiatrist, Muriel mentions that he had asked about Seymour’s health before inviting her to join him and his wife for a drink. The overall impression the reader gets of Muriel is that she is a woman whose concern for her husband— and about the effects of the war on her life or his—begins and ends with how her husband’s trauma and pain affect her own comfort and disrupt the way she appears to others. She will not leave the hotel for Seymour’s health because “this is the first vacation I’ve had in years.”37 The war has upset her life not because it causes her husband’s withdrawal and eventual suicide but because her room is “just all right, though. We couldn’t get the room we had before the war. … The people are awful this year. You should see who sits next to us in the dining room. At the next table. They look as if they drove down in a truck.”38 Muriel wears her preoccupation with surface like one of that season’s sequined fashions, and it keeps her from meaningfully relating to and understanding the suffering of her husband.39
Sergeant X’s mother-in-law and wife are the same way, we can infer from several passages in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor.” The story begins with X telling readers that he will not be going to a wedding he has been invited to because his wife, “a breathtakingly levelheaded girl,” has discussed it with him and impressed upon him the trip’s impossibility, mainly because his mother-in-law will be spending time with them during those weeks. This wedding, readers infer, is Esmé’s, and X had believed for a few shining moments that he might possibly attend. This opening sets up a conflict between the things that could bring, and have brought, comfort and community to Sergeant X, and his wife’s failure to understand their significance to him. X’s brief meeting with Esmé and her brother is the centerpiece of the story, but does not register as important in his wife’s mind.40 Later in the story, we learn the reason why: his wife, and her mother, like Muriel, are preoccupied with surface rather than with the depths of human feeling and sorrow. This is shown most clearly in the content of the “stale letters” Sergeant X finds in his pockets as he sits in the tea room after hearing Esmé’s choir rehearse:
I then looked through all my pockets … and found a couple of stale letters to reread, one from my wife, telling me how the service at Schrafft’s Eighty-eighth Street had fallen off, and one from my mother-in-law, asking me to please send her some cashmere yarn first chance I got away from “camp.”41
Preoccupied with surface matters, Sergeant X’s wife and mother-in-law ignore the reality and pain of X’s experience and keep him separate from them, rather than working to understand him and reunite with him in true community.
Salinger’s indictment of this willful ignorance of war’s effects on soldiers, replacing honest affection with preoccupation with surface, is evident in another character: Eloise, the protagonist of “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut.” Eloise, however, is a hybrid character; while she does exhibit this criticized trait, she recognizes the destructiveness of the life she has settled into, and the story closes with her mourning the potential for community and mutual understanding her life once had with Walt, now lost.
“Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” begins much like “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”; in fact, “Uncle Wiggly” appears immediately after “Bananafish” in Nine Stories, inviting the reader to compare them directly. The former, like the latter, opens by introducing readers to a character who exemplifies—or seems to—the type of preoccupation with surface of which Salinger is so critical. Eloise and Mary Jane spend the first part of the story in a conversation much like the one Muriel has with her mother, only without the intrusion of Seymour’s troublesome mental health. The two women drink their first highball (in 20 minutes flat), they debate the color an old roommate dyed her hair the night before marrying an ugly “little old private,” and Eloise complains about “that dopey maid” who never puts the cigarettes in the correct place. Mary Jane’s story of meeting another college friend in Lord and Taylor’s begins with a description of the woman’s 47-room house and ends with the friend’s story of almost getting raped by her husband’s chauffeur—a story that Mary Jane responds to with horror not because of its content, but because it was told “right on the main floor of Lord and Taylor’s” and which is quickly forgotten.42 Eloise continues to display this preoccupation with surface while she, Mary Jane, and Eloise’s young daughter Ramona talk together briefly. Mary Jane exclaims over Ramona’s pretty dress; Eloise scolds Ramona three times for actions that make her look less well-behaved and ladylike: for scratching herself,43 for sticking “a finger in her small, broad nose,”44 and for not standing still45 or straight.46 Eloise, in this first part of the story, embodies a preoccupation with surface and appearance different from Muriel’s only in that Eloise’s is not yet connected to her treatment of a former soldier. Both women are concerned with appearance rather than relationship, with the look of politeness rather than the actual presence of neighborly care and affection. Readers might assume, then, that this story will be a variation on the theme presented in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”—an indictment of this preoccupation with surface, and its effects on others, particularly soldiers, as they try and so often fail to be reintegrated into community.
However, Eloise is not Muriel. In fact, she has more in common with the likes of Sergeant X and Seymour than she does with either of their wives. In the second part of the story, it becomes clear that Eloise herself has been deeply hurt by the war; beneath the veneer of her preoccupation with surface is a grief that she has been unable to overcome, and that no one has helped her to overcome. “I mean you didn’t really know Walt,” Eloise says to Mary Jane; these words open the second part of the story, and the difference between Eloise, who knew Walt, and Mary Jane, who did not and does not seem to want to, becomes clear, dividing the two friends and thwarting Eloise’s attempt to recover even a little by sharing her grief with her friend.47 Walt, we find out later in the story, was Eloise’s first love; he was a soldier, and he was killed overseas. The story of Walt’s death, however, is not the first thing Eloise wants Mary Jane to hear about him, and not the aspect of him that she most remembers and misses. Eloise values Walt not because he was a soldier—not because he fit a phony image of soldiery and its attendant heroism and decoration—but because he was funny, and nice, and sweet. “He was the only boy I knew that could make me laugh. I mean really laugh,” Eloise tells Mary Jane a few lines into the second section of the story.48 “He could do it when he talked to me. He could do it over the phone. He could even do it in a letter. And the best thing about it was that he didn’t even try to be funny—he just was funny” she continues.49 That Walt “just was funny,” not trying to be funny, is significant because it suggests that Walt’s humor was a genuine trait rather than a phony, surface-level one he tried to adopt. Walt was sweet, and nice, in the same way: “‘Ah, God, he was nice,’ Eloise said. ‘He was either funny or sweet. Not that damn little-boy sweet, either. It was a special kind of sweet.’”50
“Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” ends with Eloise both back beneath, and struggling out from under, the preoccupation with surface that appeared to hold sway with her at the beginning of the story. The most convincing evidence that she is more like than unlike Muriel is her refusal to allow her maid’s husband to spend the night in bad weather because she’s “not running a hotel”51; here, she shows herself to be willfully ignorant of and indifferent to another’s difficulty and need. She also treats her drowsy daughter rather cruelly, demanding that she lie in the center of her bed instead of its edge (to leave room for her imaginary friend). However, there is more evidence here of Eloise’s still-sharp, unalleviated grief over Walt’s death and her own loss of herself. When Ramona tells her mother that her imaginary friend Jimmy was killed, she seems to be imitating her mother’s story of Walt’s death. Ramona, however, soon and easily replaces Jimmy with a new imaginary friend, Mickey, and continues to sleep at the edge of her bed to avoid squashing her imaginary bedmate. When Eloise shrieks at Ramona to move to the center of the bed, it is not out of lack of compassion but a reaction to the fact that Walt, unlike Jimmy, was not and is not imaginary; his replacement could not be dreamed up minutes after his death, and the replacement that did come along—her husband, Lew—cannot occupy the same space. Eloise has lost something she can never retrieve, and she—unlike Muriel, or any of the other characters I have discussed in this section—recognizes her own phoniness for what it is: a poor screen to use to shield herself from her own grief as a result of the war, and from her lack of connection to the people who are supposed to be her closest friends and family. “I was a nice girl,” she pleads at the end of the story, sobbing and shaking Mary Jane’s arm, “wasn’t I?”52
Eloise’s character, and the grief she still feels as a result of the war’s effects on her life, is one example of the way Salinger’s work recognizes the complex, communal nature of the pain—physical, emotional, and psychological—people on home front and war front suffer as a result of war. Her character forms a bridge from my first point to my second. Salinger’s work does, as I charted above, excoriate two ways in which people respond to those who have suffered in war—ways that are un-neighborly and fail to forge community and healing because they value image and surface over the real pain of the human beings before them. However, his work also shows what happens when people do acknowledge each other’s war experiences and work to forge community based on that acknowledgement—when they do what Scarry notes is so difficult, and work to become aware of the pain of others. Further, Salinger’s work makes clear that this pain is felt not only by individual soldiers, but by whole communities— families and other loved ones. By focusing on people, their brokenness and their joy, their need for community and their imperfect building of it, Salinger’s work articulates a neighborliness that responds to and heals the effects of war on soldiers and families.
Several characters and stories show this kind of neighborliness and community being practiced and formed. One is Helen Polk in “The Stranger.” “The Stranger” was published a year and a half after “The Last Day of the Last Furlough,” in Collier’s in December of 1945.53 The protagonist of this story, perhaps the “stranger” of the title, is Babe Gladwaller, the same Babe of “The Last Day of the Last Furlough.” Recently returned from his military service overseas, Babe travels with his little sister Mattie to the home of Helen Polk to tell Helen that Vincent Caulfield, her ex-fiancé, was killed in Hürtgen Forest. Helen is married to someone else now, and she lives in an “ugly, expensive little New York apartment of the kind which seems to rent mostly to newly married couples,” whose living room has “one Morris chair too many” and is filled with so many reading lamps that they look as though they have been “breeding at night.”54 Babe’s impression of the apartment’s cluttered ugliness is altered slightly, however, when he notices that “over the crazy artificial fireplace there were some fine books,” and when he takes the top record off the Polks’ “interesting, messing stack of phonograph records” he sees that it is “an old Bakewell Howard—before Howard had gone commercial”; the dirty piece of tape stuck to the title sticker tells Babe the record is Helen’s.55 In this run-of-the-mill apartment, Babe sees bits of authenticity, of personality, that color his and readers’ impressions of Helen; we infer that she is not one who, like Muriel or Sergeant X’s wife, is preoccupied with surface over depth.
Neither does Helen seem to expect Vincent—or Babe himself—to conform to the image of soldiery Salinger excoriates elsewhere. She does not seem to care much whether Babe is in or out of the army, or about any medals he has possibly earned; her interest is in the story of Vincent’s death, which Babe later tells her. Babe is hesitant to do so at first, thinking her beautifully inscrutable as he sneezes from hay fever: “I can’t tell you he was happy or anything when he died. I’m sorry. I can’t think of anything good,” he begins,56 perhaps thinking that Helen wants a tale like Babe’s father’s, one of “heroism and cockroaches and foxholes and blood.”57 Helen’s reply, however, indicates that she wants not an image of soldiery, but authenticity: “Don’t lie to me at all. I want to know.”58 Babe tells Helen the truth about how Vincent died after she tells him to be honest. “He died in the morning,” Babe begins. He continues:
He and four other G.I.s and I were standing around a fire we made. In Hürtgen Forest. Some mortar dropped in suddenly—it didn’t whistle or anything—and it hit Vincent and three of the other men. He died in the medics’ CP tent about thirty yards away, not more than three minutes after he was hit. … I think he had too much pain in too large an area of his body to have realized anything but blackness. I don’t think it hurt. I swear I don’t. His eyes were open, I think he recognized me and heard me when I spoke to him, but he didn’t say anything at all. The last thing he said was about one of us was going to get some wood for the lousy fire … you know how he talked.59
Babe stops there “because Vincent’s girl was crying and he didn’t know what to do about it.”60
Two things have happened in this passage, and both work toward building genuine connection between Babe and Helen over their shared grief. First, Babe has been honest with Helen; he has relayed the story of Vincent’s death as near as he remembers it without prevaricating or making Vincent fit some heroic image of soldiery.61 He has avoided telling what he describes to himself later in the story as “comfortable lies”:
So far as the details went, you wanted to be the bull’s-eye kid: Don’t let any civilian leave you, when the story’s over, with any comfortable lies. Shoot down all the lies. Don’t let Vincent’s girl think that Vincent asked for a cigarette before he died. Don’t let her think he grinned gamely, or said a few choice words. These things didn’t happen. These things weren’t done outside movies and books. … Don’t let anybody good down.62
Second, Babe has ended his story not at Vincent’s death, but with his last few moments alive, when Vincent was still acting like Vincent always had: “You know how he talked,” Babe says. It is then that Babe realizes that Helen is crying. Of course, Helen likely began crying while hearing about Vincent’s death, but it is significant that it is after talking about who Vincent was as a person—a soldier, but one with his humanity in range—that Babe notices Helen’s emotional reaction. These two are brought together, then, not only by their shared grief, but their shared attachment to Vincent as a human being. Theirs is a bond— albeit a fleeting one—based on their shared love for and grief over the death of a person rather than their dedication to an image of soldiery or appearance of peace. And because of both Helen’s and Babe’s love for Vincent and their shared commitment to honesty rather than “comfortable lies,” they are able to connect briefly in this story in a way that alleviates at least some of their grief.
Eloise’s grief because of Walt’s death, and her need for an understanding neighborly community in order to heal, is given central significance in “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut.” Her situation is similar to Helen’s, and though Eloise is not visited by one of Walt’s army buddies, her trauma and sorrow are as weighty as Helen’s and Babe’s. The connection between the two stories, and between Eloise’s grief and that of Babe and Helen, is strongest where the description of Walt’s death is concerned. Walt’s death in the war, like Vincent’s, is senseless and does not happen in action. Eloise tells Mary Jane:
“Oh,” said Eloise, “his regiment was resting someplace. It was between battles or something, this friend of his said who wrote me. Walt and some other boy were putting this little Japanese stove in a package. Some colonel wanted to send it home. Or they were taking it out of the package to rewrap it—I don’t know exactly. Anyway, it was all full of gasoline and junk and it exploded in their faces. The other boy just lost an eye.” Eloise began to cry.63
Like Helen, Eloise was told this story by a friend of her old sweetheart, though in a letter rather than in person. Like Babe, Eloise wants to tell someone the story honestly, not trying to make Walt and his death seem heroic or conform to some image of soldiery. And like Babe, Eloise finds it necessary to share the story with someone who, she thinks, is close enough to her and her situation to understand her grief (Mary Jane was also involved with, and married briefly to, an aviation cadet). Unlike Babe and Helen, however, Eloise does not find someone who will listen to her honest narrative of war-related pain and suffering. When Helen begins to cry after Babe finishes the story of Vincent’s death, their conversation continues; Helen tells Babe why she broke off her engagement with Vincent, Babe gives Helen a poem Vincent wrote her, which visibly moves her, and at the end of the visit, Helen says, “I’m very glad you came, Babe,” which makes Babe cry.64 When Mary Jane moves to comfort the weeping Eloise in “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” however, she strokes her forehead and tells her, “Don’t cry. … I mean, it isn’t worth it or anything.”65 And while Helen and Babe make a series of awkward attempts to extend their connection beyond this one conversation, Babe and Mattie inviting Helen to see a movie with them, and Helen entreating Babe to look her up in the phone book sometime, “Uncle Wiggly” ends with Mary Jane passed out facedown on Eloise’s couch, as Eloise is weeping in Ramona’s room, saying “Poor Uncle Wiggly” over and over again.66 Babe and Helen find neighbors, find a community with another that seeks to understand and share their grief; Eloise longs to do the same, and needs to, but cannot. Both stories show, one positively and one negatively, that the grief and pain endured as a result of war is one that affects friends and families as well as soldiers, and it can be ameliorated through the bonds of an understanding community who acknowledges and shares that grief.
This motif is repeated in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” when Sergeant X meets a young girl and her little brother at a tea room. Esmé and her brother, whose father has been “s-l-a-i-n in North Africa,”67 form, however briefly, a community of shared grief and quiet joy with Sergeant X based on their shared experiences and their neighborly acknowledgement of each other’s pain.68 Of course, Esmé and Charles’s healing effect on Sergeant X can be in part, and most often is, attributed to the fact that they are children, and children’s innocence as a symbol of hope pervades Salinger’s work and the scholarship about it.69
However, it is also significant that all three of these characters are people who have had war experiences of one kind or another and have had the weight of those experiences misunderstood or ignored before. Sergeant X is in Devon, England where he and 60 other enlisted American men were taking “a rather specialized pre-Invasion training course, directed by British Intelligence” in the spring of 1944; he is, “rumor had it,” about to be “assigned to infantry and airborne divisions mustered for the D Day landings.”70 Esmé displays no youthful (or willful) ignorance of the war; she knows immediately why X is in Devon: “You go to that secret Intelligence school on the hill, don’t you?” she asks Sergeant X shortly after introducing herself.71
As for her and her brother, they are in Devon, we infer, having been evacuated from wherever they were living before; their father has been “s-l-a-i-n in North Africa,” and their mother is dead.72 Though Sergeant X does not talk to Esmé about his experiences in the army (partly, perhaps, for security reasons), and though he keeps his black G.I. filling hidden from her and her brother throughout their conversation, Esmé is quite forthcoming about her own war experience, sharing with X some details about her father. “He was an exceedingly loveable man,” she says. “He was extremely handsome too. Not that one’s appearance matters greatly, but he was. He had terribly penetrating eyes, for a man who was intransically kind.”73 Esmé’s malapropisms are endearing, but more significant here is her emphasis on her father’s character rather than on the kind of soldier he may have been. This emphasis continues the motif I have traced through others of Salinger’s works: people can connect over shared experiences of grief caused by war, and need to, but can only do so when each other’s humanity is in range, their motivation bent on understanding the other’s pain.
Sergeant X and Esmé were initially bonded together by shared experiences related to war, but, just as Esmé’s description of her father moves away from war and closer to his personality and uniqueness as a beloved human being, so do her questions to Sergeant X move away from his involvement in the war and toward his own uniqueness. “May I inquire how you were employed before entering the Army?” Esmé asks later in their conversation. “I said I hadn’t been employed at all, that I’d only been out of college a year but that I liked to think of myself as a professional short-story writer,” X narrates.74 This detail connects Esmé and Sergeant X more closely together, for its turns out that Esmé’s “father wrote beautifully,” and that she is “saving a number of his letters for posterity.”75 She later asks if Sergeant X will write a story “exclusively for me sometime,” a story that “isn’t childish or silly” because she “prefer[s] stories about squalor.”76 This request is answered in the second part of the story, the “squalid, or moving, part of the story” where “the scene changes” and we read about Sergeant X, this time “cunningly” disguised.77 This Sergeant X is an intelligence officer trying to write “several weeks after V-E Day,” a “young man who had not come through the war with all his faculties intact.”78
The traumatic effects of the war on Sergeant X—exhibited by his shaking hands, his inability to write, his distance from the other people in his regiment— are clear in this section; this is, perhaps, the “squalor” Esmé requested.
Significantly, Sergeant X attempts to find relief through communication with a person close to him: toward the end of the story, he thinks that “if he wrote a letter to an old friend of his in New York there might be some quick, however slight, therapy in it for him.”79 However, “he couldn’t insert his notepaper into the roller properly, his fingers were shaking so violently now,” and he eventually gives up trying, closing his eyes. When he opens them, he sees an unopened package on his desk—a package that, it turns out, is from Esmé, and which contains a letter and her father’s watch. It is Esmé’s letter, not the abortive attempt to write to his friend, that helps Sergeant X find “some quick, however slight, therapy,” as he reads her story of shared war experience and worry for his safety:
We are all tremendously excited and overawed about D Day and only hope that it will bring about the swift termination of the war and a method of existence that is ridiculous to say the least. Charles and I are both quite concerned about you; we hope you were not among those who made the first initial assault upon the Contentin Peninsula [sic]. Were you? Please reply as speedily as possible. My warmest regards to your wife.80
After reading Esmé’s letter, and looking at the watch she has sent him, Sergeant X finds that “suddenly, almost ecstatically, he felt sleepy.”81
Three things in particular are significant about this part of the story. First, Esmé’s letter again makes clear that she, Charles, and Sergeant X share war experience. Second, that shared experience is part of what allows Esmé’s letter to give Sergeant X some “slight therapy”—even to make him sleepy, a sign that he might still recover at least some of his faculties and heal. Shared experience, and working to understand those experiences and the pain associated with them, can help the parties involved recover. Third, and finally, part of what makes this hint of recovery possible is that Sergeant X and Esmé’s connection extends beyond their shared war experiences and into who they are as people. Esmé’s remarks about the success of the D Day invasion quickly segues into her and Charles’s concern for X’s welfare—and she remembers, and extends polite regards to, his wife. Sergeant X’s functional role in the war as a soldier, and any image of soldiery that would distance Esmé from his humanity and his pain, does not matter to Esmé so much as how the war has affected him as a person. The watch that Esmé sends to Sergeant X is similarly significant. Though it has broken in transit, and Sergeant X does not know—and does not try to find out—whether it is irreparably damaged: whether or not the watch performs a prescribed function does not matter. The fact that it meant a lot to Esmé, that it was her father’s, allows it to be the “lucky talisman” that she wished it to be for him, and perhaps even more: “He just sat with [the watch] in his hand for another long period. Then, suddenly, almost ecstatically, he felt sleepy.”82 The story closes with Sergeant X’s first-person address to Esmé, one that evidences the “slight therapy” Esmé’s letter has allowed him: “You take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac—with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”83 Again in Salinger’s fiction, we see that the sharing of war experience is not only possible, but that it can also facilitate healing among people who genuinely work to enter into community with those who they recognize are their neighbors, fellow human beings in pain, who need help through their suffering.
War, and the physical and psychological pain the results from it, are profoundly un-neighborly experiences in Salinger’s work, experiences that break community and divide people from their closest friends and family. “The main purpose of war is injuring,” Scarry writes, but this reality, this purpose, is often sidelined in favor of an ideology, an image of what soldiery should be, or a willful ignorance of the physical and psychological pain experienced by soldiers and others who endure war experiences. Like the woman who Holden Caulfield watches in the movie theatre, who is enraptured by the images of soldiers and war on the screen in front of her while willfully ignoring the suffering of the child beside her, so do some of Salinger’s characters ignore the suffering of those around them, or prefer an image of soldiery to acknowledging the reality of their loved ones’ pain. Though Scarry’s point is specifically about physical pain and bodily injuring, her point can be applied metaphorically as well: war injures bodies and minds, families and communities, and many hold views that, like the woman in the theatre, work actively against healing those injuries.
Salinger’s war writing brings to light this brokenness and need for healing. It emphasizes the need for neighborliness, a need to put soldiers’ and others’ humanity back in range, in order for soldiers and their families to heal and reform community during and after the profoundly un-neighborly experience of war. These communities can be shared, honest stories and commitments to continue contact, as in “The Stranger”; they may be abortive attempts at connection that end in further grief, as in “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut”; they may also be a brief meeting during wartime, a few exchanged letters and meaningful gifts, and some “quick, however slight, therapy,” as in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor.” In all of these cases, though understanding and empathizing with another’s pain is difficult, it is also necessary, and often possible, when others shed their desires for a heroic image or a peaceful ignorance and instead engage with the very embodied souls who so need them.
Cite this article
- J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (New York: Little, Brown, 1951), 137.
- Ibid., 139.
- J. D. Salinger, Nine Stories (New York: Little, Brown, 1951).
- The 2014 oral history Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno, the latter of whom directed the film by the same name, is worth mentioning here, but perhaps only worth mentioning. In my view, this book, while it includes some interesting information and interviews, and while it does seriously consider Salinger’s war experience and its effects on his life, is of more value to those seeking intriguing and even salacious peeks into the author’s every move rather than scholars and other readers interested in Salinger’s writing. See David Shields and Shane Salerno, Salinger (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013).
- One critic, Eberhard Alsen, connects the nervous breakdowns of Sergeant X in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” and Seymour Glass in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” to Salinger’s own nervous breakdown, which Alsen connects not to “shell shock” but to Salinger’s involvement in liberating one or more concentration camps. See Eberhard Alsen, “New Light on the Nervous Breakdowns of Salinger’s Sergeant X and Seymour Glass,” in Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: J.D. Salinger’s Short Stories, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2011), 107-113. Another scholar, John Wenke, in his book J.D. Salinger: A Study of the Short Fiction, emphasizes the distinct difference between Salinger’s war writing and that of other writers: “Unlike Mailer, Heller, and Vonnegut, J.D. Salinger is rarely associated with the art of the war story,” he writes. This may be because, Wenke continues, Salinger’s work primarily “explore[s] the physical and psychological losses war inflicts on the solider” insistently “debunk[ing] the sentimentalized popularizations of war.” See John Wenke, J.D. Salinger: A Study of the Story Fiction (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991). Similarly, Bradley R. McDuffie calls Sergeant X and Esme’s meeting a “half-hour conversation with a young woman who has lost her parents [which] becomes the basis for the fiction and the soldier’s recovery.” See Bradley R. McDuffie, “For Ernest, with Love and Squalor: The Influence of Ernest Hemingway on J.D. Salinger,” Hemingway Review 30.2 (2011): 5, 88-98. William F. Purcell, in an essay with the rather direct title “World War II and the Early Fiction of J.D. Salinger,” also distinguishes deliberately between the same group of war writers—Mailer, Vonnegut, and Heller—and Salinger; unlike the former three, “in which the insanity, immorality, and brutality of war is the subject, in Salinger’s stories the war is more an unavoidable circumstance,” some which “intrudes into the character’s private world and forces him to consider those things about life that he values most.” For Purcell, Salinger’s war writing is “less a reflection on the debasing inhumanity of war than it is an insistence on maintaining hope in the face of dire adversity.” See William F. Purcell, “World War II and the Early Fiction of J.D. Salinger,” Studies in American Literature 28 (1991): 77-93.
- See, for example, Alan Nadel’s analysis of Holden Caulfield’s rhetoric (Alan Nadel, “Rhetoric, Sanity, and the Cold War: The Significance of Holden Caulfield’s Testimony,” in Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: J.D. Salinger, ed. Harold Bloom [New York: Infobase Publishing, 2008], 53-68; Pamela Hunt Steinle, In Cold Fear: The Catcher in the Rye Censorship Controversies and Postwar American Character (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2000); and Leerom Medovoi, “Democracy, Capitalism, and American Literature: The Cold War Construction of J.D. Salinger’s Paperback Hero,” in The Other Fifties: Interrogating Midcentury American Icons, ed. Joel Foreman (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 255-287. As these works concern the culture of paranoia, conformity, and resistance to conformity during the Cold War, and discuss Salinger’s involvement in WWII little to not at all, I will not address them in depth here.
- Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain (New York, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985), 4.
- Ibid., 63.
- Ibid., 64.
- Andrew Delbanco, The Death of Satan (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995), 193.
- Kenneth Slawenski, J.D. Salinger: A Life (New York: Random House, 2010), 69-71.
- Ian Hamilton, In Search of J.D. Salinger (New York: Random House, 1988), 77.
- Slawenski, J.D. Salinger: A Life, 73.
- J. D. Salinger, The Complete Uncollected Short Stories of J.D. Salinger, 2 vols. (New York: Gotham Book Mart, 1970), 47.
- Ibid., 48.
- Ibid., 50, italics in original.
- Salinger, Nine Stories, 44.
- Ibid., 44–45.
- Ibid., 161.
- Ibid., 162.
- Ibid., 164.
- Ibid., 167.
- Ibid, 160.
- Ibid, 3–4.
- Ibid, 3.
- Ibid, 9.
- Ibid., 12.
- I must note here that the preoccupation with surface Salinger condemns here bears a striking resemblance to the type of femininity women were encouraged to adopt in the 1950s: carefully dressed and coiffed, concerned chiefly with appearance and status. In a way, then, the women who embody this type of femininity might seem to be doubly condemned: Salinger’s work disparages them for assuming it, while their society would disparage them if they renounced it. Readers might assume this indicates a distinct sexist, or even misogynistic, streak in Salinger’s work. However, as I have shown throughout this essay, Salinger is as critical of men as he is of women where their focus on surface or image is concerned, particularly when it detrimentally affects those who suffer as a result of war experiences. Further, his work is populated with sympathetically rendered male and female characters who work together in neighborly ways to build and rebuild community.
- John Wenke, in “Sergeant X, Esmé, and the Meaning of Words,” calls Sergeant X’s breach in understanding with his wife and mother-in-law “a problem that appears elsewhere in other forms—the sterility of conventional relationships” and connects it to Sergeant X’s lack of fellowship with his fellow troops at the training camp (71). Wenke is right to identify Sergeant X’s alienation from both groups. However, in my view, the gulp between Sergeant X and his family, and between Sergeant X and his fellow soldiers, is informed not by the sterility of those types of relationships, but by the fact that both are based not on genuine neighborliness and community, but instead on a false image of soldiery and on a willful ignorance of a real soldier’s pain. Both shroud the traumatized Sergeant X; they keep understanding his pain at arm’s length and keep his humanity out of range.
- Ibid., 137.
- Ibid., 34.
- Ibid., 36.
- Ibid., 37.
- Ibid., 38.
- I discuss Walt’s character in Salinger’s fiction, not only in “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” but throughout Salinger’s other works in which Walt in mentioned, in more depth in my essay “‘I mean you didn’t really know Walt’: Walt Glass as Salinger’s Way of Keeping His ‘Oath’ about Telling War Stories,” Journal of the Short Story in English 62 (Spring 2014): 67-78. This article, while it does focus on Salinger’s war writing, does not discuss his war writing through the lens of neighborliness, as I do here.
- Ibid., 41.
- Ibid., 42.
- Ibid., 43.
- Ibid., 53.
- Ibid., 56.
- Slawenski discusses how “The Stranger” is doubtless Salinger’s response to, and attempt to write his through, the trauma and grief he and the rest of the 12th Infantry Regiment endured as a result of the carnage in Hürtgen Forest, the Battle of the Bulge, and liberating an Allied Prisoner of War camp and several subcamps of Dachau. After D-Day, Salinger’s regiment left Normandy and traveled to Germany to cross into the Third Reich, breach the Siegfried Line, and sweep up lingering Nazi resistance. Carrying out these orders, which Slawenski notes must have seemed to the soldiers to consist mainly of cleanup work after the worst of the war was over, turned out to be a great, bloody, and pointless mess; the troops involved were fighting over a “useless piece of ground under … impossible conditions.” Slawenski also notes that “Hürtgen is viewed by historians as a military failure and a waste of human life”; it was “among the greatest Allied debacles of the war.” See Slawenski, J.D. Salinger: A Life, 113.
- Salinger, Uncollected Short Stories, 73.
- Ibid., 75.
- Ibid., 47.
- Ibid., 75.
- This task is made especially easy—or difficult—because of the senseless nature of Vincent’s death; he has been killed while chewing the fat with some buddies around a fire, not in action. Indeed, the senselessness of Vincent’s death leads Slawenski to argue that it was “doubtless the basis of the death of Walt Glass” by an accidentally exploding camp stove in “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut.” See Slawenski, J.D. Salinger: A Life, 138.
- Salinger, Uncollected Short Stories, 75.
- Ibid., 48–49.
- Ibid., 76.
- Ibid., 49.
- Ibid., 55.
- Ibid., 146.
- Though his focus is on the breakdown of language, John Wenke raises a similar point in his essay “Sergeant X, Esmé, and the Meaning of Words,” arguing that Esmé and Sergeant X’s meeting forms an instance of “love based on sympathetic understanding and shared experiences” not evident in other relationships Sergeant X has with family or fellow soldiers. See John Wenke, “Sergeant X, Esmé, and the Meaning of Words,” in Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: J.D. Salinger’s Short Stories, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2011), 69-77. Wenke is correct to point out that “shared experiences” form the backbone of Esmé’s ameliorating effect on Sergeant X. I would add, however, that it is of utmost significance that war experience is what these characters shared, and that Esmé and Sergeant X’s shared war experience contributes to a larger theme in Salinger’s work, of how neighborly community helps those who have endured and still suffer the pain of war to find healing.
- See, for example, Gloria Emerson, “The Children in the Field,” TriQuarterly 65 (1986): 221-228; Warren French, J.D. Salinger (Boston: Twayne Publishers), 1976; Warren French, “The Phony World and the Nice World,” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 4.1 (1963): 21-30k; Anthony Kaufman, “‘Along this road goes no one’: Salinger’s ‘Teddy’ and the Failure of Love,” in Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: J.D. Salinger, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2008), 107-118; and Changrong Wang, “The Brightness of Children’s Innocence or the Darkness of Man’s Heart: A Comparative Thematic Study of The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies.” Wai guo yu / Journal of Foreign Languages 72.2 (1991): 77-80.
- Salinger, Nine Short Stories, 132-133.
- Ibid., 142.
- Ibid., 146.
- Ibid., 148–149.
- Ibid., 150.
- Ibid., 150–151.
- Ibid., 151.
- The first section of the story is written in the first person; the narrator of the first section is not referred to as “Sergeant X” until the second section, which switches to third person. It seems very clear that the narrator’s saying “I’ve disguised myself so cunningly that even the cleverest reader will fail to recognize me” is ironic, and that the narrator of the first section is indeed the Sergeant X of the second.
- In saying goodbye to Sergeant X, Esmé had told him, “I hope you return from the war with all your faculties intact” (156).
- Ibid., 169.
- Ibid., 171–172.
- Ibid., 173.