J.D. Salinger: Looking for any hope to latch onto

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Feb. 4, 2009

Dear Leslie,

In W.P. Kinsella's novel "Shoeless Joe," an Iowa farmer on a quest goes looking for J.D. Salinger, who in the 1960s seemed to go into hiding and stopped writing books. The novel became the movie "Field of Dreams," and in the movie Salinger became a fictional 1960s activist who has lost faith.

Salinger must have lost faith, too, but not in writing. He wrote every day, his daughter has said. She estimates there are 15 unpublished manuscripts. None probably will shake the world the way "The Catcher in the Rye" did, but after Salinger's death last week publishers must be wondering about the gold in his vault.

I've read that the teenaged alienation of "The Catcher in the Rye" doesn't resonate with young readers today as it did with previous generations. I preferred his short stories. My favorite is "For Esme -- with Love and Squalor." Set in 1944, it's based on a brief conversation in an English tearoom between a 13-year-old girl and an American soldier days before the invasion of Europe. Esme's mother is dead, and her father was killed in the war. She and her brother Charles are being cared for by the kind aunt sitting a few tables away.

Precociously assured, Esme tells the soldier she plans to become a jazz singer and uses fancy words she may or may not know the meaning of. He notices the large watch Esme is wearing and correctly guesses it was her father's. Discovering the narrator is a writer, Esme asks him to write a story for her. She likes "stories about squalor."

The TV screen seems filled these days with stories about squalor: wars, horrific natural disasters, economic decline, climactic changes, dangerous cars and unfaithful celebrities. Losing faith in the future might be tempting. What's next?

The 24-7 barrage of bad news (TVs do have off switches) leaves people looking for any hope to latch onto.

The difference between hope and faith is a chasm. Hope is wishful and implies a doubt about the outcome. People who buy lottery tickets hope to win a million dollars.

Faith trusts and believes in the future. Faith is a promise. Faith doesn't hope. Hope is passive. Faith acts.

The world changes when we change. The question is, What can I change about myself?

To the soldier, Esme represents a belief in the future. As the story concludes, victory in Europe has been claimed and everyone is outside celebrating. But the soldier has barely survived five campaigns since D-Day. His hand shakes, and he sleeps little. He opens a letter on his desk, and it's from Esme. She's sorry she didn't write sooner. She has sent him her father's watch, like the soldier broken in transit.

Promises have been kept.

With love and squalor, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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