By Smith, Dominic
The Antioch Review , Vol. 61, No. 4
Fifty years ago, J. D. Salinger published Nine Stories, his second book and arguably the highpoint of his foreshortened publishing career. Nine Stories was the best-selling collection that introduced and killed Seymour Glass--the brooding figure that gave rise to the Glass family dynasty, the fictional subject that held Salinger's attention until he stopped publishing in 1965. It was with this book that Salinger's art and life intersected best, where his Zen interests coalesced with his emerging themes, where he gave new life to the American short story. Not since Hemingway's In Our Time had a collection of stories so raised the bar on the form, creating characters and scenes that were hypnotic, mysterious, and unusually powerful.
Nineteen fifty-three was a year of bravado and dramatic change: Eisenhower was elected president, Stalin died, and Edmund Hillary conquered Everest. American magazines were full of advertisements for electronic transistors dubbed the "Little Giants," and Orville Wright published an essay in Harper's called "How We Invented the Airplane." The national mood combined post-war optimism with a cavalier belief in technology. But there was also an undercurrent of despair, a sense of entering a turbulent era. Thornton Wilder published a magazine piece on the declining moral standards of America's youth, and John Cheever, as if to chronicle these uncertain times, published The Enormous Radio and Other Stories--featuring such emblematic titles as "The Season of Divorce," "O City of Broken Dreams," and "Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor."
Nine Stories tapped into this ambivalent milieu: the stories dealt with genius, spiritual integrity, moral corruption, and the occasional ability of innocence to transform our lives. If there was social angst over the morality of America's youth then Salinger couldn't have disagreed more--seven of the nine stories feature children, all of whom stand on higher moral ground than their adult guardians.
Salinger was thirty-four when Nine Stories came out and already a national literary figure, largely due to the popularity of his first book, The Catcher in the Rye (1951). But even at this early stage of success, Salinger was uneasy with fame, refusing interviews and dodging the press. Those who were allowed into his social circle described him as aloof and wry, as having a "dark aura" and "an incredibly strong physical and mental presence." The Hemingway biographer A. E. Hotchner described Salinger from around this time as having "an ego of cast iron" and confesses, "I found his intellectual flailings enormously attractive, peppered as they were with sardonic wit and a myopic sense of humor." In 1953 Salinger was a World War II veteran, he'd been married and divorced, he was darkly disillusioned, but he was also a rising star in American letters. Like the era itself, he was a mixed bag.
Thematically, Nine Stories landed somewhere between hope and despair, between what Salinger termed "love and squalor." Often, these two extremes are combined within the same story--the edginess of Seymour Glass in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" coupled with his childlike innocence; the spiritual wisdom of the boy genius in "Teddy" as he plods toward his own unpleasant fate; the drunken self-indulgence of the mother in "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" combined with the daughter's endearing imaginary world; the pleasure of hearing boyhood stories involving Chinese bandits and emerald vaults in the Black Sea in "The Laughing Man" juxtaposed with the betrayal of the storyteller. But the flagship story for this contrast is "For Esme-with Love and Squalor," which portrays an American army sergeant who finds redemption in a gift from a young British girl. In the wake of V-E Day the soldier has suffered a nervous breakdown. Unable to sleep but deeply fatigued, he receives a package from Esme, whom he'd met briefly in an English teashop. Inside the package is Esme's watch, once belonging to her father who was killed in action. …