For Ernest, with Love and Squalor: The Influence of Ernest Hemingway on J.D. Salinger

By McDuffie, Bradley R. | The Hemingway Review, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

For Ernest, with Love and Squalor: The Influence of Ernest Hemingway on J.D. Salinger


McDuffie, Bradley R., The Hemingway Review


Most of what is known about J. D. Salinger's relationship with Hemingway during World War II comes from a 1946 letter from Salinger to Hemingway and from a 1961 article in TIME magazine, "Sonny, An Introduction." Unfortunately, critics have tended to focus on the negative mythology created by TIME rather than the tribute Salinger pays to Hemingway in his letter. Hemingway was a war correspondent with Salinger's division and met with the young writer multiple times throughout the war. This essay, through eyewitness accounts and Salinger's words, seeks to piece together the facts concerning the meetings between Hemingway and Salinger and to take a closer look at Hemingway's influence upon Salinger's fiction.

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IN TIME MAGAZINE'S 1961 ARTICLE "Sonny, An Introduction," John Skow offers the following account of J. D. Salinger's meeting with Ernest Hemingway during World War II: "In France, Staff Sergeant Salinger had an audience with War Correspondent Ernest Hemingway, who read Salinger's work and, possibly in appreciation of it ('Jesus, he has a hell of a talent'), took out his Luger and shot the head off a chickeff" (4). In the years that followed, almost every Salinger critic has reported some version of this story. But as the half-century anniversary of the infamous chicken myth draws near, it is time, at last, to set the record straight. Unfortunately, the myth has led scholars to ignore the fact that meeting Hemingway during World War II is the most overlooked event in Salinger's formation as a writer. Considering that the meeting involves two of the most influential writers of the 20th century, the oversight is difficult to comprehend.

By Salinger's own account, he first met Hemingway at the Hotel Ritz after the liberation of Paris in 1944. In a letter dated 4 September 1944, Salinger tells his editor, Whit Burnett of Story Magazine, that he met Hemingway and found him soft in comparison to the hard, tough demeanor of his prose. Salinger also says that Hemingway is generous, friendly, and not impressed by his own reputation. Salinger boasts that he and Hemingway like the same authors and that Hemingway genuinely diminishes his own place in literature. Although Salinger does not go into detail about most of the authors that they discussed, he does mention that Hemingway has more than a passing admiration of Faulkner's work. Salinger's first impressions of Hemingway indicate surprise about the difference between the author's public and private persona, and as the letter continues, Salinger emphasizes not only Hemingway's humility, but his generosity. Hemingway tells Salinger that he remembers one of his stories in Esquire and asks to read one of his new stories. After Salinger gives him "The Last Day of the Last Furlough" from The Saturday Evening Post, Hemingway tells him he enjoyed the story. Beyond the fact that Hemingway knew Salinger from his work (one can only wonder how this must have made Salinger feel), his generous spirit towards the younger writer extended beyond a token gesture. Salinger finishes his account of the meeting by telling Burnett that Hemingway is a good guy and that, after reading Salinger's work, Hemingway told him that he would write a few letters on his behalf, but Salinger declined the offer.

Salinger's own testimony about the meeting is in stark contrast with John Skow's for TIME. Yet, Salinger's surprise at Hemingway's humility and generosity is revealing when we consider how others have dismissed the meeting between the two writers. Such dismissal falls in line with the long established critical trend of stereotyping the mythical Papa Hemingway. Paul Alexander illustrates this quality well in a recent biography of Salinger when he takes the chicken story a step further by offering this analysis:

   Considering Hemingway's history, with all of the bullfighting and
   boxing and big-game hunting, this demonstration of unbridled male
   machismo certainly would have been in character for him. … 

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