J. D. Salinger Salinger, J.D. (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

J. D. Salinger 1919–-

(Full name Jerome David Salinger) American novelist and short story writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Salinger's short fiction from 1989 through 2002. For criticism prior to 1989, see SSC, Volume 2. For discussion of Salinger's novella Franny and Zooey (1961), see SSC, Volume 28.

Among the most celebrated and enigmatic twentieth-century American writers, Salinger is best known for his first and only published novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951), a defining portrait of adolescent angst and disillusionment in postwar American society. Salinger is also acclaimed as a master of the short story form. His Glass family saga, an interrelated series of stories contained in Nine Stories (1953), Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction (1963), further established his popularity and spawned a proliferation of critical interest in his work—an “industry” of exegesis that Salinger sought to quell through his self-imposed exile.

Biographical Information

Born in New York City, Salinger attended New York public schools before enrolling at the exclusive McBurney School on the upper West Side in 1932. He was subsequently sent to Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania, from which he graduated in 1936. While at Valley Forge, he contributed to the school's literary magazine, served as literary editor of his senior yearbook, and began to compose his first stories. In 1937 Salinger briefly attended New York University, then traveled to Europe where he studied the importing business in Vienna while continuing to write. Returning to the United States after the German invasion of Austria in 1938, Salinger briefly attended Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, leaving after only a single, unhappy semester. In 1939 he enrolled in an evening writing class taught by Whit Burnett, editor of Story magazine and an influential literary mentor, at Columbia University. Burnett recognized Salinger's talent and arranged for the publication of his first short story, “The Young Folks,” in the March-April 1940 issue of Story. With his professional writing career newly established, Salinger began to place his pieces in magazines such as Esquire, Collier's, Saturday Evening Post, Mademoiselle, Good Housekeeping, and Cosmopolitan. He later disavowed and refused to republish any of these stories. In 1941 The New Yorker accepted “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” a short story introducing Holden Caulfield. Salinger revised and delayed publication of this story until 1946. The short story, along with “I'm Crazy,” published by Collier's in 1945, would be incorporated into The Catcher in the Rye.

Salinger was drafted into the army in 1942 and served until the end of World War II, during which he served as an interrogator in the Counter-Intelligence Corps and a participant in the D-Day offensive and the campaign to liberate France. He also continued to produce commercially viable short fiction for popular magazines. Between 1946 and 1951 Salinger lived with his parents and devoted himself to writing, publishing a string of stories in The New Yorker that established him as a foremost “New York writer.” After the 1951 publication of The Catcher in the Rye, a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection and best-seller, Salinger began to study Eastern religious philosophy, an abiding interest that significantly colored the tone and outlook of his subsequent short fiction. Repulsed by his literary celebrity and clamoring admirers, Salinger began to withdraw into guarded seclusion during the mid-1950s. “Hapworth 16, 1924,” his final published work, appeared in The New Yorker in June 1965. He has published nothing since, though it is reported that he continues to write for his own enjoyment. Salinger has vigorously litigated against attempts to republish his work and against investigations into his personal life.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Salinger's three collections of short fiction consist of reprints of short stories originally published in The New Yorker. Nine Stories includes two of his most acclaimed, “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” along with “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” “The Laughing Man,” “Down at the Dinghy,” “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes,” and “Teddy.” “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” involves a brief friendship between an American soldier and a charming English girl named Esmé whom he encounters during World War II. While later recovering from combat stress in a military hospital, the soldier, identified as Sergeant X, receives a package from Esmé containing a letter and her dead father's watch. Comforted by Esmé's affection, the soldier, also an aspiring writer, begins to recover and eventually repays her kindness by writing a story on her preferred subject—squalor. The influence of Zen Buddhism and Eastern spirituality permeates Nine Stories: “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” includes a Zen koan as its epigram; “De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period” features a painter whose sudden epiphany resembles a Zen Buddhist moment of enlightenment; and “Teddy” involves discussion of Vedantic reincarnation. “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” the first installment of the Glass family cycle, introduces Seymour Glass, the visionary elder sibling of the introspective clan that became the focus of Salinger's subsequent writings. This pivotal story relates Seymour's unhappy marriage to Muriel Fedder, his disavowal of material prosperity, and spiritual longing—ending abruptly with his tragic suicide. Franny and Zooey, Salinger's next publication, contains two companion novellas that describe the psychic and spiritual dilemmas of Seymour's siblings after his mysterious death. In Franny, Seymour's youngest sister suffers a nervous breakdown while struggling to reconcile her carnal yearnings with her desire for spiritual purity, dramatized by her obsessive repetition of the “Jesus prayer.” In Zooey, a continuation of the previous story, Franny's older brother attempts to ameliorate Franny's crisis by identifying the egotism of her incantations and conveying Seymour's wisdom, a mixture of Zen principles and Christian mysticism. Salinger's final published story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” is presented as a lengthy and astonishingly precocious letter by seven-year-old Seymour to his parents, in which he relates his experiences at summer camp and prescient observations concerning the nature of existence. Salinger's Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction contains two previously published short stories. “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour: An Introduction” are narrated by Salinger's fictional alter ego and brother of Seymour, Buddy Glass. “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” provides a meticulous record of events on June 4, 1942—the day of Seymour and Muriel's ill-fated wedding. When the bride and groom fail to arrive, opting to elope instead, the guests grow irritable and Buddy retreats to the bathroom where he reads Seymour's journal. Buddy's recollections establish the Glass family hierarchy—parents Les and Betty and children Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, twins Walt and Waker, Zooey, and Franny—and explain their veneration of Seymour. In “Seymour: An Introduction,” Buddy attempts to articulate the rarified character of his brooding, “artist-seer” brother Seymour and his motives for suicide. Experimental in form, the digressive story reveals the existence of an extraordinary collection of poems left by Seymour and Buddy's meditations on the literary enterprise itself, prompted by Seymour's advice that he write only what he wants to read—typically viewed as a telling insight into Salinger's own literary motivations. In 1974, an unauthorized, two-volume edition of Salinger's magazine stories, The Complete Uncollected Short Stories of J. D. Salinger, was published, but Salinger halted distribution of the book.

Critical Reception

Salinger's short stories, particularly those of the Glass family cycle, remain at the center of critical debate and recent reconsideration of Salinger's literary prestige. While most commentators attest to Salinger's superior ability to fashion clever, well-crafted narratives, especially as contained in Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey, his subsequent stories are viewed by some as evidence of his declining powers. “Hapworth 16, 1924,” though praised by some as a daring, experimental work, has been dismissed by many critics as an implausible, self-indulgent story that reflects Salinger's contempt for his critics and a lack of desire, or inability, to communicate to his readers. Despite negative reaction to his later work, Salinger's often anthologized “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” are still acclaimed as consummate examples of postwar American short fiction.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Nine Stories 1953; published in England as For Esmé—With Love and Squalor, and Other Stories, 1953

*Franny and Zooey 1961

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction 1963

The Complete Uncollected Short Stories of J. D. Salinger. 2 vols. 1974

The Catcher in the Rye (novel) 1951

*“Franny” first published in The New Yorker, January 29, 1955; “Zooey,” The New Yorker, May 4, 1957.

†“Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” first published in The New Yorker, November 19, 1955; “Seymour: An Introduction,” The New Yorker, June 6, 1959.

James Finn Cotter (essay date winter 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Cotter, James Finn. “A Source for Seymour's Suicide: Rilke's Voices and Salinger's Nine Stories.Papers on Language and Literature 25, no. 1 (winter 1989): 83-98.

[In the following essay, Cotter argues that Rainer Maria Rilke's The Voices is a source for Salinger's Nine Stories.]


J. D. Salinger's short story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” employs the traditional device of a surprise ending. Seymour Glass returns to his Miami hotel room, glances at his wife asleep on her bed, takes from his luggage a heavy-caliber German automatic, sits down on his bed, looks again at Muriel, and fires a bullet through...

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Som P. Ranchan Sharma (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Sharma, Som P. Ranchan. “Echoes of the Gita in Salinger's Franny and Zooey.” In The Gita in World Literature, edited by C. D. Verma, pp. 214-19. New Delhi, India: Sterling Publishers, 1990.

[In the following essay, Sharma finds references to the Hindu sacred text Bhagavad Gita in Salinger's Franny and Zooey.]

In the mid-fifties, throughout the sixties, and even the early part of the seventies, J. D. Salinger was enormously popular. Although his popularity stemmed from his Nine Stories and The Catcher in the Rye, it was also due to his saga of the Glass family which he had created, beginning with “Franny” (1955) and...

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Jai Dev (essay date April 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Dev, Jai. “Franny and Flaubert.” Journal of American Studies 25, no. 1 (April 1991): 81-5.

[In the following essay, Dev discusses the function of allusions to Gustave Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary in Salinger's novella Franny.]

This note is based on the assumption that in a text all foregrounded intertextuality has a definite formal function. The text in such a case can be seen as insisting that the reader bring a prior understanding of the invoked texts in order to grasp its meaning. Salinger's story “Franny” (1955) in Franny and Zooey (1961) depicts a lunch which is supposed to mark the start of a happy weekend for Lane Coutell, a...

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Ruth Prigozy (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Prigozy, Ruth. “Nine Stories: J. D. Salinger's Linked Mysteries.” In Modern American Short Story Sequences: Composite Fictions and Fictive Communities, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy, pp. 114-32. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Prigozy discusses the unifying elements of the narratives in Salinger's Nine Stories.]

From its publication in April 1953, through the heyday of “the Salinger industry” in the 1960s, and intermittently through the 1970s and 1980s, J. D. Salinger's Nine Stories has proven an unusually seductive text for critical theorizing.1 Indeed, even those most devoted to Salinger...

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William F. Purcell (essay date spring 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Purcell, William F. “Narrative Voice in J. D. Salinger's ‘Both Parties Concerned’ and ‘I'm Crazy.’” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 2 (spring 1996): 278-80.

[In the following essay, Purcell analyzes the use of first-person narrative voice in Salinger's short stories “Both Parties Concerned” and “I'm Crazy.”]

Billy Vullmer in “Both Parties Concerned” is the narrative forerunner to Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. John Wenke (24) has suggested that following his success with Billy's narrative voice, J. D. Salinger returned to his Holden Caulfield character with this type of narration in mind for “I'm Crazy,” one of...

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Alfred F. Boe (essay date fall 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Boe, Alfred F. “Salinger and Sport.”1Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature 14, no. 1 (fall 1996): 41-5.

[In the following essay, Boe asserts that Salinger employs sport as a significant thematic device in many of his stories.]

O Chestnut tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom, or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

—W. B. Yeats

In J. D. Salinger's universe, sport, like human beings and many other phenomena, tends to be divided into two categories, phony and authentic—not, as Warren French ineptly puts it in his Twayne study...

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Anthony Kaufman (essay date spring 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Kaufman, Anthony. “‘Along This Road Goes No One’: Salinger's ‘Teddy’ and the Failure of Love.” Studies in Short Fiction 35, no. 2 (spring 1998): 129-40.

[In the following essay, Kaufman offers a psychological interpretation of Salinger's short story “Teddy”, asserting that Salinger advocates a “doctrine of redemptive love” through the voice of the story's narrator.]

The reputation of J. D. Salinger rests largely on two relatively short works: The Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories. The Nine Stories collection is brilliant, but it is seemingly marred by the final story, “Teddy.” Salinger himself seems to dismiss the...

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David Samuels (essay date summer 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Samuels, David. “Marginal Notes on Franny and Zooey.American Scholar 68, no. 3 (summer 1999): 128-33.

[In the following essay, Samuels explores the significance of Franny and Zooey, concluding that the novella is, ultimately, an answer to “the question of how to live.”]

No one becomes a reader except in answer to some baffling inner necessity, of the kind that leads people to turn cartwheels outside the 7-Eleven, jump headlong through a plate-glass window, join the circus, or buy a low-end foreign car when the nearest appropriate auto-repair shop is fifty miles away. With these dramatic examples fresh in your mind, you'll probably...

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Martin Bidney (essay date spring 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Bidney, Martin. “The Aestheticist Epiphanies of J. D. Salinger: Bright-Hued Circles, Spheres, and Patches; ‘Elemental’ Joy and Pain.” Style 34, no. 1 (spring 2000): 117-31.

[In the following essay, Bidney examines the role of epiphanies in Salinger's short fiction.]

Strangely, no attempt has yet been made to find a pattern that can unite the epiphanies of characters in the works of J. D. Salinger. The books and articles about him that have appeared in the last thirty-five years include only a single item with “epiphany” in the title, and even there the word is used in a loose and general way.1 Sources and parallels for Salinger's literary...

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Eberhard Alsen (essay date March 2002)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Alsen, Eberhard. “New Light on the Nervous Breakdowns of Salinger's Sergeant X and Seymour Glass.” CLA Journal 45, no. 3 (March 2002): 379-87.

[In the following essay, Alsen links new biographical information regarding Salinger's experiences as a soldier in World War II with two of Salinger's short stories: “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”]

In her memoir Dream Catcher (2000), J. D. Salinger's daughter Margaret reveals some hitherto unknown information that sheds new light on J. D. Salinger's nervous breakdown at the end of World War II and on the nervous breakdowns of two of Salinger's fictional characters, Sergeant X in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” and ex-sergeant Seymour Glass in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Remembering conversations with her father about World War II, Margaret Salinger says: “As a counter intelligence officer my father was one of the first soldiers to walk into a certain, just liberated, concentration camp. He told me the name, but I no longer remember.” She also quotes her father as saying, “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nostrils, no matter how long you live.”1


We know about Salinger's nervous breakdown from a letter that he wrote to Ernest Hemingway from Germany in 1945 (The two had met twice during the war). In this undated letter, Salinger writes that he has checked himself into “a General Hospital in Nurnberg” because he has been in “an almost constant state of despondency.” Two references in the letter suggest that it must have been written in May or June of 1945. Salinger mentions that a few arrests are still left to be made in his CIC section, and he also mentions that the commanding officer of his CIC detachment, Captain Appleton, has returned to the United States before the rest of the regiment. Salinger's regiment was shipped home on July 3, 1945.2

Salinger tries to downplay his nervous breakdown, and he makes fun of the psychiatrists asking him about his sex life and his childhood. However, he also expresses his fear that he may receive a psychiatric discharge from the Army. This suggests that his case must have been fairly severe (the Hemingway letter can be examined in the Princeton University Library).

Several biographers have assumed that Salinger's nervous breakdown was due to “combat fatigue” (traumatic stress disorder). For instance, Salinger's daughter Margaret notes that her father's regiment was involved in some of the bloodiest battles of World War II, from the D-Day invasion through the battles of Cherbourg, Mortain, and the Hürtgen Forest, all the way to the Battle of the Bulge. And indeed, Colonel Gerden F. Johnson, one of the battalion commanders in Salinger's regiment, reports that during the Battle of Mortain in northern France, the carnage was so frightful that “there were many cases of combat fatigue even among our older men” (Johnson 163). But that was in July of 1944, and Salinger had his nervous breakdown in May of 1945, shortly after the end of the war.

It is unlikely that Salinger's nervous breakdown was due to “combat fatigue” because he was not a combat infantryman but a member of the Counter Intelligence Corps. Counter intelligence operatives were attached to division and battalion headquarters companies whose command posts were usually located quite a distance behind the lines. As a counter intelligence sergeant, Salinger had the task of interviewing prisoners of war and civilians in order to find out information about enemy troop strength, number of tanks, location of heavy artillery, supply depots, and so forth. He had a jeep at his disposal in order to quickly get to places where prisoners had been taken or where a village had been liberated. It is therefore safe to assume that Sergeant Salinger's nervous breakdown was not due to the stress of combat. It is more likely that it was due to what he witnessed at the concentration camp that he mentioned to his daughter.

That camp was probably the one near the village of Hurlach, Bavaria. It was discovered on April 27, 1945, by elements of the 493rd Field Artillery Battalion of the 12th Armored Division.3 Salinger could easily have gotten to the camp, if not on the day it was first discovered, then on one of the next two days, because on April 27, the command post of Salinger's regiment was in the village of Agawang, seventeen miles northwest of Hurlach, and two days later it was in the village of Winkl, only nine miles east of the camp (Johnson 391).

The Hurlach concentration camp was officially called “Kaufering Lager IV.” It was one of the eleven small camps of the Kaufering complex that was named after the small town seven miles north of Landsberg, where the first of the eleven camps was built. The over 22,000 prisoners in the Kaufering camps were mostly Jewish slave laborers from Poland, France, Hungary, and many other countries that had been overrun by the Nazis. These slave laborers were employed in building an underground aircraft factory that the Nazis had code-named “Ringeltaube” (wood pigeon). This factory was to consist of three gigantic, domed bunkers in which the jet fighter Messerschmitt 262 was to be produced at a rate of 900 planes a month. By the end of the war, the construction of two of the bunkers had been abandoned, and the construction of the third was about 70 percent completed.4

Kaufering Lager IV near Hurlach was an extermination camp. It was designated as the “Krankenlager” for the other Kaufering camps, but that name was a cynical euphemism because the sick prisoners received no medical attention and were simply allowed to die from their illnesses or from starvation. Between 4,000 to 5,000 prisoners died in the camp from the time the camp was opened in June 1944 and the time it was occupied by American troops in April 1945. American soldiers later found these bodies in two nearby mass graves. On the day before the Americans arrived, the SS guards evacuated some 3,000 prisoners by train and killed all those who were too weak or too sick to travel. The SS guards fled only four hours before the first GIs discovered the camp.5

In addition to being the only extermination camp in the Kaufering complex (the other ten were work camps), the Hurlach camp also has the distinction of being the only camp that the SS set on fire before they left it. Lt. Colonel Edward F. Seiller of the 12th Armored Division explains: “When one of our infantry battalions approached Kaufering Lager No. 4, someone at the camp (presumably the SS guards), herded the inmates into the barracks, nailed the doors shut, and set the barracks on fire.”6 Sergeant Robert T. Hartwig remembers that when he and another GI approached Hurlach in their jeep, they “knew [they] were near a camp because of the sickening odor of burning bodies”;7 and Corporal Pete Bramble reports that “the stench was terrible, especially the burning corpses.”8 This is also what Salinger remembers most about the camp.

The sights at the Hurlach camp were no less gruesome than the smell. In addition to 268 burned corpses, the GIs found close to a hundred bodies scattered over the camp, along a path to the railroad tracks, and in a nearby forest. Photos taken by Sergent Hartwig, Corporal Bramble, and other American soldiers show that the corpses were literally only skin and bones, and some probably weighed no more than 50 to 70 pounds. These horrifying photos can be found in Ken Bradstreet's combat history of the Twelfth Armored Division, entitled Hellcats, on the web site entitled The Twelfth Armored Division and the Liberation of Death Camps, and on the web site of the Simon Wiesenthal Multimedia Learning Center. Some of the photos show blackened bodies still smoldering in the ruins of the burned-down barracks. These pictures support the assumption that it was indeed at Hurlach that Salinger encountered the smell of burning flesh, which he said he would never be able to get out of his nostrils.

Salinger's response to what he witnessed at the concentration camp shows up only indirectly in his fiction. “A Girl I Knew” (1948) is the only story in which Salinger mentions the concentration camps. In that story, a CIC sergeant interviews civilians and prisoners of war in order to ferret out members of the SS, who not only committed atrocities at the concentration camps but were also infamous for massacres such as the shooting of 81 American prisoners of war during the Battle of the Bulge near Malmedy, Belgium. Aside from hunting for disguised SS-men, Salinger's narrator also has a personal agenda: Whenever he comes across Austrians, he asks them whether they know what happened to a Jewish girl from Vienna whom he knew before the war. He eventually learns from a Jewish doctor who had just returned from the Buchenwald concentration camp that the girl and her family “were burned to death in an incinerator.”9

Even though Salinger mentions nothing in his fiction about what he saw and smelled at the Hurlach concentration camp, the effect of this experience shows up in two stories. Like Sergeant Salinger, both Sergeant X in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” and ex-sergeant Seymour Glass in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” served in the European Theater of Operations and suffered nervous breakdowns. But in both stories we are shown only the symptoms of their nervous breakdowns and must guess what the causes were. The two stories take on a new dimension if we assume that Sergeant X and Sergeant Seymour Glass shared Sergeant Salinger's concentration camp experience.

“For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” (1950) is Salinger's most autobiographical story. It deals with the nervous breakdown of an unnamed Counter Intelligence sergeant at the end of World War II. At the beginning of the story, Sergeant X is being trained for the D-Day invasion at an Army base in a small town in the South of England. That town is modeled after Tiverton in Devonshire, where Sergeant Salinger himself was trained by the CIC. At the end of the war, Sergeant X is part of the army of occupation and is stationed in Gaufurt, Bavaria, the fictitious counterpart of the town of Weißenburg, south of Nürnberg, where Salinger interviewed Nazi civilians.10

Sergeant X's nervous breakdown is the main topic in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” but we do not find out what caused it, because the story skips from a few days before the D-Day invasion to a time “several weeks after V-E Day (Victory in Europe, May 7, 1945).”11 Sergeant X has just returned from a two-weeks' stay at an Army hospital in Frankfurt, Germany, where he has been treated for what the narrator calls a “nervous breakdown” rather than “combat fatigue” (“Esmé” [“For Esmé—with Love and Squalor”] 109). Whatever treatment Sergeant X received at the hospital did not help much because upon his return he says that he still feels as if his mind were about “to dislodge itself and teeter, like insecure luggage on an overhead rack” (“Esmé” 104). Moreover, he feels so nauseous most of the time that he keeps a wastebasket handy into which to vomit; also, his jeep driver, Corporal Clay, tells him, “[T]he goddam side of your face is jumping all over the place” (“Esmé” 109); and finally, the sergeant's hands shake so much that when he tries to write, his writing is “almost entirely illegible” (“Esmé” 105).

It is most likely that in describing the aftereffects of Sergeant X's nervous breakdown, Salinger was drawing on his personal experience. In his letter to Hemingway, he does not mention any of his symptoms except his “almost constant state of despondency.” However, there is definite evidence that he shared at least one of Sergeant X's afflictions, namely the uncontrollable trembling of his hands. Salinger's daughter Margaret examined the letters that her father wrote during the spring and summer of 1945 and reports that his handwriting became “something totally unrecognizable” (Dream Catcher 68).

The nervous breakdowns of Sergeant Salinger and Sergeant X illuminate one another. “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” illustrates the aftereffects of the nervous collapse, the feeling of vertigo, the nausea, the facial tic, and the trembling hands, and Salinger's visit to a concentration camp suggests that the cause of his and Sergeant X's nervous breakdowns was not the stress of battle but the atrocities they witnessed during the last days of the war.

Salinger's concentration camp experience also sheds new light on the suicide of Seymour Glass, the central character in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “Seymour—An Introduction.” In “Seymour—An Introduction,” we learn that like Salinger, Seymour was also a sergeant in the Army,12 also served in the European Theater of Operations, and also wound up in Germany at the end of the war (“Seymour” [“Seymour—An Introduction”] 113). Moreover, in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” a psychiatrist says about Seymour that “it was a perfect crime that the Army released him from the hospital” because “there's a very great chance that Seymour may completely lose control of himself.”13 This comment suggests that Seymour was a patient in a psychiatric ward of an Army hospital.

No one who has written about the suicide of Seymour Glass nor has commented on the significance of the unusual length of time—almost three years—that he spent in an Army hospital. He killed himself on March 18, 1948,14 and Buddy mentions that Seymour returned from Germany on a commercial flight “a week or so” before his suicide (“Seymour” 134). That means Seymour did not come home to the United States until almost three years after the end of the war. Moreover, Buddy also says that Seymour spent “the last three years of his life both in and out of the Army, but mostly in, well in” (“Seymour” 114). In short, Seymour's mental illness was so severe that the Army psychiatrists did not simply release him with a psychiatric discharge—which is something that almost happened to Salinger—but they decided to keep him “well in,” that is, locked up in a psychiatric ward for close to three years.

Seymour's extended stay in an Army hospital raises the question of what it was that caused his nervous breakdown and mental illness. Unless we assume that Seymour and Sergeant X are the same person (which some critics have done), there is no information in Salinger's fiction so far about Seymour's war experiences. Seymour may have been a combat infantryman, and he may have been severely wounded. Or he may have been one of the few survivors of a massacre such as the one at Malmedy. But since none of this happened to Salinger, it makes more sense to assume that Seymour's nervous breakdown—like Salinger's—was not caused by “combat fatigue” but by the horrifying sights and smells of one of the many concentration camps.


There is a chance that we may still find out whether it was indeed their concentration camp experiences that explain why Sergeant X had a nervous breakdown and why ex-sergeant Seymour Glass became so despondent that he eventually killed himself. Although Salinger has said on more than one occasion that he does not plan to publish anymore during his lifetime (for instance in his phone call to New York Times reporter Lacey Fosburgh), his daughter Margaret said in a National Public Radio interview that her father “is writing every day,” that “he is planning to publish after his death,” and that he has “a large number of stories ready to go.”15


  1. Margaret Salinger, Dream Catcher (New York: Washington Square, 2000) 55. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  2. Colonel Gerden F. Johnson, History of the Twelfth Infantry Regiment in World War II (Boston: Twelfth Infantry Regiment, 1947) 391. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  3. Ken Bradstreet, ed., Hellcats [WW II Combat History of the Twelfth Armored Division] (Paducah, KY: Turner, 1987) 117-19.

  4. Anton Posset, “Deckname Ringeltaube,” Themenhefte Landsberger Zeitgeschichte 4 (1993): 18-24.

  5. Anton Posset, “Die amerikanische Armee entdeckt den Holocaust,” Themenhefte Landsberger Zeitgeschichte 2 (1993): 41.

  6. Colonel Edward Seiller, “Edward F. Seiller, 12th Armored Division,” The Twelfth Armored Division and the Liberation of Death Camps, 1.

  7. Bradstreet 118.

  8. Corporal A. G. Bramble, “A. G. ‘Pete’ Bramble, 12th Armored Division,” The Twelfth Armored Division and the Liberation of the Death Camps, 1.

  9. J. D. Salinger, “A Girl I Knew,” Good Housekeeping 128 (Feb. 1948): 196.

  10. J. D. Salinger, Letter to Ernest Hemingway, Carlos Baker Collection of Ernest Hemingway (Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Library, n.d.).

  11. J. D. Salinger, “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” in Nine Stories [1953] (New York: Bantam, 1964) 103. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  12. J. D. Salinger, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; and Seymour—An Introduction [1963] (New York: Bantam, 1965) 171. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  13. J. D. Salinger, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” in Nine Stories [1953] (New York: Bantam, 1964) 6.

  14. J. D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey [1961] (New York: 1964) 62.

  15. Margaret Salinger, “Margaret Salinger on J. D. Salinger,” The Connection, National Public Radio, WBUR, Boston 14 Sept. 2000. ‹http://www.theconnection.org/archive/2000/09/0914b.shtml›.

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Alsen, Eberhard. Salinger's Glass Stories as a Composite Novel. Troy, N. Y.: Whitston Publishing, 1983, 271 p.

Provides analysis of the characters, plots, narrative structures, and unifying spiritual themes of Salinger's Glass family saga.

———. A Reader's Guide to J. D. Salinger. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002, 270 p.

Full-length critical study of Salinger's fiction.

Wenke, John. J. D. Salinger: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991, 177 p.

Analysis of Salinger's short fiction.

Additional coverage of...

(The entire section is 254 words.)