Literary Daybook, April 8

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.


the Salon Books Editors
April 9, 2002 1:00AM (UTC)

Today in fiction

On April 8, Jefferson is executed for being an accomplice to homicide.
-- "A Lesson Before Dying" (1993)
by Ernest J. Gaines

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to fictiondays@yahoo.com.

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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1950, J. D. Salinger's "For Esmé -- With Love and Squalor" was published in the New Yorker. Though still 15 months away from the fame of "The Catcher in the Rye," Salinger had many stories published in the high-circulation magazines at this point, and had drawn increasing attention from critics, fans and even Hollywood. The publication of "Esmé" would accelerate this process -- he received more mail in two weeks than he had for any previous story -- and dramatically accelerate Salinger's lifelong attempt to control or run from it.

The story was so popular in England that in 1953 Salinger agreed to allow his British publisher, the respected Hamish Hamilton, to bring out his edition of "Nine Stories" under the title "For Esmé -- With Love and Squalor." When the collection did not do well in England, Hamilton sold the paperback rights to Ace Books, a specialist in cheap, mass-market imprints. In the mid-'50s, they reprinted the collection with a cover that featured a tacky blond and a lurid blurb line: "Explosive and Absorbing -- A Painful and Pitiable Gallery of Men, Women, Adolescents and Children." By the time Salinger discovered what had happened it was too late for any intervention but tearing up his remaining contracts with Hamilton.

At about the same time, Salinger received a request from Laurence Olivier, through Hamilton, to allow him to present "Esmé" as a half-hour radio drama on the BBC. Olivier's radio series had included Dickens, Conrad, Stevenson, Melville and other classics; Salinger would be in illustrious company, and the only contemporary author so honored. Against these obvious benefits Salinger apparently placed his recent experience with another story, "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut." In the late '40s he had sold the film rights of the story to Samuel Goldwyn, who had his scriptwriters (the Epstein brothers, of "Casablanca" fame) add characters and plot and a Top 20 theme song, so turning Salinger's indictment of bourgeois emptiness into the sentimental "My Foolish Heart." Critics found the film a "four handkerchief" tear-jerker, one so "full of soap-opera clichés," said the New Yorker, that it was "hard to believe that it was wrung out of a short story ... that appeared in this austere magazine a couple of years ago." It did not take Salinger long to decide that Olivier would not get "Esmé" for the radio and, despite years of trying, Hollywood would never get "The Catcher in the Rye."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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