The Atlantic

What J.D. Salinger Understood About Chance Encounters

A.M. Homes on the short-story writer’s “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor,” and the lifelong effects of fleeting interactions
Source: Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Colum McCann, George Saunders, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.


When I was in high school, I sent J.D. Salinger a letter, enclosing a blue dollar bill from the 1930s I’d gotten back as change from the diner. The additional offering, I hoped, might help me seem as precocious, eccentric, and generous as his famous child characters, and make my words stand out in the author’s flood of unanswered mail. I badly wanted a letter back from Salinger—something to prove the connection I felt to his work was as profound and extraordinary as I suspected. I wasn’t like his other fans. I had to make him see that.  

Why do some books make us want to know an author personally, identifying so thoroughly with the public work that we try to lay claim to the private self? In a conversation for this series, the writer A.M. Homes explored her own relationship to Salinger—the strange coincidences tying his work to her life, her brief, disappointing brush with the real-life author, and how she ultimately learned to let him go. We discussed how the Salinger story “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor” celebrates missed connections, reminding us that even brief, glancing encounters can be enough to change a person for the better. In Homes’s

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