My son Toby and his wife have just managed to accomplish what neither my paternal grandparents, my parents, nor Julia and I could do: they have given birth to a baby girl. Esmé Eleanor Wilson-Bates arrived 2:58 Friday morning, turning me instantly into the cliché of the doting grandfather. I’m also pleased to report that her parents are keeping alive a Bates tradition of giving their children literary names. Esmé is the enchanting little girl in the J. D. Salinger short story “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” which bodes well for Esmé Eleanor’s future.
At least it does if you subscribe to the Walter Shandy theory of naming, which I’ve written about here. According to the father in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, names determine destiny. To Walter Shandy, it’s self-evident why Julius Caesar grew up to become a great general and leader of men. After all, he bore the name “Julius Caesar.” (Also according to Walter, the worst name that one can possibly have, a name that would doom one forever, is “Tristram”—and how his son ends up with that name is part of the comedy of the novel.)
So how have literary names shaped destiny in our family? I was named after Christopher Robin and there was indeed a way in which, as the oldest son, I saw myself as the chief game master in my family, with my brothers as so many Poohs, Piglets and Eyores. To this day I still like to run things. Meanwhile Darien, who owes his name to the Keats sonnet “Upon First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” is a bold explorer like Cortes/Balboa, starting his own Manhattan marketing agency at the height of the recession with virtually no capital. And Toby is one of the kindest men I know, sharing similarities with his namesake Uncle Toby who refuses to hurt a fly in Tristram Shandy.
By naming their daughter Esmé, then, Toby and Candice gave her a real gift. Salinger’s Esmé is an English girl in her early teens who befriends a U. S. soldier (the narrator) in a restaurant on the eve of his being sent over to France in the D Day invasion. She has lost both parents, her father in the African campaign, and is reaching out to Americans. She is earnest, sensitive, and precocious—she likes to use big words—and the soldier is captivated. When she learns that he is a writer, she asks him if he will write a story about her:
“I’d be extremely flattered if you’d write a story exclusively for me sometime. I’m an avid reader.”
I told her I certainly would, if I could. I said that I wasn’t terribly prolific.
“It doesn’t have to be terribly prolific! Just so that it isn’t childish and silly.” She reflected. “I prefer stories about squalor.”
“About what?” I said, leaning forward.
“Squalor. I’m extremely interested in squalor.”
“Are you at all acquainted with squalor?”
I said not exactly but that I was getting better acquainted with it, in one form or another, all the time, and that I’d do my best to come up to her specifications. We shook hands.
Her final words are, “ I hope you return from the war with all your faculties intact.”
Esmé doesn’t appear to know what squalor means means but the narrator does indeed become better acquainted with it when he undergoes combat (Salinger did as well). His faculties, furthermore, take a beating: we next see him stationed in a house in Germany after the war suffering from PTSD. He has the shakes and a facial twist and he vomits when he gets too close to real emotion. At one point he recalls the Brothers Karamazov passage that hell is the inability to love, and he himself find himself unable to answer, or even to read, the letters which his wife and relatives are sending him. He wraps himself in a protective shield of irony.
Esme’s letter pulls him out of the worst of his illness. Here’s her postscript:
P.S. I am taking the liberty of enclosing my wristwatch which you may keep in your possession for the duration of the conflict. I did not observe whether you were wearing one during our brief assocition, but this one is extremely water-proof and shock-proof as well as having many other virtues among which one can tell as what velocity one is walking if one wishes. I am quite certain that you will use it to greater advantage in these difficult days than I ever can and that you will accept it as a lucky talisman.
The narrator knows the meaning of the watch, which belonged to Esmé’s father. He recovers enough (this we know from the beginning of the story) to return to his wife and begin his life anew.
I can imagine Esmé Eleanor 12 years from now as an alert, curious, and gregarious girl (“gregarious” is a word that fascinates the fictional Esmé). I see her, like Salinger’s heroine, wearing a Campbell tartan dress and being sensitive to people in distress (as her father was at a very early age). She will reach out to lonely souls. I pray that she won’t be forced to grow up too fast, even though I’m aware that tragedy happens and that Toby was wrestling with the death of an older brother when he was just 16.
Since I’m predicting destiny through names, let me turn next to my other grandchild, Alban Lee Bates, born four and a half months ago. I can think of two literary precedents, Goneril’s husband Albany in King Lear and William Blake’s Albion. I don’t like what I see in the first one, even though Albany is a good man. He is principled (I like that part), but ineffective, unable to stand up to his vicious wife. At one point she questions his manhood, and at the end of the play, when he is the logical figure to step up and restore order, he instead decides to retire from kingship. Neither of his parents are anything like this.
So I think Alban’s literary predecessor must be Blake’s Albion. Albion functions as an ancient word for Britain (because of St. Alban, a pagan who became its first Christian saint) and uses Albion as a symbol for universal man.
In Blake’s unfinished The Four Zoas: The Torments of Love & Jealousy in The Death and Judgment of Albion the Ancient Man, Albion is primeval man who, with the fall, is divided into the four “zoas”: Tharmas (instinct and power), Urizen (intellect), Luvah (emotion and passion), and Urthona or Los (imagination, inspiration and wisdom). Divided, these attributes can become destructive. Only by combining them all can a positive new order emerge, an order (to situate Blake historically) that is not riven by repressive religion and monarchy, bloody revolutionary passions, and soulless Enlightenment science. The vision of Albion restored is captured in the Blake poem that functions as Britain’s unofficial national anthem–there was a time when men walked with God in England’s Edenic mountains and pastures:
And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among those dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.
So little Alban is named after an aspirational ideal: by combining a good body, a good mind, healthy emotions, and spiritual vision, he represents the promise of a new Jerusalem. Looking at my new grandson, all futures seem possible.
As I think further about the names of my two grandchildren, they flow logically out of their fathers. Darien, who owes his name to one of the great Romantic poets, is my lofty dreamer and I can see him raising a visionary striver. Tobias, like Toby Shandy, is my grounded, loving man, and I have no doubt that he will raise a grounded, loving daughter.
Name your children well and they will pass the gift on to their own children.