Recently, sifting through my voluminous Shepherd files, I encountered a computer folder I hadn’t looked at or posted parts of since 2015. Titled SHEP TRAGEDY it contains a good part of a short book manuscript I’d never quite completed. It delves into a major theme regarding my interpreting the life and art of Jean Shepherd. Considering the present stage of my life and the life of this blog, I’m now posting it in several parts. Some may have encountered it previously, some may even have thought about it a bit (though never commented to me about it), and for some it may be new news.
THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE
Hurray, Shepherd for the President
of the World!
A Tragedy in Obdurate Acts,
Eugene B. Bergmann
And yet [some people] never heard of me.
Now you’re understanding the nature of twentieth-century fame.”
–Jean Shepherd quoted in Maralyn Lois Polak’s The Writer as Celebrity.
“…sure enough, he was found in the morning frozen to death but
nevertheless he had there next to him the sign that read
enigmatically, ‘Excelsior.’ And this is the story of all mankind’.”
—Jean Shepherd, 1958.
“Never give up!”--Gene B. 2015.
The chapters of this publication were first conceived and written for my blog:
The first part was posted on September 1, 2015,
the last on November 3, 2015.
Copyright 2015 by Eugene B. Bergmann
(Whatever that really means in all its connotations)
(More to come)
HOW SOME THINGS HAPPEN
For decades I’ve kept on a shelf my small, black-covered classic sketchbook. It began when my-then significant other and I went camping, at her request, in Algonquin Provincial Park, a couple of hours north of Toronto. She was obsessed with the outdoors, especially the unaltered trees, streams, and lakes that she loved to be in and paint. The first year she spent most days painting in the wilds she loved. As I hadn’t been aware of her artsy intention, I occupied my time reading some of the books I’d brought along. I’d have preferred going to museums and seeing the art, but I followed her passion. (One year at a museum, she explained why Cezanne was great and I became a convert, especially of his landscapes.) The next year I bought and carried with us camping my new 5” X 9” sketchbook, pencils, and water colors, and began awkwardly uglifying the blank pages.
* * *
Eventually, I attained a style I was happy with,
a transition result shown in this sketchbook image:
As we each sketched, I’d come over to her and admire her exuberant work in progress. I wished I could create with such controlled expressionistic abandon. Sometimes I’d be so pleased with her work-in-progress that I’d exclaim that she should stop right there before she overdid it. Sometimes she acquiesced. She would come over to see my work and admired my closely observed and rendered details—she wished she could work that way.
* * *
The sketchbook also reveals my hand-written transcription of a tribute we visited on a small island in one of Algonquin’s lakes. Tom Thomson (1877-1917) had been an early 20th century commercial artist, who, with a group of fellow artists known as The Group of Seven, traveled to the Algonquin wilderness on their vacations to paint. Thomson, on his own one time, mysteriously became entangled in his fishing line off the side of his canoe and drowned. On the small island on Algonquin’s Canoe Lake, where he’d died, his compatriots built a memorial cairn and had their tribute words cast into a bronze plaque there. We visited the cairn and I transcribed the words in my sketchbook:
The Group of Seven became highly regarded Canadian landscape painters, and Tom Thomson is generally considered the finest. His best-known painting is called “The Jack Pine.” The painting is considered in Canada as iconic of their landscape, and is regarded similarly to how we in the States consider as part of our heritage, the painting of “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”
The tree itself, one year long ago, was ignorantly chopped down
by the local Algonquin lumber company.
We drove to the spot and believe we found the fallen tree.
We may be wrong, but describing our actions and expressing
these thoughts are my tribute to Tom Thompson, painter.
I’m not sure how I came to a strange thought connecting Shepherd to the recent Mr. Rogers documentary I just watched (twice), but here it is in all its possibly inane inaccuracy:
For a segment of the adult literati and many of the precocious adolescents of the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, expanding their perceptions and their spans of interest– Jean Shepherd gave comfort to budding intellectual loners such as myself. A mentor’s cozy compatibility and approval to think and be oneself.
Each of us lived in his aural neighborhood, whether listening at our kitchen tables or hidden in bed under our pillows. Each one of us who listened—within the broadcast sound of his voice (in his intellectual neighborhood) was different and good, each in our differences within our vast and quirky and wonderful environment alone–united in our individuality together. Of course we all recognize that Shepherd’s wider neighborhood encompassed some more adult themes—relationships within our entire socio/economic/political world. Jean Shepherd was saying, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” Shepherd was a kind of hip Mr. Rogers.
C H I L D LI K E I N N O C E N C E
One more authentic, one more feigned.
Continuing parts of the John Wingate interview of Shep on 9/18/73 (CD of interview provided by Shep enthusiast Gary.) The woman caller has been confronting Shepherd on his technique of telling his stories as if they really happened to him—a conflating of truth with fiction in a sometimes confusing—yet maybe unprecedented way.
Shep: Do you think that Norman Mailer writing a book called The Naked and the Dead was telling a lie because he was writing fiction?
Caller: No, it’s just that because of the closeness of you to me on the radio it’s actually that you’re speaking to me.
Shep: That’s the basic premise of the communicator–the best literature ever is the literature that you believe is true word for word. It’s the inevitability of the truth of something.
Here again, Shepherd conflates a “true-to-life” way of telling a fictional tale with a “true-to-the-actual-biography of the teller.” On Shepherd’s broadcasts he moves seamlessly from ’Ol Shep the radio monologist: “I” talking to you as a friend and confidant about what might have happened on his way to the studio an hour ago–to his story “I” in a description of a fictional incident in his childhood or in the army. Shepherd’s sensitivity and skill in this subtle synthesis is indeed a glory to listen to. And it’s the inevitable result that many believed he was telling biographical truth. (And it might be very confusing to the listener who possesses an analytical thinking such as this listener’s) As I quote in Excelsior, You Fathead! even witty radio comic Henry Morgan, as early as 1960, in The Realist magazine, said that Shepherd “has talked about that youth of his in such detail that I suspect it lasted about forty years.”
As we know, even in the disclaimer of his best known book of kid stories, he says, “The characters, places, and events described herein are entirely fictional, and any resemblance to individuals living or dead is purely coincidental, accidental, or the result of faulty imagination.” Yes, the characters and events are probably entirely fictional, but various real names of people were cribbed by Shep—maybe for as innocent a reason as its aid to his story-telling memory.
That on his broadcasts he fabricated/created a seamless, decades-long aural object that doesn’t clearly distinguish between real and constructed personas is probably unprecedented. He held aspects of truth and fiction simultaneously in his mind. One might wonder if such an extended and intricate mix of true and fiction narrated in the first person, would sometimes blur his own understanding of what had been real and what not–if his clever performance-mix was not a related characteristic of his well-known penchant for evasions Such as never once in my listening, did he comment about an adult relationship with women-girlfriend? Wife?), obfuscations, and lying about major aspects of his actual life (when was he in the army?!).
If I seem to be circling back and forth in my thinking and attempts at explication, I think it’s a tribute to the complex agility of his mental balancing act. It goes to the essence of what created truth and fiction are.
Part of a traced copy
of a real photo
of a real person.
* * *
At this point in the call-in dialogue, John Wingate cut her off with a thank-you-goodbye. One of the most fascinating discussions regarding Shep’s performance art maybe had taken too much air-time. Or maybe Shepherd had indicated that he felt it had explored and discovered some reality about as much as he wanted.
(This is final of this sequence.)
Continuing parts of the John Wingate interview of Shep on 9/18/73 (CD of interview provided by Shep enthusiast Gary.)
A woman caller involved Shep in an extended discussion about the extent to which his stories were true or even based on actual people, and they had quite a dialog on the subject, Shep and Wingate commented on his improvisation, and Shep expounded on his ideas about truth and fiction in created stories. Here are parts of it:
Caller: “The shows that you’ve done on your travels have been really great. What I wanted to ask you is, do you usually come in with notes or do you just speak off the top of your head?” [Let me repeat my previous comments–that I’m rather sure that, opposed to his fictional stories, his travel narratives are basically true.]
Wingate: “The latter—I never saw him with a note in my life.”
Shep: No, I don’t take notes.”
Wingate: “No, not one note ever.”
Caller: These are funny stories you make up, based partly on your youth.
Shep: “No, not at all.”
Caller: “Schwartz and Esther Jane Albery,…”
Shep: “Those are short stories about my youth. No way. They’re short stories, they’re fictional, and have nothing to do, really, specifically, with my particular, private life.”
Shepherd, at this point, apparently felt that though he sometimes used the names of real people in his stories, the stories themselves are fiction, and it was unnecessary and too involved to explain this subtlety. Back in the old, pre-computer/Internet days, searching for such accuracies would have been too difficult for his listeners to bother with. We can track down much true background material easily now.
Caller: For so long a time the stories have remained not exactly the same, but have continued in the same flavor. I, as a listener, begin to assume that, as you tell so many stories that have the same flavor, that there must be some great amount of truth to them.
Shep: Truth is not the same as reportage. In other words, I have created a series of characters, you know….My short stories seem so real to people that they tend to believe they’re not short stories at all, that they’re telling what happened. Not so. My father was nothing like the father that was in my short stories. He was almost diametrically opposed.
Caller: Not a man who was crazy about cars, not a man who was one of the best swearers in town, stuff like this? You see, for so long I’ve heard stories to this effect that I really begin to believe this is true, you know. It’s truly amazing.
Shep: Well, when you’re creating a—what could be called almost be called a running novel about a series of characters, you have to remain consistent. That the father—the ”I” that I use is on the air, you notice I rarely use my name on the show. It’s a literary “I….”
Caller: It’s like you’re a person hearing a person tell a lie, he tells it so many times that the person will believe it.
ONE. Shepherd certainly created the entire idea of the hoax. But the extent to which he contributed specific ideas and content are unknown to me—or now, maybe to anyone.
That some media folk stated that Shepherd had written the book might have been caused by some of Shep’s propensity to conflate fiction with truth and truth with fiction. Or maybe some reporters, ignorant and inattentive (lazy?), had misunderstood accurate descriptions of the affair.
TWO Sturgeon beyond doubt wrote the majority of the text, and claimed in his letter to Shepherd that “I wrote every word of the book.”
THREE Ballantine, with the specificity of her account gives weight to her claim to have written the final chapter, contradicting Sturgeon’s claim to Shepherd.
The participants are gone with the wind,
leaving those lusting after TRUTH about a hoax
enwrapped in uncertainties within an enigma.
Back in the old days in New York City, when subway cars were works of movable “art,” I rode those trains five days a week and survived the visual assault. In the sixties and beyond, it manifested itself with ugly scrawls (“tags”) all over the insides of every subway car.
Then a revolution—when one day a train rattled by with a gigantic, colorful “artwork” that covered an entire car. It was still vandalism, but of another kind and level. Books depicting the works appeared—I still have four of them. Spraycan Art by Henry Chalfant & James Prigoff (1987) announced:
Somebody was painting the trains with strange new forms of lettering and crazy scenes, transforming the rolling stock of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority into giant mobile comic strips.
Subway Art by Martha Cooper & Henry Chalfant (1984)
By the time the MTA cleaned up its act, mural-size graffiti had appeared on entire walls along the sidewalk in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, and it had spread to many other countries. It takes several books full of color photos to give a sense of many of the enormous and varied works of “graffiti art.”
(Years later a number of gallery-oriented artists became famous professionals, linked in one way or another to the original underground: Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and recently, Banksy, famous for his artwork shredded after a 2018 auction sale).
The whole subject reappeared in my consciousness the other day when the New York Times published an entire page in their obituary section on graffiti, including an evocative essay by Edward Lee titled “Wallpaper of my Childhood.” The essay says in part:
These were the markings of a small, underground world written in code, performed in darkness and proudly criminal. What most citizens deemed vandalism, I saw as art.
Three-fifths of the page is devoted to an extensive obituary by David Gonzalez of the graffiti artist “Dondi” (who had died over 20 years earlier), who is quoted as having said:
I never had to compromise myself….It was always me, doing what was comfortable, and relaying the message that I didn’t have to be taught to be creative and do good things….
A Dondi “tag” and Dondi at work,
both photos by Martha Cooper
Before the main-stream art world had really gotten into the act, in June, 2000, an art auction house announced a sale of smaller, portable pieces by many of the original spray can vandals.
In the auction catalog, various authorities expressed themselves, including Stephen Powers: “Is it the product of black, latin, or white kids living in the 60’s? Is it the museum quality piece or the illegible scrawl? Is it called writing, or graffiti, or some other awkward, yet well-meaning name like aerosolismskibop? Is it fine art, art brut, brute force, or force majeree? The answer to all of these questions in a certain sense is yes….”
A good friend of mine and I went to a preview of the auction and encountered a TV crew there videoing the scene for the evening’s news. I stepped forward to be interviewed. I’m not sure what the TV producer expected, but I expressed my conflict of why I’d come to view with words to the effect that:
“Although the entire graffiti world in public
is unpleasant vandalism,
some of it also attracts me–because it’s art.”
[Or outrageously artsy.]
Although many Shepherd admirers recognize that Shep was a great enthusiast regarding America and its multifarious culture, many may not have connected this understanding with the many ways in which he conveyed this. Despite (and, in a sort of take-off regarding) his disparagements of (American) human foibles, he once commented that he liked to portray important American events in his art. Yet, probably few are aware of such seemingly minor/irrelevant aspects in many of his works. Holidays, for instance, were portrayed in all their Americanness in such examples as A Christmas Story and “The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters,” and in parts of series of television narratives that include “Jean Shepherd on Route One,” and many of the episodes of his television series Jean Shepherd’s America.
In the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s book The Artist Project (2017), I encountered an artist, Jane Hammond’s comments on the museum’s collection of vernacular photographs of snaps by amateurs. She writes:
I mine the images for specific things I want: I want this guy’s boots, I want this head in the sand. So there’s a forensic quality to these snapshots. They’re filled with information, with what I call the thinginess of things….It’s our own cultural shared information.
* * *
I’m reminded of the book American Snapshots (1977) by Ken Graves and Mitchell Payne, for which Shepherd wrote in his introduction to the book:
…it is a touching, true, Common Man history of all of us who grew up and lived in America in this century.
…What artistic results he [the snap-shooter] obtains are almost inevitably accidental and totally without self-consciousness. Perhaps of his very artlessness, and his very numbers, this nameless picture-taker may in the end be the truest and most valuable recorder of our times. He never edits; he never editorializes; he just snaps away and sends the film off to be developed, all the while innocently freezing forever the plain people of his time in all their lumpiness, their humanity, and their universality.
* * * * * * *
EVEN MORE I, LIBERTINE QUEST-RESULTS
I’ve never before researched into the country-wide depths of “Special Holdings” and the even more arcane complexities of a “University Research Collection.” But now I’ve skirted the edges of these and, fearful of making some irrevocable mistake, I’ve gotten more I, Libertine/Sturgeon/Shepherd goodies.
Somehow I feel like a ghoul rummaging among the mortal remains—even though it’s all been a totally electronic/internet search.
Dear XXXX and XXXX,
Thank you very much for all you have done for my understanding of Theodore Sturgeon and Jean Shepherd regarding the creation of the “hoax” book, I, Libertine.
The material you provide is fantastic, especially the informative letter from Sturgeon to Shepherd.
I’m thrilled to receive the material from you. My wife, a trained librarian, is also impressed with your work and the speed with which you’ve responded.
With much appreciation (and as Shepherd would have said, EXCELSIOR!)
Eugene B. Bergmann
Items from a collection of Locus Magazine science-fiction issues, and a letter from Sturgeon regarding the whole I, Libertine affair:
“Betty Ballantine Interview.” Regarding Sturgeon’s writing the book, she said in part:
Ted’s final push for the last half of the book required a continuous forty-eight hour battle with the typewriter, punctuated by gallons of coffee and restless pacing back and forth, back and forth, throwing out thoughts, muttering to himself, until he reached some other level of being, some euphoric plateau where the words came gushing forth—he couldn’t type fast enough. But at last the body gave up, the epic still unfinished. I wrote the last chapter, and when he woke he was amazed. “How did you know the words in my mind?” he said. “Do, you always write this way?” I said. “Is there any other way?” he said. Well, it was a just-for-fun book, straightforward satire, nor did it tax his real talents at all.
So, proof that she wrote the last chapter? The source also sent me a photocopy of the carbon copy of a letter from Sturgeon to Shepherd dated August 30, 1956. (Book publication date September 13, 1956, so he sent the letter just after media reports appeared, and only weeks after the manuscript had been completed—but by whom?) Sturgeon complained in the 2-page typed letter that some media had been stating that Jean had written the book.
(More to come)
Japanese print by Hiroshige, and Van Gogh’s painted tribute.
It’s been claimed that some early, fragile, imported Japanese objects were wrapped in crumpled-up Japanese prints for protection and that discovering this, some European artists became enamored of all things Japanese. The woodblock-printed images interested European artists because of their compositions and often flat effect and because of the daily-life portrayal of the larger populace rather than the upper classes. The craze for Japanese art in Europe from the mid-19th century has carried over in various ways and continues to affect some of us.
I don’t remember how I became interested in Japanese woodblock prints, but I remember that, already an enthusiast and browsing among the booksellers on the banks of the Seine in 1966, I bought two cheap prints, and at some point back in New York, joined a club of enthusiasts of Japanese prints, the Ukiyo-e Society. At one of their holiday auctions, I bought a small carving of a frog on a lotus pod, not knowing its purpose, but soon discovering that it was a crude “netsuke,” the top well-carved, the bottom abominable. Obviously an inadequate imitation of the traditional Japanese art form used as sculpted toggles for retaining hanging objects from clothing. I became a beyond-my-means enthusiast of the real thing—netsuke masterpieces.
My cheap 1966-acquired Hiroshige print with my first (spurious) netsuke.
Lo, decades ago at the museum where I worked, a co-worker/friend we’ll call Viv, introduced me to her then-current boyfriend, whom we’ll call Xxx Xxxx, who had recently participated in an official test project in which participants were obliged to smoke per day a prescribed number of marijuana cigarettes and be tested. To keep them occupied at the hospital between tokes, the participants were taught how to make picture frames.
Upon completing the marijuana project, Xxx Xxxx, found a job using his frame-making skills, working at a major gallery specializing in Japanese woodblock prints and related items. He became interested in the artwork and acquired enough knowledge to start his own business as a dealer in Japanese prints. By this time he and Viv had split up.
He had heard that the Japanese found blond Caucasian men such, as himself, pleasing.
He traveled to Japan.
He returned with an attractive Japanese wife.
Recently I realized that his story deserved recording,
as he was a true, Japanese-inspired artsy-fartsyist.
Continuing parts of the John Wingate interview of Shep on 9/18/73 (CD of interview provided by Shep enthusiast Gary.)
A call-in listener says: “When you were in World War II.”
Shep: “I was not. I was in the Korean War.”
Listener: “In the Korean War?”
Shep: That is correct.”
Shepherd has claimed this more than once. However, we have copies of his World War II service papers, including this one indicating his discharge on 16 December, 1944:
(Taken from http://www.flicklives.com)
Another caller asks about the story he told of a German submarine off the coast of Florida when he was in service there. So wasn’t he in World War II? Shep says he never told a story about a sub. (But see my transcript of his “Swamp Radar” story published in my Shep’s Army, and listen to it on the brassfiglagee website, dated 6/20/64.)
Maybe he forgot he’d told the sub story? But his insisting that he was not in World War II, but in the Korean War, was probably an attempt to make himself seem younger than he really was. He was consciously not telling the truth. It’s far easier to gather info now about truths/fictions than it was a few decades ago–we have the magnificent Internet, which includes such great Shep sources as http://www.flicklives.com.
(Much more on true/fiction to come.)
* * *
Word jazz artist Ken Nordine has died. Because of his work’s relationship to Jean Shepherd’s radio improvisations, lo these many years ago I contacted him and I believe we spoke for a few minutes by phone. Unfortunately, neither my physical archives of papers, tapes, and CDs, nor my crumbling memory can locate a damn thing we said. I vaguely recall (I think) that Nordine was familiar with and appreciative of Shepherd’s work. I encountered his obituary this morning in the New York Times:
Googling reveals lots more. For Shepherd enthusiasts especially, his work is worth pursuing.
For those unfamiliar with “Word Jazz”: Imagine the silkiest voice delivering light Beat poetry over an aural landscape of piano tinkling and ringing phones and plops and echoes and hums, seeming to meander so far into Nordine’s subconscious that (through the miracle of tape) he has sonorous, trance-inducing discussions with his own thoughts.
* * *
By Rick Kogan Chicago Tribune (TNS) Feb 16, 2019
….What you will discover is the voice of Ken Nordine, one of the few people in the history of radio to use the medium to its fullest potential, rather than as a forum for blather, confrontation, inanities and noisy nonsense. He made a kind of vocal music as the voice of thousands of commercials and as the force behind a new art form he created and called “word jazz.”
* * *
Also part of NYT obit, Nordine is quoted that the goal of his poetry
was to “make people think about their thinking
and feel about their feeling,
but even more important to think about their feeling
and feel about their thinking.”
For years, only the full-color paperback was generally known of—I discovered the hardcover when I searched the title and bought it online. I also encountered and bought the English paperback and English hardcover, both provocative in monochrome hardback and full-color paperback covers. In describing biographical bits of the fictitious Ewing for the hardcover, the publisher seems to have aided and abetted the hoax, as seen on the dust jacket’s back:
I now possess a paperback personally signed for me by Shepherd; a paperback signed by Sturgeon (bought online); the Ballantine hardcover; the English paperback; the English hardcover. Clustered together in a protective plastic box with these five, I have the short bibliography, Ballantine Books The First Decade by David Aronovitz, which speaks of simultaneous soft and hardcover publication:
[Ian Ballantine] would gain this advantage by off-setting the total printing cost of the specific publication with shared costs from its soft-cover run, thus reaching the mass market as well as gaining review status and credibility at the same time.
Recently I had an email exchange with a Sturgeon authority, who disagrees with me about the quality of writing in I, Libertine, saying it’s one of Sturgeon’s best. I can’t discuss the matter now because I last read it a few years back and it was many forgetful decades ago that I first read it and read Sturgeon’s short story collection Caviar. (I’m amused and appreciative regarding the title–that “caviar” is the rare and high-quality eggs (creation) of the fish called “sturgeon.”)
I much appreciate and admire
the youthful playfulness, wit, and obvious enthusiasm
that Shepherd, Sturgeon, (Mad) Kelly Freas, and Ballantine
exhibited as they hoaxed their creation into real life.