Did Jean Shepherd ever write a novel?
“I did something today that you don’t do very often in your life. I delivered to my publisher–I delivered to him the completed, edited, done manuscript of a novel that I have been working on for over three years.” –Jean Shepherd 2/4/1966.
What is a “novel” and what is not, and what is the issue here? Jean Shepherd claimed that his book of kid stories, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash is a novel and I say it is not. My American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition defines “novel” thusly, “A fictionally prose narrative of considerable length, typically having a plot that is unfolded by the actions, speech, and thought of the characters.”
Jean Shepherd claimed that since childhood, he had been fascinated by writing and reading, had been excited early on by going to the library and, as a youngster, had been obsessed with novels such as Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel.
Several times Shepherd expresses how important words—and especially written words— are for him. In a 1974 program he evokes his joy of reading. In what seems a rather thought-out set piece, with a dramatic musical background, he reads a bit of a book he’d originally read at about the age of ten or eleven. Someone had recommended it to him, but the librarian commented that although they didn’t usually lend it to such young kids, she’d make an exception in his case. Describing the effect of the book on him he says, “And from that minute on I realized there was nothing ever in this world that’s more—that’s even as remotely powerful as words. Words are what it’s about. It’s the thing that makes us different from the giraffes and the turtles.” Then, in a description that distinctly echoes the experience of so many of his young fans listening to him late at night, he remembers:
…taking this book home and reading it under the covers at home because you had this rule you had to go to bed at a certain time….So I was hiding under the covers with Look Homeward, Angel. And I didn’t know what it was about. I just know I couldn’t stop reading it. It changed my life forever, really. (January 15, 1974)
(First edition book jacket)
In my Excelsior, You Fathead! page 323, I say regarding In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, “It is not a novel, any more than those literary classics The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron are novels.” Novels have more prestige (and are constructed with a different sort of cohesiveness) than a group of short stories. Shepherd wanted the ego-boost of writing a novel. Shepherd told wonderful stories on the radio, wrote them into very good stories for print, and (with Bob Clark and Leigh Brown) put together several of the them into a wonderful movie that is more of a movie-novel than the book is a novel-novel. Yet, it can be a matter of how people choose to use a term. For In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, Shepherd and his publisher put it this way:
IN GOD WE TRUST: ALL OTHERS PAY CASH
(Bottom of the first edition dust jacket)
The full-page newspaper ad for the book refers twice to “Jean Shepherd’s novel.”
This is especially important for Shepherd for at least two reasons. For one, his extemporaneous work on radio (a medium that got almost no respect from the public, critics, or the literati), seemed destined to be eternally underrated and forgotten. Second, stories told, and even short stories written and published, do not have the literary clout of a published novel.
Almost all who refer to the book blindly follow suit and inaccurately call it a “novel.” I believe that this is so because Shepherd insisted upon it wherever he could, and everyone else just follows along, assuming they have it right. In my foreword to the book A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic (publication October, 2013), I describe all the four opening credits listing his name, including: “Based Upon the Novel In God We Trust All Others Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd.”
Caseen Gaines, the Behind the Scenes author himself has consistently gotten it right, describing In God We Trust as, “…an anthology of Ralphie’s stories,” and “…a composite of his published short stories,…in his anthology…” and refers to Shepherd’s next book, Wanda Hickey, as …”a second short story anthology… .”
The question of what is a novel and what is a group of short stories especially interests me these days because of how I describe my collection, transcription, editing, and commentary of the book Shep’s Army: Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles (August 2013). It is a collection of short stories, yet I play with the idea of “novel” because I believe Shepherd’s army stories are something more–they are in a book that gathers the stories and arranges them into a form that was just waiting to be discovered, so that they might constitute what could almost be termed “a novel.” Maybe Shepherd even had such a way of thinking of his army stories himself, in a way that Marshall McLuhan wrote in his Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man: “Jean Shepherd of WOR regards radio as a new medium for a new kind of novel that he writes nightly.” I don’t call Shep’s Army a novel. Yet, because of the comprehensive scope of the stories regarding time in the army from induction to discharge, in my introduction to the book I comment that “Shepherd tells his army stories, indeed all his stories, in no special order–randomly it seems–each self-contained. Once one begins to cull them and organize them, however, they suggest a coming-of-age-in-the-army narrative that can reasonably be deemed Jean Shepherd’s Army Life Novel.” There is the introduction to the strange military world; followed by what might be called his”school days” learning about Signal Corps duties in Missouri; then there is the radar training experience in Florida; there are then, the experiences commonly encountered by most soldiers; and the whole “story” is rounded out with his final days in the military and his beginning to return to civilian life. Not a novel, but maybe it could be reasonably thought of as such.
More to come regarding “stories”
and how we think of them compared to “comments” and “anecdotes.”