JEAN SHEPHERD POLL
Recently I requested of my contacts in the world of Shep to give me a list of their favorite kid and army stories. I expected that the vast majority of responses would be focused on a couple of kid stories such as the BB gun tale, and army stories such as “Troop Train Ernie,” and playing army baseball in the nude. I was surprised to find that a majority of the responses included other kid and army stories and a wide variety of Shep’s subjects that I regard as not “stories” but commentary and anecdote. I’m still surprised, but I’m also delighted that favorites among Shep enthusiasts encompassed such a wide variety of his creative radio expressions beyond what I think of as pure “story-telling.”
I dug out my essay on a subject that I wrote for eventual inclusion in a book of my additional information and cogitations on Shep. And here it is:
OUTRAGEOUS ASSERTION! (WHAT’S THE NARRATIVE?)
People tend to believe and repeat what’s widely professed about a subject, assuming that if that’s what’s mostly claimed, it must be so. Sometimes I feel as though I hold high the flickering candle of TRUTH, but maybe the flickers confuse my view and I’ve got it all wrong? Naaa, couldn’t be! Whatever—I gotta get the thought out so it doesn’t fester, so here goes.
Jean Shepherd is well known as a storyteller. “Story” can be thought of in more than one way. Because of Shepherd’s deceptively casual and intimate style of apparent verisimilitude in the telling, his listeners believed in the main that he was narrating his true experiences—true stories. As we now understand that most of his tales were fabricated—pure or impure inventions, created products—they require shelving with Mark Twain’s humorous fiction. As Janet Malcolm is quoted in another context in the New York Times Sunday Magazine of May 12, 2002, “The truth is messy, incoherent, aimless, boring, absurd. The truth does not make a good story; that’s why we have art.” When Shepherd would say something such as, “Here’s the story about…” or “Have I told you the story about….” listeners tended to think real occurrence, while Shepherd, at some level at least, must have thought make believe.
(Slight parenthetical diversion. The whole rich subject of make believe vs. truth, of nonfiction and fiction, of what we try to mean when we claim to be telling that elusive thing called “truth,” has long been part of the literary chatter of minds more subtle than mine, but I admit to a considerable fascination with questions such as: Why is it so difficult to grasp the truth of a story, and if we think we’ve got it by the tale, why can’t we just tell it like it really is? How many hobgoblins can dance on the head of a reader? Such questions are bound to come up as one searches through the mind and stories of Jean Shepherd, and if I’m the searcher, this little quest involves perusing such ancillary matter in books with titles such as The Story is True, another titled The Truth Never Gets in the Way of a Good Story, and works by biographical detectives who seek answers in books with subtitles such as Adventures of a Biographer in Search of Her Subject, and of writings by Janet Malcolm who tries to disentangle the whys and wherefores of all sorts of biographical legerdemain.)
Fans as well as professional commentators seem to believe that Jean Shepherd on the radio mostly told stories. On his broadcasts he told many wonderful, extended stories, and so to call him a great storyteller is certainly correct. But to suggest that this defines him shortchanges him—his genius is comprised of the widely varied assemblage of audio materials with which he broadcast over several decades.
Jean Shepherd maybe telling a story
during a regular studio broadcast.
In my dictionary, a story is “a narrative, either true or fictitious.” In literary terms, one might expect a certain formal coherence that includes a beginning, middle, and end. And Shepherd, as a raconteur, would be in my dictionary “a person who is skilled in relating stories and anecdotes interestingly….” An anecdote is “a short account of a particular incident or event of an interesting or amusing nature, often biographical.” That an anecdote is an “account” suggests that in some sense it doesn’t rise to the literary level of form and meaning to which we normally give the name “story.” Shepherd had discussed the obvious point that a “report” is not a story. Most would probably agree that in a continuum between a short anecdote or report at one end (“Today a kid, after reading about Flick’s tongue stuck on a cold flagpole, got his tongue stuck on a cold pole.”) and the full-blown Shep story, there is a difference in kind, though somewhere around the middle, we amateurs may not be able to draw the parting line.
Using my criteria for distinguishing stories from other matter, I believe that the idea that Shepherd mainly told stories, whether factual or fictional, is not right. I suspect that some believe he was mostly a storyteller because they may like the stories best, and in retrospect most people simply remember them more easily and tend to gloss over his many short riffs.
Shepherd’s general small talk, short comments and anecdotes, bashing his engineers, bosses, and sponsors, his philosophical musings, perceptions on the passing scene, amusing complaints regarding the innumerable foibles of mankind, manic musical forays, and innumerable other fun things, are not individually or collectively as easily brought to mind and toted up as are the extended stories.
Jean Shepherd maybe telling a story
during a broadcast Limelight event.
(photo by David Michelsohn)
My belief is not based on having used a stopwatch and list of categories while listening to over a thousand Shepherd broadcasts. But, in over a decade of continuous research, pondering, and writing about what Shepherd created, I might have paid more attention to such matters than have many others. Because only the 45-minute broadcasts and the Limelight shows, from 1960-1977, are available in goodly numbers, my guestimate is mostly based on these. (I would imagine—considering the few examples of his Sunday night programs I’ve heard—he probably told even fewer stories on his much longer, earlier programs from 1956-1960.) With that in mind, I here express my heresy regarding actual performance time on the air:
General miscellany as described above about 50%
Anecdotes about 25%
Stories about 25%.
So sue me.
Jean Shepherd maybe just talking to Leigh Brown
(or maybe “commenting” or “anecdoting”),
or just posing for the photographer.
(photo from People magazine.)