With what gusto he also demolished American enthusiasms and mass-events such as NASCAR races, with its hordes of noisy, sweaty, bear-and-hotdog-guzzling hoi polloi! He laughed with mixed glee and admiration for some of the over-the-top absurdities of our American practices. He described with scorn the Madison Square Garden extravaganza produced by Mike Todd and Elizabeth Taylor celebrating the “Around the World in Eighty Days” movie. He suggested that the air should have been sucked out of the affair and plastic poured over it to preserve this example of idiocy for the ages. Especially in his later writings, when he no longer wrote many short stories, he filled in with unrelenting, curmudgeonly debunking of some aspects of American culture. He dismissed protest-filled folk music of the 1960s as uninformed and naïve. He disliked rock and roll in general and Bob Dylan and the Beatles in particular. (Ah well, Shep, we can’t all be perfect.) Despite this negativity regarding teenagers’ anthems of rebellion and Dionysian delights, he retained his young audience.
On the other hand, while admitting some of America’s faults, he was quick to defend his country against those whom he felt were blindly critical through naiveté or ignorance. He criticized those “socially conscious” comedians of the early 1960s who he felt demeaned America with their snide commentaries and jokes. He described how at a party he had exclaimed that “I like America, I just like it,” and, being confronted by people who asked how he could like it with all the social problems and unrest, he said that he suggested to them that one should be aware of what was also happening in other countries before suggesting that America was any worse during those difficult times. He admired many of the simple, good attitudes and customs that many disparaged.
TV graphics for Jean Shepherd’s America
In his Jean Shepherd’s America television series he was mostly appreciative of some of America’s glories—even of the brutally picturesque and body-rattling world of steel mills, in one of which he had worked during a summer. On the series he visited Chicago, Alaska, Okefenokee, Death Valley, Hawaii, and other interesting sites (such as New Orleans where he joined the tail end of a street-marching jazz band, tooting his kazoo), and delved into driving, flying, train riding, and the joys and disasters of vacationing.
Among his other works are his 90-minute TV dramas based on some of his short stories. As he would explain, he liked to depict some uniquely American traditions. In “The Phantom of the Open Hearth,” part of the story details the joys and disasters of prom night and the former custom of giving women a free dish– “dish night” at the movies; in “The Star-crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski” there’s the story of Friendly Fred’s used car lot and what it’s like to play a turkey in the school’s Thanksgiving pageant; in “The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters,” he celebrated Independence Day.
“Did I ever tell you about the
greatest 4th of July ever?”
“What is there about a solid molar-rattling explosion
that sets the blood atingle? And brings roses to the cheeks?”
Of course his movie A Christmas Story details the American season of joy and avarice leading up to the birth of Jesus and the unwrapping of presents.
Despite the considerable criticizing, Shepherd yearned for his country to live up to its promise and his ideals—he loved the essence of America despite his disappointments and even his fears. He rode a city bus to Washington to participate with the hundreds of thousands who rode and stood and cheered on the day of the March on Washington. He gloried in the feeling of hope and community that he observed there. When many protesters criticized our federal government for various shortcomings, he defended American life, not for being perfect, but for continuing to strive to be better than many countries which were naively thought of by some critiques to be superior. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, he gave an eloquent eulogy on his radio broadcasts, suggesting that there was a potentially dangerous wave of unreason in the country, and that irrationality was on the rise, accurately predicting the forthcoming turmoil of the later 1960s.
Jean Shepherd, curmudgeon and patriot, didn’t always have it right, but he knew what he was talking about much of the time, and even when he didn’t, he could make one think—and often laugh. As did many of his predecessors in the curmudgeon business, he could criticize because he wanted the country he loved to live up to all of the ideals it stood for. When it didn’t, he had a right to debunk thoughtfully, lovingly, and with humor.
Stay tuned for Part 3