(More has come)
THE TRAGEDY OF JEAN SHEPHERD
WHICH BEGINS HIGH ON THE MOUNTAINTOP,
CONTINUES WITH FLAWED DECISIONS
THAT AT FIRST SEEM RIGHT AND PROPER,
BUT, FROM THE HEIGHTS OF PARNASSUS,
CAN BE SEEN AS A TRAGIC FAILURE
TO ACHIEVE WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN.
Tragedy in the traditional sense: “A drama or literary work in which the main character s brought to ruin or suffers extreme sorrow, especially as a consequence of a tragic flaw, moral weakness, or inability to cope with unfavorable circumstances.” –The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. 2000.
Tragic hero: A literary character who makes an error of judgment or has a fatal flaw that, combined with fate and external forces, brings on a tragedy. — Dictionary.com’s 21st Century Lexicon 2003-2013
Among the definitions of tragic, one usually encounters a version of: His downfall is usually due to excessive pride (hubris).
Jean Shepherd was a genius. A flawed genius. In part his flaw was that besides being a genius as a raconteur, he had other talents that, while good enough to achieve some renown, he collaborated in allowing himself to be diverted from that unique genius to other creative areas from which he garnered both acclaim and financial reward.
PURITY OF FORM
PERFECTION OF EXECUTION
CONFLUENCE OF PERSONAL CHARACTERISTICS, THE POTENTIAL OF THE MEDIUM, AND THE SOCIAL CIRCUMSTANCES He excelled in extemporaneous expression and in the ability to create sound as entertainment and meaning, grasp ideas, understand human foibles, and invent stories. He attained his majority during the era when radio was the prime medium of communication, consisting totally of sound, in which he excelled. Radio was the ideal medium through which he could express his gifts. It had a singleness, a purity of form (it’s sound alone) and he mastered its intricacies. He created an oeuvre that elaborated and expressed its potential.
During the emergence of modern jazz and the ascendancy of improvised interpretation within it, he used its form, creating a one-of-a-kind coalescence of all that words with sound could do. For this a major jazz magazine named him jazz personality of the year: Metronome Magazine proclaimed, “Shepherd in 1958 seemed, from time to time, to be a philosopher, a gifted impromptu monologist, a social satirist, an iconoclast, a comic, a jazz soloist whose words were his instrument.” He created an unparalleled art form beginning with some years in Cincinnati and Pennsylvania before coming to New York City, continuing during his less-than-a-year overnight broadcasts in 1956 (infuriatingly, yet to emerge in audio recordings) into 1960 when he chose to alter his radio art to a more organized, polished, and diffuse form.
Starting from the early 1960s, to the effective end of his career in the mid-1980s his work in other media (except for the truncated, near-Great-American TV-Masterpiece, Jean Shepherd’s America) mostly consisted of elaborations of his previously told stories–written versions printed in magazines and his books, and mixed into long-form TV dramas.
INABILITY TO COPE WITH UNFAVORABLE CIRCUMSTANCES
SOCIETY’S ALTERING CIRCUMSTANCES—RADIO’S DECLINE (rock and roll and TV, which promoted shortness of attention span and superficial allure requiring more dramatic stimulus). That his unique talent for extended humor and his variety of sound-based themes were not as appreciated by a large enough mass audience, led to his allowing radio’s termination of his art form.
Despite the pure joy of listening to most of his individual broadcasts, the true immensity of his achievement is appreciated in the long haul—the reality that day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year—the cumulative effect of the variety and extent of his output is incomparable. The influence he has had on current major media artists and other industry workers is astounding in its scope. Many thousands of his listeners remain enamored of his work.
The ideal artist, in his/her purity, would have continued, above all else, in the prime art, rather than expand into more popular media (as talented as he was in writing, TV, and at least the one film that resulted in his financial well-being). Remember that most of his work in other media was a re-working of what he’d done on the pure form of radio. The ideal artist would have persisted in the unique art to the point of abject poverty—surely some smaller radio station would have hired him at a pittance to continue his art. (Of course we all know how few saints willing to endure poverty there are among us.)
Instead he accepted that defeat and, at least in public, demeaned and rejected his ideal medium and the art he created within it. He could not, god-like, step back and contemplate his achievement from afar. He could not know how his legacy lives on.
Fortunately for him,
we, his followers, persevere in our passion.