Jean Shepherd told loads of army stories over his decades of radio work, but he only wrote and published a couple of them. My Shep’s Army presents nearly three dozen Shepherd army stories never before in print.
As Shep’s Army book approaches publication, I feel that, regarding my role as “editor,” some amplification is needed (maybe mostly needed for myself) so that it’s clear what I have done and why I did it and what I have not done. So you’ll see that to some extent this essay is both an explanation and a patting-myself-on-the-back.
I’ve spent a good part of my adult life reading for pleasure and studying the techniques used by writers I admire. I’ve also written copiously on many subjects of interest to me, including several sweated-over, unpublished novels and over a hundred poems (four published).
As someone who has a fairly broad knowledge of Shepherd’s work, I believe I’m an appropriate person to delve into his stories and “edit” them. I’m the author of the only book about Shepherd in addition to various other published and unpublished essays about his work—including nine published sets of “program notes” accompanying the nine sets of available CDs of his previously unheard audios meant for syndication–but virtually never syndicated.
I also feel that I have a decent sense of what he does in his work—his way of thinking and his “philosophy,” and I feel I’m able to respond to it in appropriate ways when questions arise.
So, as editor I did much more than correct grammar and deal with Ps and Qs and commas. The term “editor” is a loose one in the general reader’s eye, but can have various meanings in the publishing world.
To begin near the beginning, I have a fairly broad overview of Shepherd’s stories—especially his army stories. I believe I’ve listened to them over the years with some sense of understanding and appreciation (though my memory for subtle differences between his versions of the same tale is unclear).
I have a familiarity/understanding of his style of putting ideas and sentences together, leading to a sense as to when and how to adjust his improvised words into the better arrangement as he would have done in print—resulting in a more accurate and more felicitous way of putting things on the printed page as he did in his printed versions of his radio kid stories, etc. Frequently, Shepherd spinning an improvised tale on the radio makes a number of missteps that, while breezing past us on the air, become stumbling blocks when encountered on the printed page.
So, just as Shepherd insisted that his stories told on the air could not be simply transcribed for publication, but needed to be edited for the print medium, I have been involved in several tasks in order to put together a book of Shepherd stories. (I’ve previously quoted him when he responded to a comment on the Long John Nebel Show in 1968 that he might have simply transcribed from his radio broadcasts: “Have you ever seen a tape transcribed? Well come on now….’Well, you must have taped that.’ This is the last thing you can do.”)
Nevertheless, I’ve retained as much as possible of various Shepherd-on-the-radio stylistic quirks—my intent has never been to standardize Shep, but, while silently nudging where necessary, as much as possible to keep on the printed page what he says and the feel of his “voice.”
Most simply, I’ve corrected the occasional grammatical error that Shep would have caught and changed for print. Where he inadvertently misplaces a thought within a spoken paragraph and recognizes it, inserting the right idea where he can but can’t rewind a tape on a live broadcast, for clarity, I’ve lightly inserted the word or thought he spoke and clearly wants, into its proper place.
Infrequently but most disconcerting if left in print, are the times he might be distracted by his own thought process and then gets back on track. The most extreme example of this I’ve encountered, in a Shep narrative not part of his army tales, he begins with a first sentence describing an incident. He cuts to a totally different thought. He comes back and starts his introductory sentence again with slightly different wording. He diverts again. He comes back and restates his first sentence, again in different wording. He does this a total of seven times (Yes, fascinated by this, I listened again and counted), and, with the seventh repetition, finally he continues with his narrative. In print it would stand out on the page as the printed equivalent of a broken record. Reader, I deleted six of those glitches. To a much lesser extent, I’ve done the same with his army stories the few times I’ve encountered this issue.
Another habit Shepherd has when improvising stories on the radio is switching tenses—not infrequently he switches from past to present to past, not just between paragraphs—or sentences—but within single sentences! Most listeners probably don’t even notice. The listener who must put all this down on paper to be printed and read could not let this stand—it would drive most readers bananas. I devised a couple of strategies. I tried to get a sense of the story in terms of whether it seemed to more likely fit in the past or present tense, and if so, I kept to that tense. In other instances, there seemed to be a feeling for some sections of a story to be in the past, and other parts, such as dramatic action, where present tense seemed more apt. I alternated within the story, keeping to the tenses I thought most in keeping with Shepherd’s style.
I believe I’ve only done the minimum that Jean Shepherd would have done with his own work. Shepherd actually changed and augmented his audio stories when it came time for him to commit them to print publication. You can be assured that I did not do any such changing or augmenting—I wouldn’t dare! In fact, I have the impression that Shepherd made changes in his radio stories that make them very specifically written stories. Including language not permitted on the radio back then. (Folks, I did insert one word in one story that I’m sure he wanted to use but couldn’t. More on this to come.)
Maybe being so close to the process myself, I have the feeling that my transcriptions may have more of a feeling of his spoken stories than his own altered versions of stories–at least they do for me. This is by no means a judgement as to which is better, it’s just my feeling about what I’ve done–I can easily hear Shep speaking in my transcriptions. Shep’s previously printed stories, for me, seem much more written.
Of course I didn’t include every army “story.” I had to make choices. (Remember that less than half of Shepherd’s estimated 5,000 broadcasts have surfaced so far, and there’s no telling how many great stories lay hidden in the muck and mire.) I also found that a few of the existing audios of army material didn’t, for me, come together as real stories but only as less interesting anecdotes or fragments, so these were’t used. Shepherd only published a couple of his army stories in Playboy, and three out of the four of them, for my taste, are not among his best army stories. Besides that, his “Troop Train Ernie” story, not in Playboy, is readily available in his book A Fistful of Fig Newtons under the title “The Marathon Run of Lonesome Ernie, the Arkansas Traveler.” Shep’s Army has the distinction of only containing never-before-published stories.
For me, most fascinating of all, is my recognition that a chronological story of Shepherd’s fictional life in the wartime Signal Corps on the home front existed to be discovered, thought through, and organized into a rough narrative order into divisions I call “Parts.” Part one of the comprehensive story begins with induction and related first days. The following parts move through early Signal Corps schooling in Camp Crowder, Missouri,
(Camp Crowder a la Beetle Bailey)
then into many episodes in Camp Murphy, Florida during his radar experiences,
followed by some general army experiences, and then ending with an apt conclusion as he encounters some POWs and then is mustered out at last. I believe that, because novels have more prestige than a batch of short stories, Shepherd referred to his first books of stories as “novels,” but I don’t think they are. However, these army stories as a group do have a sense of progress through time and his experiences in the service—they constitute what I think of as a kind of Shep “army novel.” They come together in this book as a growing-up experience in the army for Shepherd—the fancy word for such growing-up “novels” is “bildungsroman.” That is the sense that I feel comes through in Shep’s Army.