Beyond the specifics of Shepherd’s broadcast of the March on Washington, I find it interesting to note how he inserts himself into this major American historic event. It is in his nature to do so in order to experience the event as clearly and rightly as he can, and also to then be able to express to his listeners, his personal take on the event. Shepherd is an American patriot of the best sort.
Yes, Jean Shepherd, in his broadcast, was not only a reporter of the event, he was a reporter who inserted himself into the event and made the story of the event as much a story of his attitude toward the event of August 1963. But he did not attempt to alter the event.
In October 1967, Norman Mailer, who, for Shepherd seemed to be a negative force, a rival, whom he envied for his celebrity, inserted himself into the anti-war rally known as the March on the Pentagon. The difference is that Mailer was there not only for his own interest but to write a report for publication, deciding that he would write very consciously about his own immersion as a third-person, anti-hero protagonist, affecting the event as well as he could. Many detractors of Mailer think he was a mere publicity-hound, an ego-maniac. That was part of it, but Mailer felt that, as all reporting must inevitably be a reflection of the reporter, the fact should be made manifest, and, if it would help the situation, be dramatized.
Alfred Kazin’s 5/5/68 New York Times review of Mailer’s book version of the event comments, “…a significant reason for Mailer’s impatience has also been his acute sense of the national crisis, his particular gift for detecting political deterioration–and his professional feeling that the American scene at this time may be too thorny a subject to be left to journalists. It is the coalescence of American disorder (always an obsession of Mailer’s) with all the self-confidence he feels as a novelist during reportage that has produced Armies of the Night, his extraordinary personal tract on the unprecedented demonstration of Oct. 21-23, 1967,…”
Further into his review, Kazin continues, “For all his self-dramatization, Mailer is the right chronicler of the March on the Pentagon. For there is no other writer of his ability who, feeling so deeply about this “obscene war . . . the worst war the nation has ever been in,” can yet be so aware of everything else around him–not the least the intellectual staleness of his own side….Mailer likes to be terrible, to clean all timidity, subservience and false respect out of his system. “
So, both Shepherd and Mailer are patriots, lovers of their country, and both hope their country will improve and live up to its own ideals. Both insert themselves into the event out of curiosity, patriotism, and a need to be a part of, and understand, a major historical event. They do it in ways very different from each other. Mailer’s book on the subject immediately won him high literary praise, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Award; Shepherd’s masterpiece garnered him, forty years after the event (and three-and-a-half years after his death), from his original forty-five minute broadcast, a ten-minute audio clip during the anniversary show for the event on NPR.
Shep, as well as a brass figlagee with bronze oakleaf palm,
you also deserve a Pulitzer Prize.