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Home » Army Life and Stories » JEAN SHEPHERD–Where’s the dialog?

JEAN SHEPHERD–Where’s the dialog?

Everyone who has had any contact with me–personally, through my books, through my emails, through this blog–must know what a strong enthusiast of Jean Shepherd’s work I am. So why is it, that at times, I get so disappointed?

eb face graphic

Why? In relation to what I believe are tens of thousands of Shepherd fans still alive and being born and converted to the cause, why are there still: not enough book reviews and sales? not enough visitors to this blog? not enough general discussion and even controversy regarding Shepherd’s life and work through the blog, emails, and Facebook pages devoted to him? Yup. All that.

Here’s a bit of what I wrote on the home page’s “ABOUT” part of this SHEPQUEST blog:

“I encourage everyone to submit ideas, information, and questions to this blog

so we can all learn by participating

in open discussions regarding every aspect

of Shepherd’s creative world.”

Where are the ideas, information, and questions? I’m grateful for the few Shep fans, such as Joel Baumwoll, who sometimes respond with comments.  Regarding my post about Shep maintaining his comic take on the world around him,

Joel wrote:

“This aspect of Shep’s work had a huge influence on me from the age of 15, to now (73).  He taught me to see the world as a giant circus, with humor in so much of it.  This has sustained me and given me the ability to enjoy the most mundane experiences, like riding on a bus and watching and listening to people around me.  I am grateful to Shep for this gift.”

I responded:

“I like your comment. I just remembered a ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ cartoon strip panel I’ve been saving for many years. Hobbes, the toy tiger, says to Calvin, ‘I suppose if we couldn’t laugh at things that don’t make sense, we couldn’t react to a lot of life.’ ”

YES.

Little things like these interactions,

plus my tenacity, pure pleasure I get out of it,

and the strong superego instilled in me by my parents,

keep me invigorated and keep me plunging ahead

with my trusty EXCELSIOR banner held high.

Shel's excelsior drawing

(Part of Shel Silverstein’s drawing for Shep’s LP

“Jean Shepherd and other Foibles.”)

______________________________

Gang, what got me started on this? The other day, being the self-centered egotist that I am, I checked out (not for the first time, as one might imagine) the Customer Reviews of SHEP’S ARMY on http://www.amazon.com. As I encountered a reader’s statement I saw was inaccurate, I responded. Several comments volleyed back and forth across the net. What follows is  the reader’s review followed by some further comments. The reader calls himself “Phred.” Phred is unknown to me–he is a listener and a reader.

___________________________

PHRED’s REVIEW

Enter the storyteller. It is his job to remember not merely great events or funny punchlines; but also to make real the common events that remind the old and illuminate for the young what the business of living is about. This is the role that Jean Shepherd took up and in which he excelled. Most people met Jean Shepherd via his very successful movie Christmas Story A Christmas Story . The movie is drawn from several of his published short stories and is narrated by Jean AKA “Shep”.

I had first come to know of Jean Shepherd either through his brief television show Jean Shepherd’s America or the WOR New York portion of his radio days. His was a time when talk radio did not have to be shock jock or political storm and thunder. The great skill of Jean Shepherd both in his published works and in his live radio broadcasts was not merely that he placed you into a world you may not have known but you share his passion for that world.

Shep’s Army is a set of transcripts from Jean Shepherd’s radio shows focused on his Army experiences in World War II. He served as an enlisted man about as far from the fighting front as anyone stationed in America could be. Transcript editor Eugene B. Bergmann writes the introduction Shep’s stories are not to be read as strictly autobiography. Even so the apparent confusion over whether Shepherd served in the Army Signal Corps or the occasionally mentioned `mess kit repair company’ is clearly confusion on the editors part. Anyone with direct military experience would recognize that the mess kit repair company was an inside joke invented by someone in his company to cut off the repetitive questions civilians might ask of a Signal Corps Radar operator.

In roughly 30 stories Shep relates the boredom, the largely unwanted alternatives to boredom and the arbitrary existence of a war time EM (enlisted man). Because these were radio broadcasts he works hard to avoid the authentic crude language of that life. Even so you come to feel the cold and the tension of his experience.
Shep’s Army is not humor. It can be funny, it is also disconcerting. The two things come across consistently . Firstly, how completely different being in uniform is from being out. Secondly, Shep’s loneliness. Nowhere in here is the talk of instant, lifelong comradeship. This is not the stuff of typical military hijinks that might lampoon his disordered experiences. This is the panoply of human reactions to a highly ordered life that was meant to prepare you for unexpected events.

Shep’s Army allows you to experience the humorous and the ordinary. Lighter stories tend to be highly detailed and explained. Tragic and near tragic events tend to be more simply described, allowing you to see them in stark contrast. This is good story telling. These are the honest tales of an observant story teller.

_____________________

COMMENTS POSTED REGARDING THE REVIEW

Thank you, Phred, for the thoughtful description of Shepherd’s army stories as I transcribe and edit them in this book. In my introduction, I note that Shepherd “sometimes claimed to have been in a mess kit repair company, whose insignia was mess kits with crossed forks on a background of SOS. (Anyone needing a definition of SOS should ask a soldier about creamed chipped beef on toast.)” I state this in a totally straightforward fashion in what I assumed could be clearly understood by the reader (as it must have been by Shep’s listeners), as an obvious joke on Shepherd’s part. Phred comments that, “the apparent confusion over whether Shepherd served in the Army Signal Corps or the occasionally mentioned `mess kit repair company’ is clearly confusion on the editors part.” I am not at all confused. Maybe the description of “mess kits with crossed forks on a background of SOS” is not, by itself, as obviously humorous and absurd a mental image as Shep or I understood it to be. I had thought that my parenthetical comment that one should ask a soldier about creamed chipped beef on toast would slyly and sufficiently underscore Shepherd’s joke. My bad!
Again, thank you for extensive comments on the book.      EXCELSIOR! Eugene B. Bergmann
Phred says:

Thank you for taking the time to explain . Perhaps between us the joke will be understood by all.
I look froward to reading more of the newly published transcriptions of Jean Shepherd’s radio broadcasts.
As for reading even more published transcription than one finds in SHEP’S ARMY, I have more similar manuscripts of Shep broadcasts ready to go–all I need is a publisher’s OK. [This means that I am looking for a publishing contract.] In the meantime, for those not aware of my previous book, see its nearly 500 pages of description and appreciation of Shepherd’s creative world, with many interviews and illustrations:Excelsior, You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd. Cheers!
Phred says:

FYI
There is a lot of experience that suggests that dialog between a reviewer and a writer,or in your case an editor is fraught with the most likely outcome being tears.Luckily we both share a respect for and a certain nostalgia for Jean Sheppard. To the degree one can rely on memory, there are a number of Jean Shepherd collections beyond the two or three others I have read. My reading list is long but thanks to you I am more likly to get back to JS soon. From your remarks, I am guessing that there exists nothing like a true JS biography(?) Some one out there is missing the chance to travel the heartland of America to gather the documents and interview the few remaining who can remember. JS cared for lots of what America was like as the “Great Generation” crossed the digital divide. I suspect he had little patience for the first term and had a love hate relationship with the later. Likewise I suspect he had fierce political opinions and little tolerance for a politics of no middle ground. Anyway thank you for sharing in such a positive and helpful manner.

True, there is no actual Jean Shepherd biography. My EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! is frequently described as such, but to my mind that book is a description and appreciation of Shep’s creative work. (See page 14 of that book for my statement regarding this.)
As for a straightforward biography, I don’t believe a comprehensive one could ever have been done, and I don’t believe it would have much of interest to say beyond the great creative life he had. (Shepherd did a very good job in hiding and distorting the straight biographical facts of his life.)
On the other hand, a documentary film maker is indeed doing extensive interviewing these days in order to preserve good material about Shepherd for all of us who would enjoy additional biographical material. I help him in whatever way I can, and I hope he will produce a work that will measure up to his dreams! FYI: For more of my thoughts and info on Shep, see my blog, which I’ve now posted on over 70 times since February–http://www.shepquest.wordpress.com
Tom McGee says:

Excellent review, it was thoughtful, clear, informative and helpful. Great job! You have my vote! Tom
AC says:

Phred,What a fantastic (and fascinating) review (and what a treat to have such a terrific exchange in the Comments section — and with the Editor, no less!)…Thank you for introducing me to someone whose work I was unfamiliar with, and now look forward to exploring (and enjoying).Thank you so much…
_____________________
Oh yes!
My spirit jumps for joy at these humble exchanges.
I hope our Shep’s spirit also responds.
Shep-HowardJ.'s
_________________________________________________________________________
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9 Comments

  1. mygingerpig says:

    Gene, If your blog did not require registration to post a comment, you would double your responses.

    shepquest wrote:

    > ebbergmann posted: “Everyone who has had any contact with me–personally, > through my books, through my emails, through this blog–must know what a > strong enthusiast of Jean Shepherd’s work I am. So why is it, that at times, I > get so disappointed? Why? In relation to what ” >

  2. mygingerpig says:

    Reading the transcripts of these stories was enjoyable. They also gave me an appreciation for Sheps writing skills. When he said he slaved over the written work to get it to read like the spoken words, that becomes clear when one reads the transcripts without his voice, inflections and timing. His writing is fluid and reads as though he were talking to you.

    The transcripts, which are from his actual talking to you do not have those qualities.

    I wonder if you felt that, Gene, after spending so much time with the recordings. (This is not to take anything away from the value of reading them in your book).

    Joel Baumwoll

    shepquest wrote:

    > ebbergmann posted: “Everyone who has had any contact with me–personally, > through my books, through my emails, through this blog–must know what a > strong enthusiast of Jean Shepherd’s work I am. So why is it, that at times, I > get so disappointed? Why? In relation to what ” >

  3. Shepblog says:

    Reading the transcripts of these stories was enjoyable. They also gave me an appreciation for Shep�s writing skills. When he said he slaved over the written work to get it to read like the spoken words, that becomes clear when one reads the transcripts without his voice, inflections and timing. His writing is fluid and reads as though he were talking to you.

    The transcripts, which are from his actual talking to you do not have those qualities.

    I wonder if you felt that, Gene, after spending so much time with the recordings. (This is not to take anything away from the value of reading them in your book).

    Joel Baumwoll

    • ebbergmann says:

      I am surprised that you find that, Joel. My sense of it all is that, although I and most other Shep enthusiasts have always felt that his edited/worked-over radio transcripts that he published in print seem like him talking on the radio, I’ve had to rethink this. Now that I’ve transcribed/edited SHEP’S ARMY and two other book-length manuscripts of his spoken words, I find that my lightly edited transcripts (which, indeed, are far closer to what he said than are his extensively reworked, published stories based on his radio talk), are, in feeling, far more like his spoken words. In that comparison, just as he himself apparently wanted and felt, his printed versions are basically “written” (and are in a form that he liked to think of as his “novels,” aka (printed) literature.
      Jim Clavin’s amazon.com customer review comments: “It doesn’t take long once you start each chapter to switch from reading to ‘hearing’ Shep as you turn the pages.” (I do understand that Jim’s comment may in part be a compliment to me as a fellow-worker in the unending field of Shep-work.)
      The Publishers Weekly reviewer, to my great pleasure, says, “…a presentation that, against the odds, captures the energy of an oral telling.”
      Certainly these three feelings about the matter (Jim, PW, and me) are not definitive. I’d love to get more comments on this matter, and, Joel, as I respect your knowledge of Shep, I take your comparison seriously, even though, as of now, I disagree.

  4. shepblog says:

    Perhaps I might rephrase my comment to say that the transcripts do capture his spoken presentation much more realistically than do his writings. The writings have a smoothness and fluidity that is not in the ts or in his oral presentation. His oral presentation is full of pauses, detours, interruptions and interruptions of them. They oftem hopscotch ultimately coming back to the starting theme. So I modify my comment to say that I can see how hard Shep worked on his written presentation by comparing them to these transcriptions.

    • ebbergmann says:

      Yes, I agree, of course, as you say: “The writings have a smoothness and fluidity that is not in the ts or in his oral presentation.” They are professionally written, and that’s fine. I like the transcriptions I made better because they do have the sometimes awkwardness–and feeling–of his spoken word. Of course there was no way I was going to attempt to rewrite Shep for the page–sacrilege–only he had a right to do that!

  5. shepblog says:

    Your book is great on several levels. It demonstrates Shep’s point that he slaved over his writing to get it to ” sound” right, and they were not just transcripts of his oral presentations. I imagine those of us who know his voice experience your book differently than those who don’t.

    • ebbergmann says:

      Thanks. I hope you’re suggesting that my more direct transcripts of what he said (along with my use of sentence structure, etc.) give a useful feel for the sound of his voice.

  6. mygingerpig says:

    I am not sure that a reader who does not know his voice could get a “useful feel” for it by reading these transcripts. Given that I know his voice so well, I impose that on the transcripts. My point is to wonder if a reader does not know his voice, the transcripts might seem rough, meandering, kind of choppy. They reveal what he meant when he was asked if his books were transcripts of his programs, he said (I think) –“No, did you ever read a transcript of how you talk?” He went on to explain how hard he worked to write these stories and make them seem as though he were talking to the reader. This is not meant as a criticism of your work, Gene, but an observation that you made possible by doing them.

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