WHY SHEP’S “EXCELSIOR” REFERS
NEARLY EXCLUSIVLY TO
THE LONGFELLOW POEM
Shepherd’s various offhand mentions of his use of the word “Excelsior’s” have no point regarding something he would choose to be his motto representing his attitude toward the world. All but one are shallow. For example, “Excelsior” is the name of a fireworks company—mentioned during shows about the Fourth of July on 7/4/1975 and 7/3/1976. This is just a reference to the subject of the show and has no relevance to the essential Shep (Unless, as I think about it, fireworks themselves contain an ironic idea–our enjoyment of the stuff is inseparable from the potentially dangerous explosions which cause our delight.) Here’s a comment from Excelsior, You Fathead!:
But why did Shepherd choose to make it the important motto of his professional life? It fit perfectly with his consistent thinking embodied in the following [from a broadcast of his]:
And of course, the aphorisms. The aphorisms are a substitute for really looking at the world or/and thinking about it. And so wisdom today has become a kind of mixing around shifting of all these various little aphoristic, jingoistic ideas. “Every day in every way I grow better and better.” Why, this is obviously not true. Patently untrue. Every day in every way, each of us grows older and older. And the glands grow less and less active. The muscles grow less and less ready. Every day in every way, however, on the other hand, “I grow better and better.” And the mind grows more and more like a concrete block—in most people’s cases. Nevertheless, they repeat, “Every way, every day, I grow better and better.”
Yes, the notion, implied in the Longfellow poem, that “Excelsior” somehow means that we must strive onward and upward in some ideal world where the most unrealistic idea will persevere, represented for Shepherd the absurdity of the wide-eyed youth climbing foolhardily onward, pursuing the idea of success despite common sense. Everything is always improving, getting better, and if we only just carry on, we will assuredly prevail. Eternal self-delusion.
As in other circumstances, Shepherd did not exclude himself–in his promotion of one of his favorite sponsors, the Paperbook Gallery in the Village, he said that listeners who exclaimed “Excelsior, you fathead” to the cashier would be given a free pin with the phrase on it, and then he continued:
You know what “Excelsior” means, don’t you? We will not go any further. “Excelsior” has a really deep hidden meaning in our lives, and certainly in my life. As I lie on those snowy slopes, holding the sign up, with the touch of frozen North upon my brow, and the elderly farmer looking down on me—“You know what happened there, he died with the word ‘Excelsior’ on his lips.” [Laughs.]
And of course, what is the countersign? When you hear that password belted out at you, you just look the guy right in the eye and say “Seltzer bottle, you slob.” And you walk your separate ways. You never look back. Now, you want to know where that strange password comes from? [Pause. He reads verses from the Longfellow poem. For the full text, see the beginning of my EYF!] There now, you see where that comes from? [Laughs.] Yeah… As you clamber up the icy slopes, reaching forever, reaching, grasping eternally, forever, at that shifting cloud of reason, that chimera that seems to just drift out of your reach each time you grasp for it. And it moves further and further away. Excelsior!
Defeated by one’s own baseless optimism. The poem, with its sentimentality, is a quintessential example of what Shepherd referred to as “glop.” Yes, “a banner with the strange device.” The perfect Jean Shepherd ironic motto.
That, for him, represented all of humanity’s fate–including his own. Maybe convincing himself sometimes that his efforts would result in justified fulfillment.
Here is a quote found just a couple of years ago (on a tape among Lois Nettleton’s effects), from a Shepherd show of late 1958:
It’s like this kid jumping up out of the crowd at the University of Pennsylvania and yelling, “All right, Shepherd, What is the word then? Give us the word!”
What is the word? “Excelsior?” Would you like to go up that mountainside? Probably the parallel of it is this lone stranger carrying and baring the placard that read “Excelsior” as he moved up the mountainside and the peasant said, “Don’t go, don’t go,” And from the high, thin, thin air above the village could be heard the tiny, tiny wail, “Excelsior,” and sure enough, he was found in the morning frozen to death but nevertheless he had there next to him the sign that read enigmatically, “Excelsior.” And this is the story of all mankind.
I REST MY CASE
Ah, but there’s more.
I’ve encountered several parodies of the “Excelsior” poem,
which show that Shepherd was not alone
in finding the poem absurd in its eternal glop:
American humorist James Thurber, reprinting parts of the poem in his book The Thurber Carnival (See under “Excelsior” in http://www.flicklives.com ) illustrated those parts with an eye toward silliness:
English humorist Edward Lear, famous for his limericks, did a parody and illustrated it:
At break of day I had a dream
Methought I heard an awful scream
And a great pig with a claw of ice
Showed in the world this strange device
There in the twilight, cold and grey
Lifeless but beautiful he lay
And solemn voices seem to say
Fresh pork and sausages today
English poet A. E. Housman wrote a parody:
“Beware the pass,” the old man said,
My bold, my desperate fellah;
Dark lowers the tempest overhead,
And you’ll want your umbrella;
And the roaring torrent is deep and wide–
You may hear how loud it washes.”
But still that clarion voice replied:
I’ve got my old galoshes.”
Last, and maybe most absurd, the television cartoon Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends (in 1959, Season 2, Episode 18), in a segment called “Bullwinkle’s Corner (poetry for demented youth),” did a parody, begun with the title, which, at the top of this most educational post, is gloriously depickled .
“Hello there, culture gang. Today’s poem is ‘Excelsior’
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
The shades of night were falling fast….”
As he continues the poem, Bullwinkle charges up the mountain.
At mountaintop, Rocky approaches Bullwinkle:
Rocky: “‘Pray tell me,’ said a mountaineer,
‘What in the world you’re doing here
And why you climb up here so high
Just to give that silly cry?'”
Rocky: “That’s the one!”
Bullwinkle: “The answer came both quick and blunt–
‘It’s just an advertising stunt.
I represent Smith, Jones, and Jakes,
a lumber company that makes–
You see, for those poor young folk who have always lived in a bubble-wrapped world: the real stuff (not the kind made of plastic), used for protective packaging (the stuff the “Leg Lamp” was swaddled in), is a kind of thin, noodle-like shaving, a wood product:
So remember, gang, although ol’ Shep had some happy and illusion-filled moments
of his own (some of which, happily, came to fruition),
as he put it in one of his less-than-joyous moods,
in reference to that meaningful word
(and not at all referring to wood shavings):
“And this is the story of all mankind.”
With this downer–so to speak–the curtain drops.
(See dropped curtain immediately below.)