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JEAN SHEPHERD–“Excelsior”–enigma indeed!

I thought that, as in my previous post  I’d discussed “Excelsior” as Shep’s motto and its relationship to the Longfellow poem of that name, I’d definitively elaborated on the subject and I’d finished with it. NO!

Here’s a bit of that last post:

rocky.title

EXCELSIOR!

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.”

thurber excelssior

_______________

Avid and perceptive shepahaulic Joel Baumwoll commented on that post and what follows are illuminating post “comments” and emails between us.

JOEL: The use of the word “device” to describe the sign held by the frozen traveler is interesting. Device is defined as

1. a thing made for a particular purpose, esp. a mechanical, electric, or electronic invention or contrivance.
2. a plan, scheme, or procedure for effecting a purpose.
3. a crafty scheme; trick.
4. a word pattern, figure of speech, theatrical convention, etc., used in a literary or dramatic work to evoke a desired effect.
5. something elaborately or fancifully designed.
6. a representation or design used esp. as a heraldic charge or an emblem.
7. a motto; slogan.

Considering the way Shepherd used the word “excelsior,” definition # 3 is apropos. Shep spent a lot of time talking about illusion and disillusion. He was merciless in his commentary about how we delude ourselves, make plans we never fulfill, pursue the unreachable. I recall his talking about how many people had boxes of things stored in basements or closets, projects that were bought with the idea of building something–a model, a kit, even a house–and never opened.

It is not hard to understand his dissatisfaction with what he accomplished when you understand his grandiosity. I am reminded of a conversation I had with an engineer who was also a borderline schizophrenic who told me of his plans to design and build a bridge from the US to Europe, quite seriously and with conviction. I imagine Shep had visions of such grand achievements. Perhaps “excelsior” was his way of reminding himself to keep his feet on the ground and his knees loose while his head was in the clouds.

GENE: As for the broadcast you write of regarding having big plans in the attic that are never completed, there’s the one I write of in EYF! (see the book pages 240-242), “Dream Collection Day” [about starting to write a novel, learn how to play the guitar, etc.]

JOEL: One can infer that Shepherd had little time for idealism, if excelsior represented the ultimately futile effort to reach some unattainable goal, I guess you could say he was a realist to a painful extent. Yet he strove to achieve recognition and success on a larger scale than he had already. So perhaps he saw himself as that fellow trudging up the snowy mountain carrying the banner, and as far as he was concerned, that was what life was about.

GENE: You’re probably right that there was some of that striving up the mountain against the odds in him–another aspect of the enigma?! Probably that’s why he found the Longfellow poem so important to him–he recognized a part of himself in it.

JOEL: I think that is right.  Has to be.

GENE: Joel, I think that our interaction regarding “Excelsior” has resulted in an important discovery of Shep’s enigmatic self–he did recognize himself in the innocent fellow of the poem!

JOEL: Why was the password response to “excelsior you fathead” “seltzer bottle, you slob?”  On what was this based?

GENE: In EYF! p 217, where I discuss Excelsior, I say this about Seltzer bottle:

As for the “seltzer bottle” response one gave to “Excelsior”? It conveniently has the same “sel” sound as “Excelsior,” linking the pompous word to the common, unflavored soda at the candy story, a two-cents plain–and the self-deluding pomposity of “Excelsior” should deservedly elicit a slapstick clown’s squirt of seltzer in the face!

________________

Subsequent to the book’s publication, I encountered that “Excelsior” was the company name of a seltzer bottle company!  I now own (through ebay) a couple of the old-time bottles with the company name “Excelsior Water” on them. I imagine that at some point Shep knew of this and then maybe added “seltzer bottle”  as a response.

KYKL bottle cover

[From the E. Bruce Bergmann Collection

of Excelsior Water Bottles

housed in “The Shep Shrine”]

__________________________

An important discovery of Shep’s

enigmatic beinghe indeed recognized

himself in the innocent fellow of the poem!

__________________________

From  one of the masterpieces of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, here regarding the death of Chuckles the Clown, who, in a parade, dressed as a peanut, was killed by a rogue elephant:

Chuckles the Clown’s beloved motto:

“A little  song, a little dance–

a little seltzer down your pants.”

__________________

ENIGMA INDEED!

_______________________________________

ADDENDUM 1/18/2014

You know, Shep’s “dark side” was such a large part of his commentary on life. The failure of the intrepid climber with the Excelsior banner was one way he saw life. His love of Robert Service poetry connects with the image of the Longfellow poem. So many of Service’s poems tell tales of men done in by the icy cold in their quest for gold.

Is there also a connection between the innocent and naive striver, climbing up the icy slope with the Excelsior banner and the striving innocents featured in many of the fables of George Ade, whom Shep adored? Ade often wrote of the naive and vainglorious people who strive for recognition and admiration, only to be taken in by a slick huckster, duped by their own ambitions and blind to the dangers of the hustle.

The idea is that we are driven by our obsessive quests (BB Gun) only to discover that when we achieve them, life is more of the same, or that in the quest, we allow ourselves to buy into our illusions. Also, the object of our quest may turn out to hurt us. Like the people who warned the climber not to go on, the adults tell Ralphie “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” Undeterred by this warning, he gets his gun and nearly does shoot his eye out.

So the word Excelsior is his code for that flaw in all of us, including himself. It is his Rosebud.

  • Another great comment! I just discussed “innocent” and “naive” with Allison (I’ve got a very smart wife!) and she believes that innocent suggests just a lack of knowledge, while naive suggests the the person fails to or doesn’t want to understand the issue.

    I do think that “obsession” is a different thing–although one might be innocent or naive plus obsessed.

    _______________

    Gene, if we keep this up, you will no longer be able to call Shep an enigma. :-)

    • Realist and idealist? Isn’t that an enigma? What about this thought found in the compilation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short ideas, “The Crack Up”: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see things as hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” That would appear to be what Jean P. Shepherd sometimes attempted to do. Sounds both foolish and wonderful simultaneously–sounds confoundedly enigmatic!

    _________________________________________

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12 Comments

  1. You know, Shep’s “dark side” was such a large part of his commentary on life. The failure of the intrepid climber with the Excelsior banner was one way he saw life. His love of Robert Service poetry connects with the image of the Longfellow poem. So many of Service’s poems tell tales of men done in by the icy cold in their quest for gold.

    One of his favorite Service poems was the “Hellbound Train.” There is not much darker and scary vision than that projected by this poem, especially when Antheil’s Ballet Mechanique was playing in the background.

    The Hellbound Train

    A Texas cowboy lay down on a barroom floor,
    Having drunk so much he could drink no more;
    So he fell asleep with a troubled brain
    To dream that he rode on a hell-bound train.

    The engine with murderous blood was damp
    And was brilliantly lit with a brimstone lamp;
    An imp, for fuel, was shoveling bones,
    While the furnace rang with a thousand groans.

    The boiler was filled with lager beer
    And the devil himself was the engineer;
    The passengers were a most motly crew–
    Church member, atheist, Gentile, and Jew,

    Rich men in broadcloth, beggers in rags,
    Handsome young ladies, and withered old hags,
    Yellow and black men, red, brown, and white,
    All chained together–O God, what a site!

    While the train rushed on at an awful pace–
    The sulphurous fumes scorched their hands and face;
    Wider and wider the country grew,
    As faster and faster the engine flew.

    Louder and louder the thunder crashed
    And brighter and brighter the lightning flashed;
    Hotter and hotter the air became
    Till the clothes were burned from each quivering frame.

    And out of the distance there arose a yell,
    “Ha, ha,” said the devil, “we’re nearing hell!”
    Then oh, how the passengers all shrieked with pain
    And begged the devil to stop the train.

    But he capered about and danced for glee,
    And laughed and joked at their misery.
    “My faithful friends, you have done the work
    And the devil never can a payday shirk.

    “You’ve bullied the weak, you’ve robbed the poor,
    The starving brother you’ve turned from the door;
    You’ve laid up gold where the canker rust,
    And have given free vent to your beastly lust.

    “You’ve justice scorned, and corruption sown,
    And trampled the laws of nature down.
    You have drunk, rioted, cheated, plundered, and lied,
    And mocked at God in your hell-born pride.

    “You have paid full fair, so I’ll carry you through,
    For it’s only right you should have your due.
    Why, the laborer always expects his hire,
    So I’ll land you safe in the lake of fire,

    “Where your flesh will waste in the flames that roar,
    And my imps torment you forevermore.”
    Then the cowboy awoke with an anguished cry,
    His clothes wet with sweat and his hair standing high

    Then he prayed as he never had prayed till that hour
    To be saved from his sin and the demon’s power;
    And his prayers and his vows were not in vain,
    For he never road the hell-bound train.

    • ebbergmann says:

      Yes, good way to put it.

      I’ve checked on “The Hellbound Train,” and it’s certainly one of Shep’s favorite, but all the internet sources I’ve looked at say that the author is unknown.

  2. Is there also a connection between the innocent and naive striver, climbing up the icy slope with the Excelsior banner and the striving innocents featured in many of the fables of George Ade, whom Shep adored? Ade often wrote of the naive and vainglorious people who strive for recognition and admiration, only to be taken in by a slick huckster, duped by their own ambitions and blind to the dangers of the hustle.

    The idea is that we are driven by our obsessive quests (BB Gun) only to discover that when we achieve them, life is more of the same, or that in the quest, we allow ourselves to buy into our illusions. Also, the object of our quest may turn out to hurt us. Like the people who warned the climber not to go on, the adults tell Ralphie “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” Undeterred by this warning, he gets his gun and nearly does shoot his eye out.

    So the word Excelsior is his code for that flaw in all of us, including himself. It is his Rosebud.

    • ebbergmann says:

      Another great comment! I just discussed “innocent” and “naive” with Allison (I’ve got a very smart wife!) and she believes that innocent suggests just a lack of knowledge, while naive suggests the the person fails to or doesn’t want to understand the issue.

      I do think that “obsession” is a different thing–although one might be innocent or naive plus obsessed.

      I’m going to add much of these to sets of comments as an addendum to the main post where their value is more likely to be encountered.

  3. Shep said that his “Red Ryder” story was a metaphor for “obsession.” And Ralphie, at his tender age, could be considered both innocent and naive. The wide-eyed kid of ACS is obsessed, innocent and naive. He does not give up his quest until, finally, Santa, the court of last resort, puts a boot in his face (cruel) and as he slides down the mountain, tells him he’ll shoot his eye out. Ralphie finally gives up, and then his dream is fulfilled by his loving father. ACS portrays illusion (Little Orphan Annie’s special society and decoder ring) and disillusion (“a crummy commercial”).

    I interpret the Longfellow mountain climber as being obsessed, naive and innocent.

    To quote the excerpt from Shep about the poem you posted earlier–“And this is the story of all mankind.”

    Of whom he was one.

  4. Gene, if we keep this up, you will no longer be able to call Shep an enigma. 🙂

    • ebbergmann says:

      Realist and idealist? Isn’t that an enigma? What about this thought attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see things as hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” That would appear to be what Jean P. Shepherd sometimes attempted to do. Sounds both foolish and wonderful simultaneously–sounds confoundedly enigmatic!

  5. Well, an enigma is a person who is difficult or puzzling to understand. If we understand that he held two opposing ideas simultaneously, realist and idealist) then we understand him, hence he is no longer an enigma.

    He had a belief in human nature; that it comprised constants shared by all humans. One of these is the need to hold illusions or dreams. This, in large part, because we all know that we are going to die, thus there is an inescapable finality to life. So the need to dream and be idealistic is a way of keeping that awareness at bay.

    I recall a story he told of driving along a long, flat dark highway at night, I think in the south, and seeing religious messages about salvation and escaping damnation painted in white on rocks and barns. These reflected back at him along the interminable flat road. I think the road was his metaphor for life, and these messages offered the illusion that there was an afterlife. The Hellbound Train delivers a similar message of salvation.

    • ebbergmann says:

      I believe that although a person can be described as an enigma. an “enigma” is a quality of being a bit beyond rational understanding. So, although we might see that Shep held opposites in mind I don’t think that explains him or how opposites can be believed simultaneously. For me, such a dichotomy is still what one would call enigmatic. And, of course, there are several other characteristics of Shep beyond holding opposites in mind which also qualify as being enigmatic.

  6. Nice read. I liked Joel’s story of the engineer. We all have the sense of what our possibility is. I have thought over the years that Shep had his own sense of grandiosity – and it came from a sense of isolation. He seems to have had a difficult time with interaction in relationships- this is where we have learned about ourselves from the response and the input of others. Without this we become pretty self-absorbed and our “possibility” is either based in reality or our fantasy of what we think we are.

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