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:
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.”
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.
[From the E. Bruce Bergmann Collection
of Excelsior Water Bottles
housed in “The Shep Shrine”]
An important discovery of Shep’s
enigmatic being—he 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.”
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!