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JEAN SHEPHERD–The Hunting of the Snark



Jean Shepherd loved to express his feeling that life, in all its glorious fruitcake-variety and joys, is also, ultimately fraught with defeat and is, indeed, absurd–that was his dark side of the mood. And yet, religiously, or existentially–or mindlessly–we go on. No wonder he enjoyed Lewis Carroll’s long poem, “The Hunting of the Snark.” At last we now  have Shepherd’s broadcast reading it, from January 29. 1963. (Thanks to Jim Clavin’s for providing; recording by David Singer; provided by David Director.)

hunting_of_the_snark titlepage

hunting_of_the_snark page




What in Heaven’s–or Hell’s–name is a Snark, anyway? My dictionary says that snarky is an adjective meaning: irritable, short-tempered, irascible. It is a funny-sounding and absurd word–a word that surely Shep loved just for it’s self–as L. Carroll most certainly did. It’s a portmanteau word–a word made by merging the sound and meanings of two different words: chortle=chuckle and snort. So what is a Snark? — Might as well ask–what is a Boojum?




What is Agony?  It’s awful distress–either mental, emotional, or physical. It is a God-awful word to find describing a posy for kid-types. (But it’s not really a poem for kids.) Agony is a state experienced in Purgatory, in Hell, or in an Existential Dilemma (if you get a dilemma, make dilemma-nade.) It’s existential–ask people who enjoy talking about it–Jean Paul Sartre or Norman Mailer, or Jean Shepherd.




What’s a fit anyway? A seizure of convulsion, a sudden outburst of emotion, a sudden period of vigorous activity. Or, as my dictionary also defines it, in a way that Carroll surely and sneakily had in mind: archaic, a section of a poem or ballad.” 

A child-like, sophisticate-like fit to befuddle. That’s what this poem is. It’s a poem to tickle and terrify us all. Fits and Starts. That’s why Professor Shepherd likes it and reads it to his Class of Sophomores.

After the excitedly absurd opening theme music–the ridicledockle and delightful “Bahn Frei, ” Prof Jean Shepherd starts right in unceremoniously and without a by-your-leave, to read Lewis Carroll’s preface to his dainty ditty. (At least so suggests the present audio, with its puzzling hiccup between “Bahn Frei” and the first word of our Shep.) Here’s paragraph the first of the author’s preface:

“If–and the thing is wildly possible–the charge of writing nonsense were ever brought against the author of this brief but instructive poem, it would be based, I feel convinced, on the line

‘Then the bowspirit got mixed with the rudder sometimes:

Between  the preface and the poem, our shepherd adds only, “And now the poem. A little Gothic music if you will.” He reads it with passion-he reads it with love-he reads it as though-he-were-inspired-by-something-Above.


“To pursue it with forks and hope.”

And in “Fit the Fifth” our shepherd breaks in. Hard to believe, isn’t it? He reads the fifth verse of that “Fit the Fifth”:

But the valley grew narrow and narrower still,

And the evening got darker and colder,

Till (merely from nervousness, not from good will)

They marched along shoulder to shoulder.

Then he says:     “I repeat that passage. Does it sound like recent history?”

But the valley grew narrow and narrower still,

And the evening got darker and colder,

Till (merely from nervousness, not from good will)

They marched along shoulder to shoulder.

Good gracious! What was happening in the real world just before this January 1963 broadcast?

Oct 14th: US U-2 espionage planes locate missile launchers in Cuba. Oct 22nd: JFK imposes naval blockade on Cuba. Oct 26th: JFK warns Russia US will not allow Soviet missiles to remain in Cuba. Oct 28th:Cuban missile crisis ends after JFK and Khrushchev make a public and secret agreement. Of some note: During the scary/snarky period of October 1962, both the US and USSR performed  several nuclear tests both underground and above ground.

Other than for the JFK assassination, I can’t remember Shepherd commenting directly or indirectly on political or other current events other than about such superficial stuff as the NY Worlds Fair.

Not often (if ever before) has Jean Shepherd devoted an entire broadcast–first word to last–on a single work by someone else. He reads the finale:

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,

In the midst of his laughter and glee,

He had softly and suddenly vanished away–

For the snark was a Boojum, you see.

And under the last few words there arises a faint fiddling sound–a Baroque  ensemble–and Shepherd speaks:

Let me tell you, that ought to be required reading for the undergraduates twice a year. Along with the Army General Orders. Along with, I would say, the War Department Memos regarding suitable dress, along with–yes, I can think of several other things. “Snark was a Boojum, you see.” Heh, heh, heh, heh.

You think Lewis Carroll wrote nonsense, do you? It’s fascinating what they call nonsense. They call Lewis Carroll nonsense, and they call Herman Wouk sense. Well, the way I figure it, you takes your chances, you gamble, you put your money down–sometimes you win and sometimes you loses, you know. That’s the way….”but I didn’t have no luck, you see.” Inch this way, inch that way. It’s all a matter of luck. Just keep your glove oiled, dad. Keep your knees loose, and keep your spikes sharp. [“Bahn Frei,” in its self-confident pomposity arises and plays itself out till the end.]

The dark and scary humor must have really impressed him. I understand that it’s his kind of thing. Something childlike and funny in its sound and something dark and realistic in it surrealism. (It just occurred to me that Herman Melville might have titled his epic THE GREAT WHITE SNARK.) I find Snark” infinitely above the entertaining Service stuff he sometimes reads with relish and piccalilli. “Snark” he reads with some of the same style he does with the Service material but with more control and, for me, just the right amount of enthusiasm and emotion warranted by Carrroll’s superior art. Unexpected and colossal this “Snark,” a broadcast to remember!




The fits have been read

and it’s time now for bed.

You wonder what dreams have in store–

will you snivel a bit or guffaw?

Now you’ll weep and you’ll quake

 till the family’s awake.

You’ll gasp and you’ll shiver and shudder–

and go crying-out-loud fer yer mudder.



1 Comment

  1. Stephen Roga says:

    I’m currently listening to some of the tapes I purchased and one is about a museum of contemporary history. In addition to the car JFK was assassinated in he speaks of seeing the Nixon-Kennedy debate sets at the Today Show and the LaGuardia parade car. He also offers artifacts from Churchhill (last bourbon glass, unused box of cigars) and Truman as items that would excite the public.


    Date: Thu, 20 Feb 2014 14:10:14 +0000

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