Home » Comments about Shep » JEAN SHEPHERD—Caveat Auditor

JEAN SHEPHERD—Caveat Auditor

+++++++++++Truth, Fiction, & Friction+++++++++++

+++++++++++Truth, Fiction, & Friction+++++++++++

These days the separation between truth and fiction is a battle line, even though most of us have entered the no-man’s-land in an ever-widening conflict, and we mostly accept that there’s a bit of fiction in every reported fact. Many decades ago I believed Shepherd when he told his stories. A near-contemporary of mine says he always realized that the stories were fiction. My understanding now is that Shep’s stories were basically fiction, but I read missives to me from people who believe his kid stories and army stories (as per my SHEP’S ARMY) are basically true to fact. I’m steadfast in believing them to be fiction, yet with equal surety, I believe that almost all of Shepherd’s travel narratives are true to the facts of his experiences.

TRUTH = FICTION                  FICTION = TRUTH

Ever think that a row of plus signs [++++++++++] sorta looks like barbed wire?


Most people must now be aware of some of the various disagreements these days regarding such tellers of supposedly “true tales” as David Sedaris, Spalding Gray, some “This American Life” guests, Mike Daisey (especially in regard to his popular and controversial performances of his The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,”)  and Jean Shepherd. Somewhere I quoted the title of a book I’d recently read: The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story! by Jan Harold Brunvand. Add to that the opening paragraph of the book The Story is True—The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories by Bruce Jackson: “Without an informing idea, the details of real life are clutter, noise, chaos. We need an idea given form for things to make sense. And that’s what stories are: ideas given form, ideas given breath.” Do I upset many by saying that when Jesus told a parable, many/most, these days, understand that he told a made-up story to illustrate a larger truth? Some believe that the entire Judeo-Christian Bible is a fantastic, wondrous metaphor/parable.

Descend to the world of human authors. David Sedaris’ “true stores” about his family and other matters, once claimed to be factual, are now admitted to have fiction blended into the mix. I’ve only just become aware of the uproar regarding the Daisey performances of his The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” during which he reportedly had delivered to the audience statements that “This is a work of non-fiction” but in which it’s become known that some of the damning evidence presented was hearsay (though reportedly true).

Daisey is quoted as saying, “I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theatre that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means.” In Internet exchanges, one commented, “….journalists such as Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe often fabricated or changed elements of their work to make a better story.”


Some internet comments regarding Daisey’s “Steve Jobs” performances

“If Mike Daisey had presented his work not as exact, journalistic truth, but as a theatrical interpretation of events, it would have been different. Had he even said that it’s basically, essentially true but it’s a story, it’s theatrical, and it’s an assemblage of events, it would have been fine. But again and again he said that everything in his monologue was true. And that was a lie. He misrepresented his work, and that undermined its essential truth.”

“I feel annoyed and disappointed in and for Daisey, but most importantly, I think that when I see a piece of THEATER, no matter HOW it is billed, it is CAVEAT EMPTOR. This is not a lecture being presented at a college during a conference on ethics in business. It is a theater piece, written by an actor, to be entertaining as well as informative, and…I can tell you that I take the words “this is a work of non-fiction” stated in a theatrical monologue context as fairly elastic.”

“His sin is not being upfront with the “This American Life” people who were ready to take his piece as journalism. But outside of that, what are his crimes? He can construct his monologue however he wants, and you are free to see it or not see it, believe all of it, some of it, or none of it. He is not testifying before a senate subcommittee, he has not been sworn in under oath. He is not a reporter, he is not the employee of a trusted new organization. He is an actor and playwright. He put on a play.”


Some may find these disputes infuriating.  One part of me finds all this replay-with-variations annoying—but another part of me enjoys the interplay of battling attitudes on this subject. In a related matter, recently I decided to find out a bit more about Spalding Gray (The immediate impulse motivated by encountering on the de-cataloged rack at my local library, a paperback book for sale: Swimming to Cambodia, by Spalding Gray transcribed from his live performances made into a film. I bought it and read it with great pleasure. A dime very well spent.) I quote from James Leverett’s introduction:

“When he first sat down behind a modest wooden table, took an almost calibrated sip from a glass of water and began to read from his journals about memories of early erections and the death of pets, Gray surely did not realize that his experiment would become the focal point of a vast range of performance art which would dominate New York’s Soho and other bastions of the artistic vanguard during the 1970s. He became a major influence in that work, praised as an original by some, damned as a perpetrator of the “me-decade” by others. (After all! A guy sitting at a table just talking about himself!) [eb Note: The last part, in parentheses, is by Leverett, originally printed in brackets and changed by me so as not to confuse. I hope you’re not confused.]

“It would be incorrect to think that these early monologues, eight in all, could be written down and served up end-to-end to total a neat autobiography. All are impressionistic; all weave back and forth in time and place to form tapestries of intertwining themes and imagery which only occasionally reveal a strand of sequential narrative.”

Leverett continues, “It has gradually become Gray’s chosen lot simultaneously to live his life and to play the role of Spalding Gray living his life, and to observe said Gray living his life in order to report on it in the next monologue. Perhaps this hall of mirrors, this endless playoff between performance and reality, has always been the situation of the artist.” Leverett concludes his introduction with:

“This is a recording. For the first time, Gray’s odyssey has been taken down. What in his monologues has always seemed to be writing, hovering just above the little table from which he performs, is now written. We lose the wry, desultory, curious living presence of a master storyteller. But we gain the opportunity to make our own replays again and again, and to take the measure of an achievement that seems to grow with each encounter—perhaps even to epic proportions.”


We Shepherd enthusiasts can be forgiven if we nod and smile knowingly, recognizing that much of what’s in the introduction to Gray’s work, with just a bit of adjustment, could be said of Shepherd, who began doing similar things (plus a large variety of other entertaining bits and pieces) two decades earlier. Gray was not a born-again-twin to Shepherd, but his bloodline definitely arose from the same extended family.

A major difference between Shepherd and his “descendants” should be noted: Most others, whether as performers and/or as reporters, tell untruths that make a difference in our understanding of real-life and historical events; mostly, Jean Shepherd fictionalized mere details about himself and much of his thought-to-be stories about himself, not the world beyond himself. So his kid stories and army stories almost entirely affect only our view of Shep’s personal history–and only affect larger parts of our understanding of the world in that some of these stories are parables–the same sort that (oh, Heaven forgive me!) Jesus sometimes spoke in parables to give us aspects of his world view in his sermons.

Shepherd expanded his performing role into other media, but in so doing, he altered the form of his monologs. Jean Shepherd’s America modified his radio role into television, but most of his other media forays were his radio persona and stories kidnapped and re-engendered into different venues for other audiences. Shepherd’s descendants do not in the main perform on the radio. They have found other areas for their work–stage, film, even the Internet–into which they continue the format of talking to us about themselves, about ourselves, and about everything else.

TRUTH = FICTION                  FICTION = TRUTH


+++++++++++CAVEAT AUDITOR+++++++++++




  1. Lorrie says:

    Did Jean Shepherd write a very witty story called Camp Wabanabawocky? If so, what magazine did it appear in? Was it an old Playboy mag?

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