What a contrast in the images of the two of them! (On Shep’s Foibles and Shel’s Hairy Jazz, appearing within a few months of each other) In a full-color photo, against a white background Shepherd wears a sports jacket over a long-sleeved white shirt, closed at the neck by a tight little bow tie. His posed smile is weak and wimpy. Presumably this is they way the powers that be wanted him marketed. (With considerable wit, Shel’s front and back covers’ drawn little people undercut the cover.) Then see Shel’s photo, the unbuttoned neck of his shirt and his tangled black hair and beard, in an intense, edge-to-edge orange monochrome, in extreme close-up, seemingly shot in action, his mouth wide open in what must be a manic howl. We don’t know the inside story, but maybe Shep’s contract insisted on the conventional cover and maybe Shel’s was open-ended and allowed for the “hairy” result. whichever–the final results seem to confirm something regarding the difference of the two (covers, and careers). Note: the word “hairy” was sometimes used on the air by Shep to describe some wild-and-wooly, grundgy act/occurrence/object.
One unconventional trait they shared, although each manifested it in his own way, was a penchant for extemporaneous action. Both enjoyed improvisation. Shepherd’s great artistic glory was his ability to talk on his radio program with only the skimpiest of notes. His art-on-the-wing was jazzy improvisation, although he seemed to have organized his life much more thoughtfully. Shel lived much more unconventionally. His drawings are said to have been created and left basically unaltered in their original form as pen first touched paper. With the financial success of his books for kids, he could force his freaky forays into cringe-worthy ideas and obscenity upon his commercial associates, and he could frequently and abruptly change how to spend his creative energies and where and with whom to spend his days and nights. He did what he wanted when he wanted, although reportedly he was very focused and workmanlike when immersed in a creative project.
Shouldering a large leather mailbag as his only suitcase (so it’s said) in his travels through his three score and nine years, Shel carried little baggage up and down every happy-go-lucky hill and vale of leers and jokes. He enjoyed a rare, unencumbered luxury—he could revel in a spontaneous, perpetual childhood—to a large extent he improvised his life.
Few people ever get the chance to improvise much of anything. Shel improvised both personal life and how it affected his career. As art, his cartoons, drawings, and songs are a delight—absurd and hilarious. But his bizarre and clever kiddy poems, for all their over-the-top quirkiness and all their popularity are for me unengaging and artistically insubstantial—they lack the absurd edge of the work of a Lewis Carroll. For me, Shel should have stuck to his drawings, cartoons, and songs and to the extraordinary artifact that was his life. Evident to a careful observer, a darker outlook was often written between the lines he wrote and woven among the lines he drew. Parents showing his kid-poetry books should note this attribute.
The New York Times Book Review section, in its”Bookends” page deals with Shel’s The Giving Tree on its 50th anniversary of publication. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/books/review/the-giving-tree-tender-story-of-unconditional-love-or-disturbing-tale-of-selfishness.html?ref=books&_r=0 One columnist, Anna Holmes says she never liked the book and says that a very vocal minority of Internet site reviewers seem “to find the story an affront not just to literature but to humanity itself. “Holmes, the first columnist, describes the book: “Boy meets adoring, obliging apple tree and eventually, through a combination of utter impotence and blatant manipulation, makes ff with her branches, her trunk and, of course, the literal fruits of her labor.” She continues, “The boy uses the tree as a plaything, lives off her her like a parasite,…Readers cite it as a cautionary tale regarding both the social welfare state and the obscenity that is late-stage capitalism.” The other columnist, Rivka Galchen, feels that it is a “great book.” As she says, “The actual story doesn’t extol the tree, or endorse the boy. The tree and the boy both do the very particular they do, and say the very particular things they say, and, talking tree notwithstanding, their relationship seems emotionally realistic. She notes that the word “happy” is used many times and says, “The Giving Tree is in part a disturbing tale of unconditional love, in part a tender tale of the monsters that we are.” She ends, “Silverstein would have made it funny, if that was what it was meant to be.”
Shep should have stuck to his radio work, his decades of radio art at the highest level—a unique form of genius. His very short commentaries for a couple of radio stations were fairly scripted by corporate decree and not much longer than sound bites. But his main foray into improvisation after he left radio in 1977 was the sometimes more and sometimes less improvised Jean Shepherd’s America television episodes. Beyond that he wrote little and spoke little except for personal appearances such as an annual one at Princeton. His films, including A Christmas Story, were scripted refinements of his written stories. One wonders what happened to the earlier jazzy temperament and involvement and its creative expressions. No more “narration improvised by Jean Shepherd” as the late 1950s record of “The Clown” with jazzman Charles Mingus puts it. Improvisation? In his later years he seemed to lack both the creative opportunities and, worse, the impulse. Except for occasionally accepted phone calls and whatever ham radio contacts he made, the narrative of his life became an increasingly scripted descent into solitude— nearly incommunicado—nearly solitary self-confinement.
Where does that leave us? Shel created some fine art and triumphed in life. Shep fell short in his life but triumphed in the unequaled levels of his radio art that ended April Fool’s Day, 1977. Because current knowledge of Shep and Shel’s interactions seems confined to the early years, one wonders to what degree they remained close for the last thirty years of their lives.
How did they view each other’s increasingly divergent paths in life and art? What else are we missing of their friendship?