The following short piece I’ve used before, but it belongs near the front of the “book” of Shep’s travels:
SHEP AND TWAIN FOR TRAVEL—THE INNOCENTS ABROAD
Regarding American humor, Jean Shepherd has always been proud of his lineage going back to Mark Twain. In 1869 Twain published his book, The Innocents Abroad, a quirky, true/fiction commentary. His experiences and the ironic tone he took toward American and European culture, plus his characterization of American tourists faced with far-off oddities and treasures, makes his and Shepherd’s takes on travel mostly unlike each other—not the closest of kin here, they seem rather like distant cousins.
Yet, Shepherd would probably be pleased to find a link between himself and his revered forebear in a sentence from Twain’s preface to The Innocents Abroad. Shepherd might have written it for his own book of travel tales: “I offer no apologies for any departures from the usual style of travel writing that may be charged against me—for I think I have seen with impartial eyes, and I am sure I have written at least honestly, whether wisely or not.” With his own distinctive brand of wit, Shepherd shares with Twain his sharp-eyed observations and a penchant for truth.
Samuel Clemens–never an innocent!
Thank you, Glenn Young, for starting my thinking about what subjects of Jean Shepherd’s decades of radio broadcasts would be prime targets for a book. After Shepherd’s kid stories and army stories, his travel narratives are best. They are an untapped and insufficiently appreciated area of his creative work.
Near the end of his life, responding to a call-in listener on an interview program, Shepherd said that the listener was the only one who had ever expressed good feelings about his travel stories. His general attitude and downright grumpiness during the program must surely have led to this negative comment. It’s hard to believe that Shepherd believed it because it is clearly untrue. Many have responded favorably to these narratives, but the media and interviewers seldom if ever mention them. They are another of the multitude of subjects Shep talks about and deserves more recognition for, but somehow they are frequently overlooked despite their excellence and the enjoyment they provide.
Listening to dozens of audios of his radio broadcasts and contemplating Shepherd’s trips, I did research through the internet and in books focusing on travel. The book that I found most useful as an overview of a subject that I knew little about was Tourists with Typewriters—Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing by Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan, (The Michigan University Press, 1998). Although some of it eluded me because of what I found to be its overly scholarly style and arcane terminology, the introduction enlightened and entertained me greatly. Neophyte that I am regarding travel writing, I learned a lot, including that Shepherd’s distinction between lesser mortals as mere tourists and himself as a traveler has been a self-anointed distinction of many for years. There are endless quibbles on each side of the issue. Yet, the distinction holds true for Jean Shepherd, who, regarding all human activities, inevitably considers himself and his dedicated enthusiasts to be a “tiny embattled minority” with discriminating sensibilities. After reading Shepherd’s idiosyncratic narratives, one must agree that he’s not your common tourist. He definitely is, for all the best reasons, a traveler.
As always, certain people and sources in the world of Jean Shepherd were invaluable for their information and help: Jim Clavin and his Shepherd site www.flicklives.com; Max Schmid and his dissemination of Shep audios through WBAI-FM and www.oldtimeradio,com; the iTunes podcast, brassfiglagee, with its hundreds of Shepherd radio audios. Special thanks to a collector of Shepherd audios who asks to remain anonymous.
I thank my wife, Allison Morgan Bergmann and our sons Evan and Drew, for their continued tolerance of my Shep-obsession. Especially, I thank Allison for her astute comment regarding a content issue, which I would have bollixed up had it not been for her valuable advice.
TRAVELING WITH JEAN PARKER SHEPHERD, ADVENTURER
This is a book of one-of-a-kind adventures around the world—far-flung, unexpected and idiosyncratic, told by the acute observer and humorist the New York Times referred to as a raconteur and wit. Travel is but one focus of Jean Shepherd’s personal passions. The range of interests for which Shepherd has a comment can’t be encapsulated in a few words—or even in a few books. Thus, this is not an objective book in a consistent style about travel, nor is it created by a professional teller of travel stories who sets out to concoct any kind of travel opus. It is an expression over the years by a major story-teller regarding one of the great enthusiasms of his life.
Although Shepherd recognizes the impossibility of pure objectivity, he tries to enter an environment—a situation—with an open mind, with the goal not of judging or gathering material for a book or for his radio broadcasts (though this last is an added bonus). Whether walking down a New York City street as he might describe it on his many-faceted radio shows, or seeking the unexpected and the enigmatic—wherever in the world he can find it, he observes and absorbs for the intellectual and emotional thrill of it. He has a lust for encountering the unknown, so he goes where he goes because the places offer him intriguing experiences, and, as an obsessive raconteur, he believes that his audience will find his observations informative and entertaining. Jean Shepherd describes his adventures around the world to his radio listeners, who delight in what he has to say about any subject, who expect to learn something new and unexpected, and who are certain that they will be entertained.
He knows how to tell tales full of delightful combinations of observation, commentary, wonderment, and wit, expressed in a conversational and mostly improvised manner. Occasionally, going lighter on the drama, he will slow down the pace with a rich, poetic evocation, as he does when describing Ireland.
A Dublin pub (as denoted on the Internet–so it must be so!)
Scattered throughout Jean Shepherd’s radio programs broadcast in New York City and heard throughout half the country from early 1956 to April, 1977 are dozens devoted to the various trips he made. He describes such unusual experiences as traveling on a U. S. warship engaged in quelling unrest in Lebanon; touring the British countryside while sharing hotel rooms with The Beatles; and spending a week with former headhunters of the Peruvian Amazon. Shepherd’s travel descriptions vary from enticing vignettes, full-fledged narratives, occasional listings of facts and unexpected insights, to a couple of wide-eyed fantasies that, in their obvious absurdities —and truths—pointedly illuminate our foibles and delusions.
[More of the intro to come]