Well, “Part 6” and the book’s introduction is still in progress on these posts! I hope that the comments I make in it will create a happy sense of anticipation, as will the large variety of subjects/geographical locations to be explored as per the table of contents. I’ll try to enliven the gray matter of text with illustrations when I can find something appropriate. (NOTE: more or less appropriate.)
Jean Shepherd loves to talk, and especially, he loves to talk about himself—his thoughts, observation, experiences, often to convey information and feelings to others. As he puts it on the air after his sojourn to the Amazon, “I was there. I am a trained reporter,” and he continues, “I’m not going to appear, incidentally, as an anthropologist on any of these shows—an expert. I’m appearing as an artist who has seen something and would like to transmit his impressions to you.” Transmit observations and entertain. As he said to a close friend, “I’m only going through this life as an observer. I have no desire to influence or change anything.” This, in the main, is true of Shepherd, and he would agree with Walt Whitman, who wrote in “Song of Myself,” “Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.” We share Shepherd’s wonderment, and though we may not realize it, we are thus simultaneously entertained and informed.
Holland and Huggan, in their Tourists with Typewriters, comment that “travel writing enjoys an intermediary status between subjective inquiry and objective documentation.”
Sometimes in Shepherd one learns much about some far-off place, sometimes one encounters some interesting thought inspired by the circumstance, or an anecdote describing an event he experiences, and it’s the thought or anecdote rather than new information about the country that provides the entertainment.
Because scores of his devoted listeners recorded many of his over four thousand broadcasts, we can hear preserved much that he chose to transmit to us of his travel experiences. This book contains a large selection of his talk about his trips.
Jean Shepherd travels widely throughout the United States from the late 1950s through the 1980s. He does hundreds of stand-up talks and performances in high school and college auditoriums, countrywide. For television, recording his two series of half-hour PBS programs, Jean Shepherd’s America (1971 and 1985), he travels from coast to coast to coast. These programs, essentially fusing audio and video, are not prime material for a print-alone publication. But, in a very real sense, all of his radio programs concern, in innumerable short bursts or mini-essays, his observations about the country he loves best of all, The United States of America. So, listen to all of the four-thousand you can locate in order to get at the essence of his trips throughout the geographical, social, and idiosyncratic delights of his own country.
An American travel masterpiece is included here, in a radio broadcast devoted to his participation in the 1963 “March on Washington” during which Martin Luther King, Jr. gives his “I have a dream” speech. Symptomatic of Shepherd’s turn of mind, he travels not on assignment, but because he believes in the meaning of the March as a common humanity’s coming together for a cause in his country and he wants to experience it firsthand. He goes as a participant, boarding a New York City cross-town bus with other common folk for the trip.
Typical New York City
cross-town bus driver
And on the Mall he is not cordoned-off with official reporters, but mingles with the enormous crowd. He can really describe for his radio audience what the event is like for those who have been there—he experiences by participating.
In addition to seeing a good part of the United States in the late 1950s and continuing into the 1980s, he travels abroad and brings back extensive memories and commentaries for his listeners. Just as he frequently disparages what he sees as ignorant behavior, unpleasantness, and foolish fads and fallacies of his countrymen, he equally criticizes what he sees in the countries he visits as “slob art” and other disturbing activities perpetrated by what he obviously considers insensitive and lesser minds. In fact, as much as he enjoys most of what he finds in foreign places, and enjoys describing these wonders to others, in many of his experiences abroad he discovers at least some major or minor calamities and mass-culturally-induced disasters one might attribute to lack of intelligence and taste, and to commercial exploitation. For example, we must grieve with him in his disappointment—his seemingly shattered illusions—when, expecting some authenticity in the Negev Desert, at his hotel in a venerated crossroads of cultures, he encounters plastic palm trees and sequined sham.
Beginning in 1957, among other places, he is in Beirut, Amsterdam, Munich, and Zurich, and in 1958 he is in Paris. In 1960 he is in Munich, travels through the Alps to Rome, and in 1962 he’s in Nigeria. As much as he enjoys his experiences in Western Europe, in the main, his pleasures there are mostly the more common ones of many of us, and therefore not as idiosyncratic as most of his far-flung adventures. But a couple of outstanding European excursions are included here. For example, in 1964 he tours England and Scotland, taping a commentary from his Edinburgh hotel room while on assignment. He’s traveling with the Beatles, sharing their smoke-filled, boozy rooms and their frantic escapes from rabid fans, bringing back tapes of his commentaries and writing up his interview of the Fab Four, published by Playboy in February 1965.
In 1965, typical of his desire to participate at every opportunity in life to the fullest, Shepherd delivers 500 pounds of Luden’s cough drops and candy to the Shapra Indians of the Peruvian Amazon, who, until recently, were heathens and headhunters. Match that for stout-hearted adventure, Ponce de León, Ernest Hemingway, and Norman Mailer!
My favorite flavor.
The Luden’s people probably sent
a variety, including wild cherry.
[Many years ago–when I was working on my first Shep book, I contacted the Luden’s company and got into a vicious circle of referrals. Nobody seemed to know (or care) where the Luden’s historical archive might have been–you know, the one that would have had many 8 X 10 glossys of Shep and companions delivering the drops and interacting with the natives.]
Shepherd the explorer, whether at a major event in our nation’s capital or subbing as a Luden’s delivery boy in the jungle, in his need to observe and grasp the meaning of human activities, he understands that the value of the experience—comprehension and the intensity of the pleasure—arises out of intimate engagement. Gloriously, though he punches-out no competitors and kills no kudos, through his descriptions he brings his adventures back to us.
(Not yet killed or bestowed)