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My family is moving to a new location this week, so there may be a bit of disruption to my usual every-3-day postings on this blog. New ones may be a day or so off-schedule depending on how/when we get our computer up and running in our new home, and my own available time organized.
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How much of his travel stories are true? Unlike his kid stories and army stories, which are very likely almost all fiction with occasional short excursions into fact, his travel stories appear to be almost all fact, with only occasional excursions into minor bits of creative embellishment and obvious fantasy. Contemplating the truthfulness of his “stories,” one is struck with the realization that Shepherd frequently begins talking about being a kid or being a soldier by saying, “Have I told you the story about….” “Story” itself can be defined as fictional or true, and I believe Shepherd consciously uses the ambiguity as a strategy to confound the listener into believing it is all true while he is inventing a fiction. And I remember no instance in which he begins talking about a trip by referring to it as a “story. “ With all the imprecise and awkward synonyms available, the descriptive word that seems most neutral and that might be used with somewhat less of an automatically “fictional” connotation might be “narrative.”
Are his travel narratives all true when he expects us to believe them so? I believe it’s significant that his travel narratives take place in locations and with people other than those in his ordinary life (thus not interfering with his closely-guarded privacy), so he has no particular cause to bamboozle us. Or has he? Let’s not forget the raconteur fraternity’s commonplace: “The truth never stands in the way of a good story.” Maybe Shepherd, talking of his travels, is up to his usual tricks when creating art out of what one might presume to be the non-fictional nature of his kid and army stories. But, as he works so hard in his broadcasts to be a mentor-like informant, a guiding force for his listeners—and he so strongly promotes travel as an important mode for discovering truths in one’s real life, I feel strongly that in travel tales he is mostly an honest-to-goodness truth-teller. Recognizing that some tampering is almost universally practiced even by professional travel writers, and that intimation and elaboration may be the sincerest form of which a storyteller is capable, I still believe we’re being given truth here that’s as pure as the driven snow, almost.
Note that it’s certain that he went to the places he talks about, and only infrequently, fictitiously, elaborates on an event. The fictional bits tend to be blatantly self-evident, such as his tale of having had shipped to him from a Middle-Eastern bazaar, Fatima, a nubile slave girl. Only in his dreams—he implies that such imaginations tend to be the fantasies of many of us when we think of that part of the world. The fantasy-nature of his purchase, with no attempt to delude us in the process, supports the truthful implications of this not-to-be-literally-believed parable. (At least he never subsequently seems to have referred to her as a member of his New York City household!) It’s only appropriate that he caps off his Middle Eastern travels with some bits of the dream-world fantasy in all of us who have grown up on flickering Hollywood illusions. Rudolph Valentino is still imbedded in our psyches, and it is undoubtedly no coincidence that one of Shepherd’s favorite songs he sings on his broadcasts is “I’m the Sheik of Araby.”
Rudolph Valentino (the Shepherd of Araby).
So, despite the occasional exception, when Jean Shepherd speaks of his travels, I believe him to be nearly always honest, and without fail an eagle-eyed and esthetically blessed reporter of what he actually sees and experiences.
Any book of Jean Shepherd’s travels would have to omit some material. All those who describe a subject, and especially travelers, leave things out. No way that Marco Polo told us the details of how he put on his socks every morning. (As Shepherd himself once deprecatingly described a grammar school geography lesson, he’d learned that “Bolivia exports tin.” But, we know that better than memorizing the fact, if you need it, you could look it up. Nobody cares about or tells everything.) Shepherd is first to admit, with a certain amount of amazement, even part of the time he spends on an aircraft carrier heading into a perilous engagement can be uninteresting. He does tell us that some of these carrier moments are boring, but—for which we thank him—he gives no examples.) Even an enthusiastic editor can find a few moments that, though interesting enough for radio listeners delighted to learn facts about some far-off location Shepherd has visited, one should check out a gazetteer for some list or other, rather than follow Shepherd’s rare, bare-bones description. Far better to focus on what Shepherd is such a master at conveying—adventures of an inquisitive and perceptive mind at work.
Regarding the order of these included tales, neither chronology nor geography dictate the sequence, so I have found a less pure but, what I believe, is a more appropriate organization. His return trips to some sites, though divergent in time, sometimes by many months or years, provide not an alternative viewpoint but a special and constant love, so they are linked here in a single chapter as parts of what Shepherd himself feels as his enthusiasm for place. Although Shepherd’s travel narratives are mostly stand-alone affairs, arranging them to conform to when they were broadcast would only disrupt one’s understanding of Shepherd’s interest in a locale, and an arrangement of narratives following a geographical sequence on the globe seems to be irrelevant as to Shepherd’s chosen destinations. The order chosen for this book is a loose organization based on a couple of factors.
As an American, his travels in this book begin with the March on Washington and the first Maine episode, both American venues, which are important, yet dissimilar from his far-off journeys to other lands.
Internet image described as being part of the 1963 March to D.C.
[A much more luxurious vehicle than the NYC Cross-Town bus Shep was on]
Next, the Middle-Eastern tales give a jolt to the newly initiated foreign-travel-reader of this book, and then Western European settings put him on more familiar, yet foreign soil. “Around the World” seems to cover it all, yet leads to some distant locations, focusing on Australia, the Amazon, and Nigeria. What seems to be his last non-American trip, consisting of the very act of voyaging, is his sailing adventure to the Windward Islands. Concluding with a second take on Maine, which he ironically refers to as “a foreign country,” seems an appropriate end, bringing him back home to his beloved United States.
Remember that Shepherd chooses no perceivable order to his travels. In fact, some such as the Peru trip, Beatle trip, and the flight around the world come about through various fortuitous happenstances. So how the chapters are arranged in this book might take various forms. I’ve tried to put together an entertaining mix, which at the same time has somewhat of a rationale. Others may well concoct their own formula and create their own Shepherdian voyage through his world. Some might prefer a sequence that would lead the reader step by step from familiar–but only superficially civilized Western Europe–deeper and deeper into outlands, discomforting wildernesses, terra incognita, on a path that Shepherd himself probably would not have conceived or wanted. I like my own itinerary, but you’re free to wander off among the chapters–become your own sort of “traveler.”
Among the travel narratives that have so far emerged from Shepherd’s broadcasts, we have many gems to enjoy. The glories of his travel narratives provide us with strikingly varied adventures and the amazingly unconventional and fascinating results of his acute sensibilities and insights—they provide us with pleasures decidedly different from, and second only to, being there oneself. So, get ready for all these voyages, keep an open mind, and as Shepherd more than once advised, you’ll enjoy them more if you leave most of your baggage behind.
The foregoing introduction to Jean Shepherd’s travel world is told in the present tense because his narrative method on the radio embroils us in the immediate moment, and what he has created in many fields (such as the highly popular holiday film, A Christmas Story) remains alive and well in the American conscience. Audios of his radio broadcasts, created between the 1950s and 1977 are avidly listened to by thousands of enthusiasts and his books of humor continue to sell. Here readers can contemplate some of what Jean Shepherd experiences through travel. It would be wonderful if he could know what a gathering of these narratives would be like. As for him, he knows that the essence of these adventures become part of him for his entire lifetime. (As far as I know, there’s no evidence that he ever intended to gather his travel narratives into a book.) But now, only we listeners and readers remain to appreciate them, as Jean Parker Shepherd, “raconteur and wit,” died of natural causes near his home on Sanibel Island, Florida, on October 16, 1999.
(Stay tuned for the first Shepherd trip)