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JEAN SHEPHERD: “semi-autobiographical” ?


Recently encountered, and very common comment on the internet:

“Storyteller Jean Shepherd (born July 26, 1921) was a fixture on American radio from the 1950s to the 1970s. He is best remembered as the voice of the narrator in A Christmas Story, a classic holiday film based on his semi-autobiographical tale.”


A word that I’ve encountered innumerable times in regard to Jean Shepherd’s work.

Some familiar with my belief know that I consider this balderdash

Some definitions of the word found on the internet:

1. pertaining to or being a fictionalized account of an author’s own life. Pertaining to or being a work of fiction strongly influenced byevents in an author’s life.

2. Dealing partly with the writer’s own life but also containing fictional elements.

3. Of, relating to, or being a work that falls between fiction and autobiography: a semiautobiographical novel.

4. Of or relating to a work that combines autobiography and fiction

5. Ann Bogle

Semi- or half-fiction is a blend, a percentage, estimable by the writer and sometimes by “characters,” of what actually has taken place and what could have taken place. It begins to replace what in fact did take place….

“Creative nonfiction” is intensely cumbersome as the name of a literary genre, and yet it must be the best name for it so far…. “creative nonfiction” to mean the factual basis or sequence of life events — not meaning “plot” in fiction — matters less than the artistry or creative arrangements at play in the work.



EXACTLY IN WHAT PARTS OF A Christmas Story–or any other Shep story–does the autobiographical part reside? Only in the general location of the story and having parents and a kid brother.

HOW MANY ENCOUNTERS HAVE WE ALL HAD COLLECTIVELY–in which we have reliably been told or discovered that any of the plot details of a Shep kid or army story (beyond a character’s name, or a location) have actually occurred?

I’ve never encountered any.

Example: Flickinger family denies Flick got tongue stuck to a pole.

[And yes, I know that the base story references “The Cleveland Street Kid.”]

* * *

Here’s what we can verify as non-fiction in his stories:






Shepherd told his stories on the radio as though they actually happened to him, but he explained (to my satisfaction) that it was all fiction–on Alan Colmes 1998 show he said, “I want my stuff to sound real. And so when I tell a story, I tell it in the first person, so it sounds like–by the way, that’s the best way to tell a good story, in the first person–that it sounds like it actually happened to me. It didn’t….I’m a fiction writer. I’m not sitting there doing a biography or an autobiography.”

The quotes from Shep’s books are his author statements at the front of  each book.

IN GOD WE TRUST: “The characters, places, and events described herein re entirely fictional, and any resemblance to individuals living or dead is purely coincidental, accidental, or the result of faulty imagination.”

WANDA HICKEY: [No statement found]

THE FERRARI IN THE BEDROOM: “Large parts of the following are fiction, other parts based on fact. Still others are pure mythology. Some characters are real, others are figments of a harassed imagination. To the real, I apologize. To the others, the back of my hand.”

A FISTFUL OF FIG NEWTONS: “This book is a work of the imagination. However, some essays are observations and conclusion. The characters depicted in the short stories are fictional. They do not represent any actual individuals, living or dead.”

HENRY MORGAN, RADIO COMIC [Quoted in The Realist, 1960]: “He has talked about that youth of his in such detail that I suspect it lasted about forty years.”

JEAN SHEPHERD: [On Alan Colmes interview, 1998] “I’m a fiction writer.”

HUGH M. HEFNER, PLAYBOY PUBLISHER: [interview, 2002] “The fact is that Jean’s stories were invented—and not personal experiences.”

Although on his own show he maintained the illusion that the stories were real, in the author’s declaration in his books, he insisted that all those stories (transcribed and augmented from his radio stories) were fiction. As I put it in EYF! “He went to extremes…in order to refute the idea that, rather than being a creative artist, he was merely remembering. He was a victim of his own success in creating the illusion of truth.”

I googled “semi-autobiographical” and came up with lots of stuff, but only the image that appears below seemed appropriate. The only reference I found to it: would not open. I don’t know what the creator meant to suggest in the picture, but for me, I’ll use it to suggest that Shep found himself unable to escape from his box of self-created fiction masquerading as non-fiction:

truth.fiction image

A “real” guy in his self-created (fictional) box.


I say that, to describe Shep’s stories (kid and army) we do not use

“autobiographical” or “semi-autobiographical,” but






  1. Excellent article, amigo. I would only add that when growing up, I would ask my Mother(classmate of Sheps) about names Shep mentioned on his show. She said many of the teachers mentioned were in fact real, but that one or two Shep named as high school teachers were actually elementry school teachers or in one case a independent music teacher. By the way, judging by it’s facilities in my Mom’s various yearbooks(large indoor pool)Hammond High may have been some sort of showcase school, the after school activities alone were amazing, this in the Depression. The Hammond school system also routinely let brighter students skip grades – Mom skipped two – which might help explain questions about Sheps actual age.

  2. Stu Tarlowe says:

    So — When Shep describes working in the steel mill, cleaning out the “40 inch soaking pits”, wearing special wooden-soled shoes and being lowered into the pit (whereupon the soles of his shoes began to burn!) and having to race around scraping scale off the walls with a chisel until his shoes burned to the point that he had to be hauled back out [Holy Cow, I will NEVER forget that story!] — was all that just MADE UP??

    • ebbergmann says:

      I specifically listed army stories and kid stories as being, in my opinion, fictional. (I refer to the plot details of most of these as being fictional. I believe that his experiences in the army and as a kid informed the way he described the life of a kid and a soldier, and these were fantastic perception–and true.) I do fully believe that his descriptions of SOME of the details (such as you mention) of his steel mill work, were true.

  3. ebbergmann says:

    Regarding his steel mill comments, I don’t see some of these as “stories,” but just his relating some real incidents of his life in the mills, and I imagine his descriptions of such matter as being lowered into the pit are very probably true.

  4. mygingerpig says:

    Artists almost always base their art on what they see and experience. Some create expressions that are far removed from the literal and others stick close to it. Shep seems to have done both. I am not sure what the big debate is bout. He did turn childhood experiences into his art in masterful ways. His work was far more than a simple retelling of what happened to him, even if some of the vents were “true.” It does not diminish his genius.


  5. says:

    body{font-family: Geneva,Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif;font-size:9pt;background-color: #ffffff;color: black;}body{font-family: Geneva,Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif;font-size:9pt;background-color: #ffffff;color: black;}body{font-family: Geneva,Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif;font-size:9pt;background-color: #ffffff;color: black;}Hello,  Gene:Great detective work in uncovering the scope of what “semi-autobiographical” can mean as it relates to Shep’s work. You hit the nail on the head, in spades!  Remember a 1973 controversy surrounding a biography of Marylin Monroe in which the author (Norman Mailer)  coined the term “factoids” for stuff he just made up!  He stated factoids are just “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper.” The Washington Times defined factoid as “something that looks like a fact, could be a fact, but in fact, is not a fact.”Shep was deliberately creating fiction. Mailer seems to have deliberately “created” facts! As Sgt. Joe Friday often said on Dragnet: “Just the facts, ma’am.”Excelsior,Lou Miano

    • ebbergmann says:

      Lou, thanks for the thoughts and comment. As a big Norman Mailer fan, I just checked my copy of his book on Marilyn Monroe. Actually he did not say that “factoid” was for stuff he just made up. In his first chapter–titled “A Novel Biography,” he points out that an actor–and especially Marilyn “lives with the lie as if it were truth. A false truth can offer more reality than the truth that was altered.” He describes that his coined word “factoid” means “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority.” HE EXPRESSES THAT HE IS AGAINST FACTOIDS! He goes on to say that his intent was to use verifiable facts about Marilyn and create a “SPECIES of novel ready to play by the rules of biography, No items could be made up….” Then, through his written interpretation of her he would produce a “literary hypothesis of a possible Marilyn.” Mailer had a complex and subtle mind and he tried to create new ways of expressing his many elegant ideas. Many in the media–who could not or did not care to understand him–misrepresented him either accidentally or on purpose.

  6. Lou says:

    Gene: Thanks for the clarification. Seems the media did take him to task over the “factoid” issue, which is why it stands out in my memory. It was a hot topic in our high school writing class the day after the factoid story was in the news.


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