MAINE IS A FOREIGN COUNTRY
Jean Shepherd has traveled around the world and, of course, he always returns to America, the country he loves above all others. He even sailed on a bit of the same sea Columbus did when arriving in the New World. This New World is so vast and complex in its delights and, sometimes, in its less desirable attributes.
Part of this World’s great pleasures for him is the time he spends in Maine, as we saw in an early chapter, with his focus on the bucolic landscape he enjoys with such passion. One sees Shepherd as the observer and reporter, seemingly oblivious to social issues which are inescapable for anyone with eyes to see and heart to feel. As quoted earlier, Shepherd has spent most of his public life on the radio exemplifying what he’d said to a friend: “I’m only going through this life as an observer. I have no desire to influence or change anything.” Shepherd almost never discusses politics and social matters on his programs. The coldly aloof artist unmoved by some of the world’s harsh realities (except for such moments as his eulogy for JFK).
Yet, in Shepherd’s available radio audios, here is a rare, discordant, more compassionate side—which he possesses, according to statements by some who knew him—but which he almost always keeps separate from his radio persona. So here is another narrative that he delivers in the mid-1960s about Maine, his beloved state.
Shepherd sees discontent stoked in part by the unreality promoted by television, and he sees real problems that surface to a heated pitch in the exciting and tormented 60s, and which remain unresolved decades later.
In that time there have been riots in the streets—and assassinations, including that of John F. Kennedy less than two years before, an event that had brought forth from Shepherd, wreathed in his elegant elegy of the President during broadcasts that week, a major statement about discontent in America. Regarding his comments about Maine in June of 1965, exactly what elicits this new break in his usual demeanor? Mainly the unreality of television? We don’t know for sure, but here it is.
I am back and I am twice as sneaky and four times as dangerous. For the last two weeks I have been on vacation in my favorite foreign country—Maine. I mean that literally. I think as far as the mainstream of America is concerned, Maine is a foreign country.
I’ve come to some conclusions about travel. Those of you who have followed this fiasco for the last twenty years know that I’m an inveterate traveler. Whatever that means. I like to fly the coop and split whenever I get a chance to, but it took me a long time to understand why this is so. Why traveling and getting away, and getting into a completely foreign environment is as important to me, personally, as it is.
There’s a tendency on the part of every one of us to say, “You just want to get away.” Well, that’s not enough. What do you mean, “get away”? Why do you want to get away? That’s saying something about what you’re at. You say, “Oh boy, Charlie, isn’t this great to get away?” Get away from what? Well, it’s too simple really, to say, “My work.”
That means, probably, you hate your work, which is a bad scene right there. If you’re going to spend eight hours a day for forty years doing some cruddy thing that you hate, well, dad, no two weeks is going to help you. It’s only going to make it worse. In fact, for those of you who have that problem, I recommend: Don’t leave! Because you’ll come back and one day you’ll go out of the sixth floor trying to fly.
But to a person, it’s very difficult. I have known people who have changed their environment. Now that, really, is what “getting away” means. Changing your environment is one of the great things about man that makes him different from other creatures. It’s very difficult to get an orangutan to change his range. You do, and you’ve got a problem orangutan on your hands. He withers and dies on the vine. It’s a difficult thing to try to get, say, a moose, to change his environment.