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Even to this day that scene goes on and on and on. The irises are out there growing. The chain reactions that we make in our lives. And every time now, when I pass a salesman in the hall, without fail I have that funny feeling down in the pit of my stomach. I have the feeling that somehow, I can’t explain it, that somebody is going to sentence me to go back to selling seeds again. Somehow it’s still out there, those doors—knock knock—“There’s nobody home I hope I hope I hope I hope.”
By the way, kids, that preceding lecture will be filed under “Real Education,” as opposed to the education you’re actually gonna get.
THUS, WITH A SHEP-LESSON-TO-BE-LEARNED, ENDS “SELLING SEEDS”
NEXT KID STORY FORTHCOMING
BOOKS Intro and Chapter 1 of 1
As a Boy Scout, Second Class, for the reading merit badge I began my list of books read, passed the test and got the badge. I kept up my have-read-list for about sixty years, and found that, over the decades, it averaged roughly three books a month read. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, James, Hemingway, Faulkner, Mailer, various fiction and non-fiction titles, and lots of books on art and literature. I’ve written several unpublished novels and over 150 poems, of which two were published in a poetry journal.
When I’d already begun my fascination with books as a kid, I didn’t want to be an astronaut or a baseball star, I wanted to be a librarian or win the Nobel Prize in literature. I did neither, but I’m married to a librarian, and between us, spread throughout the house, we have about 7,000 books, some featured in our headboard.
Our King-size Headboard
Although I continue to read, my books-read list numbers fell calamitously. Now I read very little “great literature” (historically acclaimed novels)—I’ve been too busy researching and writing all my stuff about radio humorist Jean Shepherd. Regarding this current obsession, I’ve two published books and several articles in periodicals, and nine separate descriptive folders included in boxed CD sets of his recorded programs for syndication, and posted over 400 illustrated blog essays about him. Shepherd came along, probably, just in the nick of time to satisfy my need to read and write, as well as providing a birthplace to accommodate my ARTSY essays.
BOOKS–WRITING AND READING
In my own defense for not keeping up my pace of reading, I’ve written and designed
the potential covers for three unpublished novels:
The fictional story of a young American man who is convinced that he’s the modern return of Jesus. The fictional chapters alternate with “true” chapters synopsizing chronologically, the entire history of the Earth in what I see as a vast outwardly spiraling evolution. (Outrageous.) Never published.
Inspired by my disastrous marriage to a young woman from Granada, Spain. The fictional chapters alternate with “true” chapters—of my life. A young American fellow, inspired by reading about the Spanish Civil War, joins with Spanish terrorists in Granada to kill the Crown Prince. (Rageous. Dramatic.) Never published.
Inspired by my anthropology-based sojourn in Peru. The fictional chapters alternate with “true” chapters—of my life. A young American exhibit designer bests (is sort of responsible for the deaths of) several American anthropologists, thus gaining the love of a young American woman. (Never published.) Except for no-cost self-publication.
Yes, the fictional protagonist of each of these extravaganzas seems like me. The true/fiction nature of my novels was inspired by the influence of two books that did similar things with truth and fiction: Moby Dick, and John Dos Passos’ U. S. A. Trilogy. And inspired by Carlos Baker’s critical analysis, Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, in which Baker describes how various real-life interests and experiences of Hemingway became the inspiration for aspects of his novels.
A Designed “Poem”
About Designing a Poem
Eventually, all readers and writers have got to try poetry. I read some, I understood little. I read books on what poetry means, how it’s written, and how to write it. I wrote over 150 poems, some not too bad. I got two published in a serious Canadian poetry journal:
Oh, Yes, and Poems Published in
The Magnetic Poetry Book of Poetry
The company that produces the kit with little magnetized words to be made into word-groupings to stick on refrigerators, devised a contest for a book based on poems that only use words from their kits. They published two of mine, one of which has a typo. (Discover below!) Decades later, the book can still be found in book stores, meaning that these two poems of mine have probably been read by more people than any poems by great American poet Robert Frost. (Holy moley!)
A Magnetic Poem
While in my poetry-writing phase, I encountered a poetry-writing contest at a crafts fair.
“In a few minutes, write a poem on the special star-filled paper provided.”
Tribute to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”
Worthy of my egotism as are the above mighty efforts,
I’m most proud of my multiple published and unpublished works
about that great American humorist,
Jean Parker Shepherd.
JULY 26, 2016, JEAN SHEPHERD WOULD HAVE BEEN 95, AND SEVERAL WEEKS AGO I TURNED 78. I THINK WE’VE BOTH WAITED LONG ENOUGH.
I WAS THIS KID, SEE–
JEAN SHEPHERD KID STORIES
JEAN SHEPHERD KID STORIES–
I WAS THIS KID, SEE
SHEP’S KID STORIES
or something sorta like that.
Happy birthday, Jean Parker Shepherd.
Printings, Pricing, Inscriptions.
For someone who is widely unknown among the vast, deprived American public, Jean Shepherd’s books, nearly a half-century after he wrote them, continue to sell, which I can verify because I keep tabs on the current printings of his two best-selling books in paperback. In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, as of this writing, has gone through over three dozen printings, and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories, And Other Disasters has passed its twenty-fourth printing.
Think Small, the small give-away promotional book published by Volkswagen in the heady days of the original Beetle, contains cartoons and short humorous essays by Charles Addams, Harry Golden, Roger Price, H. Allen Smith, Jean Shepherd, and others. The longest piece in the book, by Shepherd, concerning his teenage experience buying his first used car, unlike the rest of the contributions, has nothing to do with the VW. Think Small, thirty years after original publication, now sells for prices varying from about four dollars to well over a hundred, depending on the ignorance or whim of many internet book dealers. Some years ago I paid ten dollars when that was the lowest-going price.
The bibliographic details of my special subject are not endless, but I, like an object-specific magnet, seem to attract some of the rare and peculiar elements of Shepherd’s writing life. When, sight unseen through the internet, I bought a used first of his Wanda Hickey, it was my surprise and great good fortune to receive in the mail, a Dover, New Jersey ex-library copy with, as an insider’s little joke done decades before, a presentation sticker affixed to the inside front cover proclaiming that its donors were the Dover High School orchestra’s tuba section (as most Shepherd fans know, in some of his radio commentaries, he described his high school experiences playing the tuba). My surprised acquisition of this little treasure is a fortuitous occurrence that some others would have sufficiently appreciated.
Finally, a few words about a specially inscribed copy of Shepherd’s In God We Trust that I had in my covetous hands, but could not possess. After actress Lois Nettleton, Shepherd’s third wife, died in 2008, her executor showed me her copy of Shepherd’s “novel.” She had been an important part of his early radio career and, after his death in 1999 she corresponded with me about him. I may well be the world’s only kook with a special interest in the association of Shepherd and Nettleton, but the executor would not let me buy it for the pittance I could afford, as he expected to sell it for a bundle. To my knowledge, neither Shepherd nor Nettleton fans ever pay even two hundred dollars for material associated with them, and the relationship of the two must not be of much interest to any of them. I very much doubted that the book dealer subsequently offering it for sale would find a buyer willing to part with even a fraction of his two-thousand dollar asking price. I lust after that book, but from my little allowance I could have just about afforded a tenth of the two grand. Recently I found that a Shepherd enthusiast with much deeper pockets than mine, had come up with the many hundreds necessary (how many hundreds?) and now has that copy.
The potential value of the book (dollar value to a dealer, and intellectual value to me) lies in its inscription. Inscribed at about the time that they parted, Shepherd wrote on the half title page:
“To my own Lois, without whom this book would have been finished two years sooner—! Love—Jean Shepherd (Mr. Nettleton).”
By sheer coincidence, I recently encountered a reference to a book written many years earlier, with its acknowledgement attributed to Franklin P. Adams, one of Shepherd’s favorite writers: ”To my loving wife, but for whose constant interruptions, this book would have been finished six months earlier.” So, with a little work, I encountered from another of Shepherd’s favorites, P. G. Wodehouse, his dedication of his book The Heart of a Goof, published in 1926: “To my daughter Leonora Without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.” A case of unattributed borrowing? But that is a minor matter to a Shep-kook.
One might wonder what circumstances led to Shepherd’s inscription to his wife—especially in this copy of his book that was a later printing of the first edition (Horrors!). But what were the never-to-be-understood circumstances behind such an apparent attack by Shepherd? I can understand how one might think such thoughts, but I don’t see how a relationship could survive the open expression of such a comment—in ink on paper—in his treasured “novel”! I don’t usually seek sordid details regarding my subject, but gathering bits of evidence, which I have been able to accumulate through single-minded quests for Art and Art alone, I wonder if, soon after Lois had thrown him out of their apartment and changed the locks, he hoped somehow to evoke sympathy leading to a reprieve through this inappropriately tangled wit. Did he thus send her this poisoned copy? (A reliable source told me that Shepherd dearly wanted to return to her.) This all gains some credence as these circumstances happened during the same period during which, from time to time on his radio show, he had mock-seriously, mock-humorously, sung, “After you’ve gone, and left me crying….” Overly intimate matters I’d gathered as I’m not-Shepherd’s-biographer. How in heaven’s name did I ever get caught up in detective work and a soap opera scenario?
I’ll probably never understand some of the enigmatic details of Shepherd’s life. Although interest in personal gossip is mostly a very natural human one, as for me, I’ve never cared about writing a tell-all biography or any other kind. I must remind myself that I am neither his bibliographer nor his biographer. In writing about him I try my imperfect but virtuous best to focus on the work, with essential biography only as it relates to that work. Thus, when I search even under metaphorical beds, salacious tidbits are sometimes inevitable encounters within my major responsibility: dealing with dusty boxes of stuff and foggy memories regarding his significant art, Art, ART!
“The wall is alive with the shapes of music….
The wall fills my heart with the shapes of music.
My heart wants to sing every shape it feels.”
[Lyrics altered from The Sound of Music.]
Despite having a tin ear and no sense of rhythm,
I’m intrigued by the shapes that create the sounds of musical instruments.
I am a “luthier,” a classical guitar-maker. That is, I took a course and made the instrument on the left.
Mom’s violin—while playing she moaned, so as a child I always thought she was in agony. I think that may have been part of my negative feelings about her teaching me to play. I was good and played in grammar school and high school orchestras. Later in high school, violin practice-time was abandoned in favor of tough homework. As an adult I realized that my mother moaned in an agony of ecstasy.
My wife, Allison, gave me the zither, which, for its shape and bulk, forms a kind of solidly emphatic crown atop our display of instruments on our living room wall.
Prima ballerina Suzanne Farrell’s autographed dance slippers evoke, for me, her dancing elegance.
The small guitar-shaped “charango” I bought from a luthier in Cuzco, Peru. This rhythm instrument is almost always part of Peruvian folk music groups. It comes in three forms: a guitar-shaped construction; a bottom that is smoothly sculpted wood in the shape of an armadillo’s back; and the more authentic kind I have, the bottom of which is made of an actual armadillo’s head and back–plates, hair, ears, and all.
My father’s banjo-uke reminds me of the only two songs he sang and accompanied himself on during my childhood: “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo, No Mo,” and “If I Had the Wings of an Angel.” My father was a steadfast and loving husband and father. I always liked it when he picked up his uke to play.
I like the sounds of flutes in many shapes and sizes. Side-blown and end-blown. Wood, metal, bamboo, ceramic, bone.
Many bibliophiles must have run into the infuriating situation of finding that a book dealer has denied the existence of a book that the seeker knows is for real. Shepherd, who sought a copy of a book of Vic and Sade radio scripts by Paul Rhymer in Doubleday, a major New York City bookstore, and told it didn’t exist because it wasn’t on the dealer’s book list, decided to do something about it. He explained the problem to his late-night radio listeners and suggested that a non-existent novel by a non-existent author, if properly manipulated among the book-list-loving populace of dealers, distributors, and book buyers, would wreak mental and emotional havoc. Thus, a novel of 18th century English sexual dalliance among the nobility, I, Libertine by Frederick R. Ewing, came into trumped-up, incorporeal being.
Listeners disseminated the hoax in bookstores and elsewhere, and pretty soon the media picked up on what was thought to be true. A title card for the “book” turned up in a library’s card catalog. Students wrote scholarly reports on the book with footnotes. Reportedly a professor gave one report a B+, and knowing of the hoax, added next to the grade Shepherd’s favorite battle cry, “Excelsior!” Phonies at cocktail parties were heard discussing the book’s plot, and a society columnist claimed to have had lunch with the author. It’s said that the Legion of Decency banned the book in Boston. A bogus radio interview with a bogus author added to the shenanigans. Eventually, with Shepherd’s permission, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal exposed the hoax.
Publisher Ian Ballantine got together with Shepherd and Sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon, and, within a couple of weeks, hurrying to cash in on the notoriety, based on an outline by Shepherd, Sturgeon had written the book, with Betty Ballantine, Ian’s wife/editor, writing the final chapter when the exhausted Sturgeon, about to miss the deadline, fell asleep. Only a few months after its first bogus inception, the book became the real thing, selling over one-hundred-thousand copies, mostly in paperback, and far fewer copies in the small hardcover printing. (In fact, for years Shepherd fans thought that it was never printed in hardcover.) It’s claimed that the book hit best-seller lists, but those lists in question have yet to be reliably reported.
The photo on the back cover is of Shepherd, looking as hung over as possible, trumped up as Frederick R. Ewing, the dissolute “author.” A bogus image for the formerly bogus book. The book got a knowing and light-hearted review in the New York Times Book Review—pretty good for a book that had started out not only unknown but non-existent. The Times, using the Ewing/Shepherd photo in its review, simply titled it “Jean Shepherd.”
Part of NYT review, 9/16/1956,
showing Frederick R. Ewing
labeled “Jean Shepherd.”
This could be a source of confusion: American Poet Laureate Billy Collins commented to me that he felt that Shepherd looked rather sad, not realizing that the image was a gag.
Now, people who claim to have read it may well be telling the truth—myself included. I’ve read it twice, once when I bought it in 1956, and once recently, not in the paperback (the pages of which are now dark brown and too brittle to open), but in the pristine hardcover. Here’s my capsule review: Badly written and a bloody bore—seems to have been a rush-job. Shepherd, creator of the hoax and the book’s outline, is often credited as the author (especially among his fans).
In addition to having one of the scarce hardcover copies, I have a paperback personally autographed by Shepherd, a second one signed by Sturgeon, but none autographed by Kelly Freas, the Mad Magazine illustrator, who painted into the cover illustration insider-clues as to the actual perpetrators—on a tavern sign, a shepherd’s staff and a sturgeon. On the ornate coach depicted, one can find Shepherd’s watchword, Excelsior. With a wink to the knowing, the cover text proclaims that the contents are “Turbulent! Turgid! Tempestuous!” As a bibliophile and Shepherd-kook, I also have the British hardcover and the British paperback editions, their covers devoid of wit, but full of bogus erotic suggestions regarding content.
A recent edition.
I do not have this edition.
(Electronic, by Kindle)
Additional publishing information regarding the Ballantine editions would be hard to come by, as I was told by an informant at Random House, which now owns Ballantine, that all its records had been lost long ago. Seeking information from Mrs. Ballantine, author of that final chapter of the book, came up against a roadblock—having previously discussed the book on various occasions for ephemeral periodicals, she refused to be interviewed again about it for the only book totally about Shepherd-the-perpetrator. Thus dooming further knowledge to the grave with her.
END OF PART 3
A VISUAL POEM
Jean Shepherd is my most elaborate and long-lasting artsy fartsy subject matter. My obsession and constant work on Shep-projects, that started roughly 10/19/1999, has no end in sight. It’s a constant theme of my daily life, including my searches on ebay where I encounter false hits such as the differently spelled name of a country/western singer, non-Shepherd encounters such as a 19th century poet, parts of names of actors, movies, books, etc., and objects of other sorts that include the name Shepherd.
I preserve and display my Shepherd files in “The Shep Shrine.” This includes his poster; his books; my Shep-books; books about radio including some with text about him; his original drawings; his films and videos; many audios of his broadcasts; text and audios of interviews of him and me; media articles and audios about him; photos of him; file boxes of my continuously updated book notes and background info; my original handwritten published and unpublished notes and manuscripts of books about him; text and info and props regarding my play about him and my Shep-blog; a box devoted to many “Shep People” associated with him, especially about Lois Nettleton and Leigh Brown; a copy of his will; a large “Excelsior” banner; Excelsior Seltzer bottles; a small glass-topped box containing kazoo, jews harp, nose flute, and brass figlagee with bronze oakleaf palm; voluminous esoterica and various etceteras. And a one-of-a-kind Jean Shepherd bobblehead.
The Shep Shrine and Me
Jean Shepherd, as always, needs more recognition and effective promotional methods. He is quoted as having said, “You could be on New York radio for many years and be widely unknown.”
In my Excelsior, You Fathead: the Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd,
preceding the book’s title and the rest of the 495 pages, I begin with accolades:
Shepherd loved not only books, but their multitudinous components, words. Sometimes on his radio shows he would ask someone in the studio or a listener in “radioland,” to look up a word in a dictionary, just to be sure that he and his listeners understood it properly. During one show he announced with great pride that one of his invented phrases, “creeping meatballism,” a comment on conformism, had been formally attributed to him in a new dictionary of slang. He also enjoyed the references to himself in several New York Times crossword puzzles, and one can imagine his joy when, in 1972, he found that the Times puzzle of the day referred to him and his works in eleven words and phrases. A few years back, hearing a rebroadcast of this announcement, I rushed to the microfilm section of my local library to look it up and print it out, thus participating with Shepherd in his bibliophilia and the thrill of his honor, encountering such treasures in the puzzle as, VERBAL SHEPHERD, AIR SPIELER, and his favorite word, EXCELSIOR.
Although I recognize that many bibliophiles must also have unusual stories to tell regarding their own favorites, as a “Shep-kook,” it seems to me that the strangeness of my ragtag little batch of Shepherd books, references, and ephemera is without parallel and is worth describing.
What Author? What Book?
A publishing episode that must have driven Shepherd, the ever-striving author, crazy, involves a coffee-table book about one of his favorite subjects: The Scrapbook History of Baseball. Except for the acknowledgements page and a foreword, the book consists entirely of un-annotated, photo-reproductions of newspaper articles from the years 1876 to 1974. The book contains no authored text other than the duly attributed two-page foreword by Shepherd. Four baseball experts, whose sole job was to select the articles for reproduction, are listed as “authors.” But at best, those four compilers might more accurately have been titled “researchers.” Creator of that sole text, Shepherd might, in these strange circumstances, have been dignified with the title of “author.” Or have I missed something in the book-world’s definition of “author”?
One encounters Shepherd’s short stories everywhere. There is the hardbound, small publication, A Christmas Story, described on the cover as “The book that inspired the hilarious classic film.” But this book, first published in 2003, did not inspire the 1983 film. The book consists of five of Shepherd’s kid stories first published in the 1960s that were seamlessly synthesized into the film. Twenty years after that film was released, without even an attempt at cobbling them together into a logical storyline, those stories were gathered conveniently into a book. Though no crime, the malfeasance lies in claiming, two decades after the fact, that the book as a “book,” rather than that the selected stories in it inspired the film. This false promotion is a distortion inspired by sales-potential. As we know, a simple lie is more easily believed than a more complicated truth. Every so often I encounter much more important re-printings of individual Shepherd stories. He must have enjoyed seeing these stories in schoolbooks as subjects for studying English composition and style. And what pride to find, in another small volume, The Little Book of Fishing, one of his stories rubbing shoulders with those by the likes of Hemingway, Seamus Heaney, and Red Smith.
END OF PART 2
(25) JAPANESE ART—3 WAYS
I own Japanese art in various formats, mostly in reproduction, some original. On our bedroom wall, a trio of images represents three different ways of being. The two top ones are of 19th century woodblock prints, the traditional technique in which the artist draws on rice paper with brush and ink, artisans adhere this to a flat block and someone cuts away whatever is not the black lines. The line-block is then printed in black and the artist indicates on these sheets what and where each color should be. These sheets are adhered to blocks. Then a woodcutter cuts away on each block, whatever is not to be that color. Then all blocks are printed on each sheet to render the final originals of the work.
The left top print on our wall, by Hokusai (most famous work is the “Great Wave”), is not from the original blocks. It is a second edition, made by gluing first editions down on blocks and re-cutting every line—including every leaf of grass–then reprinting. (I compared my print with a reproduction of a verified first edition to encounter an occasional leaf of grass not properly rendered.) This image is from Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.” Which consists of 42 views. It’s one of my favorites. I love the dynamism shown by the strong wind affecting humans, papers, hat, trees and leaves, and leaves of grass. I appreciate the dynamic swirl of the footpath, the little objects being swept off to the right, and the immense thin outline of Fuji.
The top right print is a high-quality reproduction of my favorite print by Hiroshige. His work tends to be more flat and stylized than Hokusai’s, which is more “realistic.” Here, in a simple and powerful composition, we see the strong wind and rain, bearing down on humans and the background trees.
As an enthusiast of traditional Japanese art, I spent some time observing, in process, the Japanese section of the American Museum of Natural History’s permanent Asian Peoples Hall. One of the museum’s background painters, Matthew Kalmenoff, worked on the small diorama of a country scene with traditional rice fields. As a coworker and friend of his, I asked to see his preliminary sketch for the curved diorama wall. I expressed delight in it. In his appreciation for the support I’d given him and his work over the years, he signed it and gave it to me. It is a treasure. I enjoy contemplating it and noting some of the painting’s compositional design features.
Two of the berms separating parts of the fields are not parallel with the rest, but come together at an angle at the bottom of the painting so that they enclose it, rather than presenting a visual barrier parallel at the bottom edge.
One of the clouds is perfectly positioned to be reflected in the water, highlighting the farmers.
Regarding the row of farmers planting, the closest one’s round hat is not quite facing the viewer—it’s close enough to a circle to grab attention, but not so much so as to form a bull’s eye that would be hard for the eye to escape. The other hats are even less shown as circles, allowing the eye to move diagonally up the row of them further into the picture. The distant figure with animal is in line to assist the eye to make the little leap even further toward the background.
The design then moves the eye in a zigzag pattern to the right, then, with the help of the land and water there, back to the furthest reaches on the left.
The small building in the middle right is just big enough to give some focus of attention and to prevent the entire right side from being too bare—it almost forms a small framing device, its large tree perfectly placed to block the water there from moving the eye too far rightward–indeed, it caroms the moving eye back to the left.
I see this painting every morning as I get out of bed. I delight in contemplating how Kal’s composition, in what was done as an unimportant, preliminary sketch, but which is so well thought-out, was so elegantly created.
I’ve encountered a photo of the completed diorama, with artifacts in the foreground. I see that, responding to the three-dimensional material, Kal changed a few of the background painting’s details. Magnificent! Rest in peace, Matthew Kalmenoff.
Diorama in the Museum’s Hall of Asian Peoples
On a subject that I believe would be of interest to book-lovers in general in addition to Shepherd fans, I wrote the following article (with illustrations) and submitted it to a high-class magazine devoted to book-collecting. The editor’s response was that he liked it but wanted it to be rather more filled-out with what I felt was uninteresting, difficult-to-ferret-out, pedantic material I had no interest in putting in the required, self-induced and boring grunge work, to accomplish. I much prefer ideas to minutia. Here, with very minor adjustments, is what I believe will be of interest. There are a few details some may remember previously encountering in my work or that by others. But I feel that gathering all of this together, it forms a whole more valuable than the sum of its scattered parts.
STRANGE BUT TRUE ADVENTURES IN THE WORLD
OF A SHEPHERD BIBLIPHILE
I love books and I collect them and a few associated ephemera. Although I have thousands of books, my special gatherings run to a couple of what I call “poor man’s” collections—over the years I’ve bought what my limited budget permitted. I have almost all of Hemingway in first editions, but not all in pristine condition, and a couple of his earliest ones only in facsimile. The facsimiles themselves have risen in rarity and price, gaining admittance among the “collectables.” Although none are signed, when I had more than a bit of loose change, for use as a bookmark for reading his books, I purchased a wine card from a transatlantic liner, which he signed for the booze that he bought one afternoon. I have all of Norman Mailer first editions, many of them signed, most of them in pristine condition. Yet my special treasure is the first edition of his The Naked and the Dead with its rather worn and torn dust jacket, which he signed for me in person. I gather that this jacket is made of rather fragile stuff, so a poor man’s collection is not likely to have a pristine example. His signed letter to me regarding one of my unpublished manuscripts is framed on a wall over my desk. I have most of E. E. Cummings in firsts, but none signed. I make do with a signed postcard written by Cummings to New York’s 8th Street Bookshop. Like the Hemingway wine card, I also use it as a bookmark. So I possess, on a couple of crowded shelves, some ephemeral associations to some of the literature I love.
Cummings wrote poems in lower case,
but signed with initial caps.
In recent years my focus has altered to an area that is more unusual in its bibliographic focus. The subject is the American humorist, active in the second half of the twentieth century, Jean Shepherd. The area is much less well-known, though I find it fascinating, maybe in large part because I wrote the only book about him. In addition to many overflowing file boxes of background information, notes, and audio tapes and CDs of his radio broadcasts, I’ve accumulated the small group of first editions of all the books by this great American creative force, who was a humorist, author, film-maker, and creator of several television series. A major talk-radio innovator, broadcaster of thousands of shows over the decades, and creator of the holiday favorite movie, A Christmas Story, Shepherd talked about everything one can think of, for years improvising 45-minutes a night. Originally he had not wanted to write down his improvised stories because, I believe, as a raconteur he felt that the spoken word was the prime medium not only of humankind in general, but of himself in particular. Besides, he invented his spoken stories without a script and probably liked the idea of keeping them that way.
However, his wife at the time, actress Lois Nettleton, said that she and others urged him to write down some of his stories, and Shel Silverstein, his best friend, cartoonist, and children’s book author, with connections to Playboy, helped convince him to write them down and submit them to the magazine. From the mid-1960s through 1981, Playboy printed nearly two dozen of them, most of them fictions about his Indiana childhood, a couple of them fictions about his life in the Signal Corps during World War II. Many of these stories, and many of his articles on varied subjects published in varied magazines, were gathered into books such as In God We Trust—All Others Pay Cash. (He had a proclivity for making up odd titles for most of his stories and books.) The stories upon which the movie A Christmas Story is based came from these books.
Sometimes Shepherd discussed his love of books during his radio broadcasts. He was obsessed with reading—on one program he commented that if he couldn’t find other material to occupy him, he’d read the copy on Wheaties boxes, and, he said that if even more desperate, he would remove his shoe and read the words impressed in rubber on the bottom of his heel. He said that as an adolescent, he was first inspired to read after having borrowed from the library Thomas Wolf’s Look Homeward, Angel, finding it not totally understandable, yet supremely inspiring. It led to his lifelong love of reading and writing, and, undoubtedly, influenced his decision to publish his spoken stories in print. Apparently for the prestige value, he referred to his first book of gathered, strung-together stories, as a “novel.”
END OF PART 1
WHO IS THAT GUY?
Continuing bits from EYF!
[page 12] …Shep was at least three people.
First there was a real Jean Parker Shepherd that an ideal biography would uncover in an ideal world—an accurate, historical Jean Shepherd, not found in this book or anywhere, in part because throughout his professional life he hid this truth and confounded the attempts of others to discover it. Therefore, this is not a straight biography of Jean Shepherd. Yet biography is only a grasping at an entertaining and probable hunch—especially unreliable if combined with an attempt to analyze a creator through comparison with the creator’s work. Even more perilous when trying to understand the slippery relationship between truth and fiction, as they interweave in what Shepherd gave as his life story. Some biographical information is included for comparison and contrast. The comparisons are interesting and the contrasts can be devastating.
Along with that first, biographically based Shepherd, the second and third Sheps, crafted by Jean Shepherd, artist and fabulist, are ones you will find and know in Excelsior, You Fathead! The second Shep persona was the storyteller who artfully conflated bits of the true Shepherd into the concocted biography of his life (“I was this kid, see…”). The third was the Shep who spoke on the radio, the perceived here-and-now Shep, whom his listeners knew, giving real ideas and perceptions through his on-air persona.
[page 13] Gerald Nachman’s Seriously Funny, a study of over two dozen “Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s,” describes Shepherd on the air: “The bemused voice, whether chortling slyly or in full maniacal cry, was by turns self-mocking, seductive, manic, querulous, and reflective. There were digressions, footnotes, parenthetical jokes, random observations, and stories within stories, augmented by an occasional sound effect or snatch of music.”
As for what I attempted in my book, and indicating that it is not a biography:
[page 14] It documents and describes what he produced in many media, and it is an appreciation and analysis of what he accomplished. And, importantly, it attempts to impart to the reader some measure of the great pleasure Shepherd’s art gave to his audiences.
Note that, for those wondering about the sequence of chapters, I include at the end of each chapter a segue toward the following chapter. And at the beginning of each Part of the book, I indicate what it’s going to be about.
More parts to come.
(23) INTESTINAL DISTRESS
Some TV commercials are entertaining—so much so, in fact, that I forget all about what the production advertises. Recently I’ve seen a great one a few times. One that receives my imaginary Charlie Award* for best idea, best script, best director, best actress. It’s about curing gas and diarrhea. (http://www.viberzi.com/what.) It’s the kind of gross health subject that I avoid on television as much as I can. I watch this one with no sound, concentrating on the sheer comedic, quirky brilliance of the actress. Stills do not do justice to her goofy movements and expressions. (The white artwork on her midsection is a stylized graphic of an intestine.) While being thoroughly delightful in her body-stocking nakedness, she does a great job being an unseriously distressing intestine.
C H A R L I E A W A R D
R E C I P I E N T
She explains that she is in charge of your body; she does a cute little drumming on head and back with pencils; she has fun on a bicycle built for two; she does a goofy walk down the street; when the medicine works, she happily gazes at the patient and the patent’s date. She’s lots of fun to be with.
*“Charlie Award“= Charles Spencer Chaplin Award
(aka: “I Wish I Could Be As Wacky & Creative As This ‘Charlie Award’ Winner.”)
Here are ways that I have promoted my work regarding Shep:
•Interviews: on Internet, radio, one on TV, and Paley Center appearance.
•Responded to reader comments on Internet sites referring to Shep.
•Authored several articles about Shep in print publications.
•Appearance and talk at Hammond’s ACS festival.
•Contributed paragraph about Shep for Hammond’s ACS brochure.
•Discussion on two panels at the Old Time Radio Convention
(Thanks again to Jackie Lannin for the Excelsior banner).
•Two talks at public libraries.
•References on my blog, www.shepquest.wordpress.com .
•My occasional comments regarding some Customer Reviews
on www.amazon.com and my “Author Page”on that site.
•In all nine CD sets of Syndicated Shep,
my text about the audios and info about EYF!
(Shep book info layout by Radio Spirits).
•My Shepherd play, “Excelsior,” (2 performances!)
•My EYF! pin worn on very rare occasions.
(I designed it with my computer drawing program, printed it,
and took it to a pin-maker at the mall.
It’s 3.5″ diameter so ya can’t miss it!)
•The sweatshirt I designed and occasionally wear.
(Photo taken in front of my Shep Shrine wall in my study.
Note Shep-poster, excelsior bottles,
Shep drawings on paper towel, etc.)
•As always, I thank Jim Clavin for his constant promotion
of my work on his site, www.flicklives.com
Jean Shepherd promoted his own books and other creative works in a variety of ways.
•He talked about them on his radio program
•He did book tours to bookstores
•He did radio interviews around the country to talk about the books and other work
•He mentioned them during live-appearances at schools and other stand-up venues.
He referred to two of his books of short stories as “novels” because novels, in general, sell better than books of short stories. (By the way, Norman Mailer–whom Shep disliked a lot for some probably causes I’ve commented on previously)–was probably the greatest ever self-promoter of his own persona and work.)
Four opening titles of the movie A Christmas Story credit him. That his film and television stories use some of his short stories, by implication promotes his published stories. Lists of his stories used in ACS are familiar to many. Here, from www.flicklives.com, is part of its list of Shepherd short story subjects used in Shep’s 90-minute TV drama, “The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters”:
Wilbur Duckworth and the Magic Baton • The Blind Date • Scragging •
The Wash Rag Pyramid Scheme • Uncle Carl’s Fireworks Stand •
The Old Man’s Fireworks Display • Ludlow Kissel • Fireworks on the Roof of Roosevelt High
This above is not a negative description—all of this is good,
and standard operating procedure in our world.
In fact, “Shep Promotion Part 2” describes ways in which I have promoted my work about Shep.