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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
For his upcoming birthday
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Jean Shepherd was the recipient of many honors,
including honorary doctorates from universities,
from Playboy magazine for best humor story of the year—several times.
Shep was given the honor of an extraordinary presence
in a New York Times crossword puzzle
(March 15, 1972):
Yet, he was not satisfied.
He deserved more.
So here, for the first time,
I present other well-deserved awards to
Jean Parker Shepherd.
PRESIDENCY OF THE UNITED STATES
For creating a body of work
that honors the every-day millions
of us ordinary American folk
who yearn for a tad of recognition.
NOBEL PRIZE IN RADIO PERFORMANCE
For superb use of the unique radio medium
better than anybody else
before or since.
HIGHEST CELEBRITY HONOR
(For being the celebrity extraordinaire–
authentic Jean Shepherd bobbleheads
–sometimes referred to as head-knockers–
to be given to the first 60,000 White Sox fans
who yell “Excelsior!”).
OK, BIG FELLA?
Satisfied at last?
Here, take one of these also:
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
The question of metaphors and allegories is not an easy one to answer in any definitive way. Certainly to create and perceive a story as mainly or only a metaphor would be rather simple-minded. Yet some of our most important.memorable stories in our culture are allegorical in nature. The allegory is preferably not up front in our minds as we read it, but is an undercurrent. Some stories that come to mind:
The Old Man and the Sea
The Grapes of Wrath
The parables of Jesus
Joel Baumwoll brings some intelligent, thoughtful comments to the discussion:
<Methinks we need to be careful reading too much into his work. I agree with Murphy. Sure there are messages in his stories. They all have to do with the human condition. Huck Finn was a metaphor? No, it was a story about how people are and think.
The famous battle of the tops has been referred to as a metaphor for the mutual destruction of nuclear war. I think it unlikely he started with a plan to write a story which would be a metaphor for that and arrived at the battle of the tops as the answer.
I take issue with the anti-war interpretation of the BB Gun story. The woman with the button that said “disarm the toy industry represented a but of a kook, I think, who finds danger in so many things. Remember, the BB Gun fantasy Shep described was protecting his family from marauders (Black Bart). One might even say he was supporting the NRA idea that we should have guns in our homes for our own protection against evil. He ended the sequence by saying the BB Gun was the best present he had ever received or EVER WOULD RECEIVE! Now that is a big statement.
A lot of Shep’s stories had to do with fantasies and dreams dashed by reality. Zudock’s plan to build a house from a kit, Shep and friends building a hot air balloon and burning down the high school, Bumpus’ dogs eating the ham or turkey…etc etc…The theme of the poem Excelsior speaks to that.
In any case, I suggest we take his stories on face value for their insights,humor and fun.
Knees loose gang, metaphorically speaking.
Without suggesting any definitive answers, I respond with the following:
Barry Farber (quoted in my EYF!) said that Shep delighted in Farber’s finding the metaphors he was suggesting in his stories–of course, maybe Shep was simply playing around and didn’t really mean it–or only meant it at that particular moment.
As for the BB gun story, Ralphie’s sequined attire is a child’s silly fantasy of reality (what cowboys are/were really like). Ralphie’s idea of his personal reality is indeed a “rhinestone cowboy.” He is, as I like to put it about superficial imitations, a rhinestone in the rough. As are the bad guy’s phony prison get-up and their ease of defeat, and the cartoon-like crosses over their eyes to represent that they are “dead.” We laugh in part because we know that a BB gun wouldn’t stop real criminals. All that is a put-down of Ralphie’s “reasoning” of why he should have a gun. And that the BB ricochets back and hits him is surely an irony (a metaphor) for what might easily happen with weapons.
That Ralphie, at the movie’s end, hugging the gun that nearly shot his eye out, muses that “the BB Gun was the best present he had ever received or EVER WOULD RECEIVE! ” I suggest that:
1. Whatever the present would have been, as it was his supremely hoped-for one, of course it was the best present he’d ever receive, especially as narrator-Shep nostalgically envisions it;
2. As his father (a bit of a curmudgeon) gave it to him, it was a special bond that Ralphie thus formed with him;
3. As I comment in EYF! the sweet and idealistic ending of the parents snuggling in the glow of tree-and-snow
may well have been an arm-twisted finish the movie studio insisted on after all the funny downers the movie is replete with–Ralphie’s childish thoughts in bed as the movie closes could be seen as another sugar-coated dumpling.
The long horizontal line below represents the end ↓
Many locales and situations other than the army are subjects for
Shepherd allegories and metaphors.
“Excelsior” as a metaphor for unwarranted idealism.
“Seltzer bottle” as the proper response to “excelsior,” as I commented in Excelsior, You Fathead!” the “self-deluding pomposity of ‘Excelsior’ should deservedly elicit a slapstick clown’s squirt of seltzer in the face!”
“Keep your knees loose” as a metaphor for being flexible in life, with its obverse, in the Army’s directive to avoid falling off a pole: “Keep your knees tight,” representing the need to act counter-instinctively in the military.
Og and Charlie, the symbolic cavemen, as not only our former but current selves: not yet civilized. As the old joke has it, the missing link between savages and civilized man is us.
Ludlow Kissel’s giant Fourth of July bomb that goes awry—as Shepherd once commented, represents the desire we all have to blow up the world.
The great ice cream war, with two stores in competition, each lowering its price to the level of self-destruction. What should be a simple pleasure becomes the subject of conflict and riot. Also a symbol of total war with its mutual destruction.
Shep, Schwartz, and Flick, as youngsters, begin popping pills which they encounter in a medicine cabinet of an empty house. They become very ill. Shepherd, telling this story, says that he is sometimes asked to tell of his first experience with drugs. Obviously the question is asked in order to tell a tale of the kind of drug-taking that became so dangerously common in the 1960s and 1970s. He turns this around, telling a kid story in order to give an anti-drug allegory.
Shepherd’s fly hook. We know that fishing is a pursuit often steeped in deferred, if not doomed, expectations. Consistent with his general philosophy, at various times Shepherd commented on how life often deals an unexpectedly disastrous blow. On a show he says, “You can do everything perfectly and have it blow up in your face.” He mentions that he loves fishing. He comments that fishing tells something about life. He describes how he was fly-casting and a fish grabbed the bait perfectly—but it broke loose and the fly hook whipped back and caught him in his left ear. It had to be removed in a nearby emergency room. Another illustration from Shepherd about how faultless acts can, nevertheless, end in disaster. Did this really happen? We’ll never know what the reality was, but I believe that he made it all up in order to give us unsuspecting listeners what might have been his last, surreptitious parable. He told this story on March 29, 1977. He had forewarned his listeners, who were already emotionally dressed in mourning, that three days later, after twenty-one years on New York radio, not by his own fault or choice but through a corporate bloodbath against long-standing segments of its talk-format, Shepherd, after twenty-one years at WOR doing “everything perfectly,” April Fool’s Day of 1977 would be his last broadcast.
Seated near the back of the school room because his name started with S in a world of not-always-fair alphabetical arrangements, causing potential difficulty in hearing the teacher as well as not being able to read the blackboard, suggesting that totally arbitrary circumstances in life can cause important problems.
Morse Code and Mark Twain’s River episode described in EYF! pages 357-360 about being a “sorehead.” He uses expertise at Morse code as a metaphor for there always being someone better than you are. He uses the Mississippi River as a metaphor for life always having some hidden dangers that can kill you.
Considering the above interpretations, Jean Shepherd seemed to be enamored of allegories and metaphors. And, as these are only those that have been easily remembered from the over a thousand available programs heard, and these shows are only part of his radio broadcasts that have surfaced and are available for listening, many more recognizable ones undoubtedly exist out there somewhere, waiting to be found and interpreted—or misinterpreted. As one email correspondent put it: “…to paraphrase Freud, ‘Sometimes a leg lamp is just a leg lamp’” (Frank in Jersey). Ah, yes, some might be wrong interpretations, but Shep also produced many direct, unequivocal doozies:
“New York is a summer fistfight,” and walking up Sixth Avenue “knee-deep in cigar butts,” frequent disparaging comments on the thoughtless slovenliness of Americans.
Warren G. Harding school as being made of balsa wood and silly putty.
A simile from In God We Trust: “[Hohman] clings precariously to the underbody of Chicago like a barnacle clings to the rotting hulk of a tramp steamer.”
His mother’s knee: “She had this huge, giant, wonderful old granite knee. Had these handholds,” as symbolic of a child’s image of the mother as a chiseled-in-stone subject of truth, wisdom, and security.
Kidhood as a jungle is the direct ,extended, many-faceted, hyperbolic metaphor in Shepherd’s own narration at the end of his television drama, “The Phantom of the Open Hearth,” taken from the published script: “The male human animal, skulking through the impenetrable fetid jungle of Kidhood, learns early in the game just what sort of animal he is. The jungle he stalks is a howling, tangled wilderness, infested with crawling, flying, leaping, nameless dangers.
Ralph, after the prom and its aftermath
are all over, trudging up to bed.
“He daily does battle with horrors and emotions that he will spend the rest of his life trying to forget or suppress. Or recapture. His jungle is the wilderness he will never fully escape, but those first early years, when the bloom is on the peach and the milk teeth have just barely departed, are the crucial days in the Great Education of Life.”
Pretty strong, that one. But others can hold their own, too. Whether Shepherd used metaphors and allegories consciously or not in every sited instance is impossible to say, but that he used them sometimes is undeniable. In fact, I suggest that Shepherd’s penchant for the vigorous, descriptive language he is so admired for, especially in his writing, owes much to his sometimes strong and surprising metaphors.
And, to end our incomplete little lecture,
here is our fearless leader with arms and legs
akimbo (3 out of 4 of which are edging out of the picture)
in front of a Howard Johnson’s,
a pose that may well be a metaphor fer sumpin’.
Yes, here’s even more.
We know that from time to time Jean would refer to Leigh on the air, and we know that sometimes he demeaned her–on the air. (See especially, my EYF! pages 293-300). At least once he also made a point of emphatically complementing her during a broadcast. (See EYF! pages 298-299.)
What else can we know? Regarding my Excelsior, You Fathead! in 2008, I received an email from Mr. Tom Lipscomb, with whom I’d never had contact. He wrote, noting with obvious surprise that indeed, as I’d never known Shepherd, “I don’t know HOW you did this book. This is the Jean that Leigh and I knew! Lipscomb had published Shep’s 1972 The Ferrari in the Bedroom, and subsequently at another publishing house , Leigh’s 1975 novel, The Show Gypsies. One does not know why Doubleday, who’d published Shep’s In God We Trust and Wanda, didn’t publish Ferrari–maybe, because it was not Shep’s kid stories, but humorous articles that they didn’t think would sell enough to make their bean-counters happy. (Years later, a publishing conglomerate that includes Doubleday has the rights to it and other Shepherd trade-paperback books, all of which have sold in dozens of trade paperback printings. Stick that in your pot o’ beans!) For whatever cause, Leigh, in her literary-agent role, brought the Ferrari manuscript to publisher Dodd-Mead, where Lipscomb was its Editor-in-Chief. This began a strong professional as well as personal relationship with Leigh and Shep. Tom has the utmost admiration for Leigh. In one email to me, he explained in part:
Tom asked me to come over for a chat. Though unlike Quixote’s steadfast peregrinations through the arid plains of La Mancha, most of my picaresque travels in quest of Shep have been mental rather than geographical–but on a fine summer day I sallied forth in my minivan, voyaging from the ancient Indian “land of many waters,” Massapequa, Long Island, to Tom’s home just south of the wildly wooded glacial moraine of Forest Park, Queens, NY. As sole provisions, I packed my tape recorder, blank tapes, and fresh batteries. We met to discuss Jean and Leigh.
What I didn’t anticipate was that, just as Leigh’s letters had given her self-portrait from 1961-62 when she and Jean first became intellectually and emotionally involved, Tom’s comments would provide new understanding of how Leigh’s talents, acquired and honed years before she met Jean, became, from 1962 onward, an essential force that enabled his unique gifts to flourish. Tom gave me a bit of background on his encounters with Leigh and Jean and why he published Shepherd’s book and hers.
Tom said, “I’d known his work for years. I have a weakness for Americana. You’ve got to go out to where the market is. I like George Ade, I love Robert Benchley, a list of people—that doesn’t mean I don’t love Dorothy Parker, too–but basically, I knew there was a market in the United States for American stuff, and the thing that puzzles the New York Times people and my friends in the literary group always is, ‘Why would anybody buy a book by Bill O’Reilly?’ And I said, ‘Because they think it’s terrific stuff!’ They love it! They’re normal Americans.” Looking at me, Tom said, “You’re not a normal American—you’re a neurotic New Yorker. And you worry about all kinds of things nobody else in the country gives a shit about. They’re worried about the NASCAR races.”
So Tom published Ferrari and a couple of years later, when he co-founded a new publishing company, he did Leigh’s The Show Gypsies. He talked about Leigh as an expert horse-woman, an expert in show-jumping, the subject of her novel. She seemed to be fearless. Tom said, “She lost all her teeth jumping. She had total plates.” He learned from her that “the show jumper’s job is to sell horses. That’s their real job. The riders would work for certain owners. The rider had to deal with the personality of the owner, the objectives of the owner, the personality of the horse, and the competition. That’s pretty sophisticated stuff—commodity traders don’t have that tough a life. Plus, the riders must have their own athletic ability to make it all translate. So you think of what she did in life for a couple of years there, as an attractive blonde—that’s pretty interesting. So I thought The Show Gypsies was a good book—I enjoyed publishing it.” He was obviously telling me all this not only to explain why he published that book but also to show how Leigh’s many-faceted abilities translated into her successful efforts to promote Jean’s works in all media.
“She was toe-to-toe with anybody,” Tom told me. “She was one of the boys when it came to that kind of role. She was just a delight. When you were inside her world, she never missed a trick. Everybody’s name, she’d know what this was and what that was and she’d have the horse’s weight, whether it was a crummy horse or a good horse, why the horse shied away. So it wasn’t just that she’d been a show jumper—she was that kind of observer of absolutely everything.
“When she sat in a room with Jean and somebody else and they’d have a long conversation, she wouldn’t say a word, and afterwards Jean would say, ‘Well, what do you think? How’d it go?’ And it was like listening to an intelligent computer that cut through all the crap and that did the three deal-points that mattered in the entire four-hour conversation. Then she’d come with, ‘I wouldn’t trust him. I don’t think that gig will ever happen. Consider it a free dinner, Jean. That’s what you got out of this.’ And Jean would kind of weakly protest, ‘Gee, he seemed like such a nice guy. And all the things he’s done and all the people he knows.’ She said, ‘I wouldn’t bet on it.’”
So Tom felt that Leigh was a major force behind Jean’s success in his career. “Jean’s always in a sales mode. He seldom picks up that he’s pissing off somebody magnificently. He won’t pick it up. Whatever he’s doing, he’ll keep on doing. And Leigh would pick it up and say something like, ‘Well, Jean, why don’t you tell him about the time you were training in the Army down in Florida.’ And he’ll move right over. He won’t know what ditch she pulled him out of.”
In that regard, I mentioned that Bob Clark, director of Jean’s A Christmas Story, commented that Jean became a problem on the set and that after a while Clark had to see that Jean went home, and that when Steven Spielberg met Jean to talk over doing the narration for the forthcoming sitcom, The Wonder Years, Spielberg told Clark that there was a problem. Tom, who had discussed Jean with Clark, said that:
“It wouldn’t be anything Jean said that turned Spielberg off—it’s rather, how do you get a nozzle on this fire hose? You can’t have him take up all this time. Production companies are as efficient as they can be—you’ve got to shoot—a movie has to shoot on-budget in 21 days, 34 days, whatever. You can’t have a fire hose drowning everybody, delaying everything, screwing everything up.”
Then Tom put it another way: “No gearshift on Jean. Jean was always flat out. What Leigh did is she would direct him, she knew what his hot buttons were. She pushed the right button and the lawnmower, instead of heading up the front steps or into a wading pool full of toddlers, would go back to another patch of lawn that needed mowing. That’s one of the things that goes wrong with careers of entertainers—quite often they get too big for their britches. Now, some of it’s arrogance. It wasn’t arrogance with Jean, it was this extraordinary manic personality. Manic in the sense of inexhaustible energy on full throttle at all times.”
I said that I would have thought it was also ego.
“I don’t think it came from ego as much as from a childish sense of wonder—at the world and everything in it,” Tom said. “He seemed fresh all the time, and like the child who tells you ‘the grass is green’ with wonder in his voice, Jean is seeing everything new all the time. He would tell you the same story fifteen times, changing it each time, not because of his ego, but because it would occur to him again—it would pop up, and I quite enjoyed it. I found it quite interesting. I like talent. I put up with a lot of crap from talent.”
So Tom, with his extended contact with Jean and Leigh, encountered many aspects of their professional life in addition to some of their personal conflicts. He got to know Leigh especially well. “What a gal she was! She was just a remarkable person. Remarkable person. And she and Jean would have these terrific fights and I guess I got to hear what it looked like from her side, and she had a dry wit about her. She wasn’t just a crazy lady screaming about her boyfriend. She was very, very, very funny.”
As a close friend of theirs and using his professional observation, Tom recognized Leigh’s importance as Jean’s enabler in the real world. “She was incredibly loyal to Jean, spent all kinds of time talking to me about his talents and abilities—and what to do with them,” Tom told me. “And her thinking was top notch. After all, what does a publisher do—our job is to husband talent and bring it to the marketplace—so I had a lot of skill-sets that she wanted to hear about.” To her own innate perceptions and abilities, she added Tom’s knowledge of the creative world’s marketplace.
For Tom, here again is one important example of what he sees as Leigh’s effect on Jean’s career: When Leigh and Tom first met in 1971 she said that it was the Red Ryder BB-gun story that would eventually become Jean’s most important success. She was convinced it would be the ultimate perennial Christmas movie like It’s a Wonderful Life and make him a fortune. She never forgot. Fourteen years later A Christmas Story proved that Leigh Brown, co-writer with Jean and Bob Clark, just as at so many other times, was right on the money.
Jean Shepherd had many women in his life, and sometimes, over the span of it, he might truthfully have been called an MCP, but that would not have been the whole truth–there’s more to the story. There were times when he loved and appreciated some of the women in his life—and through our new-found knowledge encountered during our diverse, picaresque episodes, we’ve come to much better understand and appreciate the women, too. Lois Nettleton and Leigh Brown, we see, were important in his world.
Some of the material in my blog posts comes from my miscellaneous thoughts and gatherings subsequent to Excelsior, You Fathead!’s publication. The subtitle of one of those two resultant, unpublished book manuscripts is: “Questing for Jean Shepherd.” Part of that manuscript’s original dedication belongs here:
….And to the memory of two women who were so important
to the life and legacy of Jean Shepherd,
Lois Nettleton and Leigh Brown.
MORE ESSENTIALS ABOUT LEIGH BROWN FOLLOW
I thought that, as in my previous post I’d discussed “Excelsior” as Shep’s motto and its relationship to the Longfellow poem of that name, I’d definitively elaborated on the subject and I’d finished with it. NO!
Here’s a bit of that last post:
So remember, gang, although ol’ Shep had some happy and illusion-filled moments of his own (some of which, happily, came to fruition), as he put it in one of his less-than-joyous moods, in reference to that meaningful word (and not at all referring to wood shavings): ”And this is the story of all mankind.”
Avid and perceptive shepahaulic Joel Baumwoll commented on that post and what follows are illuminating post “comments” and emails between us.
JOEL: The use of the word “device” to describe the sign held by the frozen traveler is interesting. Device is defined as
1. a thing made for a particular purpose, esp. a mechanical, electric, or electronic invention or contrivance.
2. a plan, scheme, or procedure for effecting a purpose.
3. a crafty scheme; trick.
4. a word pattern, figure of speech, theatrical convention, etc., used in a literary or dramatic work to evoke a desired effect.
5. something elaborately or fancifully designed.
6. a representation or design used esp. as a heraldic charge or an emblem.
7. a motto; slogan.
Considering the way Shepherd used the word “excelsior,” definition # 3 is apropos. Shep spent a lot of time talking about illusion and disillusion. He was merciless in his commentary about how we delude ourselves, make plans we never fulfill, pursue the unreachable. I recall his talking about how many people had boxes of things stored in basements or closets, projects that were bought with the idea of building something–a model, a kit, even a house–and never opened.
It is not hard to understand his dissatisfaction with what he accomplished when you understand his grandiosity. I am reminded of a conversation I had with an engineer who was also a borderline schizophrenic who told me of his plans to design and build a bridge from the US to Europe, quite seriously and with conviction. I imagine Shep had visions of such grand achievements. Perhaps “excelsior” was his way of reminding himself to keep his feet on the ground and his knees loose while his head was in the clouds.
GENE: As for the broadcast you write of regarding having big plans in the attic that are never completed, there’s the one I write of in EYF! (see the book pages 240-242), “Dream Collection Day” [about starting to write a novel, learn how to play the guitar, etc.]
JOEL: One can infer that Shepherd had little time for idealism, if excelsior represented the ultimately futile effort to reach some unattainable goal, I guess you could say he was a realist to a painful extent. Yet he strove to achieve recognition and success on a larger scale than he had already. So perhaps he saw himself as that fellow trudging up the snowy mountain carrying the banner, and as far as he was concerned, that was what life was about.
GENE: You’re probably right that there was some of that striving up the mountain against the odds in him–another aspect of the enigma?! Probably that’s why he found the Longfellow poem so important to him–he recognized a part of himself in it.
JOEL: I think that is right. Has to be.
GENE: Joel, I think that our interaction regarding “Excelsior” has resulted in an important discovery of Shep’s enigmatic self–he did recognize himself in the innocent fellow of the poem!
JOEL: Why was the password response to “excelsior you fathead” “seltzer bottle, you slob?” On what was this based?
GENE: In EYF! p 217, where I discuss Excelsior, I say this about Seltzer bottle:
As for the “seltzer bottle” response one gave to “Excelsior”? It conveniently has the same “sel” sound as “Excelsior,” linking the pompous word to the common, unflavored soda at the candy story, a two-cents plain–and the self-deluding pomposity of “Excelsior” should deservedly elicit a slapstick clown’s squirt of seltzer in the face!
Subsequent to the book’s publication, I encountered that “Excelsior” was the company name of a seltzer bottle company! I now own (through ebay) a couple of the old-time bottles with the company name “Excelsior Water” on them. I imagine that at some point Shep knew of this and then maybe added “seltzer bottle” as a response.
[From the E. Bruce Bergmann Collection
of Excelsior Water Bottles
housed in “The Shep Shrine”]
An important discovery of Shep’s
enigmatic being—he indeed recognized
himself in the innocent fellow of the poem!
From one of the masterpieces of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, here regarding the death of Chuckles the Clown, who, in a parade, dressed as a peanut, was killed by a rogue elephant:
Chuckles the Clown’s beloved motto:
“A little song, a little dance–
a little seltzer down your pants.”
You know, Shep’s “dark side” was such a large part of his commentary on life. The failure of the intrepid climber with the Excelsior banner was one way he saw life. His love of Robert Service poetry connects with the image of the Longfellow poem. So many of Service’s poems tell tales of men done in by the icy cold in their quest for gold.
Is there also a connection between the innocent and naive striver, climbing up the icy slope with the Excelsior banner and the striving innocents featured in many of the fables of George Ade, whom Shep adored? Ade often wrote of the naive and vainglorious people who strive for recognition and admiration, only to be taken in by a slick huckster, duped by their own ambitions and blind to the dangers of the hustle.
The idea is that we are driven by our obsessive quests (BB Gun) only to discover that when we achieve them, life is more of the same, or that in the quest, we allow ourselves to buy into our illusions. Also, the object of our quest may turn out to hurt us. Like the people who warned the climber not to go on, the adults tell Ralphie “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” Undeterred by this warning, he gets his gun and nearly does shoot his eye out.
So the word Excelsior is his code for that flaw in all of us, including himself. It is his Rosebud.
Another great comment! I just discussed “innocent” and “naive” with Allison (I’ve got a very smart wife!) and she believes that innocent suggests just a lack of knowledge, while naive suggests the the person fails to or doesn’t want to understand the issue.
I do think that “obsession” is a different thing–although one might be innocent or naive plus obsessed.
Gene, if we keep this up, you will no longer be able to call Shep an enigma.
Realist and idealist? Isn’t that an enigma? What about this thought found in the compilation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short ideas, “The Crack Up”: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see things as hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” That would appear to be what Jean P. Shepherd sometimes attempted to do. Sounds both foolish and wonderful simultaneously–sounds confoundedly enigmatic!
WHY SHEP’S “EXCELSIOR” REFERS
NEARLY EXCLUSIVLY TO
THE LONGFELLOW POEM
Shepherd’s various offhand mentions of his use of the word “Excelsior’s” have no point regarding something he would choose to be his motto representing his attitude toward the world. All but one are shallow. For example, “Excelsior” is the name of a fireworks company—mentioned during shows about the Fourth of July on 7/4/1975 and 7/3/1976. This is just a reference to the subject of the show and has no relevance to the essential Shep (Unless, as I think about it, fireworks themselves contain an ironic idea–our enjoyment of the stuff is inseparable from the potentially dangerous explosions which cause our delight.) Here’s a comment from Excelsior, You Fathead!:
But why did Shepherd choose to make it the important motto of his professional life? It fit perfectly with his consistent thinking embodied in the following [from a broadcast of his]:
And of course, the aphorisms. The aphorisms are a substitute for really looking at the world or/and thinking about it. And so wisdom today has become a kind of mixing around shifting of all these various little aphoristic, jingoistic ideas. “Every day in every way I grow better and better.” Why, this is obviously not true. Patently untrue. Every day in every way, each of us grows older and older. And the glands grow less and less active. The muscles grow less and less ready. Every day in every way, however, on the other hand, “I grow better and better.” And the mind grows more and more like a concrete block—in most people’s cases. Nevertheless, they repeat, “Every way, every day, I grow better and better.”
Yes, the notion, implied in the Longfellow poem, that “Excelsior” somehow means that we must strive onward and upward in some ideal world where the most unrealistic idea will persevere, represented for Shepherd the absurdity of the wide-eyed youth climbing foolhardily onward, pursuing the idea of success despite common sense. Everything is always improving, getting better, and if we only just carry on, we will assuredly prevail. Eternal self-delusion.
As in other circumstances, Shepherd did not exclude himself–in his promotion of one of his favorite sponsors, the Paperbook Gallery in the Village, he said that listeners who exclaimed “Excelsior, you fathead” to the cashier would be given a free pin with the phrase on it, and then he continued:
You know what “Excelsior” means, don’t you? We will not go any further. “Excelsior” has a really deep hidden meaning in our lives, and certainly in my life. As I lie on those snowy slopes, holding the sign up, with the touch of frozen North upon my brow, and the elderly farmer looking down on me—“You know what happened there, he died with the word ‘Excelsior’ on his lips.” [Laughs.]
And of course, what is the countersign? When you hear that password belted out at you, you just look the guy right in the eye and say “Seltzer bottle, you slob.” And you walk your separate ways. You never look back. Now, you want to know where that strange password comes from? [Pause. He reads verses from the Longfellow poem. For the full text, see the beginning of my EYF!] There now, you see where that comes from? [Laughs.] Yeah… As you clamber up the icy slopes, reaching forever, reaching, grasping eternally, forever, at that shifting cloud of reason, that chimera that seems to just drift out of your reach each time you grasp for it. And it moves further and further away. Excelsior!
Defeated by one’s own baseless optimism. The poem, with its sentimentality, is a quintessential example of what Shepherd referred to as “glop.” Yes, “a banner with the strange device.” The perfect Jean Shepherd ironic motto.
That, for him, represented all of humanity’s fate–including his own. Maybe convincing himself sometimes that his efforts would result in justified fulfillment.
Here is a quote found just a couple of years ago (on a tape among Lois Nettleton’s effects), from a Shepherd show of late 1958:
It’s like this kid jumping up out of the crowd at the University of Pennsylvania and yelling, “All right, Shepherd, What is the word then? Give us the word!”
What is the word? “Excelsior?” Would you like to go up that mountainside? Probably the parallel of it is this lone stranger carrying and baring the placard that read “Excelsior” as he moved up the mountainside and the peasant said, “Don’t go, don’t go,” And from the high, thin, thin air above the village could be heard the tiny, tiny wail, “Excelsior,” and sure enough, he was found in the morning frozen to death but nevertheless he had there next to him the sign that read enigmatically, “Excelsior.” And this is the story of all mankind.
I REST MY CASE
Ah, but there’s more.
I’ve encountered several parodies of the “Excelsior” poem,
which show that Shepherd was not alone
in finding the poem absurd in its eternal glop:
American humorist James Thurber, reprinting parts of the poem in his book The Thurber Carnival (See under “Excelsior” in http://www.flicklives.com ) illustrated those parts with an eye toward silliness:
English humorist Edward Lear, famous for his limericks, did a parody and illustrated it:
At break of day I had a dream
Methought I heard an awful scream
And a great pig with a claw of ice
Showed in the world this strange device
There in the twilight, cold and grey
Lifeless but beautiful he lay
And solemn voices seem to say
Fresh pork and sausages today
English poet A. E. Housman wrote a parody:
“Beware the pass,” the old man said,
My bold, my desperate fellah;
Dark lowers the tempest overhead,
And you’ll want your umbrella;
And the roaring torrent is deep and wide–
You may hear how loud it washes.”
But still that clarion voice replied:
I’ve got my old galoshes.”
Last, and maybe most absurd, the television cartoon Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends (in 1959, Season 2, Episode 18), in a segment called “Bullwinkle’s Corner (poetry for demented youth),” did a parody, begun with the title, which, at the top of this most educational post, is gloriously depickled .
“Hello there, culture gang. Today’s poem is ‘Excelsior’
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
The shades of night were falling fast….”
As he continues the poem, Bullwinkle charges up the mountain.
At mountaintop, Rocky approaches Bullwinkle:
Rocky: “‘Pray tell me,’ said a mountaineer,
‘What in the world you’re doing here
And why you climb up here so high
Just to give that silly cry?'”
Rocky: “That’s the one!”
Bullwinkle: “The answer came both quick and blunt–
‘It’s just an advertising stunt.
I represent Smith, Jones, and Jakes,
a lumber company that makes–
You see, for those poor young folk who have always lived in a bubble-wrapped world: the real stuff (not the kind made of plastic), used for protective packaging (the stuff the “Leg Lamp” was swaddled in), is a kind of thin, noodle-like shaving, a wood product:
So remember, gang, although ol’ Shep had some happy and illusion-filled moments
of his own (some of which, happily, came to fruition),
as he put it in one of his less-than-joyous moods,
in reference to that meaningful word
(and not at all referring to wood shavings):
“And this is the story of all mankind.”
With this downer–so to speak–the curtain drops.
(See dropped curtain immediately below.)