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[Shepherd says he was one of the earliest writers for the Village Voice and for a time had his name on their masthead. (See my EYF! page 129 for some detail about how he began his association with the VV.) His writing mostly consisted of his column titled “Night People.” He comments that he wrote for The Realist, a Village-type of publication. His name is connected with three issues of The Realist, two of which appear to be Leigh Brown’s partial transcriptions of his radio broadcasts.]
[He relates that he did the Village section of an NBC TV program about New York at night. During his narration for this video he says, “I can’t imagine myself seriously living anyplace else.” ]
The Village is essentially a night area. By night, I mean during the daytime the Village is just another kind of a city. I love the Village. It’s a good place to live and I suspect, a hellish place to visit–quite the opposite of what most people think of New York. But I dig living down there for a number of reasons. Most of them only a resident could understand.
It’s one of the most historical parts of the city. For example, right off Sheridan Square is where Thomas Paine, the great revolutionary, wrote “The Crisis.” [He mentions Mark Twain, Henry James, and other literary people.]
And people who made the Village a bohemian hangout in the 20s were people like Edna Vincent Millay. A lot of people think that they’d love to live in the Village. They get the Village bug–it’s the kind of thing to do. [Here Shepherd begins to offhandedly criticize what would represent a fair portion of his young listeners. Cut ’em a bit of slack, Shep.]
When I was in my 20s-40- I’d go to the Village sometimes one night a week, not as a bohemian, but to see some avant garde and foreign films and have coffee at Reggio’s.
End of Part 3 of 3
Recently I came upon a major New York Times article in their special “Science Times” section. Titled “Dickinson’s Inspirations Grow Anew,” it describes how her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, now the Emily Dickinson Museum, is unearthing and replanting the gardens that inspired some of her poetry:
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—
I keep it staying at Home—
With a Bobolink for a Chorister—
And an Orchard for a Dome
How delightful to be able to have and to hold some flower that inspired her—or have in a glass bell jar, a stuffed Bobolink.
Regarding non-literary items, to have and to hold:
Archimedes’ Eureka-moment bath towel
One of the bloodstained knives that stabbed Caesar
A relic of the True Cross
Newton’s apple (freeze-dried)
But better, some high marks from the world of literature and the visual artsys:
A Whitman first edition with, in it as a bookmark, a plucked-by-Walt leaf of grass
One of Picasso’s paint-clogged brushes
Faulkner’s empty booze bottle
A Norman Mailer boxing glove
One of David Foster Wallace’s balls (tennis)
From one of my literary heroes, the book Hemingway slammed into author Max Eastman’s face in their publisher’s office because Eastman had written an essay, “Bull in the Afternoon,” saying that Ernie’s literary hair-on-his-chest was phony.
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.
Will my obsession never end?
As the (slight) possibility looms that I may get a contract to publish another Shep project, my egocentric mind goes back to all the various Shep projects I’ve produced, both published and unpublished. However, I see that I’ve already blogged my list of all that stuff–by searching the date in the right-hand column of this site, see my February 2, 2014 blog titled:
“ebb’s Jean Shepherd Bibliography.”
The categories, (with a few representative samples here) are: BOOKS (EYF!, Shep’s Army); THEATER Excelsior play about Shep); ARTICLES AND A FOREWORD (Foreword to A Christmas Story: Background...); PROGRAM NOTES (Syndicated audio program notes); UNDISTRIBUTED STUFF (Graphic novel); SPECIAL APPEARANCES Old Time Radio Convention); INTERNET (www.shepquest.wordpress.com).
Oh, dear, what is an obsession?
Oh. Wow. Another Jean Shepherd Project.
Shakespeare’s Dark Lady of the Sonnets,
The New Yorker 10/5/2015 issue,
and to my wife, Allison Morgan Bergmann.*)
*For Allison, I apologize for putting her in my little joke, and for my big obsession.
For anyone not aware of it, the process of creating, searching for an outlet for, getting a publishing contract for, struggling through the slings and arrows until publication day for–is stressful, to put it lightly. Decades ago I struggled through the search with several unpublished novels. On the verge of giving up, I was brazen enough to send material to Norman Mailer, at the time, my favorite living novelist (He’s no longer living, but still a favorite). Eventually I received his response, which I still possess, framed in my study/Shep Shrine. I’m grateful that he took the time and creative effort to respond. Here’s what he wrote:
As I type this with fingers, toes, and mental wiring crossed,
I think back on those days and on Mailer.
Shep, are you with me on this one? I believe you’d be happy with the subject of my new project possibilities.
I will keep everyone informed.
Meanwhile, write if you get work.
(I’m hanging by my thumbs.)
THE SAD, UNFULFILLED REMNANTS OF A STORY
(With a few minor repeats, but worth it.)
Let’s bring some threads together. Maybe they weave themselves into one of the shreds of truth about Jean Parker Shepherd. So he was unhappy despite all he had accomplished?
Barry Farber: “A towering success, but I think inwardly he knew, compared to himself, and his potential—he felt like a failure!”
Herb Saltzman: “You know, there were many guys who would have achieved his success and would have really been happy with it. He was never happy. I don’t think he spent many happy times.”
Fred Barzyk: “Happy!…The only time he was happy was when people would come up to him and say how great he was.”
What had he had? Lois Nettleton: “…he had headlines!…I remember in the Post he was—he was just a big celebrity!” This was the time of the I, Libertine affair, the firings from WOR, and the highest level jazz connections. The “great burgeoning” period of the late 1950s in New York, his overnight extemporaneous work, association with the highest avant-garde, the Beats, the intellectual elite who were his most impressive “listeners.” The more evidence we accumulate, the more I think about it, the more certain I am that this was the period when, with what he was involved in and creating on the highest level, he peaked.
WHAT DID HE WANT?
Lois Nettleton makes the same point as have others who knew Shepherd: “I think if he had gotten the public fame and acclaim that Mort Sahl got, [cover of Time Magazine and related celebrity], I think that would have been very good for him, although with him, who knows, he might have not been satisfied with that.” Coming out of the heady postwar artistic ferment, he could have remained there with Mailer, Kerouac, Mingus, Pollock, each a unique giant, and Shepherd with his art of sound, unprecedented in his own field of improvisation and Mark Twain-like humor and commentary. (I can’t leave Lois with the implication that she was mainly impressed by his headlines, so I’ve got to repeat what she most importantly said: “I really want him to be recognized for what he was—a brilliant genius. The wonderful, wonderful unique—the wonderful thing that he was.”) Widely recognized for what he was—a unique giant in his own field. This, I believe, is what he wanted.
What happened? He could have had it, he should have had it, because he’d already had it and knew he had it—right there in his hands until his dreams were undone by some unfortunate shift in timing or emphasis, and, he must have eventually been aware, of miscalculated alternatives. Did the kid-stories and the kid-fans such as myself and many who are reading this, do him in? I repeat words of “The Jackdaw Story.” Shepherd himself: “And by the way, for those of you who think kid stories made me what I am today [laughs], you’re crazy. Not at all. They’ve held me back from what I should have been.”
For his particular long-form of humor and intellectual engagement as practiced in the late 1950s and even the more accessible style of the 1960s and 1970s, his artistic style was incompatible with that larger constituency he coveted. That mass audience was now watching television, a medium not suited for his extended monologs—his style too laid-back and subtle and thus beyond the mental capacities of a countrywide, adult mass audience. Maybe he realized this, or maybe he didn’t realize what the shift to earlier broadcast time periods would do, even with his four hours on Sunday nights for a while. Maybe the larger audience of high school and college kids was the best he’d be able to garner. Maybe he thought he could have it both ways—artistic heights and celebrity such as had Jack Benny, Norman Mailer, and innumerable others, not damaged by accumulating more young listeners on that lessening national influence called “radio.”
Maybe he did it with full understanding of what the effects would be? Maybe the cultural dynamics of how people were spending their time under the onslaught of TV made the rapid decay of radio-as-it-had-been an inevitable disaster for him in his ideal medium. Maybe he miscalculated the effect on his style caused by the more abbreviated forty-five-minute format. Maybe he was capitulating to the inevitable decline of radio? I quoted Shepherd in regard to radio’s decline, and what strikes me now is that he’d articulated this harbinger of his own doom so early, his late-night programming already ended, at the turning point between his longer and much shorter programs:
It’s sad that a whole art form grew to fruition and suddenly disappeared….because radio can do things that television and the movies and the stage can never do. It plays with the imagination and the mind [in a way] that I think no other medium can ever approach. (July 9, 1960)
Maybe when it was too late he wished he had made different choices? During this transition period around 1960, he may have been responding to radio’s decline and the choices he’d made by focusing on an acting career but somehow this did not work out. He needed to improvise, not memorize a script. Between a rock and a hard place? He made his choices, or was forced into choices by circumstances beyond his control. Opposed to my speculation and Shepherd’s own assessment, many listeners argue that his mid-1960s period and his kid stories were his crowning glory. They can prove it to their own satisfaction? Yes, and I don’t have a definitive response, but I don’t believe “a matter of taste” is an accurate answer. I’m up against what I can only fend off by relying on that lovely, that delectable, that conveniently apt word “enigma.”
Enigmas upon enigmas. The enigma of self-defeat and self-creation. Regard some of his debilitating human foibles and flaws—compulsive talk and overbearing ego, inability to distinguish his truths from his fictions both in his work and in his life, abrasive self-centeredness, sometimes abusive personal interactions. What did he make of it all and what do we make of it all? (And while we’re at it, why did this great lover of all that was the glory of New York City, MOVE TO FLORIDA?!?!) Was Jean Shepherd just an enigma? Maybe he was also an alchemist.
Maybe we are the beneficiaries of his intuitive genius through a mysterious psychic alchemy, the transforming of the sometimes base metals of obsessive talk and character flaws such as self-obsession into the gold of art. Consider this, I say with conviction and yet enigmatically: without the base metals we would not have had the gold.
STILL MORE TO COME
Shepherd, on his radio program, promoted Greenwich Village, The Village Voice, and other aspects of the then-prominent culture identified with it, such as jazz and the Beats. He narrated a TV video about it and narrated the commercial film “Village Sunday.” (His love, Lois Nettleton, plays the part of a young woman strolling along, observing the scene.) He obviously appreciated the Village culture, and in the 1970s, live there for years.
I recently encountered a 600-page book, The Village–A History of Greenwich Village, 400 years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues (John Strausbaugh, 2013).I’ve read the sections on the 1950s and 1960s, encountering a few good pages with an overall description of Shepherd, especially regarding the I, Libertine affair. My Excelsior, You Fathead! is mentioned in passing and is listed in the bibliography. The chapter with the Shep material, titled “Village Voices,” focuses on, among other items, Shep, Mailer, and the Voice. Epigraphs for that chapter:
You have no idea what a terrible lure this place is to people who live outside of this place. –Jean Shepherd
Greenwich Village is one of the bitter provinces–it abounds in snobs and critics. –Norman Mailer
[I do believe that the Shep quote refers not specifically to the Village but to all of New York City.]
The Shepherd-section, hitting most of the high points in a few pages, containing little if anything not generally known about him, ends with:
Despite his adoring listeners, Shepherd increasingly chafed at limitations of regional radio. After leaving WOR in 1977 he concentrated on film and television with some success, the bittersweet (mostly bitter) 1983 holiday film A Christmas Story, which he wrote and narrated, is considered a seasonal classic. But he never quite achieved the status he thought he deserved as a modern day Mark Twain or Will Rogers and withdrew to Sanibel Island off the Florida gulf coast where, a self-professed sorehead, he lived in relative seclusion until dying of natural causes in 1999. No doubt he’d find some rueful satisfaction in knowing that today copies of I, Libertine are collectors’ items going for as much as $350 for the hardcover and over $200 for the paperback.
[If one has the persistence to wait, one can get a paperback these days for about $50]
I enjoyed and found well-done, the author’s extensive material on the Beats, Shepherd, the folk scene, Mailer, the Voice, the emergence of Bob Dylan, and other surrounding material. There are no major errors regarding Shepherd, and the author seems to have used good and knowledgeable sources. Few if any other descriptions of Shepherd that I’ve encountered seem so on-the-mark. One might assume that the rest of the book is also good.
Village Voice front page,
with Shepherd, Nettleton, and Ann Bancroft.
I remember one time talking to Norman Mailer who I used to see somewhat–a few years back, and Mailer said, “Don’t count on any close friends of yours or people around you to ever read anything you write.” He said, “Knowing an author personally makes people think you can’t write.”
That quote above is one more instance of Shepherd commenting on his having known Norman Mailer (They both wrote for the early Village Voice, and Shepherd said they’d sometimes meet down at the Voice offices in the Village. Mailer was also one of the Voice‘s founders. When I’d interviewed Mailer by mail for my first Shep book, he at first said he didn’t think he’d met Shep, then corrected himself saying he only vaguely remembered him. I’ve always been curious as to what their relationship was and what caused Shep to dislike Mailer and Mailer to only “vaguely” remember Shepherd.) I’ve previously written about all the many times Shepherd disparaged Norman Mailer on the air. Here are more–and maybe the last of them I choose to post!-
All the intellectuals went on a cruise to listen to Norman Mailer complain about how he was sick. …I still have an invitation to Norman Mailer’s fiftieth birthday, which only ranks with Mike Todd’s birthday as the great ripoff of our time. (August 3, 1975)
Regarding the foregoing, note that indeed Mailer did charge admission to attend his birthday party that he himself had orchestrated. At the time, more than one person disparaged this. And in the following, remember that during the 1960s, Shepherd more than once had criticized what he considered the overly naive attitudes of many youths during this turbulent era. He mentioned peace demonstrators such as Joan Baez, who questioned how one can have a sense of humor with all the problems in the world:
Ah, come on! The world has always been in crisis. It has never once stopped being in crisis. Speaking of humorous people—poor old Norman Mailer. Have you ever had the feeling that Norman Mailer [laughs as he says name] pours stuff out of a lead mold? And it’s a lead mold that he’s somehow having trouble with—there’s a kind of gangrenous growth around the edges of it. Totally un-humorous. James Baldwin has no humor whatsoever. His play—no humor at all….And yet, strangely enough, both sides are extremely funny to me. Now why is that? Why do I find Norman Mailer side-splittingly funny? I can’t help it. Every time I see Mailer glaring out—Mailer the architect, Mailer the dreamer, Mailer the great man, Mailer the god—wherever I look [laughs] I find him excruciatingly funny. (April 1965)
Regarding shedding a tear about the disappearance of the Great North Woods north of Minneapolis:
Norman Mailer would not shed a tear—but he will shed a tear over the passing of boxing. He’ll get all upset—that the Queen Mary is gone—or some other cockamamie bit like that. (September 1, 1967)
Have a little fistfight with Norman Mailer—and his eighteen friends, the middleweight contenders. Have you ever noticed that all fist-fighters, all boxers today, want to be writers, and all writers want to be boxers. It’s always thus. Every man should stick to his last. You’d get a fat nose, Normy. (August 3, 1968)
Ian McEwan is quoted as having said
“Boxing and writing were wonderfully
confused in his mind.”
Shepherd seemed to explore every variation he could think of to stick it to him, including Mailer’s penchant for aggression and bravery as part of his literary life—Shep probably felt that disparaging his writing would be the best way to upset poor Normy:
He’s read a couple of novels by Mailer. Can you imagine what would happen if your idea of what America is like was by reading novels by James Baldwin and Norman Mailer and going to see Doris Day movies? Wouldn’t that be a fantasyland of—really like Walt Disney! (June 1966)
I do feel very sorry for people who are completely hung up with examining and reexamining their own navel. This is one of the reasons why I—I’m totally bored by so many writers who have that problem going. Like I can’t get past the third page of Philip Roth. Norman Mailer bores me. Just bores the life out of me. And I know I’m going to get thousands of letters from people who say “sour grapes—you’re a writer.” No. I’m just telling you the truth. I find this view of life where, “it’s all essentially a plot that’s all bad news, and if there were only more like me—us, the sensitive people.” I just find that not only boring, but I also find it vaguely repellent. (March 27, 1971)
The following is the beginning of Shepherd’s humorous article titled “all hail the sovereign duchy of nieuw amsterdamme!” Understand that although Mailer’s running for mayor in 1969 was true, this article is written tongue in cheek.
In his recent and abortive campaign for the mayoralty of the city of New York, the honorable Norman Mailer proved once again that his thinking, though often well intentioned, is nonetheless pitifully deficient in scope. While not without merit, his plan to turn New York City into a separate State of the Union—due to its myriad distinguished attributes—was redeemed mainly by the fact that, in keeping with Mr. Mailer’s usual modesty and astute self-appraisal, he implied that he would be available for the governorship when statehood came to flower. This appetite for public office, of course, is based on the enlightened contemporary concept of total talent: A gifted novelist would obviously be a brilliant statesman; a great fullback could unquestionably play a superb Hamlet; a renowned pediatrician could easily master the complexities of global policy; an incomparable but self-effacing New York humorist, broadcaster, bon vivant and boulevardier is eminently qualified to become—But I‘m getting ahead of myself. (Playboy, September, 1970)
Regarding Mailer and columnist Jimmy Breslin’s run for office (in 1969) and wanting to make New York City into the fifty-first state, one must realize that they were very serious, yet kept a sense of humor. (I have a couple of their campaign buttons: “Vote the Rascals In,” and “No More Bullshit/M.-B.”)
During this period, Shepherd, completing his thought at the end of his Playboy article quoted above that he himself was “eminently qualified to become—,” suggested in a radio broadcast during the mayoral campaign that in throwing his own hat in the ring and upping the stakes, he, Shepherd, was running to have the city declared a separate country with himself as king.
A while back I posted here the Jean Shepherd page in the graphic treatment of John Wilcock’s biography by Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall. The following Norman Mailer page from that graphic treatment makes references to Jean Shepherd in the first panel:
HUNG UP ON NORMAN MAILER—A CONTINUING SAGA
I’ve quoted before a number of disparaging Shepherd remarks about Mailer. If all references to Mailer so far encountered represent the frequency of their occurrence throughout Shepherd’s WOR broadcasting, he mentioned him on average once a month for 22 years. I find Shepherd’s obsession with trashing Mailer fascinating.
Several times Shepherd mentioned that he and Mailer had conversations at the offices of The Village Voice. They’d known of each other during the early days of the Voice when Mailer was a part-owner and writer for it and Shep was a columnist for it. In a broadcast dated August 14, 1960 Shepherd, as a lead-in to a Voice commercial, talks about the early days when the Voice was struggling financially and was on the verge of going under because of its small circulation. He says that Mailer, one of the founders and still working there to help out, took a carload of the papers and drove from newsstand to newsstand giving stacks of them free to whichever stands would accept them. Shepherd speaks of this act in an admiring, totally positive way, so I guess that whatever happened between them in fact or in Shepherd’s mind, was still to come.
Yes, tonight it’s the human comedy hour—tonight. And would you please bring a little human comedy music in there if you will, please. [Scats] You have no idea what I was doing today out there in that human comedy of which we are all a part. You cannot escape. Even you, Norman Mailer, you’re part of the human comedy. Even though you take yourself awful seriously. And that’s what makes you so funny. (March 23, 1965)
Man is always attempting to make a statement. Trying to grab ahold of those brass rings of reality. How are you doing out there, Norman Mailer? Got ahold of them brass rings of reality okay, heh? (November 25, 1967)
Shepherd and I had both been hung up on Norman Mailer for decades. I admire Mailer’s writing. Shepherd, I believe, envied his success, and there also must have been some personal clash that led Shepherd to carry on a continuing vendetta on his broadcasts. I’ve quoted some of his comments about Mailer before. J. Michael Lennon, editor of several books on Mailer and his authorized biographer, in an exchange regarding a Mailer book, asked me twice about why I thought Shepherd disliked Mailer, and I gave the subject more thought:
Mailer and Shepherd are both “performing selves” in that they are self-observing of their real-life activities—their creative lives feed on their real lives. Yet the two, in their ways of handling their lives as lived and as recreated in art, differ profoundly.
Mailer observes, analyzes, and is open and confrontational in his relationship to the world, and he expresses his more political and psychologically considered relationship to the world in his work. He has a deeper, more complex vision of his life and the world he lives in than Shepherd, and an urge to explore it for himself and for his audience. He exposes himself, puts himself into the rough and tumble of life—in his way of writing and reacting to life, he prescribes by example. He promotes conflict, doing his best to stir up emotional reactions. He’s an expounder and dialogist. His life and art seem very much of an integrated piece.
Mailer’s approach to both his place in the world, as well as to his way of writing about it, is described by perceptive Mailer critic Richard Poirier in his Norman Mailer. He writes:
A combative eagerness that takes him against many a windmill, an acceptance of the chance that the enemy may be within as well as outside himself, a bodily commitment to the contests of life, a willingness to meet the enticements of drugs, drink, and pop culture, a wasteful playfulness and the courage to be a fool half the time if that is the price of being more than that the other half…..
I”ve recently read the most marvelous biography of Norman Mailer by Lennon: Norman Mailer–A Double Life. Barely a sentence goes by in this 800-pager without some significant connection to Mailer’s art. As another indicator of why the two would be opposites despite their similarities, here’s a bit from the book–Mailer describing himself:
“I am a phenomenon to myself….I always was my own experiment, and that is such a simple way to live, and no one could ever comprehend it. I don’t even think it took great guts, just my intense scientific curiosity about one’s subject, myself and the bizarre phenomenon of myself.”
Shepherd observes and describes human foibles. He is very open to life and new experiences, promoting such to his audience, but, as he has said, he’s just going through life as an observer and doesn’t want to get involved other than for his private experience/enjoyment. Shepherd has at least two separate personas—there is the public one that he creates, producing a strong sense that it’s his real, full, complete one he is exposing nightly to his audience. That life as shown to his audience may be basically true, but it’s only a segment of himself. He also lives a private life that is very different, full of secrets and enigmas that he fiercely hides from his public. He’s self-contained—a monologist who expresses his take regarding his observations, seeking no opposition but expecting devoted listening followed by applause.
This very different approach to life and self-expression in art makes Mailer and Shepherd fundamentally, psychologically, opposites. Considering Mailer’s deep and quick-witted mind, one can’t image him putting up with Shepherd’s extended, self-absorbed monologs for long, and Shepherd doesn’t seem aware of the causes behind Mailer’s extroverted, confrontational, and seemingly erratic behavior. Whether for Shepherd this contrast between the two of them is recognized or not, one would think that the dichotomy must affect his attitude toward Mailer. Among other differences, I’d imagine that Shepherd’s egotistical insistence in holding the stage and not letting another get a word in, would have been unsupportable for an egotistical force with such a powerful mind and analytical prowess as Mailer, to suffer much of Shep’s monologs. He must have exploded with hostility in a way that Shep never forgave. My wife, a Victorianist with a strong dislike for what she knows of both men, suggests that the inevitable conflict might be between what she refers to concisely as “egotistical bastards.”
Norman Mailer, pugilist
In Shepherd’s straightforward way, he probably could not understand Mailer’s frequently outrageous attitudes. As seen below, Shep obviously believes that Mailer’s An American Dream is supposed to be a “realistic” depiction of life, while I see it as a fantasy-like tale–a parable–an American “dream.”
Now on the other hand, let’s take serious things. A—what we call—so we don’t put much stock in the movies you know. Let’s face it. So they go out and they take a novel, let’s say An American Dream, by Norman Mailer. You really think that’s the way life is, Norman? In these United States in 1965? Or is this part of Norman’s fantasy—about life in 1965?…Now what is this urge on the part of man to top all other men? Well, it finds its expression in many ways. One way, it finds its expression in the tall story. Another way it finds its expression in—a tall, fantasizing of the individual himself—and so Norman Mailer spins endless stories about what a fantastic person Norman Mailer is. (August 25, 1965)
Shepherd and Mailer both loved America greatly. During America’s outrageous ’60s, Mailer, in An American Dream, Mailer expresses that in outrageous fashion. Both attempted to criticize their country in the context of their love, but they did it in decidedly contrary ways. Ways of Mailer’s that Shep apparently failed to grasp.
While working on my Excelsior, You Fathead!, after having managed to contact and get a bit of a written response from Mailer about Shepherd, I waited for my chance during a book reading-and-signing session at the Union Square Barnes & Noble. As he was signing my copy of his new book, I thanked him for his response to my query. He looked up and said words to the affect: “Just make sure you express all the truth you can about him.” Enigmatic that, but with a crowd behind me waiting for Mailer’s name inscribed in their book I didn’t feel I could ask him to elaborate.
illustrates his acuity and bravado.
“I am a phenomenon to myself.”
Mailer, the wild man actor-protagonist/self-analyzer.
Shepherd, the more laid back and self-satisfied entity.
I think you have captured the essence of the issue. Shepherd was an observer who used what he observed to create his art. Mailer was a participant who often created the events or amplified them. Mailer was self-referential while Shep stood outside himself as he commented.
Wikipedia contains this about him “Along with the likes of Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, Mailer is considered an innovator of creative nonfiction, a genre sometimes called New Journalism, which superimposes the style and devices of literary fiction onto fact-based journalism.”
According to Wikipedia, Mailer attempted but failed to avoid being drafted, and served mostly as a cook in the Philippines. Yet he wrote what became a seminal book about WW2. I suspect Shepherd envied and resented Mailer’s using his military service to score such a giant literary hit, considering how important Shepherd’s army stories were to him. Yet their approach to applying their art to the military was so different. Mailer’s was blood, guts and heroism. Shepherd’s was about small things, KP, cleaning latrines, exhausting hikes, crappy food, indignities and mundane experiences. In Shepherd’s view, that is the reality and Mailer’s was the fiction. Yet grown-ups went for Mailer’s fiction over his reality.
So, on the same playing field–the Village of the 50s and 60s, Mailer became the adored one and the celebrity of the adult world, while Shepherd became a cult celebrity among adolescent boys. Easy to see whose was bigger!
What’s true and what’s fiction or even fantasy have always been a major component regarding how we interpret Jean Shepherd and how he regards his own attitude toward truth and fiction. And this is true in all his stories, including those about the army. In the introduction to Shep’s Army: Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles, my book of Shepherd’s army stories, I quote him from one of his broadcasts: “You continually see stories and movies and plays about the army, but I can tell you, I have never seen anything that even remotely resembles the real army.” Shepherd more than once has commented that much fiction he’s encounters is not true to real life. He continues the thought in an army story about a young corporal who “says beautiful things and writes poems, and he’s gonna have a little grocery store on Flatbush Avenue when he gets back. And you know he’s gonna get killed.” The suggestion is that this is a cliche that doesn’t actually happen in real life.
I’ve recently re-encountered another of Shep’s similar thoughts about being in the army. He comments that:
“Most people don’t know what they talk about in the barracks. You never see in army movies guys just sitting around–just sitting there rapping. Shooting the breeze. What do they talk about? Whenever you see a movie where they purport to be telling you what they talk about there’s always a scene where Donald O’Connor takes out his wallet and shows his girl’s picture to Van Johnson. You know, that kind of thing. I never once, in all the years I was in the army–and I was in longer than I care to even think about–I never once saw anybody whip out the picture of his girl and say, “Here, this is Emily.”
Yes, army movies and most movies about everything have traditionally been full of cliches. But Shepherd seems to imply that fiction should portray the minor, day-to-day matters such as waiting for your clothes to dry at the laundromat–the kinds of matters out of which he creates his humor. As Ron Simon, curator of Television and Radio at the Paley Center for Media wrote in connection with its Jerry Seinfeld tribute to Shepherd, “The late radio raconteur Jean Shepherd and the master of his domain, Jerry Seinfeld, are obsessed with the minutiae of daily life. Nothing is too small in the detritus of human existence for contemplation. For Shepherd and Seinfeld, meaning is not found in pondering the huge metaphysical questions that have perplexed Plato onward; life is discovered in the lint, that small detail that informs us who we really are.” As Simon notes, their peculiarity is in their comedic genius of encountering the significant in what most of us pass over as insignificant. What a marvelous turn of mind!
The problem with incorporating much of insignificance into “serious” fictional prose is that it tends to take up time and space where the creator is focusing on making every word and incident count–making them signify and be in some sense symbolic of the large issues he’s getting at. In a specific instance of Shepherd’s complaint, on one program, he criticizes Norman Mailer’s An American Dream for inaccurately depicting American Life, as though it was meant to be a “realistic novel.” Not so–in fact, I’d describe An American Dream as depicting more of an American nightmare, a strong metaphor for neurotic fantasy. Much fiction is not a depiction of the events of “real life,” but constructs a truthful metaphor for what real life is like. The familiar problem, as I see it, is that there are different methods/strategies for arriving at different aspects of what is “truth,” and the proponent of his/her methods tends to be critical of differing paths through fictional woods.
As an enthusiast of the works of both Norman Mailer and Jean Shepherd, I’d say that, in their explorations of the America they love, they each take a different path–through different forested American landscapes.