It was early evening when Jean Shepherd arrived at the MONMOUTH LETTERS office followed by a troupe of some 20 Monmouth College students. less than an hour before, the bearded radio commentator had lectured to a packed college auditorium in the rambling, sardonic, quasi-philosophical style which has characterized his nightly show on WOR Radio.
Mr. Shepherd, as most radio addicts know, is the dividing line between "beat" and "square" for members of a generation that refuses to abide the status quo.
His social criticism has penetrated the literary world through his occasional columns in THE VILLAGE VOICE and book reviews for leading New York City newspapers.
Dressed in a sport jacket which covered a black turtle-neck shirt, Mr. Shepherd lounged in an arm chair and sipped a cup of coffee while MONMOUTH LETTERS editors questioned him on a variety of topics ranging from literature to the intellectual ability of women.
The essence of Mr. Shepherd's comments ace printed here. He began the Interview with an evaluation of college education and college students.
By and large I feel that college is like a purgatory. It's in between. The kid is in life until he goes to college. Then suddenly he's in a little isolated community with all kinds of isolated attitudes and ideas. It's kind of like a totalitarian society. To survive in that society there are certain answers you have to give to the exams, even in philosophical courses. Like a totalitarian society you take a series of adopted attitudes to get through. You may or may not believe them. In the end it becomes almost like a Catechism, and when you get out you've lived in a society for four years that did have answers. You could definitely prove it: you got a "B". You get out in life and you find they don't give "B's". You get out there and nobody grades your paper. The boss doesn't come around every three weeks and say, "Well, we're going to have an oral exam now fellas. You'll all be graded." It doesn't work that way. So it seems to some people that life outside is sometimes inadequate or confusing or difficult. We get confused by that outside world where excellence does show.
What is my overall impression of college students? I find that college students are interested in sex . . . They have a feeling that they're not making it . . . They have feelings that the system is rotten . . . They have feelings that one day they're going to have this fantastic moment in their life when it's all going to come together. They're going to meet this fantastic chick and they're going to have this fantastic idea and it's all going to be happily ever after. But at the same time college students believe that someday a giant male fist is going to come out of the sky and is going to destroy them before they are 23. Everyone has a secret feeling he is not going to see next Christmas.
Life is one long dream ahead of you. You think you know what the play is about even before it starts. Bu what's going to happen if, well in the middle of the fourth act it's been a dull play? That fantastic chick didn't show. That fantastic job, five years later, turns out to be a no-exit trap. Do you or do you not believe that a man's attitude then is going to be very different than yours? How do you think a man escapes a thing like this honorably? He just can't say to the wife and kids, "So long kids, I'm going to go out and see how North Africa is."
None of you guys have had any real unhappiness in your life yet. Truly profound unhappiness is very different from momentary buggedness. One of our problems today is that everybody thinks that man has seen real problems. Well, I'm sorry. It ain't no problem like a man whose life has gone down the drain. You at least have time. What are you going to do when you're 60 and you know you ain't got time?
My philosophy of life? Dig man! Do the best you can; try to understand the other guy's life and problems. Maybe through understanding you may be able to solve some of the real problems of the world or at least temporarily. As far as a philosophy of life: keep your eyes open.
I don't pretend that what I say is the truth in capital letters . . . Most of the stories I tell are true but they have been made into allegories. The purpose of an artist is to take real life experience and make it into something universal, allegorical.
I get letters mainly from very old people and very young people . . . I think that as a person gets older he gets less likely to ask the scary questions, and so when a guy is 50 he hardly ever says 'why - what is it all about?' whereas a kid of 12 is always worried about dying. It seems to me that it's the in-between guys, the guys in their 30's and 40's, who figure they've really got it made. They know the answers now. They're not interested . . . The older people are, because whatever answer they've found hasn't worked. And the kids don't have any answers; they're still looking.
The Literature of Despair
I don't think despair is just a thing of modern literature. I don't know if you've ever read Swift. The despair element in modern literature is not despair at all; it is self pity. Most writers will write, 'I am beautiful but the rest of the world is rotton.' That's not despair at all. Swift never excused himself, you know, from the problem. You read Holden Caulfield in Salinger and there's not despair in that. He believes implicitly all the way through that Holden is a beautiful magnificent creature who is a 'phony spotter.' He's not guilty of dishonesty or anything anywhere. James Baldwin never sees anything funny in Baldwin. It's all the other rotten people. So that's not despair; it's self pity.
I believe that writing today is out of date. People use to write because they had no other way to transmit ideas from one to another. Today we have T.V., movies, radio. Thirty years ago, had I been born and working, I would have been a writer. Today I can be far subtler than a man can on paper. With a shrug of the shoulder I can say more than any thousand words can. To illustrate my point, it's important to realize that Shakespeare stands as the greatest writer in the western world, but you don't need Shakespeare. Some man stands up there and acts it. It's a very different thing. Who do we hail as great writers today? Guys who write for the stage - Albee we hail as a writer, even Baldwin has a play he is working on. In Melville's day people wrote great letters. Today it's great phone calls. Today we're talkers and performers. We're living in an anti-thought age. Geraldine Page crying might mean more to some people than the three great ideas that I might put on my radio show.
There are certain writers that have been overpraised because of a certain situation at a certain time. Baldwin is part of a racial minority, and he's been identified with it, and everybody is afraid to say he is a bad novelist. His ideas are all right. I'm not arguing that. He may be cool but I don't like him as a novelist. He's a tract writer and a very good one. Steinbeck did a similar thing during the thirties. He was living through a specific situation at a specific time, the depression, and it affected a large number of people, like the race problem today. He wrote with a certain fire out of that and because of the situation everybody praised him more than he actually deserved as a writer. They were really, in a sense, applauding the cause.
We want to argue and occasionally fight with an enemy. If we took away war and the 'bad guys' we wouldn't have anything to kick about. At every point in history there existed the possibility of total annihilation. Before World War II it was possible to destroy the entire population by chemical means.
War is as endemic to our culture as sex and is in many ways the same thing. War gives people pleasure, if only in retrospect, just as often a love affair is torture while you're having it but 20 years later you say, 'Gee those were the days!' What seems to be trouble to many people is actually the first happiness they have ever had and the first thing they can ever devote themselves to. . . We don't want to avoid war any more than we want to avoid sex.
"Women are Passionate;
Men are Intellectual."
I feel that the intellectual ability of women is different from that of men. Historically, it would be very difficult for you to prove that women are capable of the same kind of intellectual concern or creativity, say, as Melville. They, however, are capable of another kind. Now, that other kind, I think, is more incoherent and more passionate. This is one of the reasons today why all of our actors are not actors, they are actresses. Women are passionate; men are intellectual.
Within every man there is a potential Beethoven. Within every woman there is a potential Beethoven follower and understander and explainer and performer. The ability to understand is not the same as the ability to create. Women are not creative in the same way men are. Women are intellectual, but they are not passionately intellectual. They become the cold intellectual like puzzle workers - Mary McCarthy - she works little puzzles. I have rarely seen a girl, in full heat, fantastically angry, writing a symphony. But I have seen many a guy, in the full heat of anger, sitting down and writing a novel.
Man is much more concerned with the abstract thing called "Man' and hence his works generally have a larger scope than woman's. Women are almost invariably concerned with 'Me, I,' and being a woman, so their work naturally has a narrower scope . . . Man is interested in a concept; women are interested in a reality - 'Me!' ||
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