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Humor, Cultural History and Jean Shepherd
Airdate: 1982

Last Update: 11-20-2016

Show Description
As a contemporary humorist, Jean Shepherd has become a recognized commentator on American culture. His work includes a syndicated radio show; a potpourri of stories, sketches and essays appearing in such diverse places as Playboy, Mademoiselle, Car and Driuer and Field and Stream; two television series, Jean Shepherd's America and Shepherd's Pie; and a feature-length film, Phantom of the Open Hearth. Much of Shepherd's popularity rests on his ability to create a vivid portrait of the 1930s and 1940s through the eyes of an Indiana youngster. While Shepherd garrulously weaves "kid stories," seeming to sidestep the bleak side of Depression America, older audiences recall days of radio premiums, family vacations, Ford V8 convertibles, Saturday afternoon serials, and high school formals. Young people hear an account of what it was like "back then" told by n narrator who seems to have total recall of names, places, dates and events. Yet, when Shepherd raises a game of battling tops to the level of epic combat, renders may well suspect that he is doing a good deal more' than simply trying to evoke a nostalgic smile or tear. Shepherd insists that his work is not nostalgic a tall. It is not recollection but fiction, and with the truth of good fiction his stories provide inroads to the appreciation of American middle class culture. The fact that his work continues to attract new, young audiences (who never played with battling tops or styled D.A. haircuts with Brylcream) attests to Shepherd's accuracy in spotting the underlying mythology of American life amid the flux of styles and tastes. While conforming to several traditions of American humor and fiction, Jean Shepherd adds a new dimension to 20th century American humor and displays an insight into middle class character and culture, making his fiction not only enjoyable but valuable as a tool for discovery. Claiming to have been rescued from a life in the steel mills of Hammond, Indiana, by the Korean War and the Army Signal Corps, Shepherd was once considered an "underground phenomenon" or cult hero.[1] When his stories appeared in Playboy during the 1960s, Shepherd won the magazine's Humor/Satire Award an unprecedented four times and reached out to an audience larger than his syndicated radio program had allowed. His novel, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (1966), and collection of short stories, Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and I Other Disasters (1971), thrust him before the mass market and paved the way for his two series broadcast over educational television (something he described in a story as "a great idea but a miserable reality''). Paradoxically Shepherd satirizes American machismo while he appeals to it. In a review of Jean Shepherd's America, one critic noted that "Like most American storytellers ... His material consists of childhood, derring-do, escape, animals, perpetual motion, male camaraderie. Natty Bumppo, Ishmael, Huck Finn, Nick Adams."[2] Arthur Cooper, reviewing the Wanda Hickey collection for Saturday Review, compared Shepherd to Mark Twain, George Ade and Bill Cosby: concluding that the author's humor "transcends geographical boundaries and touches a nerve common to us all." One such common nerve might be nostalgia. Confronted with the trials and disappointments of humdrum urban life, the Shepherd-protagonists frequently escape into the relative safety and the occasional small triumphs of childhood memories. But the conclusion he draws is not all comforting: "Thinking that the old days were good is a terrible sickness. Everything was just as bad then as it is now."[4] Shepherd maintains that one reason his writing is considered nostalgic may be his use of "real things" in his narratives. But to him, passionate attention to the trivia mundi is simply his own brand of authenticity: In most writing about America, real things that we live with rarely enter the stories. For example, a Norman Mailer character never picks up a bottle of Tab . . . So my people use things, and I'm very careful always to use stuff in my stories that [is] generic and still being used. . . "[5] If nostalgia appeals primarily to those who lived through a certain era, Shepherd's young funs belie the notion that his stories are simply nostalgic. Speaking of "Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories," perhaps his most widely circulated piece, Shepherd notes, "A kid laughing at the prom story is not laughing at an era or a past thing. He's laughing at what happened to him and his friends at the prom."[6] The swing from present to past combined with the discovery of problems, miseries, as well as triumphs, provides the pattern for many of Shepherd's stories. The protagonist may be disgruntled by present circumstances, but he is ambivalent, at best, toward the past. The world that Shepherd creates is his own imaginary vision of life that his experiences have caused him to see. He invites his readers to join him on trips back to "Hohman," Indiana of the '30s and '40s, and guides them in an adjectivaI prose style that can only be described as hyperbolic. If we' accept this artistic vision, and if we sec his fictional world as true, we discover appealing boy-heroes surrounded by a vibrant life full of myth, mystery and magic, offsetting the inadequacy impotence and sense of defeat characteristic of 20th century American humor. The background against which Shepherd creates his world is a fictionalized Hammond, an industrial town that he remembers as being "tough and mean." In "The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds,'' the narrator offers both history and geography: Ours was not a genteel neighborhood, by any stretch of the imagination. Nestled picturesquely between the looming steel mills and the verminously aromatic oil refineries encircled by a colorful conglomerate of city dumps and fetid rivers, our northern Indiana was and is the very essence of the Midwestern industrial heartland of the nation. . . If Chicago (only a stone's throw away across the polluted lake waters) was Carl Sandburg's "City of the Broad Shoulders," then Hohman had to be that city's broad read end. Legend had it that the city's founding father saw no future in the small trading post that was Chicago, so he trudged southward, "set up camp and invested heavily in the land that was destined to become one of the ugliest places of real estate this side of the craters of the moon. (p. 16). Little food for golden memories can be found in the weather which is as miserably cold in winter with gales howling down Lake Michigan as it is miserably hot in the summer under the blazing Midwestern sun. This environment seems to be something that the protagonist would try to escape, but with a kind of fierce pride he states: My old man, my mother, my kid brother and I slogged along in the great tradition. The old man had his high point every Wednesday at George's Bowling Alley, where he once rolled a historic game in which he got three consecutive strikes. My kid brother's nose ran steadily, winter and summer. My mother made red cabbage, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, meat loaf and Jell-O in an endless stream. And I studied the principal exports of Peru at the Warren G. Harding School (p. 16). Norris Yates analyzing twentieth century humor, notes the presence of the "little man" hero, a loser or bumbler, usually associated with the white collar classes and dominated by his environment and the people around him.[8] Shepherd's characters are influenced by their environment, but not dominated by it. Furthermore, the lower-middle-class, blue-collar milieu is a distinct change from the context of James Thurber's successful suburbanites or Robert Benchley's "little" men. And while Hammond undoubtedly provided Shepherd with background locale, his portrait of the town and neighborhood is universal enough that he receives letters from fans convinced that he is actually writing about Newark or Cleveland or Pittsburgh. A protagonist's retreat into the bygone days of Midwestern childhood could be a fit occasion for idyllic images, but Shepherd's full awareness of 20th century complexities makes pastoral images impossible. The fact that much of the action in the stories occurs during the Depression further deflates the notion of nostalgia because Shepherd does not gloss over the grim reality of hard times, though he may occasionally find humor in it. Unlike other critics of industrial America, Shepherd recognizes that there are those who actually like working in the mills and those who can find satisfaction in the lifestyle portrayed in the stories. Where a 19th century naturalistic author would show the oppressive effects of the industrial environment, Shepherd discovers a wealth of experience to be savored there. He manages to draw substance and sustenance from the polluted waste land of Hammond in much the same way that Murk Twain was nourished by pre-industrial Hannibal. "The Grandstand Passion Play" also draws us into the protagonist's family and reveals two important components of middle class life: a deep seated pride in family traditions and possessions, and the accompanying protective prejudice whenever the family feels threatened. The threat to the Shepherds[9] appears when the Bumpus family moves in next door. "There were thousands of them! The house seemed to age in one week. What had been a nondescript bungalow became a battered, hinge-sprung, sagging hillbilly shack" (p.19). Though the new family kept to itself, an abrupt contrast to the closely knit Cleveland Street community ripples of influence radiated throughout the neighborhood. From the moment the Shepherds are awakened by the blasting Bumpus phonograph to the night the Bumpuses mysteriously disappear, there is nothing but bad blood between the two households. Traditional stereotypes of hill folk are conjured up as the narrator recalls his neighbors. They drive a dilapidated Chevrolet slat-sided truck, perpetually encrusted with bird droppings and Kentucky clay. They throw all their garbage and junk out the windows and doors to be pawed over by their menagerie of hounds, rabbits, goats, pigeons and chickens. Forsaking the "while-porcelain doo-hickey beside their bathtub upstairs," the Bumpuses install an outhouse, complete with moon on the door. The multitude of family members receive predictable treatment: all look ignorant, all have red necks, all chew tobacco and none wear shoes. A touching family portrait is rendered when Cassie, the Bumpus version of "Daisy Mae" returns from reform school: Emil grabbed her suitcase and Cassie, the ripest 16-year-old ever to descend on northern Indiana, kissed her father in a way that clouded up windows for blocks around. "Mah Gawd, Cassie, you sure filled out!" he boomed, slapping her none too paternally on the backside. Maw Bumpus, drying her hands on her apron, yelled from the porch. "YEW GIT IN HERE, CASSIE, AN' LEAVE YORE PAW ALONE. LEASTWAYS TILL WE'VE ET" (pp. 31-32). Shepherd recalls, too, that after this episode, "my father stepped up his spyglass work considerably, since they had no window shades and Cassie liked to dress very casually around the house" (p. 32). In spite of the amusement afforded by the Bumpus clan, the neighbors shun them, noting, "The sea of wreckage spread like a blight onto the surrounding yards" {p.23). This is quite a deterioration in light of the description of Hohman offered earlier: hillbilly hordes of barbarians assaulting industrial civilization. But so far only traditional prejudice with accompanying exaggeration and stereotyping is revealed. The Bumpuses really strike the Shepherd family vitals when they ruin Easter Sunday dinner. The importance of the traditional meal is recalled: Every three or four months-roughly three times a year-we would make a major food investment. I suppose rich families don't even think about this kind of thing, but ordinary families in those days spent their lives eating canned corn, meat loaf, peanut-butter sandwiches, oatmeal, red cabbage and peas. In such a home, the great meals that came along every few months stuck out like icebergs in the Caribbean. . . [In] our house, Easter has always meant ham. My father was totally ape over ham (p.36). While his father could casually suggest that the family go down to the A & P to pick up the food for Easter, Shepherd reminds us that " 'a great big ham' meant about half his paycheck in those days"(p.36). The shopping for the meal is surrounded in ceremony, "The old man would go up and down the case, poking, peering, hefting, sniffing, occasionally punching until, eventually, THE ham was isolated from the common herd"(p. 37). Ritual also prevails in the preparation of the ham: Then the old man, the only one who could lift the ham without straining a gut, placed it in the big dark-blue oval pot that was used only for hams. [The ham just sat there on the stove and bubbled away for maybe two hours, filling the house with a smell that was so luscious, so powerful as to have erotic overtones. The old man paced back and forth, occasionally lifting the lid and prodding the ham with a fork, inhaling deeply. The ham frenzy was upon him (p. 38). After the prescribed boiling time, the ham is placed in the oven, appropriately adorned with brown sugar, butter, cloves, pineapples and cherries. Once baked, the ham is allowed to sit in the oven overnight before being warmed for the Sunday dinner. As the family settles down for a night's rest, all troubles - even the notorious Bumpuses - seem to fade in the comfortable aroma of baked ham coming from the kitchen. Unfortunately, this state dinner is not destined to be, for no sooner is the ham placed on the white enamel kitchen to cool and set than a pack of "blue-ticked Bumpus hounds" roar through the screen door, seize the ham and carry it off to the Bumpus trash heap to be devoured by the moiling pack. To the Shepherds' outrage and consternation, Grandpaw Bumpus sets the tone for the neighbor family's response: He whooped wildly, wattles reddening with joy, spraying tobacco juice in all directions, while Cletus, his dim witted grandson, yelled from the basement door: "GAHDAM, GRAN'PAW, LOOKA THEM HOUN'S GO! LOOKA THEM OL' BOYS GO! HOT DAMN!" (p. 43). Even though the Shepherds wind up eating Easter dinner at "the chop suey joint," they taste nothing but ashes. A piece of their lives has been snatched from them by the slavering jaws of the Bumpus hounds. Though the old man promises revenge, the Bump uses mysteriously vanish one night before the "crusher" can be inflicted on them. This story clearly reveals the prejudice of the middle class toward any group that threatens the status quo in the neighborhood. But the most poignant aspect of the tale is the desecration of the family ritual at Easter appropriately having nothing to do with religion. Shepherd repeatedly emphasizes food in his stories (after all, we are what we consume), and the uniqueness of the special-occasion meal makes the climax more startling. The reality of the Depression that lurks in the background of the narrative I adds even more weight. In spite of such traumas, boyhood is not without its idyllic moments in Shepherd's world. Family outings, county fairs, fishing trips and other events were eagerly awaited by his boy-heroes; and while reality never quite lived up to expectations, it usually proved satisfactory. "Scut Farkas and the Murderous Mariah" presents an example of a different kind of idyll having downright supernatural overtones. In this story, Shepherd meets with a force that is almost sinister in its mystery as he finds a small moment of triumph. Childhood ritual and mythology reach their height in the game of battling tops. During a visit to a museum where he finds a wooden top said to have belonged to young Thomas Jefferson, Shepherd journeys back through his memories to his own finest hour with a "spikesie"- a wooden top equipped with a sharp metal tip. For his crowd, tops are not toys to be spun, but weapons used in battle. A victory is not complete unless the winner's top splits his opponent's. In such a fight, the top becomes "an extension of the will, an instrument of talent and aggression" (p. 96). Technique is an important factor: Well l did I remember Junior Kissel's economical, slicing sidearm movement, his green top string snapping curtly as he laid his yellow spikesie down right on a dime with a hissing whir. Flick, on the other hand - more erratic, more flamboyant - had a tendency to loft his spikesie, releasing it after a showy, looping overhand motion. . . His top spun with an exhibitionistic wobbling playfulness. . . I myself preferred a sneaky, snakelike, underhand movement, beginning at the hip, swinging down to around the knees, upward slightly, and then the quick release after a fast, whip like follow-through. Flick was great to watch; Kissel, methodical clean. I was deadly (p. 95). After perfecting his form through much dedicated practice, Shepherd feels that he is ready to challenge the unconquered Scut Farkas, the most notorious bully of Warren G. Harding School, and his invincible black spikesie, Mariah. One problem remains, however. Our hero does not have the proper top. Comparing the fighting top to a star hitter's personally selected Louisville Slugger, Shepherd laments that he has not found his ideal weapon. Farkas, on the other hand, sulks around the playground with his top bulging meaningfully in his back pocket, "a continual walking, living, surly challenge." Mariah was indeed unique: (It) . . . had at least 50 or more confirmed kills to its credit, as well as half a dozen probable's and God knows how many disabling gashes and wounds. Rumor held that this top had been owned by Farkas' father before him. . . Some said that it was not a top at all, but some kind of foreign knife, and not large as tops go, being of a peculiar squat shape, a kind of small, stunted, pitch block mushroom, wider above than most and sloping off quickly to a dark-blue, casehardened, glittering saber tip. . . It spun with a mean, low humming - a truly distinctive, ominous note. .. (p. 97). All Shepherd has to face Mariah and Farkas (known by all to have "the evil eye" as well) are the "kid tops" sold at the neighborhood variety stores. He methodically scours all sorts of likely top sources - candy shops, toy stores, dime stores - until on one balmy, spring day when he is at least four miles beyond his usual turf, he happens upon the Total Victory Newsstand and Notions, located in a particularly run-down and disreputable section of town near the roundhouse. Within the dark and dingy shop, he is confronted by "an ancient lady wearing a black shawl over her head" who speaks "with the slightest trace of a European accent" (p. 104). After showing his dismay over the usual assortment of toy tops, he starts to leave when the old lady calls him back. With his Keds ready to spring for his bike, Shepherd nervously waits as she rummages around in a back room and returns with a box. From this she pulls a top, saying that she wouldn't sell this one to just anybody. Great Scott! Cradled in her talons lay a malevolent duplicate of Scut Farkas' evil Mariah. A duplicate in everything - spirit, conformation, size, everything - except color. It was a dull, burnished, scuffed silvery pewter, a color I had never seen on a top before. But then, except for Mariah, l had never seen a black one either (pp. 105106). The old crone assures him that it will not cost much - the top has been used - but "It's imported. She's a Gypsy top. . . Good luck, sonny. Careful, she's a mean one" (p. 106). Shepherd is ecstatic: "I had at last come together with the greatest fighting top I had ever seen. It had an oily, heavy, solid feel, a nice comfortable heft like, say, n Colt snub .38 Special feels to the hand. I had already decided to call it Wolf" (p. 106). After practicing for hours at a time in the murky depths of his basement until he and Wolf are a perfect team, he launches his plan to humble Farkas and Mariah. He baits his trap by luring Kissel into combat on a threatening Friday afternoon. Nature cooperates by providing the appropriate ominous setting. It looked like rain as I walked through the alleys, over the fences, through the vacant lots on my way to the playground, kicking sheets of water up from muddy puddles, skipping bottle caps into new lakes as I moved toward the battlefield. . . The trees dripped warm water under low, gray, ragged clouds. Off to the north toward Lake Michigan, even though it was full daytime, the steel mills glowed dark red against the low-hanging overcast (pp. 110111). After demolishing Kissel's top with one of his second string toy tops Shepherd issues a challenge to all takers. Moments later, Farkas appear and calls our warrior to the fray: Get up ya chicken bastard . . . get out ya top" (pp. 112-113). Shepherd opens with his doomed toy top. Even though he scores a direct hit on Mariah, the black top again proves to be deadly as it neatly splits Shepherd's second string top in two. As Farkas casually picks up Mariah and begins to leave, (my) hand slips down into my back pocket, quickly snaked Wolf out into the open, and in the twinkling of a moment, l had him wound and instantly laid Wolf down hard and solid. Its high, thin note, steady as a dentist drill and twice as nasty, cut through the falling rain and stopped Farkas in his tracks (p. 115). Now both boys are out for the kill. Try as they might, neither can score a hit on the other. The two insane tops, grimy, covered with mud, leaped like live things . . . They hated each other, yet they seemed to be in league" (p. 117}. With no victory forthcoming from strike and split fighting, Farkas decides that they would play "keepers." A circle is drawn, and the two tops spun inside - the winner, whose top bumps the other out of the circle first, keeps both tops. Neither top gives an inch until both dart out together, topple over the curb and continue spinning amid the rush of water down the gutter. Both disappear down a sewer. Farkas, his face white, his eyes glazed, stared down in to the raging flood through the grille of the drain. Then, without a word, he arose and ... walked off down the street in the rain. I knew I would never see Wolf again. But somehow I knew that neither Wolf nor Mariah were [sic] finished. They would go on (p. 119). And if this unconventional finish were not enough to shroud the battle in mystery, Shepherd claims to have never been able to find the Total Victory Newsstand again. Shepherd claims that this is one of his favorite stories. Using 'the ritual of a childhood game, he creates invincible weapons. Perhaps this is a crude but plausible reflection of any conflict, even between world powers. The "bully" remains invincible until his weapon is evenly matched. Given equal weapons, the result or the conflict is inconclusive-everything goes down to the drain, so to speak. Somehow, two tops washed into the sewer provide a less threatening tableau than the doomsday of Dr. Strangelove. Equally mysterious and at least as threatening is Shepherd's introduction to another kind of battle: the relationship between the sexes. His problems multiply rapidly us he leaves the safe harbor of boyhood for the uncharted seas of adolescence. In "The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski," Shepherd learns that the erotic folklore surrounding Polish girls from East Chicago is only a mask for Roman Catholicism and the trap of early marriage. On a date with his dream girl, Daphne Bigelow, he discovers that the gulf between his world of Cleveland Street and the Orpheum Theater and Daphne's world of Waverly Street and the chauffeur-driven Cadillac is too great to traverse on a cross-town bus. But "Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories" provides us with Shepherd's most memorable initiation into the "civilized" adult world. Television proves to be the springboard for Shepherd's memories. Watching an educational TV special about puberty rites, the narrator is reminded of his experience at a junior prom. For weeks the preparations for this rite of passage fill his waking hours. He arranges for the rental of his traditional costume, a white-jacketed summer formal. His precious Ford V8 convertible is polished, and everything seems set. His only problem is that he cannot steel himself to ask Daphne Bigelow to be his date. Time and again, I spotted her in the halls, drifting by on gossamer wings, her radiant complexion casting a glow on all those around her, her brilliant smile lighting up the corners of her 202 homeroom. But, each time, I broke out into a fevered sweat and chickened out at the last instant {p. 312). The days pass; all his pals are lined up with dates. Then one evening, while he moodily waters the lawn, he accidentally squirts Wanda Hickey, the only girl he knows "for an absolute fact" ever liked him. As they pass the time with adolescent small talk, the subject of the prom is raised. It was then I realized there was no sense in fighting it. Some guys are born to dance forever with the Daphne Bigelows on shining floors under endless starry skies. Others - well they do the best they can. I didn't know that yet, but I was beginning to suspect something (p. 318). He finally asks Wanda to the prom and makes arrangements to double date with his friend Schwartz. Excitement reigns until his limited finances begin to disturb him the day before the dance. However, his old man saves the day quite unexpectedly. After remarking that he always wished he had gone to a prom - he had barely finished the eighth grade when he had to quit school and go to work-the old man gives Shepherd a twenty dollar hill he had won at the bowling alley that night, cautioning him, "Don't tell Ma." I took the $20, glommed on to it the way the proverbial drowning man grabs at a straw. I was so astounded at this unprecedented gesture that it never occurred to me to say thanks. He would have been embarrassed if I had. A miracle had come to pass. There was no doubt about it - the prom was going to be an unqualified gas (p. 326). On the day of the prom, events click by according to custom. Shepherd is out early, dusting off his car and yelling at his runny-nosed brother for dripping on the fender. His own preening begins with two showers (wearing out a new bar of Lifebuoy) and his second shave of the week. He squeezes blackheads, splashes on Aqua Velva, and combs his D.A. into just the right "insouciant pitch." Getting clad in the summer formal and patent leather dancing pumps proves to be an epic struggle but the result seems worth the trouble: Posing before the full-length mirror on the bathroom door, [noted the rich accent of my velvet stripes, the gleam of my pumps, the magnificent dash and sparkle of my high-fashion cummerbund. What a sight! What a feeling! This is the way life should be. This is what it's all about (p. 333). He drives to Wanda's, presents his date, who looks unusually attractive herself, with her orchid corsage, and they tool off to the Cherrywood Country Club to dance to Mickey Isley and his Magic Music Makers. Shepherd encounters a number of discouraging pitfalls in the process of becoming civilized, no matter how hard he tries to be as suave as Cary Grant. As he and Wanda move in a mechanical, Arthur-Murray-ad boxstep, Schwartz (doing precisely the same behind him) continually digs his elbow into Shepherd's ribs. As sweat begins to soak his shirt, jacket and jockey shorts, Shepherd begins to develop itches and rashes. His "dashing" wing collar chafes his neck badly, and his patent leather shoes clamp his feet mercilessly. Meanwhile, Wanda looks at him adoringly, "her great liquid myopic eyes catching the reflection of the red and green lanterns overhead'' (p. 339). When the dance is over, they leave the club to find that the balmy June night has been punctuated by a violent thunderstorm, and that Shepherd had left the Ford out with the top down. He bails out the car, hoists the top at the expense of running down his battery, gets a push-start. Finally, all pile in the soggy car, somewhat the worse for wear. Do you know what happens to a maroon-wool carnation on a white serge lapel in a heavy, June downpour in the Midwest, where it rains not water but carbolic acid from the steel-mill fallout? I had a dark, wide, spreading maroon stripe that went all the way down to the bottom of my white coat. My French cuffs were covered with grease from fighting the top, and I had cracked a thumbnail, which was beginning to throb (p. 341). But the worst is yet to come. Shepherd, Wanda, Schwartz and Clara proceed to the Red Rooster, a notorious road house which was considered the only place to cap the evening of the junior prom. "An aura of undefined sin was always connected with the name . . . But the only thing we knew for sure . . . was that anybody on the far side of seven years old could procure any known drink without question" (p. 342). Knowing that better things are expected of him on prom night, Shepherd passes up his usual Kayo the Wonder Drink in favor of bourbon on the rocks. Not to be outdone by the merrymaking throng at the Rooster, he adds a phrase that he heard his old man use often down at the Bluebird Tavern, "And make it a triple." Schwartz follows suit, and they order pink ladies for the girls. Triple bourbon on the rocks proves lethal, especially on an empty stomach: "Down it went-a screaming 90 proof rocket scaring savagely down my gullet. For an instant, I sat stunned, unable to comprehend what had happened. Eyes watering copiously, I had the brief urge to sneeze, but my throat seemed to be paralyzed" (p. 345). Barely capable of responding to Wanda's ecstatic cooing, "Isn't this romantic? Isn't this the most wonderful night in all our lives?" (p. 345), Shepherd is served another drink because he is afraid to move enough to say no. After downing this glass to the girls' toast, "Let's drink to the happiest night of our lives," he tries to calm the tempest in his stomach by wolfing down the meal he had ordered-lamb chops, turnips, mashed potatoes, cole slaw and strawberry shortcake. The inevitable happens, and he runs for the men's room. Twenty seconds later, I was on my knees, gripping the bowl of the john like a life preserver in pitching seas. Schwartz, imitating me as usual, lay almost prostrate on the tiles beside me, his body racked with heaving sobs . . . All of it came rushing out of me in a great roaring torrent . . . For long minutes, we lay there limp and quivering, smelling to high heaven, too weak to get up. It was the absolute high point of the junior prom; the rest was anticlimax (pp. 347-348). He recovers his faculties enough to pay the check with his old man's twenty, and they drive home. Even though the undaunted Wanda waited expectantly for her good night kiss, Shepherd is too queasy to complete the final ritual encounter when he smells saurkraut on her breath. He dashes from her front porch and speeds toward home. Wanda has survived the evening with considerably less trauma, perhaps confirming the traditional belief that the female is more in tune with the demands of civilization than the male. Shepherd's knowing father, up early for a fishing trip, sardonically offers the boy some food, then assures him that his head will "stop banging" in a couple of days. In the meantime, all he could do is tumble into bed, totally exhausted by this stage of his puberty riles. Finally, Shepherd offers a tale of adult experience, ''The Return of the Smiling Wimpy Doll," which in many ways functions as a frame-tale for his fiction. For it is in this story that we find Shepherd's most explicit statement of his feeling toward the past. During the Christmas season, Shepherd finds himself in Manhattan, surrounded by icons of modern life . . . typified by his "Deluxe Yule A-Go-Go Tuneful Musical Revolving Puncture Proof Table-Model Aluminum Xmas Tree" (which he cannot make work). He receives a package from his mother: a box labeled "Life - the complete cereal" containing relics of his boyhood. At first he is simply nonplussed by this array of junk thrown out in a flurry of holiday housecleaning. Then temptation and curiosity prove too great, and he opens the box to find a host of items: Brownie, his teddy bear; his Wimpy doll; a Buck Rogers leather flight helmet: a Flash Gordon Zap Gun; an official Jack Armstrong Wheaties pedometer; an Ed Wynn Fire Chief hat; and "seven tons of kid effluvia." Each gives rise to a memory, and fortified with several healthy belts of scotch, he endures a nostalgia binge to end them all. But, as always, he is jolted to reality. An angry wind laden with sooty ice crystals banged briefly at the windows of my apartment. It was getting colder. Sadly, I returned to the dusty magic mountain of illusion - lost and gone, grieved only by the wind. I had had enough. Back into the box I stuffed . . . this whole teeming throng . . . from out of the past . . . For a fleeting moment, I considered shoving the whole sorry mess out onto the garbage landing. But I chickened out. Staggering under the load, I dragged my childhood to the hall closet (pp. 294295). The load is heavy, but it is his life (he wonders for a moment just how diabolical his mother had been in packing the whole works in a Life cereal carton), and though he can try, he cannot relegate these memories to the trash heap. He knows that he must carry these memories with him. Times were no better then, but they cannot be denied. Shepherd's tales, then, may seen nostalgic, but they are also much more. In his ambivalence toward the past, we can find traces of the ironic voice that R.W.B. Lewis identifies as part of the "American Adam" tradition,[10] and so the comparison between Shepherd and authors such as Cooper, Melville, Mark Twain and Hemingway does not seem totally inappropriate. Furthermore, Robert Morseberger has suggested that unlike the characters of 19th century humorists, modern protagonists "dramatize a sense of inadequacy, impotence, and defeat before the complexities and destructive potential of the century."[11] Often they are characterized as "hypersensitive." Shepherd's protagonists possess a heightened sensitivity to the possibilities of life and the complex of humanity as a result of the collision of their innocence with reality. We can see this clearly in the tale of "The Smiling Wimpy Doll." James Thurber said "The things that we laugh at are awful while they are going on, but get funny when we look buck. And other people laugh because they've been through it too. The closest thing to humor is tragedy."[12] But the tragedy in Shepherd's stories is softened by small triumphs. In the tradition of the American romance, Shepherd focuses on depicting his persona's discovery of his own identity in terms of his world. Also, we can find a modernized American folklore in Shepherd's work: the tall tale in his imaginative and exaggerated response to native conditions and survival in Hammond's ghastly ecology; the "wonder" in incidents such as his father's unprecedented generosity before the prom; and even supernatural motifs in the story of the battling tops. We can hear echoes of fellow Hoosier George Ade and his Fables in the types and caricatures that Shepherd presents, and echoes of Bill Cosby's monologues in the vivid recollection of boyhood amusements in their mock-epic grandeur. Though the pastoral setting of Mark Twain's middle west was metamorphosed into the industrial landscape of today, even refinery aromas and blast furnace dust can be a matrix against which Shepherd sketches moments of promise. No Davy Crockett, Buffalo Bill Cody, or George Custer, Shepherd's persona becomes a kind of everyman hero. Like most of us, he can aspire to greatness and distinction, start out even with everyone else, and still end up short of his dreams: Mewling, puking, babes. That's the way we all start. . . Then gradually, surely, we begin to divide into two streams, all marching together up that long yellow brick road of life, but on opposite sides of the street. One crowd goes on to become the Official people, peering out at us from television screens; magazine covers. . . And the rest of us go on to become . . . just us.[13] This phenomenon may be particularly American, for the democratic tradition leads us to believe that all people really do start out alike. Whatever sense of betrayal might be present in the stories, Shepherd-the-man is not a bitter pessimist or nihilist. While he does not remain in the haze of memory, neither does he become simply another "American Laocoon" trying to maintain his balance amid the violent crosscurrents of the 20th century. Though he could be tempted to hide in boyhood memories, to "light out" with Huck Finn for the "territory," fleeing women, social responsibility, and all other attempts at civilization, Shepherd, like his readers, is fascinated by the adult world and ultimately adjusts to it. So it will always be. We can but grin and bear it-and Shepherd's humor helps us considerably with the grinning. Notes [1] Edward Crossman, "Jean Shepherd: Radio's Noble Savage," Harper's, Jan. 1966, pp. 8S.89. [2] Cyclops TV Review, "The Swish of Windshield Wipers: Jean Shepherd's 'America'." Life 73 (1 Sept. 1972), p. 14. [3] Arthur Cooper, Rev. of Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters by Jean Shepherd, Saturday Review, 54 (13 Nov. 1971), pp. 68-69. [4] Cooper, p. 68. [5] Author's interview with Jean Shepherd, 22 March 1977. [6] Author's interview with Jean Shepherd, 22 March 1977. [7] Jean Shepherd, Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971), p. 15. Subsequent refercnccs will appear as page numbers in the text. [8] Nurris Yates, 'The American Humorist: Conscience of the Twentieth Century (Ames, lnd. Iowa State Unlv. Press, 1964), pp. 353-355. [9] Even though Shepherd totally denies that these stories are autobiographical, he does refer to the family in his story as the "Shepherd" family. For the sake of convenience, I will refer to the hero as "Shepherd" since the stories in Wanda Hickey's Night do not use any other name. In some other stories, the protagonist is called "Ralph," but none of these is included here. [10] R.W.B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1955). Pp. 7, 195-196. [11] Robert E. Morseberger, James Thurber (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1964), p. 18. [12] Quoted Morseberger, p. 21. [13] Jean Shepherd, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966) p. 58.
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