To a Lighthouse

lighthouse
Godrevy Lighthouse

“Lighthouses are endlessly suggestive signifiers of both human isolation,  and our ultimate connectedness to each other.”
– Virginia Woolf.

I have always found lighthouses to be Romantic places. I’m not alone in that notion. The first lighthouse I visited as a child was at Sandy Hook in my home state of New Jersey. I did not climb to the top. It might not have been open for that back in the day or there might have been a height requirement. (I was a little guy.) The second lighthouse i visited was a bit further south. “Old Barney”  is the nickname of Barnegat Light at the tip of Long Beach Island in New Jersey.

As a young man, I imagined that being a lighthouse keeper would be a good job of a writer. Isolation, few distractions, a wide view of the world. (In college, I actually tried to get a job as a fire tower lookout – but that’s a tale for later.)

“Inside my empty bottle, I was constructing a lighthouse
while all the others were making ships.”  – Charles Simic

When Virginia Woolf was 11, she took a boat trip to Godrevy Lighthouse. Virginia (born Adeline Virginia Stephen) and her family did summer vacations from London in Cornwall and their summer rental looked out at St. Ives Bay.

As an adult writer, she used those summer trips in her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse. She changed the location to the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides, Scotland.

cover

I was assigned that novel in college and found it a challenging read. I liked the idea of a family going on their visits to the Isle of Skye (a great name for an island) and I suppose I tried to connect that with my own family’s childhood visits to the Jersey Shore. But it is a Modernist novel and I wasn’t quite ready for that at 19. In that college course, we also read Marcel Proust and James Joyce. I grew up on plot-driven, linear stories and I still prefer them in novels and in films. I guess I’m old school in my literary tastes. Those novels did not thrill me.

Modernist novels get into philosophical introspection, with little dialogue and (I’m not being insulting here) very little action. Her novel is full of thoughts and observations about both the recollection of childhood memories and adult relationships.

In 1940, Virginia wrote  “In retrospect nothing that we had as children made as much difference, was quite so important to us, as our summer in Cornwall,” The family went there for thirteen summers but after Julia, Virginia’s mother, died, they never returned.

I had to look online for a reminder of the novel’s plot and structure. It is an especially hard plot to recall since there is so little plot. One “action” is the inaction of a postponed visit to the lighthouse.

“To the Lighthouse, considered by many to be Virginia Woolf’s finest novel, is a remarkably original work, showing the thoughts and actions of the members of a family and their guests on two separate occasions, ten years apart. The setting is Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s house on a Scottish island, where they traditionally take their summer holidays, overlooking a bay with a lighthouse. In 1998, the Modern Library named To the Lighthouse No. 15 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.”

Reading about the novel, one person noted from a 2020 perspective that it is a good example of “social distancing.” Critics love the book and toss out phrases like “the vagaries of consciousness,” “a titan of modernism,”

book covers

I have attempted some of the other novels of Virginia Woolf since college. I tried listening to an audiobook version of Mrs. Dalloway this past summer. I don’t advise the audio format for Woolf. I love audiobooks but I think Modernist literature as audio tends to just wash over me. I get swept away by the stream of consciousness swirling in my head.

When the professor discussed Woolfherself in class, I was fascinated by her – much more than I was interested in her novel. That is still true.

“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”  –  Anne Lamott

I read Michael Cunningham’s novel, The Hours, when it came out and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. (I also enjoyed the film version of The Hours with its stellar cast including Meryl Streep , Julianne Moore , Nicole Kidman and Ed Harris)

The Hours is also a book that experiments with time, though not in the same way as Woolf. Like Woolf’s novel, it has three parts. Each section is the story of one day in a woman’s life. One is the story of Virgina Woolf (Kidman) as she begins writing Mrs. Dalloway. (Virginia’s working title for her book was The Hours.) A second plot is set in modern-day New York with Clarissa (Streep) at the side of her poet friend dying from AIDS and planning a party in his honor. Plot three is about Laura (Moore) who lives near Los Angeles in 1949 and is questioning her life rather normal suburban life.

Do the stories intertwine and finally come together? Yes. Do I love that kind of plot structure? Not really, but I must be in the minority because it is such a common structure in novels, films, and television today. But in Cunningham’s novel, the plot moves in a linear fashion with the three stories but takes time hops.  He follows Woolf’s 3 stories of 3 women who have all been somehow affected by Woolf’s novel.

It’s odd that this playing with time and consciousness annoys me because I am a big fan of time travel and consciousness and read and write about both things often. I also like the odd synchronicities in the background of stories and lives. For example, in The Hours, Clarissa on her way to a man’s apartment thinks she sees Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep ended up playing Clarissa in the movie adaptation. In the book, Clarissa later thinks it actually might have been Vanessa Redgrave that she saw on the street and Redgrave played Clarissa Dalloway in the 1997 film version of Mrs. Dalloway.

Lighthouses have been used in literature and cinema as symbols for a long time. They are built to withstand powerful storms and pounding waves and might to symbolize strength, safety, individuality, and obviously act as a beacon and guide and therefore as hope.

Though Woolf would never use it this way, they often appear as Christian symbols. Ben Franklin also would dismiss that kind of association. He wrote, “Lighthouses are more helpful than churches.”

Cat’s Cradle, Ice Nine and Bokononism

cover of book
Cover of the first edition of the novel in 1963

Cat’s Cradle is a satirical novel by Kurt Vonnegut that I read in my high school years (though not as part of the school curriculum!) and I had the opportunity to teach it to high school students.

It is Vonnegut’s fourth novel and was published in 1963. It is a satire of science, technology, religion, and the nuclear arms race, often through the use of black humor. Not surprisingly for a Vonnegut book, it is funny and it is serious.

The narrator of the novel is an author writing a book about the day of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima entitled The Day the World Ended. He begins the book by stating “Call me Jonah” – alluding to the first line of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (“Call me Ishmael”) and to the Biblical Jonah and the whale. But the writer’s name is actually John. In a way, this narrator and Moby-Dick‘s narrator Ishmael share some traits. They are simultaneously a narrator and a protagonist within their own stories. Though the book is more than 60 years old, no spoilers, but maybe their ultimate fates are also similar.

Researching the book, the narrator travels to Ilium, New York, the hometown of the late Felix Hoenikker. He was a co-creator of the atomic bomb and a Nobel laureate physicist. He becomes involved with the Hoenikker children when he interviews them along with Felix’s coworkers, and acquaintances.

He learns of a substance called ice-nine, created for military use by Hoenikker and now likely shared by his three adult children. Ice-nine is an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature. It also acts as a seed crystal and upon contact with any liquid water it causes that liquid water to instantly transform into more ice-nine.

Dropping ice-nine into a pond would freeze the pond and any surrounding wet land. If a human was in the pond, the liquid water in them would also instantly change into ice-nine. It would be a more destructive weapon than any nuclear bomb as it would eventually freeze the entire planet and everything living on it.

Cats-cradle.svg
“Cradle”, the opening position of Cat’s cradle

The novel’s title comes from a story that Hoenniker’s younger son, a dwarf named Newt, tells the narrator. When asked what Felix was doing when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, Newt says that he was just idly playing the string game “cat’s cradle.” Cat’s cradle is played by two or more people playing cooperatively.  John notes that there is no cat and there is no cradle.

The novel takes the threat of nuclear destruction during the Cold War as one of its main themes. The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of mutual assured destruction in 1962 and was certainly part of Vonnegut’s motivation. In the move, possessing some Ice Nine becomes it own arms race and a person or small country can have great power by having it.

I taught Vonnegut’s novel along with another nuclear satire, The Mouse That Roared, which was a 1955 satire about an imaginary country in Europe called the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. Grand Fenwick is known for its wine, but a California winery creates a cheap version of it. Economically threatened, Grand Fenwick decides to declare war on the United States. Obviously, if they attack the U.S. with their tiny and ill-equipped (with bows and arrows) army they will be quickly defeated. They invade New York City.

It seems like a stupid plan but what they expect is that after being quickly defeated they can rebuild their economy since the United States always pumps millions or billions of dollars into its vanquished enemies. Think of what the U.S. did for Germany through the Marshall Plan at the end of World War II.

Through a series of accidents and coincidences during the invasion of New York City, the Grand Fenwick army comes into possession of a “quantum bomb” being developed in a secret lab there. The Q-Bomb is a prototype doomsday device created by Dr. Kokintz, a rather absent-minded professor. This bomb has a theoretical explosive potential greater than all the nuclear weapons of the United States and the Soviet Union combined. Though no one knows if it would actually work because, obviously, it can’t be tested. Having the bomb makes Grand Fenwick a major world power overnight.

The book is funny and was made into a comedy film starring Peter Sellers in multiple roles. But the novel is also a commentary on the politics of the time, the nuclear arms race, and the politics of the United States.

Nuclear war doesn’t get the attention today that it had in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s not that the world powers have disarmed or that there is no threat, but somehow it has moved back in world issues.

Kurt
Vonnegut in 1972

Another big theme in the novel is Vonnegut’s take on religion. He describes a religion secretly practiced by the people of the island nation of San Lorenzo. There are many San Lorenzo places in the world – none of them is Vonnegut’s fictional Caribbean island nation. Officially, San Lorenzo is a Christian nation but it also has its own native religion, Bokononism.

Bokonism is based on enjoying life through believing “foma” which are harmless lies, and by taking encouragement where you can. Bokononism was founded by Boyd Johnson (whose name is pronounced “Bokonon” in San Lorenzan dialect). The religion is outlawed. Bokonon himself conceived this outlawing because he knew that forbidding the religion would only make it spread quicker.

Bokononism secretly is the dominant religion of nearly everyone on the island, including the leaders who outlawed it. Many of its sacred texts, collectively called The Books of Bokonon, are written in the form of calypso songs. Bokononist rituals are often absurd. Their supreme religious act is for two worshippers to rub the bare soles of their feet together. This merging of soles (souls) is meant to inspire spiritual connection.

Here are some Bokononist terms:

karass – A group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial linkages are not evident.

duprass – a karass of only two people, who almost always die within a week of each other. A common example is a loving couple who work together for a great purpose.

granfalloon – a false karass, such as a group of people who imagine they have a connection that does not really exist. An example given is is “Hoosiers” – people from Indiana, who have no true spiritual destiny in common and share little more than a name. Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. If you want to know about a granfalloon, just look inside a balloon, sings the Bokonists.

I like their term sinookas which are the intertwining “tendrils” of peoples’ lives. I believe in that part of their religion.

Maybe you know the string game. Maybe you’ve heard the Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle” (in which I see no connection with the novel). The book has more directly influenced others in many creative works. I wrote elsewhere about a band called Ice Nine Kills.

But the allusion to Vonnegut’s Ice Nine that I discovered that was most interesting – and most frightening – is “Ice IX.”

Ice IX is an actual form of solid water that has been created.  I learned that there is also ice II, ice III, and all the way to ice XVIII. The “ordinary” water you freeze for drinks is known as ice Ih. All the forms of water have been created in the laboratory at different temperatures and pressures. And you thought you learned in school that water could be a liquid, solid, or gas and that was all of it.

I hope none of them work like Vonnegut’s imagined weapon and no one ever develops his Ice Nine.

Letters from John Irving

John Irving by Kubik 01

I wrote about author John Irving earlier and when I was researching that piece I found his Facebook page.

I thought it was interesting that he posted several “letters” to his readers.

This first one is about his new novel that comes out in the fall and gives you some insight to his process.

 

Dear Readers,

I’ve just titled the 37th chapter of my novel-in-progress, Darkness as a Bride. I love titling my chapters — if you look at my past novels, you’ll see I’ve always done it. My predilection for chapter titles is yet another influence of those 19th century novels I love. Moby-Dick has 135 chapters, all of them titled. Chapter titles are not just a writerly quirk.

A novel develops in units; chapters, to me, are like mini-novels, with their own architecture. When you put a name to each unit of the story, the reader can recall the most salient aspects of each section. I hope something of each chapter’s architecture is suggested in its title, and the architecture of the novel as a whole becomes more tangible with the accumulation of chapter titles.

Among my favorites in the 37 chapters I now have:
“Smallness as a Burden”
“The Snowshoer Kiss”
“What the Stone Sparrows Saw”
“I Saw Me in Your Eyes”
“My Second Most Unmarriageable Girlfriend”
“Where Have the Bananas Gone?”
And, because I’m writing a ghost story, “Melancholic Enough.”

These titles say something about my main character, Adam, and parts of the narrative can be gleaned from them. A reader might think of them as signposts along the journey.

Each time I write a novel, I try to have one chapter title that contains a semicolon. I like this title from Darkness because I managed to sneak in two semicolons: “A Little Behind Girls Her Age, Socially; Definitely Ahead of; Definitely Behind.” Well, my thing for semicolons may be just another influence of those 19th century novels I love. It’s certainly more than a quirk!

A second letter there is about his decision to become a Canadian citizen.

Dear Readers,

There have been a lot of questions about my decision to become a Canadian citizen — questions I’ve tried clear up in interviews with the Toronto Star, with the Washington Post, and, in the interview excerpted here, with the CBC’s Rosemary Barton.

I think I see the U.S. more clearly from abroad than I did when I was living there. The perspective of home can be a little exclusionary, when you’re at home. It has always been a necessary perspective for me: to see my country through the eyes of others. Not unlike writing a novel — when the objective is to put yourself (and the reader) in someone else’s shoes, or to see the world from someone else’s point of view. And I care deeply about what happens in the U.S. — three generations of my family are still there. There’s never been a more vital time to vote, as an American, and I intend to keep voting.

Yet I fell in love with and married a Canadian woman. After more than 30 years, it was time for her to return home. Just as it is important to participate in the democratic process as an American, it’s important as a long-time resident of Canada to have some influence in decisions that affect not only my life but affect the lives of more vulnerable people in my community. The route to civic responsibility involves citizenship. Dual citizenship, while not formally recognized by the U.S., is permitted and accepted, and it’s important to me.

— John

Frankenstein

Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley – image from Literary Witches

It is Halloween month and so I expect to see at least a few Frankenstein decorations and costumes. I’m sure that Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) would not be amused. This is also the 200th anniversary of her novel.

She intended her novel to be more than just fodder for horror films and costumes. The book’s 1831 full title – Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus – hints at that intention.

Some of her themes are as relevant, perhaps more relevant, today. The novel asks many questions about science and social responsibility. It was truly science fiction as she used many ideas that she had heard at lectures she frequently attended.

The novel is often dismissed as something much lighter because of the subsequent adaptations of it in other forms. We usually forget that “Frankenstein” is the doctor performing the experiments, not the “monster” he creates and regrets having brought to life.

We forget that her title, Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, alludes to Greek mythology.  Prometheus was a Titan, a trickster figure who defied the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humanity. But Shelley’s allusion is to the credit he is given for creating man from clay. This god is then closest to the God of monotheism – and Dr. Frankenstein is being a modern-day god. (It is also no coincidence that the monster fears fire more than anything.)

In one introduction to the novel, Mary Shelley wrote:

Every thing must have a beginning… and that beginning must be linked to something that went before… Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. In all matters of discovery and invention, even of those that appertain to the imagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus and his egg. Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.

I had to look up her reference to Columbus’ egg. The term is used to describe a brilliant idea or discovery that seems simple or easy after the fact. The expression refers to an apocryphal story in which Christopher Columbus, having been told that discovering the Americas was inevitable and no great accomplishment, challenges his critics to make an egg stand on its tip. After his challengers give up, Columbus does it himself by tapping the egg on the table to flatten its tip. The story is often alluded to when discussing creativity.

The novel often comes up in current conversations about cloning, test-tube babies, genetic engineering, end of life, and even artificial intelligence. Those instances would please Mary.

 

The Modern Prometheus

The creation of man by Prometheus. Marble relief, Italy, 3rd century CE.

“A man is a god in ruins.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?” ― John Milton, Paradise Lost

 

The story of Dr. Frankenstein and the “monster” he created is now 200 years old. Most people think of it as a horror story, but it was intended to be much more.

If you ever read the book, rather than just seeing any of the almost 100 movie incarnations of the monster, you would know that it has a lot to do with man’s consideration of mortality.

You may heard about the story’s origin. In 1818, Mary Shelley published the first edition of Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus, but it began on a stay near Lake Geneva with her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, and fellow poet Lord Byron. Trapped indoors by storms and bored, they decided to have a little ghost story writing competition. The story that Mary created wasn’t so much a ghost story, but her story idea led to the novel.

Mary
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

I only learned recently in reading a new edition of the novel that Mary Shelley had lost a premature baby daughter when she was only 17. She was haunted by thoughts and visions of the dead baby. She wrote in her journal that in a dream she saw her dead daughter brought back to life after being robbed vigorously in front of a fire.  It was only two years later, when she was 19, that she wrote the novel.

In movie versions of the novel, electricity sent through a human body brings the dead body to life. There were experiments done in her time, such as those by Alessandro Volta, to find the connection between electricity and the way our muscles move. But Shelley never described the details of the reanimation process. She describes the scientist finding an “elemental principle of life” which allows him to give life to inanimate matter. He realizes the God-like power this offers him and hesitates to use it. But finally, after two years of constructing a body using materials supplied by “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house,” he finishes his creature and brings him to life.

Dr. Frankenstein never gives the creature a name. (“Frankenstein” is the doctor, not the creature, but the movies have made that distinction unclear.) Shelley intended the result of the experiment to be considered a monster to be pitied. Certainly, one theme of the novel is the dangers of man “playing God” – a theme that is very relevant today as we experiment with genetics and artificial intelligence.

Mary Shelley subtitled her novel “The Modern Prometheus” and she expected her readers to know the story from Greek mythology of the Titan Prometheus. His name means “forethought” and he is a troublemaker for the other gods. He is credited with the creation of man from clay, done at Zeus’ bidding. But he defies the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humanity. A hero to mankind, his theft and gift enabled progress and civilization. But Prometheus is punished by Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, and sentenced to eternal torment bound to a rock. Every day for eternity an eagle (emblem of Zeus) would feed on his liver. The organ (which the ancient Greeks considered to be the seat of human emotions) would then grow back only to be eaten again the next day.Prometheus is freed from his torment by the hero Heracles (Hercules).

Shelley’s scientist is a strange combination of ideas. He is heroic, tragic, genius, madman. Lord Byron was a fan of the play Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, and Mary’s husband Percy wrote his own Prometheus Unbound a few years later, so perhaps this topic was part of the Lake Geneva conversations.  Prometheus came to be viewed as a symbol of human striving, particularly the quest for scientific knowledge. But he also represents the risk of overreaching or unintended consequences. The Romantics viewed him as someone whose best efforts to improve human existence resulted in tragedy.

“Modern Prometheus” was a term coined by philosopher Immanuel Kant in reference to Benjamin Franklin and his experiments with electricity. (Mary’s father was the political philosopher and novelist William Godwin, so it is likely she was aware of this reference. Dr. Frankenstein comes to see his creation as a monster and regrets giving it life. He decides that death must be viewed as a final thing.

The movie versions of her story, as with many other movie versions of novels and of real life, have made deeper impressions on audiences. The serious themes that Mary wanted to address are made less important in the films, while the horror of the “monster” and the “madness” of the scientist are brought to the front.

Frankenstein is a Gothic novel and clearly a part of the Romantic movement, but is also a very early example of science fiction. It can be argued that it is the first true science fiction story when compared to earlier stories that are more fantasy. This scientist and his modern experiments in the laboratory that echo some of the science of today does what most modern sci-fi still does. It looks at where we are and imagines where that might lead in the future. Like much sci-fi, her story is a cautionary tale, a warning.

 

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld my man completed …” (Draft for Frankenstein)

The first edition of the novel was published in 1818 in three volumes (the “triple-decker” format was typical for 19th-century first editions) with only 500 copies and without Mary’s name on the book.  A second edition in 1822 had two volumes with her name on the title page. By then a successful play, Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peake, had driven some demand for the novel.

It wasn’t until 1831 that a one-volume edition appeared. Mary heavily revised the novel to make it “less radical” and this is the version that is generally read today. But there are versions of the original “uncensored” edition and some nice annotated versions that I would recommend as they give the reader background on elements of the story. There is even a version called Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds. I have read all of them and the story continues to interest me as I read more about Mary Shelley and think about how her story applies to our modern times.

 

A Christmas Story About Me and Shep

Jean Shepherd is best known to his devoted fans as a radio raconteur. I listened to him for about two decades on WOR-AM in New York City. Often I was listening on a transistor radio that was by my bed pillow before I went to sleep. I lived in New Jersey, and Jersey often figured in Shep’s stories, usually as the home of “slob art.”

His nighttime program was a hard-to-define blend of stories, commentary, and occasional oddities of “music” that seemed to go in ten attention-deficit directions until the program’s closing when it all seemed to somehow pull together. Though I learned via interviews and books that it was unscripted, Shep often walked into the studio with an article, letter or general theme for where the show was going to or at least where it would start.

Flick succumbs to a double dog dare to put his tongue
on the frozen pole. Don’t try this at home, kids.

To younger people or those outside of the NY/NJ metro area, he is probably best known for writing the 1983 hit film A Christmas Story. The film is now a perennial Christmas classic that is run and rerun in the way that It’s a Wonderful Life was and sometimes still is run on TV in December. Though I think of It’s a Wonderful Life as a holiday classic, it is also almost film noir and gets quite dark in its second half. But A Christmas Story is pure nostalgia.

The film was based on a half-dozen stories, mostly from his 1966 collection, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash which is my favorite of his books. Those stories, some of which had run in magazines as standalone tales, are connected by the protagonist, Ralphie and his brother and parents and based on Shep’s childhood in Indiana. Though the film has become known as a family or even children’s story, I always viewed the book as more of a coming-of-age book. The stories are tied together by their time and place and connected by a much older Ralphie going back to Indiana.  Jean’s alter-ego character is Ralphie Parker (Shep’s birth name is  Jean Parker Shepherd), a kid growing up in 1930’s Indiana.

I sat down this weekend to write this because I saw that A Christmas Story Live, a stage version of the movie, is on FOX tonight, December 17, at 7 pm ET. It has run on Broadway and across the country. I avoided seeing it because I feared it would ruin the film and book for me. But, it’s free on TV and I can always turn it off and not be upset that I lost a few hundred bucks on a trip to Broadway, soI will watch the show.

This live version has Matthew Broderick playing grownup Ralphie (the narrator). (He was played by Jean Shepherd and ralphie’s old man was played by Darren McGavin in the original movie version.) Maya Rudolph is the mom. (Melinda Dillon played her in the movie.) There is a nice little synchronicity in the casting because Matthews’s father, James Broderick, played Ralphie’s father (billed as “the old man” not Mr. Parker) when Shep did several PBS adaptations of his Indiana stories.

Some years at Christmastime, Jean would read a version of the original short story that became the basis for the movie on his WOR-AM radio show (see video below). The main short story for the film appeared in Playboy as  “Duel In The Snow, Or, Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid” and was reprinted as a chapter in Shepherd’s 1966 book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.

Shep narrates the film and has a brief cameo as an adult also in the line to see Santa at a department store who tells Ralphie to get in the back of the line.

On the air before his NYC radio days.

Jean Shepherd the writer published many magazine stories in Mad magazine and The National Lampoon, The New York Times, Playboy, Mademoiselle, Car and Driver, and Omni. He was one of the early columnists for The Village Voice newspaper in New York City. I believe you can find almost all of the stories collected in his four book collections (see below).

In the 70’s and 80’s he became more interested in TV and film and less interested in radio. He did several pieces for PBS from small bits to television movies including The Phantom of the Open Hearth.

In 1975, he did a popular non-fiction PBS television series titled Jean Shepherd’s America and another series for the New Jersey PBS station entitled Shepherd’s Pie.

Jean Shepherd was born in Chicago, in 1925 and the majority of his written stories and films were set in his childhood years. From his adult life, the most we heard about was from his Army days in the Signal Corps.

The stories he told on-air were always improvised, but he later wrote some of the childhood ones down and he published them in collections like In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters.

Much of Jean Shepherd’s real life is unknown. He made the line between fact and fiction very blurry. Sometimes he said things had happened that others have found did not happen. He rarely talked about his adult life. He was married three times but didn’t talk about his wives. Did he have children? Where did he live?

I had heard that he is the basis for the Jason Robards character in the play and film, A Thousand Clowns, which was written by Shep’s friend, Herb Gardner. I didn’t know that when I saw that film (which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar) but I liked that guy, so some Shep must have come through.

He is supposed to be the inspiration for the Shel Silverstein song made famous by Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue.” Having the gender neutral name “Jean” wasn’t easy as a kid, and in later life he was often confused with a female country singer with the same name, though Shep has certainly eclipsed her in fame by now.

The Jack Nicholson late-night radio talker in New Jersey in The King of Marvin Gardens seems like he might have been somewhat inspired by Shep.

In the film Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky who was another in Shep’s circle, the main character is a television newscaster who tells his viewers to open their windows and yell, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” To a Jean Shepherd listener, that has got to have some basis in Shep’s frequent habit of “hurling an invective.” I remember him telling all of us to yell out the window at the same time, and another time having all of us jump up in the air at the same moment to see if we could knock the Earth a bit off its axis.

Shep once pulled off a publishing hoax by promoting a non-existent book called I, Libertine  by a non-existent author, Frederick R. Ewing. Shep was not happy with the way the best-seller lists were compiled and wanted to prove it was a rigged joke.

He told his listeners to go out and buy the book and they did try. The requests got bookstores asking their distributors for copies and that got at least one publisher (Ballantine Books) interested in creating the title. Ballantine had Shep work up an outline of the story and hired a ghostwriter, Theodore Sturgeon, who was known for science-fictions stories. It was written, published and due to the demand it actually made the best-seller list. Copies of the original paperback are now quite collectible.

Jean also did live shows. I guess it was standup comedy but not in the way that we think of that today. He appeared at Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, and I saw him a half-dozen times at colleges, high schools and other venues. He wasn’t Jerry Seinfeld. He wasn’t obscene like Lenny Bruce or political like Mort Sahl. He was closer to Mark Twain and James Thurber if they had done an hour on stage. Humor and comedy are not the same animal.

In the late 1990s, Shepherd was working on new film projects, but his health was failing. I lost touch with him because he stayed out of  the public eye, and his personal life had always been a mystery in a Bob Dylan way with lots of misinformation and outright lies perpetrated by him.

We do know that his longtime companion, collaborator, and third wife of 21 years, was Leigh Brown. “Little Leigh” always seemed to be in the WOR studio with him and sometimes was referenced in his comments on air. She died in 1998 and Jean died the following year in a hospital near his Sanibel Island, Florida home. I have read that he had no survivors, so his intellectual property is owned by an entertainment group.

I have discovered a good number of Shep fans over the years, from people my age who lived in the tri-state area of WOR and listened, to young people who discovered him through the film and traced their way back in his career, to other humorists influenced by him like Harry Shearer.

A good free collection of Shepherd radio show audio online is The Shep Archives. All you have to do is register and you can listen and download mp3 files of old WOR shows, interviews, and audio from some of the television shows.

There are other sites too because many devoted fans back in the day recorded the show on their reel-to-reel or cassette recorders. I’m glad they did because the radio station certainly didn’t care enough to archive shows. The Brass Figlagee podcast has 300 show files and some are on also available free at archive.org.

Bob Kaye’s Jean Shepherd Page is a nice site, and Jim Clavin has a good fan site called Flick Lives! that includes links to places where you can hear some of Shep’s old broadcasts.

“Flick Lives” is a reference to a character in many Shepherd tales from his Indiana days. Flick is the kid who gets his tongue frozen to a pole in A Christmas Story.  Fans used to write “FLICK LIVES” as graffiti in the way that soldiers once wrote “Kilroy was here.”  We marked our turf and showed that we followed Shep with those two words.  And yes, people used to often join the L and I in Flick to create a totally different message to the world.

Books


Christmas Eve 1974 – Shepherd reads the story on air at WOR-AM in NY
that would later become the movie, A Christmas Story.

 

 “Beer” from Jean Shepherd’s America

 

Opening from an episode of Shepherds’s Pie (not great audio/video quality)