Jean Shepherd’s Hohman

“Fitzgerald showed this. He was always the guy from the Midwest looking in the window at the Princeton dance. It’s no coincidence that Hemingway was from Oak Park [in Illinois]. You’re never a part of anything if you come from the Midwest.” – Jean Shepherd

In Shepherd’s works, Hohman (his fictionalized version of Hammond), Indiana becomes almost a character in its own right. It clung “to the underbelly of Chicago” the way barnacle clings to boats. It was a rough, industrial city, where “streetcar wires creaked under ice and kids plodded to school through forty-five mile-an-hour gales tilting forward like tiny furred radiator ornaments.” Hohman was a steel town, and he liked to say that there has never been an upper-crust steel town. One had to be tough to make it.

But there was still cause for celebration, especially around the holidays. Downtown Hohman came alive at Christmas; once the curtains hiding the massive toy display at the local Goldblatt’s were opened, the time was set for the giant “Yuletide Jubilee,” and the quest for the Red Ryder BB gun was on (Incidentally, Macy’s in New York re-created scenes from A Christmas Story for their windows in 2003). Peter Scholl, writing in The Great Lakes Review, pointed out that the Indiana council of English teachers had literally put Shepherd “on the map.” In the upper left-hand corner of their Literary Map of Indiana is a boy listening to the radio expectantly. In his hand is a Radio Orphan Annie decoder pin. The “iris-less orphan girl herself is pictured above him, string emptily down [over] Lake Michigan and across the northern steppes of the Hoosier State. Scholl goes on, like so many others, to compare Shepherd to Mark Twain: both were born in and subsequently left the Midwest. But they returned to it in their adult careers, at least in their imaginations. It provided “the raw material for their best stories.”

 In a 1966 Newsday article, Shepherd mused on the inherent differences between Midwesterners and Easterners. While comparing himself to JD Salinger (Shepherd was never much into modesty), he wrote that the Midwesterner generally thinks that they are pretty lucky in their circumstances and accepts life for what it is. Conversely, Easterners (whom he stereotyped as being varying degrees of Holden Caulfield) go through life with a certain degree of anger and bitterness. The fact that they have more favorable circumstances of birth gives them a sense of entitlement, matched with bitterness if their wants are not met.  

Shepherd left his hometown, moved to the big city, then proceeded to talk about his hometown incessantly. He became a de facto advocate of the small town childhood, and wove it into his stories. In a 2001 Time article, he was pictured as the “hip hick, a defender of the Midwest at the precise moment that America was becoming bicoastal.” Hohman, Indiana, was known by its banality. It was even mentioned as a precursor to The Simpsons’ Springfield. According to Shepherd, the Midwest “swam in a sea of futility…[a]nother name for realism.” Shepherd, the White Sox fan envious of the (relative) success of the Chicago Cubs, inevitably identified with those who “failed most artfully.” The Old Man and Ralphie’s failures are nothing if not artful.

He made repeated mention of his speaking engagements at venues like Princeton University, where his audience showed an almost-anthropological fascination with “flyover country.” They were amused that there were people who actually attended, say, a Kiwanis Club. For his book, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, he wrote about returning to his hometown as an urbane, sophisticated New Yorker. His initial reaction was that he “felt like a spy.” Here he was, looking at his old town from the window of a cab. Taking a cab in New York is commonplace; it was almost unheard of in Hohman. The cabbie takes him to the bar owned by his childhood friend Flick, and the two reminisce.

Scholl, in “Jean Shepherd: the Survivor of Hammond,” asserts that Shepherd’s true target was the “cultural elite” who scoffed at the Midwesterner. He was by no means a “disaffected and alienated spirit who lambastes the Hoosier for comic effect. But he does explore the differences between the Easterner he has become and the kid who “survived Hammond” that he was. Appropriately enough, at the end of the article and book, Shepherd eschews the cab, and walks to the nearest bus stop, becoming “a native son” yet again. – Barry Honold

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Published in: on November 9, 2009 at 8:20 pm  Comments (1)  
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Themes & Language in Jean Shepherd

A Christmas Story falls into a distinct category of Shepherd’s work: growing up in Indiana. These recollections were a favorite among fans. The success of the 24-hour run of the movie every year is a testament to its success and Shepherd’s success as a storyteller. A 1962 Time article wrote that he “remembers his Indiana boyhood with a command of imagery so precise that he can spin into the air everything from the smell of an old-fashioned icebox to the guilty excitement of [a teenage boy] looking through a stack of Breesy Story magazines…in the cellar.” Whether listening to or reading him, there was no mistaking who it was. He worked hard to achieve his voice, and once confessed that it took “years for me to learn how to edit, to phrase, to give beat, pause, momentum…to keep a thematic mood running through the whole thing.”

It is important to note that A Christmas Story did not start off as a whole. It is cobbled together from his writing over the years, most notably from In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. In the book, the childhood remembrance is the result of a busybody woman wearing a button that says “DISARM THE TOY INDUSTRY.” She “spoke in the ringing, anvil-like tones of a True Believer” and gave him a pamphlet denouncing “world-wide Capitalistic decadence, all through plastic popguns and Sears Roebuck fatigue suits for kids.”

Shepherd was not a fatalistic writer, but he definitely recognized the limitations of Homo sapiens. For him, the human condition has its downfalls, but the struggle itself provides opportunity for laughter. Like the characters in Waiting for Godot, Shepherd’s protagonists (often his younger alter ego) don’t know what’s coming: they can only wait and hope for the best. A 1971 Wall Street Journal article noted that “[he celebrates the] hopelessness and haplessness of the human race and the total absurdity of life on earth….almost all of [his stories] involve characters including young Shepherd who flirt valiantly with victory, only to go down in the end in crushing defeat….In the world of Shepherd, there is no cause whatever for hope. And hope springs eternal.”

 His view of mankind was very much in line with the Ancient Greeks: “there is no way for man to control history. He is instead a victim of it.” His characters, including his younger alter ego, try to control (or at least persuade) history and their circumstances. They try to work hard. They can use guile and cunning. They make valiant efforts. But in the end, these efforts are doomed. Tragedy and the fall are not only for Lear, but also for young Ralphie.

Nor were Shepherd’s stories consciously meant to inspire nostalgia at the “good ole days,” because they weren’t always that good: I think nostalgia is one of the great sicknesses of America. what my work says is, ‘if you think it’s bad now, you should have seen it then. You’ll notice that nothing works out for [Ralphie]. He gets hit with the gun, the furnace blows up, the dogs go wild, and the family winds up having to go to a Chinese restaurant for Christmas. Probably unintentionally, his stories do inspire nostalgia. Or perhaps identification. Identification with a struggle against everything the world throws at you. Identification with the young protagonist dealing with the same humdrum and momentous conflicts of childhood that have always existed and will always exist. Shepherd’s work inspired such identification, largely because of his consummate skill as a storyteller. Story after story after story after his death tells of kids and teenagers hiding under their covers in the 50s and early 60s with their radio every night, waiting for Shepherd to tell them How It Really Is. An article in The New York Times wrote that listening to Shepherd was akin to being “admitted to a locker room bull session with a guy who really knew what it was all about – and (here was the ultimate magic) implied that you did too.”

 Time thought his work in general and A Christmas Story in particular “displayed an immaculate instinct for conveying the emotional ups and downs that are associated with nostalgia.” His ultimate view on the nostalgia towards childhood is that it only seems blissful through the prism of being an adult because “we were not yet aware of the basic truth: that we’re all losers, that we’re destined to die and death is a defeat.” There is also a definite “subtle undercurrent of sadness in his work, even in A Christmas Story. The adult Ralph tells us, in the closing monologue of the story, that his Red Ryder BB gun “was the greatest Christmas gift I ever received – or would ever receive….” It is Shepherd’s genius that he maintains such a perfect tension between the joys and disappointments of childhood in his stories, that the perfection of that gift also indicts everything he received thereafter.

Shepherd was a humorist, along the lines of Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Hunter S. Thompson, and P.J. O’Rourke. He emulated Mencken’s practice of saving newspaper clippings, which Shepherd referred to as Triviata globus. Like Mencken’s Americana, these were pithy reports on the absurdities of everyday life. One story involved a woman who mistakenly vacuumed up her canary whilst distracted by the phone. She retrieved the traumatized bird. From that day forward, it merely sat on its perch, catatonic and unsinging, “hunched over and staring.” Shepherd’s response? “Ah, how like us all, hunched over, sitting, staring. But eating well. Not much singing, but a lot if staring.”

But there was no bitterness toward the world. Shepherd never lost his sense of humor about the inequities of life. In a 1973 article called “Some Guys Make It – and then there’s us,” he explored the Us versus Them nature of the common man, while simultaneously making light of it: 

“You notice that up and down the street the guys in the big Cadillacs never get ticketed? Have you ever seen a ticket on a fat Mercedes? I used to come back with my motor scooter decorated like a Christmas tree…I’d slow down, and the fuzz would be alongside me, tying ‘em on.”

For us all, including Ralphie, the good about life has to exist alongside the bad. And, instead of raging against the dying of the light, we could try mocking it. Watch Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert if you still doubt. Like Steel Magnolias, A Christmas Story, too, offers an idea “of people who laugh as an affirmation of life in spite of all the darkness of the world, of humor as a therapeutic response” to the strangeness of life.” – Barry Honold

Published in: on November 9, 2009 at 8:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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