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What I Learned from Jean Shepherd (“A Christmas Story”)

Written by Gary North on January 24, 2015

For approximately 21 years, 1956-1977, five nights a week, Jean Shepherd told stories on the radio. They were some of the greatest stories ever heard.

The most famous of them was turned into a movie, A Christmas Story. It has become a classic. It will be seen on television in the Christmas season for longer than I will live. Maybe even you.

Have you ever heard of the book, I, Libertine? No? Let me jog your memory.


You can buy it on Amazon.

The book was written by the man I regard as the greatest of all science-fiction authors. Not Asimov. Not Bradbury. Sturgeon. Yes, Theodore Sturgeon, the man who announced what has become known as Sturgeon’s Law: “90% of everything is crap.”

Sturgeon actually contributed to his share of the 90%. But it was in a good cause. Here is the background. This is from Wikipedia.

I, Libertine was a literary hoax that began as a practical joke by late-night radio raconteur Jean Shepherd. Shepherd was highly annoyed at the way that the bestseller lists were being compiled in the mid-1950s. These lists were determined not only from sales figures but also from the number of requests for new and upcoming books at bookstores.Shepherd urged his listeners to enter bookstores and ask for a book that did not exist. He fabricated the author (Frederick R. Ewing) of this imaginary novel, concocted a title (I, Libertine), and outlined a basic plot for his listeners to use on skeptical or confused bookstore clerks. Fans of the show eventually took it further, planting references to the book and author so widely that demand for the book led to it being listed on The New York Times Best Seller list.

Bookstores became interested in carrying Ewing’s novel, which reportedly had been banned in Boston. When publisher Ian Ballantine, novelist Theodore Sturgeon and Shepherd met for lunch, Ballantine hired Sturgeon to write a novel based on Shepherd’s outline. On September 13, 1956, Ballantine Books published I, Libertine simultaneously in hardcover and paperback editions with Shepherd seen looking as dissolute as possible, as Ewing, in the back cover author’s photograph. The proceeds were donated to charity.

A few weeks before publication, The Wall Street Journal exposed the hoax, already an open secret.

The front cover displays a quote: “‘Gadzooks,’ quoth I, ‘but here’s a saucy bawd!'”. The cover painting by Frank Kelly Freas includes hidden images and inside jokes: The sign on the tavern, Fish & Staff, has a shepherd’s staff and an image of a sturgeon, referencing both Sturgeon and Shepherd. A portion of the word often spoken on the air by Shepherd — “Excelsior!” — can be seen on the paperback cover in a triangular area at extreme left, where it is part of the decoration on the coach door. The hardcover dust jacket, with more of the illustration to the left, shows the entire word.

In the academic year 1963/64, I was a seminary student in Philadelphia. It was easy to tune in to shepherd, on WOR radio, New York. Nine years later, my new bride and I used to listen to the show in the evening, which began at 10:45 PM. I want to assure you, however, that we didn’t listen to it every night.

Over four decades ago, my wife gave me a Christmas present: Shepherd’s book, A Ferrari in the Bedroom. In that book is one of the most important sociological inquiries ever published. It deals with hierarchies in civilization. He presented it as a story of his youth, choosing members of an after-school softball game: “Chicken-Claw Choosing.”

(For the rest of my article, click the link.)

Continue Reading on www.garynorth.com

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