Jean Shepherd was born on July
26, 1929,* in Chicago, Illinois, to Jean and Anne (Heinrichs)
Shepherd. He was raised in Hammond,
a heavily industrialized city bordering Lake
Michigan located in northwestern
Indiana. At the age of sixteen, Shepherd gained a spot as
a sportscaster at a local radio station. This was his first
step toward a long and successful career in radio broadcasting.
Although Shepherd attended college
for a stint at the University of Maryland (1948) and Indiana
University (1949-50), his real passion lay with chronicling
his zany childhood in the Midwest. These anecdotes were served
in the form of novels, short stories, and a regular radio
Shepherd’s books deal hilariously with
the landscape of his youth. Both In God We Trust,
All Others Pay Cash (1966) and Wanda Hickey’s
Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters (1971) are
collections of short stories relating to
the landscape of Shepherd’s hometown, Hammond -- or
as he refers to it in his work, the fictionalized "Hohman,"
Indiana. The stories contained in these collections focus
on elements of Shepherd’s childhood and how that childhood
was intricately tied to the landscape of an industrial, Midwestern
city. In perhaps his most comprehensive description of the
effects of industrialization on the northwestern Indiana environment,
the narrator relates the following as a loose introduction
to In God We Trust:
Hohman, Indiana, is located
in the extreme Northwestern corner of the state, where the
state line ends abruptly in the icy, detergent-filled waters
of that queen of the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan...Theirs
is a world of belching furnaces, roaring Bessemer Converters,
fragrant Petroleum distillation plants, and freight yards...Theirs
is a sandy, rolling country, cooled, nay, frozen to rigidity
in the Winter by howling gales … [that] picked up
force over the frozen wastes of Lake Michigan... Under the
soil of most backyards, covered with a thin, drifting coat
of blast-furnace dust and refinery waste, made fragrant
by the soaked-in aroma of numerous soap factories, lie in
buried darkness the arrowheads, stone axes, and broken pots
of the departed Indian. Where the tribes danced in Indian
summer now grow Used Car lots and vast, swampy junkyards.
Later in the collection, in the
story "Harry Gertz and the Forty-Seven Crappies,"
he goes on to describe a particularly nasty case of water
pollution in his area:
The water in these lakes is
not the water you know about. It is composed of roughly
ten per cent waste glop spewed out by Shell, Sinclair, Phillips,
and the Grasselli Chemical Corporation; twenty per cent
used detergent; thirty-five per cent thick gruel composed
of decayed garter snakes, deceased toads, fermenting crappies,
and a strange, unidentifiable liquid that holds it all together.
Hickey, Shepherd presents an uproarious collection
of stories much in the same vein as In God We Trust.
Once again, his descriptions of the pollution that plague
his town are vivid:
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 and encircled by a colorful conglomerate
of city dumps and fetid rivers, our northern Indiana town
was and is the very essence of the Midwestern industrial
heartland of the nation. (15)
It is obvious that Shepherd’s
views have been tainted by the industrial landscape of northwestern
Shepherd also edited a collection
of works by fellow Hoosier George Ade,
entitled The America of George Ade, 1866-1944
(1960). Shepherd’s later works, however, including
The Ferrari in the Bedroom (1972) and A Fistful
of Fig Newtons (1981), are less focused on Indiana themes.
Ferrari in the Bedroom is a collection of essays
that Shepherd modeled on H.L. Mencken’s “Americana”
commentary column of the 1920s. A Fistful of Fig Newtons
deals more with Shepherd’s adulthood, much of which
was spent in Manhattan.
Shepherd was also a prolific
contributor to magazines, especially Playboy. In
fact, he won the magazine's annual satire award in 1967, 1968,
1970, and 1971. Several of these stories, most of which deal
with Shepherd's childhood in Hammond, were later collected
in his books.
was, besides a successful author, a popular radio show host.
Once again, descriptions of his Indiana childhood gained Shepherd
an audience, and a rather cultish one at that. From 1958-1979,
Shepherd entertained listeners with “his witty off-the-cuff
stories of growing up in the Midwest” on a 50,000 watt
radio station, WOR AM (Contemporary Authors). His slot on
the radio station gave way to such segments as Shepherd’s
Pie, a seven series recollection that was based on his
previously published Hammond-related short stories that were
eventually adapted into the screenplay of the wildly popular
holiday film, A Christmas Story
Shepherd has captured the essence
of the industrial Indiana landscape and its inhabitants with
an amusing, truly distinctive voice. As one critic put it,
“No one appreciates the twists and turns of the Midwestern
joke better than Jean Shepherd” (Trimmer 357). However,
more than merely capitalizing on the Midwestern joke, Shepherd
pinpoints environmental issues relating to industrial pollution
that are still relevant today.
Authors cites Shepherd's probable birth date as July 26, 1929,
other sources cite the date as July 21, 1921.
"Shepherd, Jean (Parker)."
Contemporary Authors. 2000.
Shepherd, Jean. In God We Trust,
All Others Pay Cash. New York: Doubleday, 1966.
---. Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden
Memories and Other Disasters. New York: Doubleday, 1971.
Trimmer, Joseph F. “Memoryscape:
Jean Shepherd’s Midwest.” The Old Northwest
2 (1976): 357-369.
Clark, Bruce. "Jean Shepherd."
Copyright © 1979 Bruce Clark.
Flick Lives: Jean Shepherd