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Jean ShepherdJean Shepherd

Hoosier Connection: As a chronicler of growing up in the industrial city of Hammond, Indiana, Jean Shepherd presented hilarious accounts of the Indiana landscape to the rest of America through his novels, radio show, and wildly popular screenplay for the 1983 film, A Christmas Story.

Works Discussed: In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters, A Christmas Story

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 show.

Several of 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. (17)

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. (72)

In Wanda 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 Indiana.

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.

Shepherd 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 (1983).

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.

*While Contemporary 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." 1979.
Copyright © 1979 Bruce Clark.

Flick Lives: Jean Shepherd website