Jewish World Review Oct. 3, 2005 / 29 Elul, 5765

Paul Greenberg

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Monologue | Instead of an infinite number of ideologues shouting past one another — on television, via e-mail spam, on radio talk shows — what this country needs is someone who can do an intelligent monologue. Someone who's eccentric but lucid, entertaining yet informative, calming but never boring.

The great monologue is not to be confused with just a series of punch lines, or a didactic lecture, or a pep talk. It's like a river of thought — gathering power, taking unexpected twists, creating safe harbors or cutting new channels while carrying the listener around every bend: not just a utilitarian lock-and-dam moving a load from here to there.

A new biography of one of the great radio monologists, Jean Shepherd, is now out. Its title: "Excelsior, You Fathead: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd." That name will be vaguely familiar to a past generation of night owls, insomniacs, restless youth and others who found solace in all-night radio back in the '40s, '50s, '60s and . . . well, Jean Shepherd was around for a long time.

Does this book sound intriguing?

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Half bore, half strange company, wholly interesting in a dark way, he was able to hold listeners from midnight to dawn, extemporizing all the way. And when he was through, it was enough that he had got you through the night.

Jean Shepherd had the gift of making you eager to hear his very next sentence, the one that was going to explain it all, it all being the universe. And you didn't want to miss it. In that sense, and only in that sense, he was a lot like that master of transition, Garner Ted Armstrong of "The Wo-orld Tomorrow!" Jean Shepherd was born to segue — sentence to sentence, topic to topic, night to dawn.

Like Garrison Keillor, or Walker Percy's Binx Bolling, Jean Shepherd was onto something. Just what can't be put directly into words, any more than faith or doubt can be without demystifying either. Some feelings can only be described. To analyze them would be to dispel them. It would be like dissecting a living creature. It would kill them. To quote E.B. White, "Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it."

It's not easy to recapture Jean Shepherd's America now, the one lurking behind the old, upbeat newsreels and the stirring histories written half a century later. His dark tones have faded in the roseate glow of America the Triumphant, victorious over war, depression, fascism, communism and halitosis.

Forgotten is the inconvenient fact that the Depression didn't really end until the war came, and that support for that war, too, as measured by the public opinion polls, dwindled with the growing numbers of American casualties in Europe and the Pacific. There was always a deeply suspicious America that was never taken in by the war posters and Hollywood's patriotic gore; it just laid low, freedom of speech not being as tolerated then as it would be later. Wars will do that.

In Jean Shepherd's heyday, American conservatism was what Lionel Trilling called it — not a philosophy but just a series of irritable gestures that only resembled ideas. American conservatism was still isolationist and isolated, not the main stream of American thought. Whittaker Chambers was but a voice in the wilderness, and William F. Buckley a young squirt, if not an outright freak. (Imagine: a conservative who reasoned!) The political right was represented by a still lingering Westbrook Pegler and a still seggish James Jackson Kilpatrick. And neo-conservatism was yet to be born.

Liberalism, though the dominant creed, cowered behind Adlai Stevenson, an indecisive, almost Jamesian essayist who thought he was a politician. Henry Wallace, the romantic hero of the left, turned out to be a dupe of Stalinists. One can see how dour observers concluded that, if communism didn't get us, McCarthyism would.

Some monologists, like Mort Sahl, made it all seem funny. Jean Shepherd made it sound grim — like a darker "Peanuts" or "Calvin & Hobbes" without the visual relief. Yet you couldn't stop listening to him when the 2 a.m. darkness-in-the-soul struck and he was the only one who made sense, or at least made feeling.

That's what great monologists do, make the ordinary mysterious and suspenseful, revealing it as sacred. Jean Shepherd would start in the shallows and drift into the deeps. How did he do it? It must be like feeling your way through a dark cave, or putting one foot before the other on the high wire. Until, if you stay with it long enough, you're across the chasm, the sun is up, and you're at the end of another column.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. All the quotations in this column were culled from Tuesday's edition of the Democrat-Gazette. Send your comments by clicking here.

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