Betrayal: Jean Shepherd and “A Christmas Story”

By Lee VinselDecember 21, 2020

Betrayal: Jean Shepherd and “A Christmas Story”
OVER THE WINTER HOLIDAYS, the film A Christmas Story ritualistically plays on television in the United States. Cable channels TBS and TNT feature the TV marathon “24 Hours of A Christmas Story.” It is a polarizing bit of popular culture. Some people love it; others hate it; and still others see it as part of the anodyne backdrop to the march toward Christmas.

The film follows Ralphie Parker and his family — mom, dad (“The Old Man”), and brother Randy — through a holiday season at the tail end of the Great Depression, with the primary plot revolving around Ralphie’s crazy desire for a BB gun, or as he puts it, an “official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time.” His longing meets frustration after frustration as adults, including his mother, his teacher, and a department store Santa Claus, tell him, “You’ll shoot your eye out.”

To most people, fans and detractors alike, the movie is about nothing more than nostalgia, an idealized look at the pains and pleasures of childhood. But in the actual work of Jean Shepherd, the radio raconteur and author who first wrote these stories for radio, magazines, and novels, a darker message is at play that resonates uncannily well today.

Among other things, Shepherd’s tales are about the role of mass communications and consumerism in American life. Critics warned then, in the 1950s and early ’60s, much as they do now, that media is controlling us like a puppet master, leading us to think and desire things we do not intend. Nonsense, says Shepherd: Our most profound urges come from within.

Sometimes described as “the inventor of talk radio,” he originated a unique type of show, featuring extended monologues, full of stories about everyday life, pranks, and self-reflexive, absurdist tangents. In some ways, his sense of humor and comedic social commentary fit with the so-called “serious” and “sick” humor of the 1950s, which took cynical aim at social conformity and the grim but ignored aspects of everyday life. It was no accident that Shepherd admired the now largely forgotten Midwestern author George Ade, of whose short stories he wrote, “Almost all of their humor is of the school of Futility. […] All are subject to the same trivial emotions and continual tiny frustrations, rich and poor alike.” The trivia of life, including the bric-a-brac of popular culture and mass-produced junk, was the stuff worth examining. As Shepherd put it, “The reality of what we really are is oftentimes found in the small snips way down at the bottom of things.”

What Shepherd called “the great difference between the life we live and the way we think we live” was for him the core subject of humor. But where do our delusions, desires, and dreams come from? Shepherd wrote at a time when cultural critics were by turns earnestly and shrilly lambasting corporations and advertisers for implanting materialist desires in witless consumers. In his book, The Hidden Persuaders (1957), journalist Vance Packard claimed that, as a result of “hidden” marketing techniques, “Many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realize.” Sound familiar? In some ways, economist John Kenneth Galbraith went even farther in his best-selling book The New Industrial State (1967), arguing that, “[i]n the absence of the massive and artful persuasion,” consumers “would not have felt the need for multiplying the artifacts — autos, appliances, detergents, cosmetics — by which they were surrounded.”

Shepherd thought such assumptions were rooted in Rousseau-like fairy tales about some sort of primal innocence. In his view, our animal selves alone are quite sufficient to drive our hankering after the objects of the world. He invoked scientists like Ivan Pavlov and René Dubos to argue that we humans, as he said on the radio, are full of “physiological urges that have been passed on through the generations since the cave man.” He quoted Dubos: “Even when man has become an urbane city dweller, the paleolithic bull which survives in his inner self still paws the earth whenever a threatening gesture is made on the social scene.”

One of Shepherd’s favorite words was “hung,” a bit of hipster slang related to the term “hang-up,” a preoccupation, fixation, obsession, even addiction. Many of his radio bits involved reflections on what different individuals got hung up on and how their desires led to fiascos. Our hang-ups, he insisted, are not “implanted” or the product of manipulation. And our enthusiasms are idiosyncratic: “[S]ome of us get hung up on one thing, others get hung up on another.” It’s a toy gun in Ralphie’s case, a sultry plastic lamp in The Old Man’s. The things we get hung up on are what turn us into us.

Radio and especially film may indeed influence the way we see the world, Shepherd would have readily acknowledged, but only dialectically. The images of mass culture act as infrastructure for our fantasies. As he considered it, “I think that show biz has done a great deal to make people feel that their lives aren’t real lives, you know?” He went on to ask, “Has showbusiness created a series of paradises that do not exist? Has showbusiness created a whole geography of fantastic places that, if you only got there, life would swing?” In scenes featuring iris mask effects that soften the edges of the picture, Ralphie in A Christmas Story repeatedly imagines his life transpiring in film fantasy versions, including in Westerns, melodramas, and stories of a young, upcoming genius. Pop culture becomes a stage for the play of desire.

What most starkly sets A Christmas Story apart from other holidays films are two things: Shepherd’s philosophical anthropology, influenced by the evolutionists of his time, which he deploys against the likes of Galbraith; and his obsession with obsession. Most Christmas stories, both dramas and comedies, are either about the importance of family and togetherness (A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation) or about keeping the faith (Miracle on 34th Street, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Elf). In A Christmas Story, a kid covets an air rifle; he’s told it will shoot his eye out; he gets the gun; and he almost shoots his eye out. There is no moral. The appeal lies in Shepherd’s ability to capture, sometimes painfully, our mundane lives.

A Christmas Story loosely threads together five stories that Shepherd performed on the radio and published in Playboy and his novels. Four of the stories were collected in Shepherd’s 1966 novel, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. A fifth, the story of The Old Man’s war with the neighbor’s dogs, the Bumpus hounds, appeared in a later book, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories (1970).

In being pulled together into the film, these five stories become both more and less. On the one hand, their interconnected themes of longing and disenchantment play off and resonate with each other. On the other hand, the director Bob Clark softened and took the acid edge off Shepherd’s stories, imbuing them with nostalgia, a feeling that Shepherd hated and repeatedly disavowed. Shepherd himself envisioned the movie as “Dickens’s Christmas Carol as retold by Scrooge.”

Of the five stories, Ralphie’s sad experience with the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring comes closest to the complaints of the 1950s and 1960s media critics like Packard and Galbraith. Ralphie pines for the decoder ring, which is described in every episode of Little Orphan Annie, a show he religiously listens to on the radio. When he gets the ring, he decodes that night’s message only to discover that it is an advertisement for Ovaltine. It appears that Ralphie has been duped by the culture industry, and to some degree that is true.

But the written version of the story makes clear that there’s more at play. In talking about the announcer, Pierre Andre, of the Little Orphan Annie show, Shepherd notes that “an entire generation of Americans grew up feeling inferior to just the names of the guys on the radio,” which included characters like Harlow Wilcox and Westbrook Van Voorhis. Listening to Pierre and lacking a decoder pin, Shepherd himself felt “a member of an Out Group at the age of seven.” What Ralphie really hungers for, like all people since time immemorial, is status, recognition, and inclusion.

The other stories more tightly fit the Shepherdian picture of human nature. The written version of Ralphie’s quest for Red Ryder BB gun, which first appeared in Playboy in 1964, begins with a kind of Proustian reverie. The adult narrator eats chicken pot pie in an Automat in New York City when an older woman, who wears a pin declaring “DISARM THE TOY INDUSTRY,” sits across from him. He asks her about the pin, and with an “evangelical quaver,” she yells, “It’s an outrage the way the toymakers are forcing the implements of blasphemous War on the innocent children, the Pure in Spirit, the tiny babes who are helpless and know no better!” The narrator calls this rant “canal water,” or bullshit, and the idea of toy guns sends him back through trains of association to his own youthful hankerings. He thinks to himself, “As if the Toy industry has any control over the insatiable desire of the human spawn to own Weaponry, armaments, and the implements of Warfare.”

Much of A Christmas Story is about Ralphie’s indomitable will, what he describes as “my fevered brain,” as he bumps up against hurdle after hurdle yet continues to scheme for how to get his gun. And of course the irony is, after hearing the refrain, “You’ll shoot your eye out,” again and again, he does almost shoot his eye out. This irony is the “school of futility,” where Shepherd took lessons from Ade.

In a moment of frustration, just after Ralphie’s teacher warns him against the dangers of BB guns, Ralphie gets in a fight with the bully, Scut Farkus, who terrorizes Ralphie and his friends. But key to this scene and the written version is what Ralphie finds within himself. As Shepherd writes, “The male human animal, skulking through the impenetrable fetid jungle of Kidhood, learns early in the game just what sort of animal he is.” He describes how he himself was frightened by at a library book as a child when his eyes came across a photograph of a Tasmanian devil. “I was looking at my soul!” he writes, “the incorrigibly wild, insane, scurrying little beast […] in each one of us.” When Scut Farkus hits Ralphie in the eye with a snowball and Ralphie snaps, the beast within Ralphie is revealed.

Ralphie’s curmudgeonly and foolhardy father, The Old Man, mirrors Ralphie’s irrational cravings. Through a newspaper puzzle contest, The Old Man wins “a major award,” a luridly sexy lamp in the shape of a woman’s fish-netted leg. It takes on outsize importance, becoming what Shepherd calls The Old Man’s “symbol of Superiority.” Later, when the lamp breaks — perhaps the mother broke it on purpose, perhaps not — The Old Man accuses her of being jealous: “You were jealous ’cause I WON.” For hours, he tries to glue the lamp back together, and his son remembers him “swearing under his breath, walking around a shattered plastic lady’s leg, a Freudian image to make Edward Albee’s best efforts pale into insignificance.” Like Ralphie, The Old Man invests in the world of things, libidinously, but every such act is doomed.

Fresh on the heels of losing his beloved leg lamp, The Old Man pins his pleasures on the Christmas turkey (in the written version, it is an Easter ham). As he prepares to carve the meat, Shepherd writes, “His eyes glowed with the primal lust of a cave man about to dig into the kill.” But then, in a moment of distraction, the neighbor’s dogs, the Bumpus hounds, burst into the house and devour the feast. Even the simplest wishes end in defeat.

The closing scenes of the movie most betray Shepherd’s tone and vision. In the film, after the dogs eat the turkey, the family goes to the Chinese restaurant, and the scene is played for laughs and warm feelings. In the book version, the story goes like this: “Ordinarily this would have been a gala of the highest order, going to the chop-suey joint. Today, it had all the gaiety of a funeral procession. The meal was eaten completely in silence.”

Similarly, the film closes with a soft shot of Ralphie sleeping in bed, cradling his gun, which the narrator calls, “the greatest Christmas gift I had ever received and would ever receive.” In the written version, the narrator wonders “whether Red Ryder was still dispensing retribution and frontier justice as of old.” He concludes, “Considering the number of kids I see with broken glasses, I suspect he is.” In other words, kids are still nearly blinding themselves with their desires.

If we cut off these final, softening movie scenes, we are left with Ralphie having nearly shot his eye out, The Old Man screaming profanity out the back door as the Bumpus hounds race off, and chunks of desecrated turkey carcass strewn all over the kitchen floor. The literary reference that repeats most often throughout the film is The Wizard of Oz, a story in which heroes chase a prize that turns out to be less than it seems. That’s the proper Shepherd closing.

A Christmas Story had a disappointing showing when first released in theaters in 1983, but perhaps there is some irony in its taking off on cable in the 1990s and early 2000s, just as the internet was starting to emerge as the dominant media technology. Early ideologues of the internet had rosy expectations. In his “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow claimed that an internet free of government regulation would be “the new home of Mind,” a “world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.” And, as late as 2017, Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg was still trying to pretend that the goal of Facebook was “bringing us closer together” when it was so obviously being used just as often to do the opposite.

More recently, we find ourselves, as Shepherd did, in a time when works of criticism, including both Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and the film The Social Dilemma, literally describe and picture social media firms as puppet masters who control our inner lives. Somewhere Shepherd is laughing.

What both idealists and critics miss is the role our own natures, including so-called “tribalism” (a term Shepherd would probably have adored), play in the darkest behavior we see on the internet, from trolls to shame-focused online mobs to conspiracy theories like QAnon. This winter, if you have a chance to watch A Christmas Story, you might consider how Shepherd would caution us against stories where others ventriloquize our lives. He’d urge us to look within.


Lee Vinsel’s book, co-written with Andrew L. Russell, The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work that Matters Most, was published earlier this year.

LARB Contributor

Lee Vinsel is an assistant professor in the Department of Science, Technology and Society at Virginia Tech. He studies human life with technology, with particular focus on the relationship between government, business, and technological change. His first book, Moving Violations: Automobiles, Experts, and Regulations in the United States, was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in July 2019. Since 2015, Vinsel has co-directed The Maintainers, a global interdisciplinary research network that examines maintenance, repair, and mundane work with technology. His book, co-written with Andrew L. Russell, The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most, will be published by Currency in September 2020. His writing has been published in several major history journals and has appeared in or been covered by AeonThe New York Times, The Atlantic, Guardian, Le Monde, and other popular outlets.


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