As a callow youth, I wanted to be Shel Silverstein. I’m older now, and Shel Silverstein has died.
I no longer want to be Shel Silverstein, but whether that’s because I’ve become wiser with age or because being dead doesn’t sound like a viable option is a question that might be debated more appropriately by others. I know, however, that I have nowhere near the talent to have been Shel Silverstein, and if self-knowledge isn’t wisdom, I don’t know what is.
But when I was in college as the fabled fifties drew to a close, Shel Silverstein was what most freelance cartoonists would have killed to be. He was on assignment for Playboy magazine, traipsing all around the world to submit regular cartoon reports on such romantic capitals as London, Moscow, Tokyo, Paris, Moscow, and the like.
Shel was the putative star of this reportage. His cartoons purported to record his actual adventures in these exotic spas--his (typically America) misunderstanding of local custom, his acceptance of stereotypes for the natives, his perpetual failure to score with the indigenous female population.
In Tokyo, Shel is with a geisha and says, "American girls don’t understand me . . ." (Geishas are not prostitutes, so Shel must troll with the hoariest of male lines.)
In Moscow, Shel sits with his arm around a woman and says, "So you see, Olga, with world tension as high as it is--with humanity threatened with total destruction through an atomic war--with Russian-American diplomatic relations strained almost to the breaking point--it’s up to people like you and me to cooperate."
In Paris, Shel shows himself handcuffed to a gendarme who is phoning for a paddy wagon. Shel says, "You let Gene Kelly dance in the street, you let Fred Astaire dance in the street, you let Audrey Hepburn dance in the street, you let . . ."
In a bar in Spain, Shel depicts himself having a drink with a bull, and Shel is saying, "Okay, but now let’s look at it from the bullfighter’s point of view . . . "
A certain number of cartoons with each report transpire in a typical setting for the place --in front of Buckingham Palace in London, at the base of those onion-turreted buildings in Moscow, along a street of chalets in Switzerland. The ornate architecture is delineated with a thin and sometimes wavering line, but the pictures are marvelously detailed, creating a filigree of authenticity.
In these pictures, Shel portrayed himself as the burly bearded vagabond bohemian that he undoubtedly was. And I longed to be exactly that. I longed to set off around the world with a shaggy beard and a rucksack bound for far-flung parts with naught but pen and sketchpad to sustain me. Hanging out with all the glamorous sex-starved women of foreign climes was appealing, too. (If you believe Playboy, all women are sex-starved. Or they were then. Or maybe it was merely my imagination, an imagination, admittedly, just this side of raging adolescence.)
When, eventually, I did travel to some of those destinations it was with the U.S. Navy not with a beard. (Alas, I was never able to cultivate a thick beard like Shel’s. Mine was more in the vicinity of wispy. In less than a decade, however, I was able to match him in the baldness dimension. And that was about the only way I could match Shel Silverstein. Then and now.)
Protean is a word reserved for talents like Shel’s. When ABC World News announced his death on May 10, 1999, they said he was a children’s book author whose poems were much beloved by children (and their parents). The NewsHour on PBS said about the same but managed a furtive aside about his suspected cartooning career, the implication being it was long in abeyance. The entertainment press called him a singer, composer, and songwriter.
He was all those things. Troubadour, lyricist, playwright, screenwriter, illustrator, journalist, children’s author, poet, director. And cartoonist.
Actually--to plumb for the cause of these effects--he was a cartoonist first, both chronologically and creatively. All the rest flowed from this sensibility.
Born in Chicago, Silverstein was drafted in September 1953 just as he turned twenty-one. According to his own report, he’d been "thrown out" of the University of Illinois, but he’d been nurtured thereafter at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. The Army sent him off in the direction of Korea, where a "police action" had degenerated into the stalemate of a permanent cease-fire. After a year or so, he was assigned to the staff of the Pacific Stars and Stripes, for which he drew cartoons about military so-called life.
He was an exemplary soldier cartoonist, according to Bill Mauldin, another exemplary soldier cartoonist. "The thing about real military humor," Mauldin wrote (in Grab Your Socks, a 1956 collection of Shel’s Army cartoons), "is that when a soldier says something funny he is mainly trying to ventilate his innards. . . . He’s being sardonic. If he tried to say it straight, he’d simply bust down and cry. The ordinary gag man says, ‘See the funny soldier’ and doesn’t get the message. Shel Silverstein has got the message and passes it on."
Shel’s career as a G.I. cartoonist is, as they say, legend. "How Silverstein talked himself into and out of trouble with military censors, often hiding out for weeks at a time in the Korean hills, and how he turned up two years later in Chicago in civilian clothes--the full story may perhaps never be known."
What is known is that he began freelancing cartoons to various magazines, one of which was Playboy. Hugh Hefner, a fugitive from cartooning ranks himself (in college), was looking for cartoonists who would give his new magazine a distinctive look and feel. He had enlisted Jack Cole by this time, and Cole’s full-page full-color watercolor cartoons were a beacon lighting the way. In Silverstein’s cartoons, Hef saw another kind of uniqueness. (He also knew that Shel’s work hadn’t appeared in many other places, and Hefner wanted Playboy cartoonists to be found mostly--if not only--in Playboy.)
In August 1956, Shel’s work began appearing in Playboy, and for the next 42 years, his cartoons and articles were published there at irregular intervals. His globe-trotting series ("Silverstein in Scandinavia," "Silverstein in Africa," etc.) began in May 1957 and appeared once or thrice a year until the early 1970s. By that time, he was well-established as an author of children’s books and as songwriter.
By the end of the next decade, he was secure enough in his various guises to shun publicity of all kinds (the most recent interview with him was published in 1975). He enjoyed a reclusive life-style in his houseboat in Sausalito, an apartment in Greenwich Village, and homes in Martha’s Vineyard and in Key West.
"I am free to leave," he said, "to go wherever I want, do whatever I want. I believe everyone should live like that. Don’t be dependent on anyone else. I want to go everywhere, look at and listen to everything. You can go crazy with some of the wonderful stuff there is in life."
In the sixties, as an established bon vivant, Shel was frequently photographed at the Playboy Mansion, his shiny dome surrounded by Bunny bosoms. But he probably spent more time at Chicago’s Gate of Horn and New York’s Bitterend. He sang folksongs and his own bawdy ditties, and he composed songs for others. The most celebrated of these is doubtless "A Boy Named Sue," which Johnny Cash’s 1969 recording made into a hit world-wide.
Silverstein also wrote songs sung by Irish Rovers, Brothers Four, Lynn Anderson, Loretta Lee, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby Bare, and Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show--songs like "The Unicorn," "Payday," "One’s on the Way," and "I’m Checkin’ Out," written for the film Postcards from the Edge and nominated for an Oscar in the 1990 competition. His collaborations with Dr. Hook resulted in a series of successful singles and albums for the band.
In the 1970s, Shel decided to explore playwrighting. "I’ve been fooling with the thoughts about these plays long enough," he told Jean Mercier at Publisher’s Weekly; "the time has come to see if I can bring them off."
And he did just that. The first of his plays, The Lady and the Tiger, premiered in 1981 at the Ensemble Studio Theater in New York. Over the next dozen years, Silverstein wrote nearly two dozen plays, mostly one-acters, and in 1988, a screenplay, Things Change, in collaboration with David Mamet.
But it is as "poet laureate for children" that Silverstein is most likely to be remembered. He was, he said, "dragged, kicking and screaming" into writing children’s books by his friend and fellow cartoonist Tomi Ungerer.
Although his first book is often cited as Lafcadio the Lion Who Shot Back in 1963 (a book that remained Silverstein’s favorite), Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book: A Primer for Tender Young Minds preceded it in 1961 and may have been the credential that recommended him to Harper. The ABZ incorporates material that originally appeared in Playboy and is decidedly adult in content, but children read it and enjoyed its playful perversity, and that bent humor surfaces again in Shel’s poetry books.
In 1964, Harper brought out his fable, The Giving Tree, about an altruistic tree that sacrifices its shade, fruit, branches, and even its trunk to make a little boy (then a man) happy. The book inspired much comment from pulpits and ecologists, all favorable; but feminists criticized the story because the tree was feminine and, therefore, the boy was sexist.
Silverstein’s first collection of poetry for children, Where the Sidewalk Ends, came out in 1974, followed in 1981 by A Light in the Attic. Both were bestsellers, the latter spent 182 weeks on the New York Times list. These and the more recent collection, Falling Up (1996), will secure Silverstein’s place in American letters. (In fact, Twayne’s Authors Series published Shel Silverstein by Ruth K. MacDonald in 1996, marking a spot for him on literary criticism.)
His poetry for kids is a deliberate departure from the usual honeyed sweetness of children’s verses. Called "sophisticated, sometimes macabre, and always enchanting," Shel’s poems often take a wholly unexpected and frequently gross turn by the last line. Consider "Gardener," for instance: We gave you a chance / To water the plants / We didn’t mean that way-- / Now zip up your pants.
Or "The Land of Happy":
Have you been to The Land of Happy,
Where everyone’s happy all day.
Where they joke and they sing
Of the happiest things,
And everything’s jolly and gay?
There’s no one unhappy in Happy,
There’s laughter and smiles galore.
I have been to The Land of Happy--
What a bore!
The humor in the first example derives, ultimately, from a childlike acceptance of ordinary scatological facts of life. In the second poem, the comedy resides in the breakdown of the cheery rhythm at the last line, which coincides handily with an apparent about-face in attitude.
These are poems with punchlines. They deploy standard comedic maneuvers that have proved as durable for standup comedians as for poets. But I think Silverstein’s wit in such instances reveals his apprenticeship in cartooning.
Since both his poems and his cartoons are humorous, the relationship may appear too obvious to dwell on. What’s funny is funny. But there’s more than just comedy that connects the two. Single-panel gag cartoons involve a particular cartooning sensibility. In all good cartoons, words and pictures blend to create the comedy. The pictures don’t make as much sense without the words; and the captions usually aren’t funny without the picture. Together, words and pictures achieve a humorous meaning that neither is capable of alone without the other.
In the usual gag cartoon situation, the picture is at first blush a puzzle. The puzzle is "solved," its significance is "explained," by the caption. This significance dawns upon the reader suddenly in reading the caption. In a well-constructed cartoon, the dawn comes as a surprise. The exact meaning of the picture as explained by the caption is unanticipated. While we may not expect precisely that meaning, when it is offered, it is completely understandable, even sensible. Our laughter comes as a manifestation of the pleasure of discovering a "meaning" that so perfectly suits the picture. Or a picture that perfectly fulfills the verbiage.
Silverstein’s cartoons for Stars and Stripes were excellent examples of the puzzle sensibility of a cartoonist at work. So were his cartoons for Playboy. The cartoons in his gargantuan coffee-table book, Different Dances (1979) are more elaborate instances of the same sort of thing: these are not single-panel cartoons but sequential pictures in pantomime. Still, each sequence is introduced by a word or phrase ("Keeping Time," "She Enters My Life," "The Escape") that gives the pictures their meaning, their significance. And in this case, the significance arises from a view of human nature that is insightful as well as comical.
His poetry often does precisely the same sort of thing. The concluding lines in both the poems I’ve quoted, for instance, are unexpected, surely; and their meaning gives other nuances to the lines that precede them. And our laughter results when we discover this new meaning or significance and are surprised by it.
Silverstein illustrated his books of poetry profusely. Some of the illustrations are decorations. But some serve to "explain" the meaning of the poem they decorate. In "Something Missing," we need the picture to realize that the thing the narrator forgot when dressing was his pants. In "Fancy Dive," the picture shows alarm in the face of the diver, alerting us to the problem that causes his elaborate gyrations: the pool into which he is diving is empty. In "Snake Problem," the last line is "written" by the contortions of the snake, who spells out "I love you" in cursive script. And in "Surprise!" the elephant shape of the shipping crate tells us what the poem does not--that is, exactly what it is that Grandpa has sent to his grandchildren.
Even when his pictures don’t reveal meaning expressly, their presence adds a dimension to his work in much the same way as Dr. Seus’s pictures added to his, and Edward Lear’s likewise (to invoke the names of Shel’s only obvious antecedents in the illustrated children’s poetry racket).
Even as a poet, then, Shel Silverstein was a cartoonist. And as a cartoonist, he was perforce one of the most accomplished and therefore distinguished of the inky-fingered fraternity because he expanded the capacities of this sensibility to embrace other art forms. And so it rankled, just a little, that this unique talent, this cartoonist, was so often glossed over in obituaries about the children’s poet. He was so thoroughly both.
As cartoonist/poet, Silverstein engaged an antic imagination that was astonishingly fecund. A friend, Otto Penzler, bookseller and publisher of several collections of detective stories, wrote the following:
"When he is asked to write the lyrics of a song, he needs no more than fifteen minutes. When I asked him to write a story for this book [of mystery stories], he said, ‘Well, I’ve never written a crime story in my life. Wait--I have an idea.’ He never paused for breath between those two sentences. The fable that follows is that idea. In his various homes, he has drawers full of songs and stories and fables and drawings and plays and poems that he’s never gotten around to sending to his agent or his publishers."
A possibly apocryphal story about Shel goes like this: Dr. Hook and his band were rehearsing on the West Coast and they got a phone call from Shel on the East Coast.
"Got a pencil?" he asked.
"Just a minute--yes."
"Okay, write this down." And he dictated lyrics for a new song.
This prompted the good Dr. to ask: "Shel--why are you phoning me?"
"I couldn’t find a pencil," he said.
Silverstein was passionate about the need to create and to communicate. On his houseboat he kept a piano, a guitar, a saxophone, a trombone and a camera, and he "noodles around" with them all "just to see if I can come up with anything."
He continued: "I have an ego, I have ideas, I want to be articulate, to communicate, but in my own way. People who say they create only for themselves and don’t care if they’re published . . . I hate to hear talk like that. If it’s good, it’s too good not to share. That’s the way I feel about my work."
That a man with such a great heart should die of a heart attack seems somehow anti-poetic. Or maybe it’s poetic license yet--of the Greek tragedy sort, his heart being hubris.
His body was found in the bedroom of his Key West home on the morning of May 10 by two cleaning women who had arrived to do the housework. He had apparently been writing in bed. More poetry--that this prolific cartoonist would be working on yet another project when he died.
Silverstein was somewhat puzzled by the phenomenal sales of The Giving Tree. "Maybe it’s because the book presents just one idea," he said once. The controversy of the supposed symbolism of the book was another thing that didn’t concern him. He resisted reading moral significance into the story. "It’s just about a relationship that exists between two people," he once said; "one gives and the other takes."
Shel Silverstein was a giver.