Shel Silverstein: Without Borders

« I’m not content when I’m traveling, but I’m not content when I’m not traveling. So I guess I’ll keep traveling. » – Shel Silverstein

Another one of those nice Jewish boy geniuses, Sheldon Allan Silverstein (1930-1999) was born eighty-eight years ago, on September 25, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois. Uncle Shelby lived life to the fullest, creatively in every respect. He tried his hand at many things, and what do you know? He succeeded at every often-unlikely turn, sometimes artistically if not commercially, but generally on both counts: cartoonist, singer, songwriter, screenwriter, poet, actor, playwright, children’s book author, bon vivant, raconteur and lover… yet his dad was never impressed. Old man Nathan wanted his son to join him in selling furniture. Some obstacles are just plain insurmountable.

Once more, faced with the daunting prospect of discussing a prolific and versatile creative soul, it seems well-advised to concentrate on a tiny area of his roadmap. And so…

In 1957, Playboy magazine founder and esteemed patron of cartoonists Hugh Hefner entrusted Shel with a special assignment, that of roaming the Earth and recording his special impressions. The results, published between 1957 and 1968, were twenty-three travelogues brimming with the gregarious Silverstein spark and spirit. But he first had to be sold on the approach. According to Hefner, in his foreword to the definitive collection “Playboy’s Silverstein Around the World” (2006), « I envisioned something along the travel letters Ernest Hemingway submitted to Esquire — A sort of personal diary that would be dispatched from around the globe. Shel was uncomfortable in that role. He didn’t want to include himself, but I persisted. And I’m glad I did. What we got back in those drawings was narrative storytelling of a very personal manner. We saw Shel establish himself as a character.»

From “Return to Tokyo” (May, 1957).
From “Silverstein in Paris” (January, 1958).
From “Silverstein in Moscow” (March, 1958).
From “Silverstein in Greenwich Village” (September, 1960).
From “Silverstein in Hollywood” (January, 1968).
From “Silverstein Among the Hippies” (August, 1968).
Shel at work in Italy (1958); photograph by John Reid, Jr.

Let’s leave off with these revealing words from Playboy photographer Larry Moyer: « He was one of the funniest guys I ever knew — and it was never at anybody’s expense. A lot of humor is based on putting other people down. I don’t remember one time Shel ever put anybody down in his work — and that’s something. » That’s something indeed, now more than ever.

– RG

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