First edition, 1966
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
A best-seller at the time of its publication, it is considered Shepherd's most important published work. The work inspired two films; A Christmas Story (1983) and My Summer Story (1994). Shepherd is the narrator in both films.
Jean Shepherd was a well-known American humorist who performed on radio in the decades after World War II. Beginning in June 1964, he began adapting many of his radio stories for publication in Playboy magazine. He focused primarily on those stories which depicted his childhood in the fictional town of Hohman, Indiana (a stand-in for Shepherd's home town of Hammond, Indiana).
According to Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, author Shel Silverstein had long encouraged Shepherd to write down his radio stories, but Shepherd was reluctant to do so because he was not a writer. Eventually, Silverstein recorded Shepherd's stories on tape, transcribed them, and then together with Shepherd edited and developed them. Fellow WOR AM radio personality Barry Farber said Shepherd came to enjoy writing, as it allowed him to develop themes, and Shepherd began to work on written stories by himself.
In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash was the first book Shepherd wrote, and contained his most popular radio stories. These stories were also some of the earliest of Shepherd's work to appear in Playboy. Although they are often described as nostalgic or memoirs, Shepherd rejected these descriptions. He argued instead that they were fictional stories about childhood. Shepherd claimed it took him three years to write the novel.
Whether the stories are truth or fiction is not entirely clear. Shepherd denied that he was merely remembering his childhood, and repeatedly asserted in interviews that his stories were entirely fictional. Scholars Penelope Joan Fritzer and Bartholomew Bland agree that the stories are entirely fictional. However, at least some elements of the novel draw on the real world. For example, the names of many of the characters in Shepherd's book can be found in Shepherd's high school yearbook, "Hohman" is the name of a major street in Hammond, Shepherd's younger brother was named Randy, and Hammond has a Cleveland Street and a Warren G. Harding Elementary School. The truth may lie somewhere in between, as Mark Skertic for the Chicago Sun-Times put it: "Hohman doesn't really exist, but the sights, sounds and events Mr. Shepherd described happening there grew out of his experiences growing up in and around real-life Hammond, Ind."
The title of the novel is a play on words, primarily the motto "In God We Trust", which became a common motto in the 19th century in the United States, and was used on American coins frequently after 1864. "In God we trust, all others pay cash" was a common phrase in America in the early decades of the 20th century.
Shepherd specifically denied that the work is a collection of short stories. As he said on his radio show shortly after the book was finished:
I did something today that you don't do very often in your life. I delivered to my publisher—I delivered to him the completed, edited, done manuscript of a novel I have been working on for over three years, Skip. Handed it in. And you have no idea what a fantastic feeling that is! And I mean a novel. I mean a novel-novel! [emphasis in original]
Shepherd's publisher, Doubleday, also promoted the book as a novel. Eugene Bermann, however, does not consider the work a novel as it does not have either an overriding theme or consistent characters. Michael Sragow, writing for Salon.com, called the book "memoirlike".
Most of the stories in the novel are domestic in nature, discussing life in the home. They do not, however, focus on the family. They are rather stories which focus on an "amusingly old-fashioned society".
There are 31 chapters in the book. The stories in the book are told by the fictional character Ralph, who has returned to his home town of Hohman as an adult and remembers or relates these stories to his friend, Flick, who runs the bar in which Ralph spends the day. The longer stories are linked by one- or two-page chapters in which Ralph and Flick discuss their childhood or the present state of Hohman. These exchanges trigger Ralph's reminiscences.
Shepherd biographer Eugene Bergmann has called the novel Shepherd's most important work, and anthology editor Gardner Dozois noted in 2002 that it is also Shepherd's best known work. The novel was a New York Times best-seller in 1966. At the time of Shepherd's death in 1999, it had been through 10 printings.
In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash was the 142nd best-selling novel on Amazon.com the week after Shepherd died. Considering the hundreds of thousands of book titles Amazon.com offers for sale, the numbers were astonishing for a novel that was 33 years old.
Four of the short stories ("Duel in the Snow", "The Counterfeit Secret Circle Member Gets the Message", "My Old Man and the Lascivious Special Award That Heralded the Birth of Pop Art", and "Grover Dill and the Tasmanian Devil") were used as the basis for A Christmas Story. Some phrases and small elements of other stories were also used for that film. Another short story used for the film, "The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds", appeared in Shepherd's second novel, Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories.
The five short stories that were used as the basis for A Christmas Story were collected under the title A Christmas Story and published as a stand-alone book in 2003.