Truth or Myth? Brennan Manning's Connection to Shel Silverstein
Around the time of Shel's death, I received a few emails from people who had heard sermons given by a former priest named Brennan Manning. In his speeches, which were primarily centred around ideas pertaining to the acceptance of Christ, he often told a story about a childhood friend of his, a young Jewish boy Manning had met in a Brooklyn park where they discussed what their lives would be like when "they got big." But as many childhood friends often do, the two lost touch, though Manning recalled that his friend went into the Army while he served in the Marines during the Korean War. Several years later, the two met up again--ironically, in the same park where they'd played together as children. Manning found out that his friend had left Judaism and converted to Christianity. They talked for a while and Manning asked his friend how he would describe Christ. The friend had to think about it, but would have an answer in a few days. They met again, among the sandpiles, and the friend showed Manning a book of drawings. "Here," the friend said, "is how I would characterize Christ."

According to Brennan Manning, the childhood friend was Shel, and the book in question was "The Giving Tree." Then Manning would read the entire text of the book to whatever appreciative audience he happened to be speaking to.

It's not a bad story, as stories go; and I had no reason to disbelieve it, though I never believed in its veracity completely. Recently (January 19, 2001) I was alerted to the existence of one of Manning's speeches in Real Audio. You can listen to it here. The part about Shel is at the very beginning of the sermon. Once you do, you might realize, as I did, that there are some serious inconsistencies and that frankly, Manning is doing a whole lot of embellishing, if not fabricating some parts entirely. Here's why:

1. In this version of the sermon, Manning refers to the young Jewish boy as being named "Saul." As far as I've been able to ascertain, Shel was never addressed by that name. His birth name was Sheldon Allan Silverstein, and Shel he remained for the rest of his life. Granted, many people get confused enough by his adoption of the "Uncle Shelby" moniker for various Playboy features and for published books, but that's a whole other matter entirely. But unless someone gives me concrete proof otherwise, I'd have to say that this is, at the very least, an inconsistency.

2. Manning describes their first meeting in a Brooklyn park, where he grew up as a child. It can likely be inferred that Shel would have grown up here as well. However, Shel was born and raised in Chicago, in the Palmer Square neighborhood (according to a Chicago Tribune obituary.) It's possible that Shel and his family may have spent time in Brooklyn when he was a kid, where he could conceivably have met the young Manning. Thus this can't be ruled out entirely, but it's not conclusive in Manning's favor, either.

3. This is the big one: after each got out of the Korean War--Manning from the Marine Corps, "Saul" from the Army, respectively--Manning describes what happened to them. He got engaged, but then found God and wound up as a Franciscan priest; "Saul", on the other hand, went to law school and got married. As recently unearthed in the 1963 interview Shel gave to Aardvark magazine, Shel spent three years at Roosevelt University in Chicago, but never finished as the Army drafted him in 1953. When he returned to civilian life in Chicago in 1955, Shel tried to make his living as an artist/writer/cartoonist, but nothing much happened beyond the sale of Army cartoons to Ballantine (Grab Your Socks!) until he sold some cartoons to Hugh Hefner of Playboy magazine. The rest was history. But considering vehement Shel was about hating almost everything about Roosevelt, and how he regretting ever going to college, the idea that he would have even considered going to law school seems rather preposterous. 

As for the marriage issue, admittedly it's still in question. I've never been able to get a definitive answer on this: Richard Lingeman of the New York Times claimed he was divorced in a 1978 "conversation" he had with Shel. But in the Rolling Stone magazine tribute published on June 24, 1999, Mitch Myers, who also happened to be Shel's nephew, wrote that Shel had "never married." It would be nice if someone would solve this once and for all, but until I get a solution, I'm going with Myers on this. And if that's the case, it's another inconsistency.

4. Manning claims that when they met up again after years of separation, "Saul" revealed that he had converted from Judaism to Christianity. I suppose that it's possible Shel might have done this, but from what I can tell, he never struck me as being terribly religious in any way, be it Jewish, Christian, Muslim, whatever. The only sign of "Jewish kinship"--for lack of a better phrase--that I could find was the cartoon "The Twenty Commandments", which appeared in Different Dances, the December, 1982 issue of Playboy, and the Big Book of Jewish Humor. Make of that last one what you will. Harlan Howard refers to Shel as a "Jewish hillbilly songwriter" in the liner notes to Shel's A Boy Named Sue and His Other Country Songs album, which was released in mid-1969--several years after the encounter with Manning took place! And even more interestingly, Shel's burial was handled by Lloyd Mandel Levayah Funeral Homes, which is a Jewish burial service. I'm not exactly sure what the religious law is for Jews who converted to Christianity, but it seems highly doubtful that a Jewish funeral home would have handled such a case. So it certainly seems that, once again, there's a serious inconsistency in Manning's account.

I'm not sure what all this proves. As I said previously, it's really not a bad story. But it seems odd for Manning to be perpetuating inconsistencies and exaggerations. Of course, considering the numerous examples of misconceptions in Shel's life, I suppose another one isn't going to make a serious difference one way or the other. And I mean that in all facetiousness, as a person who would like to present Silverstein's life and works in the most accurate, unflinching, and honest way possible. I suppose the most likely reason that Manning tells his story is to demonstrate that The Giving Tree is a parable about God's relationship to Christ. Other people have tried to infer this into the book, while many, many other theories abound. Never mind that Shel actually dedicated the book to an old girlfriend and repeatedly stated that "the book is just what it is--a man, and a tree." If I had to speculate--and lord knows I like to, much as it often gets me into trouble--perhaps all Shel was trying to do was explain to the girlfriend that she shouldn't expect more of him than what he could actually give, which wasn't very much. That if the relationship continued, this behavior would be perpetuated and she'd wind up miserable and totally self-sacrificing. Or it could mean just what Shel said it meant--which could well be nothing. I suppose that's the beauty and power of the book, that a single idea could be interpreted in so many ways.

But in any case, it's something to think about.