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Studs Terkel Will Not Be Undone

Brian Cook

In These Times lost a long-time supporter, frequent contributor and dear friend today, when oral historian, radio DJ, stage and screen actor, Chicago Icon, and socialist raconteur Studs Terkel died at age 96. Strangely enough, I've been reading his oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, which--along with Division Street, The Good War, Race, and Working, among many others--will certainly remain a classic of literary American history. The Trib has a nice obituary here. A little more than a year ago, Laura S. Washington interviewed him for us about what he said at the time would be his last book, the memoir Touch and Go. (Typically, though, Studs has a new book coming out in November.) I think my favorite piece that he wrote for us during my tenure here was this one, although I also love this excerpt from his book, Hope Dies Last. That last title really sums up the work of Studs, who dreamed of--and worked toward--a more just, humane, and equitable future for this country. (As well as a Cubs' World Series, but this year, those bastards once again let both of us down.) If you have a pair of red socks, put 'em on tonight. And it seems fitting that I should end this tribute with the ending that David Moberg chose for his profile of Studs on his 90th birthday a couple years back: Coming away from his book on death, Terkel says that he was awed by the “complexity” of humanity. The interview process itself is fraught with complexity as well. In capturing a record of his subjects’ lives and thoughts, Terkel also preserves something of himself. Rather than give his own assessment of mortality, he rushed upstairs, where stacks of books surround his bed, to find a volume of poems by Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska. He read “Hatred” and then what he saw as its counterpoint, “On Death, Without Exaggeration.” It ends on a note affirming what Terkel embraces as “the permanence of life,” which continues to animate his career an an oral historian: “In vain it tugs at the knob / of the invisible door. / As far as you’ve come / can’t be undone.”

Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.
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