The People’s Storyteller

David Moberg

Studs Terkel
Studs Terkel is a busy man. On a Sunday afternoon, when I stopped by his house on a pleasant cul-de-sac in Chicagos Uptown neighborhood, he had just returned from lunch with writers Barbara Ehrenreich and Tom Geogheganhaving picked up some local Indian newspapers on his way out of the restaurant to get a feel for whats happening in that immigrant community. The week before, hed been in New York to speak at a centenary reflection on John Steinbeck. He was flying out early Monday morning to New York to pay tribute to poet Gwendolyn Brooks, rushing back to Chicago by Wednesday for the annual Studs Terkel Award ceremony for local journalists, then leaving later in the month for Los Angeles. A few months ago, he had been on tour for his latest book; now he was already working on the next.

His crumpled calendar book was full of other entries, but one day in particular stood out and underscored the significance of that active schedule. On May 16, Terkel turns 90 years old, and his lifelong home city is sponsoring two birthday tributes to the man who is not only one of its most celebrated literary figures, but also a quirky and endearing persona who captures some of the fading romantic spirit of a metropolis that likes to think of itself as a city of neighborhoods.

Heres the crazy thing, Terkel reflects, a guy who was blacklisted is now a half-assed iconic figure. Its funny. Its ironic. Im not suggesting blacklisting as a career move for young people, but if it werent for the blacklist, I wouldnt be doing these books, you see.

In the early 50s, Terkel was a pioneer with the small but influential Chicago school of television personalities, but he was also a person who never saw a petition I didnt like. His political commitments narrowed his broadcast options to a local FM radio station. But with the encouragement of publisher Andre Schiffrin, he translated his gift for interviewing from the airwaves to the printed page, producing over the years a collection of oral histories, including Working, Hard Times, Race, Division Street, The Great Divide, The Good War (which won the Pulitzer prize) and, most recently, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith (The New Press).

Covering roughly 75 years of American history, Terkels books capture the experiences and reflections of a cross-section of Americansa few famous, most of them little-known, many from poor or working-class backgroundson some of the great issues of their time, or in some cases, of any time. These assembled personal tales do not constitute a grand, explanatory narrative, but they are a reminder that history is lived through many small histories in which the great themes and challenges of the epoch are mixed together in distinctively complex biographies.

Over recent decades, historians have given new weight to such stories of ordinary people from the past, but Terkel has presented them to their contemporaries as well as preserving them for future historians understanding. His guiding North Star, Terkel says, has been Bertolt Brechts poem, Questions from a Worker Who Reads, which starts, Who built Thebes of the seven gates? / In the books you will find the names of kings. / Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?

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Will the Circle Be Unbroken? has all the Terkel hallmarks: a respect for human variety, a faith in human decency and a wonder at human resilience. Although theres frankness and revelation, Terkel doesnt seek out the weird, edgy, grating or provocative aspects of humanity. In a time of postmodernist obsession with irony, distance, cynicism, doubt and disbelief, Terkels humanism (and gentle populism) may seem old-fashioned, but its what keeps him going at age 90. And it helps to explain his latest project, a book on hope, for which he is interviewing people ranging from Staughton Lynd, the veteran advocate of workplace democracy, to conservative Republican Congressman Dan Burton, as well as many people youve never heard of before.

In his trademark red-checkered shirt, with an old red sweater and plaid wool shirt keeping out the chill of a cranky Chicago spring, Terkel hardly seems hopeful as he sits down with his favored martini to rail against Bush and Sharon over the deteriorating Middle East, noting with little satisfaction that Gore would probably have been no better (except on domestic matters). The voices in his books are ultimately optimistic, but given his view of the state of the world, how hopeful is he personally? What sustains his hopes? For the next hour and a half he bounces around the question, apologizing for not answering it, but ultimately coming down cautiously for hope.

I dont want to seem a pollyanna, he says. I use the word guardedlyguardedly is a cover-up wordguardedly hopeful. The big problem is the means of communication. Im rambling, avoiding your question about hope, because my feelings are quite frankly mixed. Theres the question of time, time working against us. The information we get is funneled more and more by fewer and fewer. … We have the means of information funneled down to practically nothing. How do people get the facts? I have a feeling that deep down people are disturbed by what Bush is doing, that theres a feeling that something is cockeyed here. Its getting at that feeling. Its the grassroots Im talking about.

There are times when he has been more hopeful. You know who Norman Corwin is? he asks, referring to yet another interview subject for his new book. He was a great writer of radio. On May 8, 1945, it was my wifes birthday. We were sitting at dinner. Seven oclock Chicago time. The program was going on the air. VE-Day, the Nazis surrendered. There was this program On a Note of Triumph by Norman Corwin. I said, Will you please turn that on? And we forgot supper. It was fantastic.

It was also a time of great contradictions: The United Nations was forming, but the United States would soon drop the atomic bomb, and later the Cold War would chill more than just Terkels own career. But Terkel doesnt share the current World War II nostalgia. And we come to my favorite whipping boy, that phrase, the greatest generation. If there ever were a phony phrase, a three-dollar bill of a phrase, its accepted that the World War II veterans were the greatest generation. By its very nature, its a putdown of other generations. I think the 60s had that wiped all out. The 60s was the flowering of the civil rights movement and other movements, the feminist movement and the real challenge to that virulent disease, homophobia. You could call that the greatest generation, but there is no greatest generation.

I feel less hopeful than May 8, 1945, and less hopeful than the 60s, he continued, but if I dont have hope I might as well call it a day and have 50 martinis and two dozen Seconals. Since September 11, there has been a new evocation of Pearl Harbor and a good war against terrorism, but Terkel thinks that Americans view history through a parochial lens. Theres no comparison, he argued. Pearl Harbor was immediately evoked, but how come August 6, 1945, [when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima] wasnt? Thats what changed the world, not Pearl Harbor.

Indeed, Terkelin rare agreement with Time magazine editorssees Albert Einstein as the man of the past century, a great intellect whose work was used to produce technology he loathed. Einstein warned that in the aftermath of the bomb, Everything has changed except how we think.

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But terrorism itself is a tricky concept, Terkel suggests. The Cold War is over, so terrorism has replaced communism as the bête noire, he said. To my mind comes a picture of a little girl, that most celebrated and horrendous picture of the Vietnam War, that naked little girl running down the road, terrified, a halo of napalm around her. Shes terror stricken. Who has terrorized her? Theres a little kid in a plane, a sweet little boy who is following his presidents orders, Herr Kissingers orders. Now that little girl is terrified. The little boy in the plane is the kid next door, doing his duty. Hes gone to Sunday school. Hes heard the Sermon on the Mount. Hes doing his duty. Now hes a terrorist to that little girl.

Bushs invocation of an axis of evil is not only a diplomatic errorignoring and endangering progress toward reconciliation in the Korean peninsula and toward a more moderate government in Iranbut a conceptual one. The word evil doesnt make any sense, Terkel contends. There are loonies. Theres a thing called lunacy that leads people to evil, a lunacy of power, the lunacy of bin Laden, but the little kid in the plane is the boy next door, though to the Vietnam people …

One reason that Terkel avoids labeling people as evil is that he carries a vision of personal transformation and redemption at the heart of his hopefulness, an Enlightenment belief that people are fundamentally decent and that, through education and encounter with others, they can find common solutions. Over the decades of interviewing, his favorite subject has been a Ku Klux Klansman, a poor white southerner named C.P. Ellis, who was taught all his life that the reason he was miserable was because of those son-of-a-bitch niggers. Through the years he made the discovery [that wasnt true]. The C.P. Ellis interview was the most hopeful Ive ever done. Of course, people can change, for Gods sake.

If he has a favorite interview, he has a hard time picking a single book he would preserve for posterity. I dont know. The Depression book, Hard Times, but Working, some would say. I got a kick out of doing my crazy memoir, Talking to Myself. Maybe the Depression because I was of that age, a hopeful time, when the New Deal and WPA came in.

He does, however, have a favorite candidate. As a partisan of Henry Wallace in 1948, then an ambivalent initial backer of Naders candidacy in 2000, Terkel is convinced that a third party presidential bid is hopeless, but he is an enthusiastic supporter of Cleveland Congressman Dennis Kucinich as the next Democratic standard-bearer. He speaks a language thats simple and plain, Terkel says. He can win back the blue-collar Reagan Democrats. Hes one of them. Hes Croatian from deer hunter territory. Hes the kind of person who could, like Billy Rose the Broadway producer said, put bubbles in your blood.

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 youve come / cant be undone.

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David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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