Heard That


By Studs Terkel
288 pages. New Press. $24.95.

Oral historian and raconteur Louis "Studs" Terkel, 95, signed a three-contract book with his perennial publisher, The New Press' André Schiffrin, just a few years ago, when most people his age would hesitate to buy green bananas. That was just one of many indicators of Studs’s indominitabilty and imperviousness to the ticking clock. In one of Studs' few bows to human vulnerability, the title of his new opus, Touch and Go, A Memoir, is taken from Dylan Thomas:

And every evening at sun-down
I ask a blessing on the town
For whether we last the night or no
I’m sure it’s always touch and go.

This tome being one of those above mentioned contractual obligations—a memoir, albeit an odd one—he spends, in classic Terkel style, more ink on other people than on himself. "I have, after a fashion, been celebrated for having celebrated the lives of the uncelebrated among us; for lending voice to the face in the crowd." What it's true that this celebration has led to numerous prestigious accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize for the Good War, I've long wondered why it took the Academy of Arts and Letters until the 21st century to extend Studs Terkel a membership. As a Chicago expatriate, I have the feeling that well-deserved attention has eluded many of that city’s great talents—Nelson Algren, Curtis Mayfield, and Mike Royko to name a few.

The son of a Russian-immigrant-tailor-turned-hotelier, Studs was transplanted from New York to Chicago at an early age, and his love affair with that great Midwestern metropolis has stayed white hot throughout the years. Starting with the experiences he gathered at his family’s 50-room boarding house/hotel on the near west side of Chicago, where he listened watched and chatted with the occupants, Terkel has advanced a kind of oral history that practiced by only a few enlightened individuals (Zora Neal Hurston, for one). Terkel quotes Brecht to explicate : "When Caesar conquered Gaul, was there not even a cook in the army? When the Armada sank, we read that King Phillip wept. Were there no other tears?"

So you see, for Studs Terkel, oral history is about who shed the other tears and laughed the other laughs.

And a dozen books (most bestsellers) of oral history, beginning with Division Street: America, and including The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream, Hard Times, and Working: People Talk About What they Do All Day and How They Feel About What they Do, are ample exhibitions of what Margaret Atwood intends with her uncanny suggestion, “
By now the man requires an adjective of his own... Terkelesque.”

Touch and Go is completely Terkelesque, much more conversational and impressionistic than what passes for conventional memoirizing. His 1977, Talking to Myself A Memoir of My Times, is more straightforward rendering of his amazing life. In both books he recalls sitting on his father’s shoulders at a 1918 Armistice Day Parade. He takes us back to listening on Chicago's WGN to Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan arguing at the Scopes trial in 1925. An unrepentant liberal he reminds us “During the Great Depression there was a feeling of despair. The people we had chosen to lead us out, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Eleanor, and the colleagues they chose, advocated governmental intervention as the free market fell on its ass. That gave me hope.” And he vividly presents learning of FDR’s death—Thursday, April 12, 1945—and leaning on a lamppost  crying. By his own account, he has been "an eclectic disk jockey; a radio soap opera gangster; a sports and political commentator; a jazz critic; a pioneer in TV, Chicago style; an oral historian and a gadfly." He was a lawyer, an actor and a labor organizer too, and he was blacklisted in the McCarthy era.”

Calvin Trillin, who contributed a preface to the Studs Terkel Reader: My American Century, an excellent anthology of interviews from eight of his books, understates
: “Studs Terkel’s accomplishments as America’s preeminent listener are all the more remarkable when you consider the fact he happens to be a prodigious talker. He is, in other words, a monument to restraint…”

In another one of Terkel’s books,
Coming of Age: Growing Up in the Twentieth Century, he quotes George Bernard Shaw—but you know Studs would have said it if someone hadn’t already:

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle for me. It is sort of a splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.